Aristotle thinks that if you want to live well, you should organize your life by reference to the best thing that humans can achieve in action”something he calls the human good. He tells us that a good life should aim at eudaimonia which can be translated as happiness. However, unlike our contemporary understanding of happiness as a mental state, eudaimonia carries more weight with regards to living a rich and full life. For this reason we may better understand eudaimonia as ‘flourishing’ or ‘living well and faring well’. But now that we know that eudaimonia cannot simply be understood as happiness, we are prompted to ask what exactly ‘flourishing’ is: what counts as ‘living well and faring well’? It is in answer to this question that Aristotle gives us the Function Argument.
Aristotle believes that all things, including human beings, have functions. The Greek word for ‘function’ – ergon – doesn’t carry quite the same connotations as our English word ‘function’: a function for Aristotle is something like a characteristic activity. A characteristic activity conveys an understanding of what kind of object something is. Thus, it demonstrates an evaluative guideline for that certain object: when something expresses its characteristic activity well it is a good x.
In order to fulfill its ergon, a thing will need certain qualities. A quality that supports the fulfillment of an object’s ergon, otherwise known as an ar??te, can be interpreted as an ?excellence’, or more precisely, a ?virtue’. Aristotle says that he can tell us what eudaimonia is if he can first tell us about the human function. The Function Argument goes as follows. Aristotle writes that a thing will be good insofar as it performs its function well and in accordance with excellence. For example, a knife will be a good knife insofar as it performs its function of cutting well. Thus, we see that this will involve the knife’s possessing certain qualities which make it good at cutting – like sharpness for instance. Though it seems obvious that the function of a knife is to cut, we may find it more difficult to come up with the function of human beings. Aristotle connects his Function Argument to human beings; traits that enable human beings to fulfill their ergon are their virtues.
Moreover, what is the ?characteristic activity’ of human beings? At the most general level, we are alive. However, this isn’t distinctive of just us, therefore we shouldn’t identify ?life’ as our characteristic activity. Humans are a form of animal instead of plant; we are conscious beings with a sense of perception. Nonetheless, we share this with many animals. What we do want to know is what the good for human beings, distinctively, is. Aristotle tells us that the function of human beings is whatever is peculiar to human beings. For this reason it can’t be merely digesting well or perceiving well, for example, because other animals also perform these activities.
What is peculiar to human beings is having and using the powers of reason. Therefore, the function of human beings is having and using reason, and, in turn, human beings are good (they flourish) insofar as they perform this function well – using the powers of reason effectively to guide them in their lives. A human life is distinctively the life of a being that can be guided by reason. We are, distinctively, rational animals.
A number of readers misinterpret Aristotle to be stating that our ergon is reasoning, however, Aristotle illustrates a more profound point: what deems us characteristic is that no matter what action or activity we engage, we do for a reason. Every single one of our actions, and not just ?reasoning,’ are, or may be, based on reasons. Being directed by reasons is, of course, related to one’s psychology, and thus Aristotle discusses about the soul’s activity. We see further that this will be connected with various virtues, just as sharpness was involved in the knife’s ability to perform its function well.
Aristotle tells us that a life guided by reason will be a life lived in accordance with the virtues he identifies. Virtues are known as the attributes that allow us to live in accordance with reason. They are, therefore, of two kindsvirtues of the intellect (traits of the reasoning part) and virtues of character (traits of the part characterised by desire and emotion). Furthermore, the virtues of human beings will be what allows our ergon to live in accordance with reason. Only a virtuous individual is able to attain eudaimonia. To live well and fulfill our ergon, we must be directed by the ?right’ reasonsgood reasons and not ?bad’ reasons.
Thus, eudaimonia exists in the activity of the soul which displays the virtues by being in accordance with ?right’ or ?good’ reason (orthos logos). Due to our ergon being the activity of the soul in accordance with reason, a virtue is an attribute of an individual’s ?soul’. Aristotle provides an analysis of the soul that can be divided into two parts. The first part is related to ?growth and nutrition,’ in which Aristotle thought that all life has soul. The second part is related to desire and emotion; the desiring part we share with other animals, but in us, it can be responsive to reason. For instance, in someone who is tempted, but controls themselves, what they want yields to what they think is good. That person with the virtue of temperance is not even tempted by what they think is not good. What they want ?speaks with the same voice’ as their reason.
In conclusion, Aristotle’s Function Argument ties into virtue ethics in a number of ways: it tells us how one will live a good life (rather than telling us about right action like other ethical theories such as utilitarianism and Kantian deontology do), it gives substance to the core concept of eudaimonia, and it concludes that a good life is one which is lived in accordance with virtue.
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