John Hare’s God’s Command, Chapter 3, “Eudaemonism,” Section 3.2.1: A Single-Source View: Aristotle


Section 3.2 is called “The Sources of Motivation.” In the introduction to this section, Hare writes that to explain the term “self-indexed” we need to go back in the history of the topic; first to Aristotle, then to Scotus. Aristotle gives a single-source account of motivation, Scotus a double-source account.

3.2.1 Aristotle wrote that the good has been aptly described as that at which everything aims. Action and rational choice are related in the same way as art and discipline: in other words, rational choice controls action. So there’s a similarity between these two pairs of terms, but also a contrast: for some ends are activities and others are products apart from these. This distinction structures the whole discussion. Both art and action have ends, but art has an end that is a product apart from the activity of the art itself, whereas the end of action is not separate from the activity in this way.

Action has as its end happiness, and happiness is activity in accordance with characteristic virtue (or excellence) and therefore perfects the agent. Various virtues all are dispositions to act or feel or think as reason prescribes, so the end of action is itself doing something or being active in a way that manifests these dispositions. We can describe the status of the action or activity in terms of how noble it is or how close it is to the divine. The good for the polis is more noble and divine than the good for an individual.

Aristotle acknowledges that, even though the good is agreed to have the name “happiness,” there are different accounts of what happiness consists in. He himself mentions three, and he’s probably reflecting the Pythagorean picture of the three lives, which came to him through Plato. Pythagoras distinguished three kinds of people who go to the Olympic Games: the athletes, who go to compete; the businessman, who go to make money; and the spectators, who go to watch. By analogy, in Aristotle’s account there is the life of somatic pleasure, the life of politics, and the life of contemplation. All three of these candidates are activities of the agent. Pleasure, on this account, is an activity or at least accompanies activity, political life is constant activity, and contemplation (which has the noblest and most divine objects) is the activity of our highest part.

Two reasons might be proposed for disputing this reading of Aristotle. Someone might say that we act virtuously in order to attain what is noble, and the term “noble” involves no essential reference to the agent. And someone might say that Aristotle ends up stretching the identity of the agent to include his family and friends and fellow-citizens. These two reasons converge, since Aristotle thinks it’s noble to care for one’s friends for their own sake, and not for one’s own. But to test whether we genuinely escape essential reference to the agent in good that’s pursued by the agent, we need to look at cases where there’s tension between the good of others and the agent’s own good, and see how Aristotle adjudicates those cases. One example: does nobility require death in battle for the sake of the polis? Here Aristotle feels he has to give a justification in terms of the brave man’s reward either by posthumous honor or by the brief moment of exaltation before being killed. Neither of these justifications takes us beyond essential reference to the agent.

The case of friendship is even clearer. Aristotle uses the language of “a different himself” to talk first about a father’s relation to his son, and then a virtuous friend’s relation to his friend. The father loves the son as “a different himself” because the son came from him, and the virtuous friend loves his friend as “another himself” because he related to the friend and to himself in the same way. So the happiness of a good person will require the happiness of his family and friends. But he will aim at their happiness only to the extent that they have these special relations with him. Aristotle is not proposing here that we value every human being as an end-in-itself or that our own happiness counts morally no more or no less than anyone else’s. If we are noble, we will have concern for the other for the sake of the other, but this concern is conditional on the maintenance of the special relation. This limitation is made vivid when Aristotle considers the question whether we wish our friends to become gods. Aristotle thinks not, for they would then no longer wish our friendship, so we want the greatest good for them “as human beings.” He adds the additional qualification that we do not strictly want the greatest good for our friends because “it is himself most of all that each person wishes what is good.” He insists that virtue doesn’t leave the sphere of self-love.

Two distinctions need to be made here. The first is often associated with Bishop Butler. There are two senses in which every good aimed at by an agent might be a good for the agent, and the first does not imply the second. The first sense is that the good aimed at is good for the agent just because the agent aims at it. In this sense, the good aimed at might not itself contain any relation to the agent beyond that of being aimed at by means available to the agent. In the second sense, the good for the agent is an object whose definition includes internal reference to the agent, as in Aristotle’s example of “the good of my friend.” It’s a mistake to think the second follows from the first.

The other distinction is implicit in the description of the first. We should not insist that the good for the agent (in the second sense) be articulated as such by the agent. We can internalize various principles without being able to articulate them; even without articulation, though, they can shape the lives we try to lead.

Summing up, we can say that Aristotle gives us a single-source view of the motivation of an agent; the source is the agent’s happiness, understood as a perfecting activity of the agent. This is good “for the agent” in the second of the two senses distinguished by Butler. The object pursued has essential reference to the agent, not merely because it is what she is pursuing, but in its own definition. The self-indexed good does not, however, require that the agent articulate it as self-indexed. The claim of the present chapter is that a single-source view of the motivation of an agent is a mistake, but that Aristotle is right nonetheless to say that we start from self-preference. This is not because we are human, however, but because of a disorder of our wills. It’s not necessary for humans to prefer themselves in this way.