Aristotle and the Function Argument

Aristotle’s Ethics is one of the most interesting ethical treatises ever written.  And much of it is foreign to our modern sensibilities.  The core of Aristotle’s argument is the so-called function argument.  The function argument goes something like this:

Every being has a characteristic way of behaving (a function).  To perform your function well, is to be a good type of whatever you are.  Thus to fulfill your human function is to be a good human, just like for a knife to perform its function well is to be a good knife.

So, the natural question is, what is the human function or characteristic way of behaving?  Aristotle’s answer is that our function is to reason.  One of the most common reactions I get when telling people I am interested in philosophy is something like, “philosophy makes life too cold and rational.  We need to pay attention to our feelings as well.”  Aristotle, would agree with this.  For Aristotle, reasoning does not mean just sitting around and contemplating, or turning off your emotions and calculating everything.  These are both caricatures of the rational life.  To be rational means to apply reason to all the parts of your life where reason is capable of leading you towards a good result or conclusion.  Being rational means applying reason to our desires, feelings, and emotions.  In fact, doing just this is what makes humans morally responsible.  If a dog gets scared and bites you, it is not really to blame, because, as far as we can tell, dogs act completely on instinct and feeling.  If a co-worker gets scared and bites you, well, this is a totally different situation.  Your co-worker has the ability to think before he bites you, and is therefore responsible for the way he behaves.

For Aristotle, fulfilling your natural function is also intimately connected with happiness and a fulfilled life.  This means that to really be happy, we can’t let ourselves be carried away by feelings, even if they are extreme and passionate.  A truly happy person applies proper reason and limit to all of his behavior, even if this is sometimes difficult.  Too often in our society, a dichotomy is made between reason and feeling.  But unless we are brutes or robots, the two necessarily work together.  The next time you find yourself gripped by an emotion or desire, ask yourself if it is a rational emotion or desire.  Doing this seems the natural step we must take to really be human.

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