Egoism in Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics

Carolyn Ray, Ph.D., Philosophy

Forum: Independent Study on Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics, Indiana University, 1989
Director: Dr. Michael Morgan, Ancient Philosophy
This piece is one of a set of three papers written for an independent study undertaken during the author's second year in graduate school. This and the other two pieces, Friendship in Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics and Eudaimonia in Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics , work together to present the case that altruism is utterly foreign to Aristotle's ethics and that egoism is his implicit doctrine, despite typical mainstream commentator's interpretations. They challenge textual interpretations one by one, showing that only an egoist ethic can explain the passages that commentators find most puzzling, and allow them to fit consistently with other relevant passages and works. Although the independent study and the papers were not undertaken with this goal in mind (the purpose of the study was simply to familiarize the author with the philosopher's broader work in preparation for advanced study of his metaphysics and epistemology), nevertheless the text forced these conclusions. This is the third and most polished work in the series.

This essay was not written in the author's customary gender-neutral style. The reason is that there is little reason to believe that Aristotle was writing about women. For some hair-raising sexism (and racism), see his Politics, in which he grants that women may be slightly more rational than slaves, but that's pushing it. When he says, "Man is a political animal," (1253a7) he is talking about male Greek persons—for "moral virtue belongs to all of them; but the temperance of a man and of a woman, or the courage and justice of a man and of a woman, are not, as Socrates maintained [Meno, 72 a-73 c], the same; the courage of a man is shown in commanding, of a woman in obeying." (NE, 1260a20-25) Choice passages from the Politics include 1261a4-5, 1263b9-11, and especially 1262b36-1263a1-3.

There has been some debate in recent years over whether Aristotle is an egoist or an altruist, and the debate has focused on the Nicomachean Ethics. While there are plenty of commentators who give up on Aristotle's ethics as hopelessly confused, as many others are ready to do whatever is necessary to prove that he is an altruist. A much smaller group is willing to concede that he shows egoistic tendancies. Overall, the secondary literature gives one the impression that Aristotle had before him a list of the pros and cons of altruism and egoism, and was trying to decide between them. The text, however, does not give such an impression.

It has not been a philosophically fair debate. One interesting strategy used in the debate is a process of watering-down. The more altruism is watered down to make room for the self-interest of the agent, the more naturally the mutant doctrine fits the Nicomachean Ethics. Some try this with egoism too, suggesting that Aristotle's egoism at least sometimes regards the interests of others as primary, in order to take the sting out of calling Aristotle an egoist. Another strategy is exaggeration: the more unsavory egoism is made to sound (for example, by making all egoism out to be mindless hedonism) the more reluctant, hopefully, is a commentator's audience to admit that Aristotle is an egoist. Some use both strategies at once, exaggerating and watering down until egoism and altruism meet in the middle as something not recognizable as a set of consistent principles. This is meant to please everybody. (Instead, one gets the sense that some people are more interested in having the authority of Aristotle behind their own theories than they are in what Aristotle actually said.)

I hope to show that none of these strategies work as approaches to the Ethics and that there is a consistent set of principles which guide Aristotle's claims from beginning to end. First, I'll look at some approaches and show how they fail.

In an article published in Mind in 1977, Julia Annas considered Aristotle's answer to the problem of the good man's need for friends from the Lysis, but discarded it. The reasoning behind the dismissal is compressed, to say the least. Her objection is that, in finding that a person's wanting something purely for the sake of someone else can be explained by the primary case of wanting something for oneself simply because it is oneself, "Aristotle might well be thought to make egoistic desires conceptually prior after all, because altruistic desires only enter in as a matter of psychological facts" (Annas, p. 543) [emphasis supplied]. What exactly does this objection amount to? It is clear that Annas regards the threat of Aristotle's being branded an egoist as a sufficient reason for throwing out any given interpretation; early on, she announces that she intends to vindicate Aristotle of the charge of egoism, since "Aristotle's discussion in the NE is often abused as reducing friendship and all apparent altruism to egoism" (Annas, p. 543).

It is far from clear that Aristotle would be offended by the description of his ethics as egoistic. But it does seems strange to say that Aristotle himself is "reducing apparent altruism to egoism," since Aristotle never gives any indication at all that he is going through such a modern psychological analysis. He never says anything that could even be interpreted as meaning, "This behavior might seem selfless, but we can find an underlying selfish motive." But that is not the issue at hand. The issue is what principles actually stand behind The Nicomachean Ethics, whatever name we want to put to them.

It is important to note that the text that commentators point to when pegging Aristotle as an altruist is about how the good man relates to his friends--people who are special to him--and invariably concentrate on the good man himself and what he desires. While most commentators are careful to explain away the latter feature, they regularly ignore the former. One can cite out of context as many selfless-sounding passages from the books on friendship as one likes; but the fact remains that these books are about a person's relationship with a very select group, among whom is included that person himself as the central figure who makes moral decisions based on what he believes to be good for himself.

Aristotle explains wanting good for a friend by saying that a friend is another self, and one naturally wants what is good for oneself simply because it is oneself. At 1166a3-9, he derives friendship to others from friendship to self. The derivation consists of listing the ways in which a good man relates to himself and then noting that this is also the way that he relates to his friends:

* he wants good for himself for his own sake

* he wants himself to live for his own sake

* he likes to spend time with himself

* he makes the same choices (as himself)

* he shares his pain and pleasure

The derivation sounds egoistic; in fact, lots of things Aristotle says seem to take the individual to be conceptually prior. And yet, true friends are described as wanting good for their friends' sake. Thus, according to Charles Kahn, who finds the description of friends obviously altruistic, apparent contradictions plague the Nicomachean Ethics, making it difficult to call Aristotle either altruist or egoist. Kahn thinks his interpretation of the derivation of friendship with others from self-love will render these so-called contradictions coherent.

Kahn lays the ground for the resolution of this type of contradiction by offering the following definitions of the doctrines:

egoism: "a catch-all reference to any concern for one's own interests or welfare." A motive is egoistic if it is self-regarding, if it relates to the subject himself.

altruism: "a concern for the welfare of friends, relations, and personal associates, not good will towards all and sundry" (Kahn. p. 20)

Using these definitions, Kahn interprets the derivation as implying that friendship admits of both altruistic and egoistic elements (Kahn, p. 26).

To flesh out this interpretation, Kahn makes the following distinction. For any action, there is an interest and an objective. The interest element involves concern for one's own self-interest. The objective is only concerned with the other person's interest. This distinction permits a reduction of altruism to egoism: anytime I desire something, the explanation of why I want it, and why it is my friend rather than a stranger that I want it for, must involve self-regarding considerations. In sum, when I want something, my desire is represented, even if I want it for someone else.

For example, in wanting and bringing about my daughter's success, I can act both for her sake and for mine. This is an altruistic act; even though the interest, or motivation, is selfish, the objective is altruistic because it is wanted for her sake. This is meant to explain how Aristotle might have thought altruism to be psychologically possible, even though he represents self-love as conceptually prior. The argument is that self-love is primary and self-explanatory; since the same motivations and objective can be involved in a relationship between two or more persons, we can also see the love of another person as rational (Kahn, p. 29).

That's not the end of the story, however. According to Kahn, Aristotle also needs the identification of the intellect as the "core of one's personality to make the whole scheme hang together." The self is nous. The good person recognizes this and loves his nous. This is what Kahn calls "rational egoism or the enlightened pursuit of one's own best interests" (Kahn, p. 30).

But there is still more! In order for me to regard my friend's interest as my own, the nous of my friend will have to be fundamentally identical to mine. Thus, my self is my nous. My friend's self is his nous. My nous is identical to his nous. So when I want for him, I want for myself. There is no difference between his eudaimonia and mine, because it is our intellects that make eudaimonia possible and intellect is fundamentally unindividuated (Kahn, p. 38).

The distinction between egoism and altruism now collapses, because the distinction between my eudaimonia and that of my friend is shown not to exist. Thus, Aristotle's defense of friendship, apparently egoistic, is really a defense of altruism.

There are several glaring difficulties with this elaborate interpretation. Kahn has to do a tremendous amount of work to get tenuous results. First, the interpretation clashes with Aristotle's subject matter in the sections of the Nicomachean Ethics to which Kahn refers. Aristotle is discussing friendship. How can Kahn's introduction of the metaphysical concept of nous explain our being interested only in some people's eudaimonia rather than that of all (see, eg., 1169b13 and 1160al-8)[1]? The good man above all should be able to recognize that he shares a nous with every human being; yet he regards only special people as other himselves.

Second, Kahn has to divide desires into an objective part and an interest part: "What I desire is his own good; why I desire it is because sharing in his good, if only as an observer, will form part of my happiness" (Kahn, p. 32). But a goal or object does not have any particular motivation associated with it intrinsically. And it is the motivation (the why) not the object, that we are interested in when asking if an act is altruistic or egoistic, and the motivation Kahn has given us is an egoistic one. We are now back where we started, desiring the good of another for our own sake, and that can hardly be called selfless.

Third, he has to show that Aristotle regards the thinking parts of all humans as identical. This would be fine (as he says in his own defense, part of the interpreter's job is to bring latent systematic unity to the surface when studying Aristotle (Kahn, p. 40)), except that making this identity the basis of a discussion of friendship has one of two results: it either (1) makes everybody friends with everybody else; or (2) it makes only good people (the only true friends) identical with each other--and that must mean that only good people have a nous. On the first alternative, the point of Aristotle's discussion about friends is completely mysterious, because he thinks only certain people are friends with certain others. On the second alternative, a metaphysical claim is made which directly contradicts what Aristotle says in the Nicomachean Ethics: that the nous is each person most of all (see, eg., 1166a15-23)[2].

Fourth, this is a defense of altruism only in Kahn's watered-down sense in which goodwill is shown only to the people one likes. How does this compare with altruism in the pure sense, which requires that one's own interests are not to be considered, or at best considered last? Kahn's conception of altruism is so watered-down that it is hardly recognizable as such. This would be fine too; we could give him the mutant doctrine and say Aristotle would claim it as his own. But Kahn's definition of altruism has self-interest as the primary consideration built in, since it is concern not for all and sundry, but for my friends. And again the introduction of the unindividuated nous results in an egoistic motivation, since wanting for you is exactly wanting for myself. How can the word `altruistic' have any meaning whatever where there is only one thinking part that wants for itself whenever it wants? Further, this definition of'altruism' clashes with the insertion of nous as the identifying factor that is supposed to make altruism possible, since--as I just noted--identical thinking parts should make me altruistic in the strongest sense, i.e., in the sense that everyone is as important as or more important than I am. But Aristotle insists that I am more noble if I spend time with my friends rather than with strangers. It seems pointless to call Aristotle an altruist (and this is in fact what Kahn does) when so much selfishness has to be smuggled in to make the interpretation plausible.

Fifth, since Kahn insists on citing the text concerning friendship, he must explain why Aristotle offers so many reasons for the happy man's need of friends that come out in egoistic terms while offering none that explain the need in altruistic terms. Kahn himself is quick to list references: at 1168b5 and 1166a1-2, feelings for others are derived from feelings for self; at 1155b23, each person is said to love his own good; at 1157b33-35, friendship between good men is described in egoistic terms; and at 1159a11-12 we find Aristotle listing one of the most selfish attitudes we can think of as one of the qualities of the good man: the good man wants goods for his friend, "But perhaps not all goods; for everyone wants good things most of all for himself."

Finally, Kahn insists that the happy man needs friends in whose welfare he takes an interest "for their sake, and not for his own" (Kahn, p. 30). If Kahn wants to bring his interest/objective distinction to bear on this issue, why does he look for an explanation or argument from Aristotle that so blatantly disregards self-interest? Even though Kahn wants it both ways, he does not give it both ways.

My explanation is that Aristotle did not mean "for their sake" to be read as Kahn's altruistic objective. The good man wishes good to his friends because he likes them--he likes them. It will help my case to remind you of Aristotle's frequently employed analysis in relative terms. Earlier in the Nicomachean Ethics, we are told that eudaimonia is an end in itself and wanted for no further end. But honor is an end in itself in that it is worth striving for, and also a subsidiary end as a means to eudaimonia. In the Metaphysics, one substance is said to be matter for a change, and the result is a new substance. It would not be uncharacteristic for Aristotle to claim that my friend is both an end in himself, as something worth preserving for his own sake, and a means to my eudaimonia.

We can understand what it is to have friends both as means and as ends in a couple of ways. (1) If asked why I want friends, I will respond "because I want to live the good life, and that includes friends." (2) When I wish good for my friend, I am not necessarily thinking that this is an opportunity to use someone as a means to achieving my own eudaimonia, although the result will include the vicarious pleasure I enjoy in watching him win the lottery.

We can try to patch up Kahn's claim by giving up our modern common sense notion of someone special to the individual, and embracing one that could include teachers, hired hands, fellow townsmen, and countrymen. Aristotle does seem to have a notion of friends that could be interpreted so broadly (see, eg., 1155a16-2)[3]. But in the end this still doesn't work, because Aristotle contrasts spending time with and energy on strangers with doing the same with friends (see, eg., 1164b30-1165a3 and 1165b34-36)[4]. Who are the strangers, if all humans share one nous and the word `friend'could just refer to anyone with whom one shares the planet? It is true that on Aristotle's view the Active Intellect is unindividuated; but it is not true, on his view, that we are friends with everyone.

Kahn fails because he is trying to mix incompatible theories, making Aristotle an altruist even at the cost of consistency. Nor does the task come naturally, for collapsing the distinction between altruism and egoism involves positing an identity between the thinking parts of all human beings; but this interpretation is not justified by the text.

Richard Kraut, offering the latest word on the subject, says that though Aristotle may rely on some selfish motivations, he is not a pure egoist, and that pure egoism is incompatible with Aristotle's ideal of human relationships. For under such a theory, one must never act but for one's own benefit, come what may for others; the well-being of another is never an independent reason for action (Kraut, p. 78). Aristotle, on the other hand, thinks that the good of others can be an independent reason for acting.

In fact, Kraut continues, complex motivation is possible. One acts both to benefit oneself and to benefit someone else. This leaves open the possibility that the egoistic reason is stronger; but it means that Aristotle is not a pure egoist, since the altruistic reason is independent of the egoistic one.

Kraut thinks that the key to figuring out Aristotle's theoretical position is the fact that he thinks that people's goods can conflict:

As I read Aristotle, he recognizes that the good of one person can conflict with that of others. To be more precise, let us say that such interpersonal conflicts occur when the act that maximizes A's good has consequences that prevent B from achieving as much good as he can (Kraut p. 80).

Kraut doesn't offer any textual evidence to justify reading Aristotle this way. The father/son example that he gives is his own: If a son's study of philosophy will somehow cut back on the father's eudaimonia, the son must give up part of his own eudaimonia--a selfless sacrifice on the son's part. This example may be derived from the father-son debt dispute (1163b19-23)[5] in the section on disputes in Book viii, Chapter 14. But Aristotle actually says in this passage that the son is a perpetual debtor to his father (see also, 1162a4-7)[6]; and we can safely conclude for lack of other evidence that it is the indebtedness, not a feeling of selflessness, that demands obedience to the father's wishes.

Furthermore, the entire discussion of disputes in the Nicomachean Ethics takes as its basic premise the fact that disputes never arise in true friendships; that disputes arise only rarely in friendships-for-pleasure; but that they arise frequently in friendships-for-utility. They arise because of inexplicit conditions (1162b32-34), and because of conflicting expectations (1163a24-36). Solving the former is a matter of setting out the terms of the agreement clearly ("This is a loan, not a gift!" (see 1162b32-34)); solving the latter is a matter of determining who really is the superior and thus more deserving party, and what exactly is deserved by each ("I get more money, you get more honor; so it is even" (see 1163b1-4))[7]. Thus, Kraut has not delivered any evidence that Aristotle thinks people's goods can conflict.

In a true friendship, no dispute arises because each friend is eager to give (1162b6-7). Now, if the father and son are true friends, the son will give up contemplation because making his father flourish will make him flourish. If they are not true friends, debt--not selflessness--is the factor that will guarantee the father's satisfaction, because it is honorable to pay debts.

I can only guess that Kraut gets the idea for his conflicting claims example from the fact that Aristotle thinks that we might not wish all goods to our friends, since the good man wants the best things for himself (and there might not be enough of these for more than one person). However, the fact that Aristotle says that we do not wish all goods to our friends would tend to support the view that he does think that each person should try to maximize his own good; this is just what Kraut denies when he says that Aristotle is not the kind of egoist that recommends maximizing one's own good come what may for others. The phrase "come what may for others" must be carefully analyzed, (especially since Aristotle does not use it), when tacked onto the phrase, "maximize one's own good." As long as we are indulging in guessing how Aristotle would resolve Kraut's own conflicts-of-interest puzzles, indulge me: assume that Aristotle would tend to follow his own words in the passage concerning disputes and ask for the specifics of the situation: who are the parties; how did the conflict arise; and what exactly is the "what" in "come what may for others"? As Kraut notes this phrase `come what may for others' implies that hurting others is acceptable, and Kraut believes that Aristotle would not allow such action to be called moral. But there is textual evidence that Aristotle would condone hurting others to maximize one's own good: when dealing with strangers, one has much less obligation to pay debts and fulfill promises (1164b30-1165a3). Whether we care about the stranger or not, does this treatment not hurt him if he is counting on us?

Though he pushes the altruist line, Kraut differs from other commentators because he allows that on some interpretation Aristotle could be called an egoist without his being offended: Aristotle might be called an egoist if `egoism' means that one should do only those acts that are good from one's own point of view--rather than only doing acts that maximize one's happiness.

Still, I must admit that I am mystified by what the distinction is that Kraut is trying to make. If eudaimonia requires friends, then it is difficult to understand how one could be flourishing if one's friends are dying of starvation. How can there be a difference between doing what will maximize one's own good and doing only those acts which are good from one's own point of view? For Kraut implies that stealing money from my friends could make me happy or enable me to lead the best possible life; but there is no evidence that this would even occur to Aristotle. Kraut takes this into account (see note, p. 85), but he apparently does not see the significance of it. As far as he is concerned, it is safer to call Aristotle an altruist, because the term `kindly egoist' is contradictory.

It is clearer with Kraut than with Annas or Kahn of what crime Aristotle is to be vindicated. The crime is not egoism at all, but self-destructive hedonism. But of this view it is not at all difficult to vindicate him.

Kraut's discussion actually pins Aristotle as an egoist, even though Kraut still insists upon telling us that "we do not treat the well-being of others as a mere means to our own happiness; rather, we seek their happiness for their sake. At times, we rightly give priority to the well-being of others, and accept less happiness for ourselves than we might have had" (Kraut, p. 86). As I pointed out earlier, treating the well-being of others as a mere means to our own eudaimonia and seeking their eudaimonia for their sake are not the only alternatives; there is another option, namely, considering friends as both ends and means where `ends' and `means' are relative terms in a typically aristotelian way.

One further point of Kraut's to be considered is his characterization of the egoistic view of friendship as "benefit[ting] others for their sake for your own sake," and his immediate dismissal of this characterization as unitelligible. His reductio ad absurdum proof of its unintelligibility is dubious, to say the least. He gives us the following scenario:

A: What was your reason for acting in a way that benefitted him?

B: I did it for his sake.

A: But what was your reason for benefitting him for his sake? (Kraut, p. 137)

This little dialogue is meant to show us how silly A's second question is. The problem is that we can see Aristotle having B respond, "Because he is my friend, and if I didn't do things for him we wouldn't be more than strangers," or some similar statement. People acting according to Aristotle's ethics do not benefit just anybody. Why not, if it is for the sake of the beneficiary alone and for no further reason? Kraut has cheated us out of the promised reduction. Not only is the phrase, "benefit others for their sake for your own sake" intelligible, but we have a perfectly aristotelian way of making it so.

Kraut's analysis is helpful in that it does away with the insupportable but popular idea that Aristotle thinks we become friends with people for their sake and without any reference to our own interests:

friends are good from one's own point of view, and none [of Aristotle's arguments] suggests that a person lacking friends should cultivate such relationships in order to do more good for others. On the other hand, once a friendship between equals has been formed, neither of the individuals thinks that his optimal good has priority over that of his friend....For various kinds of reasons, each regards his friend as a good he needs for his own happiness, but this does not commit Aristotle to saying that in such relationships there is no need to limit one's pursuit of one's own good...(Kraut, p. 142).

Yet, in the quote above, we have a prime example of willingness to ignore or distort textual evidence. Once more I cite the passage from the Nicomachean Ethics:

Hence it is to the other as a human being that a friend will wish the greatest goods--though presumably not all of them, since each person wishes goods most of all to himself (1159al1-13).

So what of Kraut's claim that neither individual thinks that his optimal good has priority over that of his friend?

Since there is apparently no hope of explaining away this and other passages of the same tone, some commentators go another route. Elijah Millgram tackles the strongly egoistic passages head-on, preferring to make aristotelian sense of them rather than making excuses for them in accordance with contemporary fashion. One puzzle in particular seems to influence him. Since friends love each other for their virtue, it strikes Millgram as strange that Aristotle limits the number of true friends that one can have: why not love all virtuous people as friends? In order to explain this limitation, Millgram finds that he must resort to an egoistic explanation, though he expresses regret that Aristotle cannot be construed as an altruist (see p. 376). The number of friends is limited because one can have what he calls a `procreative relationship' with only a few people.

The idea is that true friendship is understood with reference to the parent-child relationship. Parents love their children because they made them, and what they make they consider other themselves (Millgram, p. 367-9). I make a friend in the sense that I make his "virtuous being;" I give him something virtuous to watch and I give him companionship in virtue, both of which are necessary for maintaining his virtue. And since it is his virtuous being that I love when I love him in himself, I in fact love the thing that I have created when I am involved in a true friendship. I just do not have the time to engage in this creative process with more than a couple of people (Millgram, p. 368).

The interesting thing about this view of friendship, whether it is what Aristotle had in mind or not, is that it does not try to force Aristotle's very self-oriented view of human relationships into an other-oriented framework. Thus Millgram does not find it necessary to reprocess or disregard the pieces of text that are apparently egoistic. He concludes by showing that desiring goods for one's friend's own sake is compatible with desiring one's own well-being primarily--in much the same way that I have been hinting. My friend's good is part ofmy own eudaimonia, as I will explain in detail in what follows.

I have implied all along that the commentators I have mentioned offer no good evidence for thinking that Aristotle is offering an altruistic ethics. But there must be some reason that so many scholars say that he is doing just that. So next I will look at the best evidence that I could find for thinking that Aristotle would be sympathetic to the altruist's cause; I will evaluate each of these pieces of text as evidence for the idea. Finally, I will evaluate the claim that there is enough evidence that Aristotle is an altruist to justify regarding the egoistic passages as mere mistakes or confusions on his part.

At 1171a34-b6, Aristotle tells us that sharing one's pain is a "mixture of things." My pain is alleviated; but at the same time, I cause my friend pain, and that hurts me. Kahn calls the latter consideration altruistic. It's true that I feel more pain when I think of my friend's resulting pain. But Aristotle specifically mentions my pain; he doesn't say I should hesitate to share my pain with my friend simply because it is bad, in some undefined way, to cause the friend pain for his sake alone. It is with ultimate reference to my pain that his point is made.

It may be that it is enough to show that Aristotle is not an egoist, in order to support the idea that he may be an altruist--pure or watered-down. The following passage on the political leader makes Aristotle sound like a good communist:

...though admittedly the good is the same for a city as for an individual, still the good of the city is apparently a greater and more complete good to acquire and preserve. For while it is satisfactory to acquire and preserve the good even for an individual, it is finer and more divine to acquire and preserve it for a people and for cities (1094b8-10).

The political leader is not to act on his own behalf but on the behalf of the citizens. Contrast this opinion, with the fact that the egoist is to act on his own behalf all the time. How can we understand this passage, in light of the egoistic claims that abound in the Nicomachean Ethics? Must we now say that Aristotle just did not know what to think, that the set of principles that he set down are inconsistent and there is nothing else to be said?

I think the answer to this question is "no". There is a very simple way of understanding this passage. We are concerned in this debate with who is acting for whom, so the obvious thing to do is to ask who acts and who benefits. Since we are talking about a political leader, a man with a job, it is also important to ask what job he is meant to do. The actor is a citizen, a member of a community, who has accepted the role of decision-maker for his city. The beneficiaries are the citizens. Since the leader is a citizen himself, it would be ridiculous to say that the decisions that the leader makes do not benefit him, and that each decision he makes in his capacity as leader is a personal sacrifice. But that is exactly what one would have to say if one were to interpret this passage as an altruistic message. Rather, it should be clear that the leader benefits as a citizen; what is actually recommended is not self-sacrifice at all, since one can't sacrifice what does not belong to one in the first place, and the resources of the city are not his to spend on himself. In other words, bribery, nepotism, and embezzlement of public funds are all out of the question. Some would say that one must be an altruist if one can resist such temptation. But think back again to the fact that the citizens, as citizens, are the ones who will suffer from such action, and so the leader, as citizen, will do himself harm. This is not the proper forum in which to discuss whether the egoist or the altruist is the more rational and so more inclined to be true to his principles; the point is made that Aristotle can make the above statement without embracing altruism, and that in fact there is a good egoistic reason for thinking that the political leader should be thinking about the community when he is at work. Note also that the passage need not indicate that the leader cannot think of himself first when in the privacy of his own home, which consistency precludes the altruistic leader from doing.

How can the Aristotelian egoist explain the behavior of the soldier, who lays down his life for his country? W.F.R. Hardie says that Aristotle's own opinion, that the man who sacrifices his life achieves his own good by gaining nobility, is strained as an account of the "saintly" motivation (Hardie, p. 328). [The question is begged, of course, by the use of a word like `saintly', since it implies the Christian virtue of selflessness; this gives us a clue to Hardie's point of view.] So Hardie attempts a different explanation. He suggests that altruism is consistent with Aristotle's doctrine of the inclusive end, since one's concept of one's own good need not require one to prefer one's own interests to those of others.

Hardie's explanation creates unnecessary complications, since it requires him to perform all sorts of contortions to explain away the passages that indicate that a person's own interest is the crucial deciding factor (see, eg. any of the passages cited in this paper). These complications can be avoided by trying to understand what the soldier can get out of a fight to his own death, an approach that is amply justified by Aristotle's own suggestion that the soldier engages in such an act because he wishes to avoid shame and disgrace (1116a20-29)[8], and prefers a short intense pleasure to a prolonged but mediocre one (1169a18-29)[9]. First, his friends will certainly benefit from victory; second, he himself will benefit (perhaps it is safe to assume that he will not fight for an ignoble cause or one which would ruin his virtuous life were he victorious); third, his choice is between death and a life not worth living (as one used to the democracy of Athens would consider a life under tyranny). Thus, the soldier's conduct is consistent with an egoistic point of view, and Aristotle's own description of the motivation makes it sound like the soldier is not so much ready to sacrifice as willing to pay for the goods he enjoys.

Aristotle's mention of motherhood is taken by, for example, Hardie, to indicate that Aristotle recognizes an element of egoistic motivation in a kind of love that is nevertheless altruistic overall. What is all this talk of mothers at 1166a5-9? Our minds conjure up all sorts of ways in which mothers are selfless--no good mother would eat the food that would keep her baby alive, or refuse money to an adult son.

But the reason that Aristotle gives for maternal love is self-regarding at the core: a maker loves her product because it is a piece of herself--in fact, it is another herself (see, eg., 1161b28-29)[10]. What would happen to the mother's hope of eudaimonia if her offspring died of starvation? Rather than having to grudgingly admit an egoistic element, we end up having to search desperately for the hint of altruism in an egoistic act.

The least obviously egoistic passage occurs at 1157a18-20:

Clearly, however, only good people can be friends to each other because of the other person himself; for bad people find no enjoyment in one another if they get no benefit.

It will be immensely helpful to remember that Aristotle does not think that true friends are not useful or pleasant to each other, that they do not benefit each other. The difference between a true friend and a friend of utility seems to be one of range: a true friendship is one that endures, while an incomplete type of friendship is one that disappears when short-term benefits cease. People who are friendly to each other while doing business are not guaranteed to continue being friendly after the business ends. Lovers who are attracted to each other merely because of youth or beauty are destined to end their friendship as a matter of course. These are the kinds of benefits that preserve the incomplete friendships. They are unnecessary for (but not prohibited in) a true friendship. But being able to observe virtuous behavior, for example, is certainly a benefit of a true friendship (1169b29-1170a4)[11]; moreover, the friendship should be ended if this benefit ceases to be offered by one member of the pair (1165b13-31).

Aristotle does not leave us to wonder about the issue; it is laid out explicitly at 1156b12-25, where he informs us that "The cause of every friendship is good or pleasure, either unconditional or for the lover...." and that "good people are both unconditionally good and advantageous for each other."

The only possible interpretation of 1157a18-20, then, is that the benefits that incomplete friends derive from each other are of the kind that are insufficient to sustain a true friendship—not that friendship is basically altruistic because the friends do not look for benefits from each other. Thus, whereas this passage might be thought to support the view that Aristotle is an altruist, in fact it does not have much bearing on the debate at all.

In Book vii, Chapter 13, Aristotle tells us that we must discuss friendship because it is a virtue and necessary for our lives:

For no one would choose to live without friends even if he had all the other goods. For in fact rich people and holders of powerful positions, even more than other people, seem to need friends. For how would one benefit from such prosperity if one had no opportunity for beneficence, which is most often displayed, and most highly praised, in relation to friends? And how would one guard and protect prosperity without friends, when it is all the more precarious the greater it is? In poverty also, and in the other misfortunes, people think friends are the only refuge (1155a1-12).

Why would an egoist, one who consults his self-interest first, ask how he would benefit from prosperity if he could not be beneficent? Isn't this a clearly altruistic claim? Out of the context of the Nicomachean Ethics, maybe. Within that context, however, notice that Aristotle is concerned first with whether I, the rich person, will benefit-- not with the needy people who will not benefit if I am not friends with them. I want to be beneficent because it is of benefit to me. How? Recall, for example, that in the early discussion of magnificence, Aristotle says that the magnificent person gives more than he receives for two reasons: to repay a debt--and to incur a new debt to himself! (1124b10-13)[12]. And the discussion of all the virtues tells us that we want to be virtuous because we each want to flourish (see, eg., 1098b30-1099a7; 1099b15-20; and 1102a2-4).

There may be one last chance for the altruist-hunter. Aristotle compares the way we feel about a friend with way we feel about a bottle of wine:

Love for a soulless thing is not called friendship, since there is no mutual loving, and you do not wish good to it. For it would presumably be ridiculous to wish good things to wine; the most you wish is its preservation so that you can have it. To a friend. however, it is said, you must wish goods for his own sake (1155b28-32).

Isn't the egoist-hunter saying that you wish goods to a friend in precisely the same way as to the wine: so that you can have him? And doesn't this passage directly contradict that idea? If we look carefully at the passage itself, very little is needed in the way of interpretation. Aristotle is pointing to a difference between love for friends and love for soulless things. But the difference is not that one object is loved with reference to one's self-interest and the other is not. The difference is that the soulless thing cannot in any way benefit from anything we call good, while the souled thing can. When wine is preserved, it does not make sense to say that it has benefitted from a good; inanimate objects do not benefit. That is why it is ridiculous to wish it well. But a person does benefit from, say, good luck; and that is why we are said to wish him well for his own sake. Seen in this light, it is unnecessary to try to make the passage fit any particular ethical framework; we could squeeze an altruistic reading out of it that would sound good out of context, but why should we bother?

It should be apparent that I not only do not see any evidence for calling Aristotle an altruist, but also that I am baffled by the claims that there are even apparent contradictions that make it seem like Aristotle cannot decide which set of principles to choose. I have selected the passages cited above not because I find them puzzling, but because they can easily be made to sound altruistic if the surrounding text is ignored.

My final task is to summarize the moral principle that stands behind the Nicomachean Ethics. I will leave the reader to decide how intellectual honesty demands that we label Aristotle with our modern terms.

When Aristotle gives a reason for acting, the motivation is always focused on the well-being of the actor--note well, focused on the actor. The actor's well-being is not simply included as an after thought, or mentioned as a coincidental consequence of an act done for some reason other than the actor's well-being. This is true of the books on friendship, and it is true of the rest of the text as well.

I think the most important thing to be said with regard to this debate is that Aristotle is not involved in it. In other words, he is not trying to decide between altruism and egoism, as some modern commentators imply. Rather, there is a special human relationship which interests him in the context of a discussion of ethics because it is the one that he feels the flourishing human being cannot do without: friendship. And he approaches friendship in the most commonsensical manner: from a self-oriented point of view. Moreover, other relationships, like that between ruler and ruled, soldier and countrymen, stranger and stranger, are also approached from an self-oriented point of view. It is because he approaches these relationships egoistically that it is hopeless to call Aristotle an altruist and support the accusation with evidence that can--out of context, anyway--be read in whatever way one likes. It is because he never gives any indication that human beings are to act without regard to their own interests that it is inexcusable to interpret compressed or ambiguous passages as altruistic. Following Aristotle's lead results in a consistently self-oriented interpretation of the Nicomachean Ethics. And since he is not involved in the debate between altruism and egoism, the only conclusion to be drawn is that neither altruism nor any of its basic elements ever occurred to him as a point of view to be reckoned with. There is no relation between altruism and the principles behind the Nicomachean Ethics, except that they are opposed to each other. That is not to say that Aristotle is arguing for egoism; in fact, I don't think he is. I think he assumes it. Whether he actually had good reasons for doing so (or had even thought critically about it at all), we may never be able to discover.

Essay 1: Eudaimonia in Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics || Essay 2: Friendship in Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics


Annas, Julia. "Plate and Aristotle on Friendship and Altruism," in Mind (1977), vol 86.

Cooper, John. "Friendship and the good in Aristotle," in Philosophical Review (1977), vol 86.

Hardie, W.F.R. Aristotle's Ethical Theory. Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1968.

Kahn, Charles. "Aristotle and Altruism," in Mind (1981), vol 90.

Kraut, Richard. Aristotle on the Human Good. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1989.

Millgram, Elijah. "Aristotle on Making Other Selves," in Canadian Journal of PhilosoDhv (1987), vol 17.


[1] "And it is more proper to a friend to confer benefits than to receive them, and proper to the good person and to virtue to do good; and it is finer to benefit friends than to benefit strangers. Hence the excellent person will need people for him to benefit" (ll69bll-14) [emphasis supplied].

"What is just is also different, since it is not the same for parents towards children as for fellow-citizens, and similarly with the other types of friendship. Similarly, what is unjust towards each of these is also different, and becomes more unjust as it is practiced on closer friends. It is more shocking, eg., to rob a companion of money than to rob a fellow-citizen, to fail to help a brother than a stranger, and to strike one's father than anyone else. What is just also naturally increases with fiiendship, since it involves the same people over an equal area"(1160al-8).

[2] "Hence he wishes goods and apparent goods to himself, and does them in his actions, since it is proper to the good person to achieve the good. He wishes and does them for his own sake, since he does them for the sake of his thinking part, and that is what each person seems to be.

"He wishes himself to live and to be preserved. And he wishes this for the part by which he has intelligence more than for any other part. For being is a good for the good person, and each person wishes for goods for himself. And no one chooses to become another person even if that other will have every good when he has come into being; for, as it is, the god has the good [but no one chooses to be replaced by a god]. Rather [each of us chooses goods] on condition that he remains whatever he is; and each person would seem to be the understanding part, or that most of all" (1166a15-23) [emphasis supplied].


[3] "Further, a parent would seem to have a natural friendship for a child, and a child for a parent, not only among human beings but also among birds and most kinds of animals. Members of the same race, and human beings most of all have a natural friendship for each other; that is why we praise friends of humanity. And in our travels we can see how every human being is akin and beloved to a human being.

"Moreover, friendship would seem to hold cities together, and legislators would seem to be more concerned about it than about justice. For concord would seem to be similar to friendship and they aim at concord above all, while they try above all to expel civil conflict, which is enmity.

"Further, if people are friends, they have no need of justice, but if they are just they need friendship in addition; and the justice that is most just seems to belong to friendship" (1155a16-27).

[4] "....usually we should return favours rather than do favours for our companions, just as we should return a loan to a creditor rather than lend to a companion.

"But presumably this is not always true. If, eg., someone has rescued you from pirates, should you ransom him in return, no matter who he is? Or if he does not need to be ransomed, but asks for his money back, should you return it, or should you ransom your father instead? Here it seems that you should ransom your father, rather than even yourself" (l 164b30-1165a3).

"....and just as we think we must do kindnesses for friends more than for strangers, so also we should accord something to past friends because of the former friendship...." (1165b34-36) [emphasis supplied].


[5] "That is why it seems that a son is not free to disavow his father. but a father is free to disavow his son. For a

debtor should return what he owes, and since no matter what a son has done he has not made a worthy return for what his father has done for him, he is always the debtor. But the creditor is free to remit the debt, and hence the father is free to remit" (1163b19-23) [emphasis supplied].

[6] "The friendship of children to a parent, like the friendship of human beings to a god. is friendship towards what is good and superior. For the parent conferred the greatest benefits. since he is the cause of their being and nurture and of their education once they have been born" (1162a4-7).

[7] "Friendship [for utilityl that depends on character is not on explicit conditions. Someone makes a present or whatever it is, as to a friend, but expects to get back as much or more. since he assumes that it is not a free gift, but a loan. And if he does not dissolve the friendship on the terms on which he formed it, he will accuse the other" (1162b32-34).

"There are also disputes in friendships that correspond to superiority, since each friend expects to have more than the other, but whenever this happens the friendship is dissolved. For the better person thinks it is fitting for him to have more, on the gound that more is fittingly accorded to the good person. And the more beneficial person thinks the same. For it is wrong, people say, for someone to have an equal share when he is useless; a public service, not a friendship, is the result if the benefits from the friendship do not correspond to the worth of the actions. [Each superior party says this] because he notices that in a financial association the larger contributors gain more, and he thinks the same thing is right in a friendship. But the needy person, the inferior party in the friendship, takes the opposite view, saying it is proper to a virtuous friend to supply his needy [friends]. For what use is it as they say, to be an excellent or powerful person's friend if you are not going to gain anything by it?

"Well, each of them would seem to be correct in what he expects, and it is right for each of them to get more from the friendship--but not more of the same thing. Rather, the superior person should get more honour, and the needy person more profit, since honour is the reward of virtue and beneficence, while profit is what supplies need" (1163a24-1163b4).


[8] "....the bravest seem to be those who hold cowards in dishonour and do honour to brave people. That is how Homer also describes them when he speaks of Diomede and Hector. [Hector says,] `Polydamas will be the first to heap disgrace on me', and [Diomede says,] `For sometime Hector speaking among the Trojans will say `The son of Tydeus fled from me." `

"This is most like the [genuine] bravery described above, since it is caused by a virtue; for its cause is shame and desire for something fine--for honour--and aversion from reproach, which is disgraceful" (1116a20-29) [emphasis supplied].

[9] "Besides, it is true that, as they say, the excellent person labours for his friends and for his native country, and will die for them if he must; he will sacrifice money, honours and contested goods in general, in achieving what is fine for himself. For he will choose intense pleasure for a short t time over mild pleasure for a long time; a year of living finely over many years of undistinguished life; and a single fine and great action over many small actions.

"This is presumably true of one who dies for others; he does indeed choose something great and fine for himself. He is ready to sacrifice money as long as his friends profit; for the friends gain money, while he gains what is fine, and so he awards himself the greater good" (1169a18-29) [emphasis supplied].

[10] "A parent loves his children as [he loves] himself. For what has come from him is a sort of other himself; [it is other because] it is separate. Children love a parent because they regard themselves as having come from him."

[11] "For we said at the beginning that happiness is a kind of activity; and clearly activity comes into being, and does not belong [to someone all the time], as a possession does. Being happy, then is found in living and being active. The activity of the good person is excellent and [hence] pleasant in itself, as we said at the beginning. Moreover, what is our own is pleasant. We are able to observe our neighbors more than ourselves, and to observe their actions more than our own. Hence a good person finds pleasure in the actions of excellent people who are his friends, since these actions have both the naturally pleasant [features, i.e. they are good, and they are his own]. The blessed person decides to observe virtuous actions that are his own; and the actions of a virtuous friend are of this sort. Hence he will need virtuous friends" (1169b29-1170a4).

[12] "He is the sort of person who does good but is ashamed when he receives it; for doing good is proper to the superior person, and receiving it to the inferior. He returns more good than he has received; for in this way the original giver will be repaid, and will also have incurred a new debt to him and will be the beneficiary" (1124b10-13.).