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Nicomachean Ethics

Aristotle

Book IX

Book VIII

Book X

Summary

In friendships or exchanges where each person receives a different benefit, it is important that both parties feel they are being justly treated. The best method is to fix a price in advance, though some forms of benevolence cannot properly be repaid. In cases of dispute, the recipient of a service should determine its value. While it is important to show preference to one’s friends, one should not do so in place of meeting obligations to others.

Friendships based on utility or pleasure dissolve when the friends no longer find utility or pleasure in one another. These breakups are made more complicated when people are misled into thinking they are loved for their character and not for certain incidental attributes. It may also be necessary to break off a friendship with someone who initially misrepresented the kind of person he or she really is. Friends who grow apart cannot remain friends, though they should hold on to some consideration for the former friendship.

The feelings we have for our friends are the same as we have for ourselves. For instance, a good friend wishes good things for his or her friend, enjoys that friend’s company, and shares personal joys and sorrows. This can also be said of our relationship with ourselves, even in the case of bad people, who treat both themselves and their friends poorly.

We feel goodwill toward a person in whom we perceive some merit or goodness, but this feeling is different from friendship or even affection, because it is superficial and not necessarily requited. Concord is a form of friendly feeling that exists between friends or within a state when people have the same ends in view.

Benefactors seem to love those whom they have benefited more than the beneficiaries love in return. This love is like the love of an artist for his or her work, because the benefactor is to some extent responsible for “making” the beneficiary. It is also more pleasurable to do good actively than to receive good passively.

Those who denigrate self-love are thinking of people who seek the greatest honors and pleasures only for themselves. A good person who is self-loving will seek only what is best for himself or herself, which will be consistent with what is best for all. A good person will do seemingly unselfish acts, such as taking risks for friends or giving away money, but will do these things because they are noble and are motivated by self-love.

If a good person is self-sufficient, it follows that he or she has no need of friends. However, friendship is one of the greatest goods in life, so a good person cannot achieve perfect happiness without friends.

Obviously, it is better to have many friends, but there is a limit to how many intimate friendships one can sustain, and it is preferable to have a few close friendships than many superficial friendships. While we need friends more in adversity, friendship is more pleasant in prosperity. In adversity, we do not want others to share our misfortunes, and in prosperity we can help others.

Analysis

Aristotle’s discussion of friendship, coupled with his earlier discussion of happiness and virtue, seems to imply two difficult paradoxes. First, if we admire friends for those qualities we admire in ourselves, it would seem that self-love is more important than the love of others. Second, if self-love is the most important thing, and if the truly happy person is not in need of outside help, it would seem that the truly happy person does not need friends at all.

Aristotle’s answer to the first paradox is that self-love is indeed very valuable: it seems like a negative quality only because we are thinking of the wrong kind of person. In Book VIII, Aristotle distinguishes three different kinds of friendship: friendship based on utility, friendship based on pleasure, and friendship based on goodness of character. Similarly, self-love can take on any of these characteristics. We think of self-love as a bad thing because we normally think of it in terms of utility or pleasure. The person who selfishly seeks the benefits of utility will callously seek out wealth and honor, not caring who is crushed along the way. The person who selfishly seeks the benefits of pleasure will callously seek out sex, good food, and other pleasures, not caring who gets hurt along the way.

These are both inferior forms of self-love, according to Aristotle. People who seek only utility or pleasure for themselves are not treating themselves well, just as people who use friends for utility or pleasure are not treating those friends well. It is best to love a friend for that friend’s good character, and that is also the best reason to love oneself. The person who seeks true personal goodness will aim at a virtuous life that consists not only of health and prosperity, but also of magnanimity and amiability.

Aristotle’s ideal of the virtuous self-lover is not far removed from our own ideals of selfless virtue, though there are important differences. Both the self-lover and the selfless person will look out for the benefit of others. However, Aristotle’s self-lover will look out for others, recognizing this concern as a noble personal trait, while selfless people do not think of themselves at all. Aristotle would not hold Mother Theresa in high esteem. The kindness of a self-lover is more a noblesse oblige, where the kindness of the noble man is given with the understanding that he is noble and superior to the people he is helping.

Aristotle’s discussion of self-love marks him as one of the early proponents of ethical egoism, a controversial issue in the modern world. Ethical egoism is the idea that self-love is the most important virtue and that if we all sought what was best for ourselves, the world would naturally work its way into a desirable shape without the need for selflessness. This idea is unpopular in the modern world because its most ardent proponents tend to be selfish conservatives who have no interest in the needs of others. Unlike us, however, Aristotle lived in a world where there was common agreement on what was good for all and where the community mattered more than the individual. In such a world, successful people measured their success in part by the success of their fellow citizens. Selfishness seems like a vice only in a world driven by individualism, where there is no evident benefit for oneself in helping others.

When we understand the communal nature of ancient Greek society, we are much closer to understanding the value of friendship as well. In the Politics, Aristotle argues that a man cannot live a complete life outside a city-state, because the exercise of civic virtue is a part of living a complete life. Since living among others is an essential component to life, it follows that one cannot live a complete life without the benefit of friendship.

While it is helpful to understand Aristotle’s views on friendship and self-love within their proper contexts, there is still something troubling about ethical egoism. Presumably, the good person does good for others not primarily because of concern for others, but because of concern for self. This idea hearkens back to the virtue of magnanimity: the virtuous person knows himself to be virtuous and expects others to respect him for being virtuous. Such a person is perhaps not morally objectionable, but there is a degree of shallowness to being good only for the sake of being good and not for the sake of what comes from being good.

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objection

by ProfessorHinkley, April 06, 2014

The author of this commentary claims that Aristotle's "concept of distributive justice is meant to ensure that the greatest privilege go to those male aristocrats who exhibit the greatest virtue rather than to those who have the greatest wealth, the greatest military strength, or the most friends." This claim is superficial and grossly misleading. We need to approach books by trying to understand them as the author understands them, and in this case Aristotle articulates a principle of justice, called merit, that transcends gender and socia

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Good Article

by m8292, September 30, 2014

Thanks for the good article.
To the previous poster: Can you explain where you see that Aristotle's principle is meant by the author to transcend gender etc.? I am especially confused by this because you state that we should not read the book as it might be interpreted, but as the author intended it to be interpreted (if I got you right). Doesn't it seem highly unlikely that someone like Aristotle would include anyone but citizens of the polis in his considerations? Do you have any citation that would support Aristotle including women ... Read more

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