Aristotle on the impossibility of altruism
There has recently been a reengagement with Aristotle’s ethical thought. One only needs to mention contemporary virtue ethics, which explicitly names him as its inspiration. However, not all aspects of his ethical thought have received the attention, and engagement, they deserve. This is especially true of his egoism. In order to facilitate this engagement, this dissertation will offer a thorough account of Aristotle’s egoism. It will focus on his seminal work, the Nicomachean Ethics. Chapter One serves as a methodological introduction. It argues that Aristotle often uses a certain investigative procedure. He often posits preliminary positions that he later revises or rejects. Therefore, to properly grasp his thought, we must take care to distinguish his merely preliminary from his final positions. Chapter Two argues that Aristotle accepts a form of psychological egoism, namely that each person acts ultimately for the sake of his own happiness (εὐδαιμονία). This chapter both gives evidence for this interpretation and responds to two challenges that have been brought against it. The first challenge stems from Aristotle’s claim that friends benefit their friends for their friends’ own sake. The second challenge stems from Aristotle’s claim that virtuous action is kalon (“noble” or “fine”) and “for the sake of the kalon.” However, kala actions were popularly identified with actions of selfless beneficence. Chapter Three argues that Aristotle defends his view that we act ultimately for the sake of our own happiness. It is widely thought among those who agree that he holds this view that he never attempts to defend it. This chapter argues, to the contrary, that he does. It shows that he raises a challenge to his view that each person acts ultimately for the sake of his own happiness and then responds to it. This challenge is the popular view that virtuous people act in a selfless or self-disregarding way, especially in relation to their friends. This chapter then argues that Aristotle responds to this challenge through his discussion of friendship. He attempts to show, despite the popular view to the contrary, that virtuous people are not self-disregarding in relation to their friends.