In pursuing his own happiness, is Aristotle's man an egoist?

Part 1 -- The Meaning of the Question

Whether one chooses to call Aristotle's man an "egoist" or not will depend critically on how one conceives of the notion of an "egoist."  So, before examining how the works of Aristotle contribute to the decision, I will start by setting up an understanding of "egoism."  To begin that process, I will reference number of common dictionary definitions pulled off the Web -- see the Appendix.

Note first that the two presumably British dictionaries (the Cambridge International Dictionary of English and the entry) do not distinguish the two separate meanings of "egoism" that the American dictionaries do.  In British English, it would appear that standard usage is that "egoism" is equivalent to "egotism".  Hence an "egoist" is equivalent to an "egotist".

Note second that in American English, the dictionaries report two different senses of meaning for the word "egoism".  One is the same sense as "egotism" and the British use of "egoism".  But the other is different, and apparently non-existent in British English.  On the one hand we have a usage that clearly communicates a negative or pejorative attitude towards the pursuit of one's own interests or welfare, characterized by inappropriateness and excessiveness.  On the other hand we have a usage that communicates a neutral (or at least not negative) attitude towards the pursuit of one's own interests or welfare that is simply descriptive and not evaluative.

From this basis, we can see that the essay's title question may be understood in two different senses.  In an "American sense" it may be understood to be asking whether, in pursuing his own happiness, Aristotle's man is pursuing his own interests or welfare in a non-negative and non-pejorative sense.  In a "British sense" it may be understood as asking whether, in pursuing his own happiness, Aristotle's man is pursuing his own interests or welfare in a negative and pejorative sense, characterized by inappropriateness and excessiveness. 

Being more at home in "American English" than I am in "British English", I choose to assume that it should be the descriptive and non-evaluative sense of "egoist" that ought to apply.  Therefore, in the remainder of this essay, I am going to employ the following two definitions:

Egoism = The ethical doctrine that morality has its foundations in self-interest and that self-interest is the just and proper motive for moral conduct.  Hence an "egoist" is one who believes in Egoism.

Altruism = The ethical doctrine that morality has its foundations in the interests of others and that the interests of others is the just and proper motive for moral conduct.

Based on these definitions, I will understand the essay's title question as asking whether, in pursuing his own eudemonia (understood in the more inclusive sense of "flourishing" than just the usual translation of "happiness"), Aristotle's virtuous man is treating his own self interest as primary, or treating the interests of others as primary. 

Part 2 -- Aristotle's Ethical Theory

In the opening paragraph of his Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle claims that all human activity is teleological -- all activity is in pursuit of some goal.  "Every art and every inquiry, and similarly every action and pursuit, is thought to aim at some good; and for this reason the good has rightly been declared to be that at which all things aim." (NE 1.1)  There is a hierarchy of these goods at which various activities aim.  Lesser goods are instrumental in the pursuit of greater goods, or are at least constitutive of greater goods.  "But where such arts fall under a single capacity . . . in all of these the ends of the master arts are to be preferred to all the subordinate ends; for it is for the sake of the former that the latter are pursued." (NE 1.1)  He develops his argument by claiming that the top of this hierarchy will be the final or highest goal of human activities -- something which is pursued for its own sake, and not for the sake of any other goal. 

"Since there are evidently more than one end, and we choose some of these . . . for the sake of something else, clearly not all ends are final ends; but the chief good is evidently something final.  Therefore, if there is only one final end, this will be what we are seeking, and if there are more than one, the most final of these will be what we are seeking.  Now we call that which is in itself worthy of pursuit more final than that which is worthy of pursuit for the sake of something else, and that which is never desirable for the sake of something else more final than the things that are desirable both in themselves and for the sake of that other thing, and therefore we call final without qualification that which is always desirable in itself and never for the sake of something else." (NE 1.7)

This final goal Aristotle calls eudaimonia (usually translated as "happiness" but better understood when translated as "flourishing" since "happiness" is a state of mind, and Aristotle is quite clear that eudaimonia is to be understood as an activity - "living well and faring well" (NE 1.4)). 

"Now such a thing eudaimonia, above all else, is held to be; for this we choose always for itself and never for the sake of something else, but honour, pleasure, reason, and every virtue we choose indeed for themselves (for if nothing resulted from them we should still choose each of them), but we choose them also for the sake of eudaimonia, judging that by means of them we shall be happy.  Eudaimonia, on the other hand, no one chooses for the sake of these, nor, in general, for anything other than itself." (NE 1.7)

Throughout the Books II thru IX of the Nicomachean Ethics, where Aristotle discusses the various moral virtues and the reasons for choosing one action versus another, the motivation is always focussed on the eudaimonia of the actor.  The actor's eudaimonia is not simply included as an afterthought, or mentioned as a coincidental consequence of an action performed for some other reason.  Only in Book IX, where Aristotle discusses the importance of friendship, might a case be made that Aristotle's man is not acting out of egoistic motivation.  But even here, Aristotle says -

"Now each of these is true of the good man's relation to himself (and of all other men in so far as they think themselves good; virtue and the good man seem, as has been said, to be the measure of every class of things). For his opinions are harmonious, and he desires the same things with all his soul; and therefore he wishes for himself what is good and what seems so, and does it (for it is characteristic of the good man to work out the good), and does so for his own sake (for he does it for the sake of the intellectual element in him, which is thought to be the man himself);" (NE 9.4).

So it is obvious that Aristotle's Ethical Theory is an Egoistic one, and not an Altruistic one.  And to counter the charge the Aristotle's Ethical Theory is an Egoistic one in the negative or pejorative sense, it is only necessary to consider the importance to Aristotle of proper moral training, and the source of Aristotle's concept of the moral virtues in a social context.

Aristotle emphasizes in a number of places in the Nicomachean Ethics that moral virtue, or temperance, is the result of proper moral training.  Aristotle thinks that virtue depends upon the right relations between the rational and non-rational parts of the soul.  The two parts of the soul that Aristotle employs when speaking about the "right relations" between them, are the rational part that evaluates the circumstances, predicts consequences, and judges which courses of action are in the best interests of one's own eudaimonia, and the irrational, emotional, or appetitive part that responds to the prospects of pleasure.

The pleasures to which the appetitive part of the soul responds can be divided into two classes.  The "proper pleasures" are those that Aristotle describes as being the supervening partner of temperate behaviour.  The "alien pleasures" are those that Aristotle describes as being the supervening partner of excesses or deficiencies.  This is part of his "Doctrine of the Mean".  Those pleasures that correspond with the mean are "proper".  Those pleasures that correspond with the excesses or deficiencies of vice are "alien".  When an activity has a proper pleasure associated with it, and that pleasure is present, that pleasure will improve the proper function of the activity.  But alien pleasures are those that interfere with the proper function of an activity.

In order to achieve his own eudaimonia, therefore, Aristotle's man displays the proper degree of temperance in all situations.  The virtuous or temperate man "craves only what he ought, as he ought, when he ought" (NE 6.2).  The properly temperate man has had proper moral training, so his appetites are in sync with his rational evaluation of the best route to his own eudaimonia.  He has learned to appreciate the "proper pleasures" of temperance.  He is therefore not routinely tempted by "evil pleasures".  He experiences no internal conflict between the two parts of his soul.

What distinguishes Aristotle's temperate man is the fact that the temperate man's moral training has been sufficient (and sufficiently proper) to attune his appetitive soul with the "proper pleasures".  The virtuous man has been so trained that his appetitive soul does not see the pleasures to be had from alien pleasures.  So the virtuous man does not experience the conflicted urgings of his appetitive soul that distress those who are not temperate.  He has had sufficient moral training to recognize and appreciate the pleasures to be had from virtuous behaviour, and to recognize and appreciate that the "pleasures" that appear to be derivable from the excesses of vice are not really pleasures at all.

But in all this analysis of the proper training that is necessary to create a virtuous man, it is still the individual's own eudaimonia that is the focus of attention.  It may require proper training for Aristotle's man to recognize and appreciate what is in the best interests of his own eudaimonia.  But it remains his own eudaimonia that is the motivation.  Aristotle is just describing what it is that will bring that eudaimonia.

"We do not mean that which is sufficient for a man by himself, for one who lives a solitary life, but also for parents, children, wife, and in general for his friends and fellow citizens, since man is born for citizenship." (NE 1.7)  For Aristotle, man derives his sense of identity, his purpose, from his role as part of an existing community -- including friends, customs, institutions, and laws.  Aristotle does not conceive of the individual as prior to or independent of the community.  Thus, moral virtues are essentially social and political in nature.

But again, it is Aristotle's position that one's own eudaimonia derives from performing well one's proper function.  And even though he conceives that one's proper function (one's telos) is defined within a social context (the polis), it remains one's own happiness (eudaimonia) that is the motivation for action, and not the happiness of others.

So "Yes", in pursuing his own eudaimonia, Aristotle's man is indeed an Egoist (in the American sense).


American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language -

Egoism = 1.a The ethical doctrine that morality has its foundations in self-interest. 1.b The ethical belief that self-interest is the just and proper motive for all human conduct. 2. Excessive preoccupation with one's own well-being and interests, usually accompanied by an inflated sense of self-importance. 3. Egotism; conceit.

Egotism = 1. The tendency to speak or write of oneself excessively and boastfully. 2. An inflated sense of one's own importance; conceit.

Altruism = 1. Unselfish concern for the welfare of others; selflessness. 2. Zoology: Instinctive cooperative behavior that is detrimental to the individual but contributes to the survival of the species.

Webster's New World College Dictionary, 4th Ed.

Egoism = 1. the tendency to be self-centered, or to consider only oneself and one's own interests; selfishness. 2. egotism; conceit. 3. Ethics: the doctrine that self-interest is the proper goal of all human actions.

Egotism = 1. constant, excessive reference to oneself in speaking or writing. 2. self-conceit. 3. selfishness;

Altruism = 1. unselfish concern for the welfare of others; selflessness. 2. Ethics: the doctrine that the general welfare of society is the proper goal of an individual's actions

Encarta World English Dictionary, North American Edition

Egoism  = 1. Philosophy: pursuit of your own welfare: the practice of making personal welfare and interests a primary or sole concern, sometimes at the expense of others. 2. Ethics: doctrine of self-interest: the ethical doctrine that the correct basis for morality is self-interest. 3. Same as egotism.

Egotism = 1. inflated sense of self-importance: the possession of an exaggerated sense of self-importance and superiority to other people. 2. preoccupation with self: the tendency to speak or write too much about yourself. 3. selfishness: selfishness or self-centeredness.

Altruism = 1. selflessness: an attitude or way of behaving marked by unselfish concern for the welfare of others. 2. belief in acting for others' good: the belief that acting for the benefit of others is right and good

Cambridge International Dictionary of English

Egotism = (also egoism) disapproving: thinking only about yourself and considering yourself better and more important than other people.

Altruism = willingness to do things which bring advantages to other people, even if it results in disadvantage for yourself.

Egoism = 1. The doctrine of certain extreme adherents or disciples of Descartes and Johann Gottlieb Fichte, which finds all the elements of knowledge in the ego and the relations which it implies or provides for. 2. Excessive love and thought of self; the habit of regarding one's self as the center of every interest; selfishness; -- opposed to altruism.

Egotism = The practice of too frequently using the word I; hence, a speaking or writing overmuch of one's self; self-exaltation; self-praise; the act or practice of magnifying one's self or parading one's own doings. The word is also used in the sense of egoism.

Altruism = 1. Regard for others, both natural and moral; devotion to the interests of others; brotherly kindness; -- opposed to egoism or selfishness.


Aristotle, The Nicomachean Ethics, Translated and introduced by David Ross, revised by J.L. Ackrill and J.O. Urmson;  Oxford University Press, Oxford, England. 1980.  ISBN 0-19-283407-x

Kraut, Richard, "Aristotle's Ethics", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2009 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.),

Ray, Carolyn, Egoism in Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics

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