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Nicomachean Ethics (wikipedia.org)
282 points by godelmachine on April 24, 2020 | hide | past | favorite | 158 comments

It’s been a very long time since i read this. The two things that really stuck with me (personal opinion):

1. Utility

There are three levels of utility. Things whose use is only in service of something else are least valued. Things whose use is direct and not in service of something else are of highest value. Things whose use is of both something else and it’s own direct utility are of medium value.

As an example a code library is less valuable to the end user than the application it supports.

John Stuart Mill’s father founded the philosophy of Utilitarianism based upon Nicomachean Ethics.

2. Directness of Intent

Be clear about what you want and why you want it then pursue that objective without distraction. If your primary intent is pleasure then pursue the pleasure first without shame or manipulation. There are books in the set written to subjectively describe such pursuits in terms of base virtues, such as happiness.

This is perhaps more about honesty to the self than honesty to others. I suppose if you cannot keep from lying to yourself you will be challenged to communicate honestly at all. It also considers motivation as an economic quantity that can be measured, predicted, and compared when considering the balance of multiple agents acting in concert.

I've studied philosophy a great deal, and I'm terribly confused about your takeaways, because neither have anything to do with Aristotle as far as I know.

Aristotle was the founder of what is now termed "virtue ethics", which expressly has nothing to do with utility. In fact, utilitarianism and Bentham/Mill are seen as expressly opposite Aristotle's virtue ethics, not building on it. (Kant's deontology being the third main philosophical alternative.)

Similarly, pursuing an objective without distraction could not be less Aristotelian. If you could boil down virtue ethics to a single line, it would be that virtue is about finding the happy medium between excesses.

I think you're confusing something else with Nicomachean Ethics. I'm kind of curious what it is now, though.

As far as utility you can find numerous similar interpretations online searching Google for: ethics "exists for its own sake".

For a more detailed interpretation see Stanford philosophy text on Aristotelian Ethics: https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/aristotle-ethics/#HumaGoo...

Everything I just searched for referred directly back to Nicomachean Ethics, but it appears this idea exists directly at the top of Aristotle's Metaphysics Book 1.

> Similarly, pursuing an objective without distraction could not be less Aristotelian.

Perhaps. It has been a long time since I have looked at any of this. If I remember correctly it is more about the clarity of intention/purpose than the substance of the subject for that substance will reveal itself through the pursuit.

Aristotle wrote a lot about happiness and even had a word for it: eudaimonia. It did not seem to be a goal but rather the journey and ethics were the guidance that provided both direction and the narrow path.

Point 2. reminds me of some old Eliezer's posts, like "Purchase Fuzzies and Utilons Separately"[0]. It argues that if you're clear and honest about your intent, you'll be more efficient. Using an example of helping others, if you seek both the "warm fuzzy feeling" and actual effect on the world, then the best approach would be to get them separately - e.g. buy the feeling cheaply (e.g. do something directly for someone in your community, maybe help an old lady cross the street or something), and then dump the rest of the money into a maximally effective (in terms of $/impact) cause/charity.


[0] - https://www.lesswrong.com/s/pvim9PZJ6qHRTMqD3/p/3p3CYauiX8oL...

My personal solution is to not buy utilions at all.

Fuzzies are good. They are useful. They connect me to people around me, and bring gratitude. Fuzzies are the reason I have a moral feeling at all. And utilions are just a virus, that infects my moral system, trying to highjack it, so that it becomes useless to me. So that I do charity without getting gratitude and potencial help in the future.

Purchase "moral usefulness" and "moral useless abstraction" separately, and try to purchase of the latter as little as possible :)

The reason I write this is fuzzies, btw. I want to help other people find moral fulfillment, and hopefully some will be grateful and return with some other insight

Hacker News is not a comfort space though - it is primarily utilitarian (The Economist-liberalist, if you would like) in nature.

Here's my opposite take on it:

The most efficient use of your own superior intellect is to help those who are the most helpless, because by doing the easiest things for you, you can scale those things to a much greater extent.

You may think that fuzzies are easy. But they make the greatest different to a much higher amount of people around you.

This is kind of nit picky, but isn’t Jeremy Bentham typically credited as the founder of Utilitarianism? Not criticizing, genuinely curious as James Mills was barely mentioned when I took philosophy coursework.


I wanted to say that Bentham was JSM's godfather, though I'm finding no specific mention of this. He was, at the very least, a very close friend of JSM's father James Mill and an extraordinarily strong influence on John Stuart (middle name itself having an interesting story) in education and development.

JSM himself was godfather to the godless Bertrand Russell.




So for point 1, what counts as being of use in service of something else and of use directly?

Take a game and an helper for that game. The helper is clearly of use in service to the game. But is the game of use directly, or is it in service to the enjoyment of the player? The enjoyment of the player would be the only thing that is done for itself, and even that gets a little odd when you begin to strip back the neurology of what the enjoyment is.

So I see two ways to take this. First, a slight clarification to say that 'something' that a thing may be in use to is limited in a way to not include desires and pursuits.

Second, that the only thing that has the purest usefulness are desire and pursuits we seek only to fulfill them and not for other reasons (if we ignore why our brain wants us to do such).

Both seem odd but not repulsive takes.

For other readers looking at this comment, crazygringo is correct to point out that this view is a canard. If you're interested to learn what Aristotle actually wrote about these topics in the Ethics, see the following:

1) On utility, the comparison to Mill could not be more misleading. What the commenter seems to be referring to is actually Aristotle's idea of self-sufficiency, or autarkeia. For A, this is an essential component of happiness: "The complete good is held to be self-sufficient" (1097b7). To be sure, as A explains, "we do not mean by self-sufficient what suffices for someone by himself, living a solitary life ... since by nature a human being is political" (1097b7-12). Rather, "as for the self-sufficient, we posit it as that which by itself makes life choiceworthy and in need of nothing, and such is what we suppose to be" (1097b15-17). A's point here is that happiness is something that is not itself "for" anything else. Happiness is autonomous, dependent on nothing else. Indeed, it is for happiness that all other activities are directed. Organizing these activities is the province of politics, or what Aristotle calls the "architectonic" art, because it arranges and superintends everything toward the "end of our actions that we wish for on account of itself" (1094a17ff.). Thus, the commenter's remark about the "three levels of utility" is largely misguided, but it comes close-ish to capturing A's thought on the matter.

2) On "intent," Aristotle's treatment of this idea is extremely complex. It first appears at the beginning of Book III, before he begins his treatment of the eleven moral virtues, suggesting its primacy to his thinking. A separates the idea of "intent" into three kinds: "choice" (proairesis), "deliberation" (boule), and "wish" (boulesis). All of these are different kinds of voluntary activity, i.e., intentional activity. Distinguishing between them is essential for understanding the sense in which activities (and therefore virtue, and therefore happiness) is indeed an "intentional" possibility. In other words, is happiness achievable simply through our "intent"? Or is it dependent on chance, determinism, etc.? Are we truly free to become happy? A's answer to this question is complex, but his genius lies in the fact that he divides "intent" into these various forms -- in short, his point is that certain things (e.g., means vs. ends) are "decided" by different faculties of intent. This phenomenology of experience is masked today by our weak word "intent," which remains unfortunately conceptually overloaded and imprecise.

Again, I suggest that if anyone wants to know what Aristotle actually thought about these topics, they turn to the text itself.

This book is the foundation of my worldview. The message I took away from it is that there is a skill of being good at being a person, and that goodness in terms of what we now consider to be ethics will follow from that.

Worthy of note in particular is eudaimonia as a concept, especially the debate between whether it is happiness or goodness. I read it (somewhat loosely) as being the process by which a person's behaviours engender virtuous cycles in their communities and themselves.

It's been a long time since I read it but I'd recommend it to anyone. Maybe I'll revisit it before lockdown is out.

Have you also read Alasdair MacIntyre's "After Virtue" from 1981? As I understand it basically revived Aristotelian virtue ethics as a viable philosophical theory, indeed by thoroughly criticizing modern (post-Enlightenment) justifications of morality. It's probably my favorite book of modern philosophy.

I have not, but that sounds awesome. Recommending in turn "natural goodness" by Philippa Foot, also a revival of virtue ethics.

Thanks for the recommendations. I would in return suggest Braintrust by Patricia Churchland. It looks at how morality and ethics arise from the needs of social animals such as ourselves to exist within a group that won't tear itself apart, and at the neurochemistry of it. The material is very accessible, and if the writing can be a bit stuffy at times, the points are solid and well worth the read.

I would like to suggest "History of Philosophy without any gaps" podcast website which explains in a rather complete way Philosophy in layman's terms. Everything is neatly organized (just check the top menu). Also it includes non western philosophy such as Avicenna's writings, its importance and relation to Aristotle's work. Here is ths relevant episode on Aristotelian ethics: https://historyofphilosophy.net/aristotle-ethics

I enjoyed that podcast, and would second your recommendation, but for me the best philosophy podcast by far is The Partially Examined Life[1].

Here's their episode on the Nichomachean Ethics: [2]

[1] - https://partiallyexaminedlife.com/

[2] - http://traffic.libsyn.com/partiallyexaminedlife/PEL_ep005_6-...

Also check out Philosophize This for a great philosophy podcast.


Great suggestion, and it also does fill in the chronological gaps in anyone's history of philosophy education. All those years ignored by uni aren't with this podcast. The companion books are excellent, too. Currently reading the one on Islamic medieval philosophy, which got us the word for algorithm.

And for fun, I recommend Existential Comics: https://existentialcomics.com/philosopher/Aristotle

More than just fun. EC's "freedom monster" is at least one original contribution. And topical to utilitarianism. and ethics.


Very strongly seconded.

Especially if you're fond of giraffes, almond croissants, nonexistent sisters, and twin brothers.

I discuss philosophy, mostly from the enlightenment period on, in conjunction with classical meditation, in my Practical Meditation podcast[1]. There's a series on free will (Kantian conception), on transcendence (leveraging ideas from advaita/non-duality), and more recently, relationship (in progress).

[1] https://www.subburam.org/podcast/

Yes! A few years back I was asked to teach a philosophy class (having done no philosophy in many years... go figure!) and this podcast was instrumental in helping me to review the basics and form in my mind a solid overview of the history of major philosophical ideas and insights. It really helped me feel more prepared to teach the course. Highly recommended!

Similarly “The Story of Philosophy” by Will Durant is one of my all time favorite books

This is an amazing resource, thank you! I wish they had episodes on more recent thinkers such as Kant...

He’s getting there! It updates every two weeks.

Yeah, another five years or so and he ought to get there. This sounds like a long time but there's also at least one gloriously awful and/or awfully glorious pun to look forward to per episode along the way.

It's been awhile since I've read this. Rereading about it now, it seems like a conceptual mess.

I also have this sense, hard to put into words, that it is written from a perspective of socioeconomic privilege and implicitly assumes a certain freedom, or has as its focus certain concerns that reflect that. It comes across to me now as narrow-minded and lacking in understanding of the broader human condition and diversity of challenges affecting persons. Put another way, it seems to be written as if advising royalty or the wealthy is the implied goal, ignoring the broader experiences of mankind, which seems to me in turn ironically a moral failure.

Maybe related to this, it seems to presume a certain set of things that I see as actually being fundamental societal and philosophical questions, such as free will and personal agency and all that encompasses. Failure to attain well-being in a broad sense is a failure of the individual to practice free will, under The Ethics, and not of society to foster or intervene in a way so as to facilitate individual improvements in well-being. The sort of paradigm being asserted in The Ethics provides no way out to address the question of "how do I improve the lot of my fellow persons?" or to develop virtues in others. If someone rejects the notion of free will, either in itself or as a meta-phenomenon (that is, as something that can be manipulated itself), The Ethics seems misguided at best and pernicious at worst.

Virtue ethics also seem naive to me often, in that there's often little self-awareness of its limitations. For example, what if two virtues conflict? How do you resolve this? How do you interpret a behavior vis-a-vis its outcome in the presence of fundamental uncertainty?

This is a very perceptive reading. It is true that Aristotle believes you can't live a good life without certain conditions obtaining, conditions which are outside of individual control. Sometimes this is called "moral luck" in contemporary writing. It is true that in every society we know of, certain people or certain classes of people are much better positioned to live well.

But just because the Ethics alone doesn't fully address the social issues you rightly raise (about helping others be free) doesn't mean it implies that they are irrelevant to individual ethics. They are just out of scope for the book. The Politics is more about what kind of society creates the conditions for people to achieve the good life described in the Ethics. There are, however, parts of the Ethics that do bear directly on this question — the parts on generosity, friendship, and education.

Your last question — how to decide between different virtues if they conflict — is also a good one. The best answer I can come up with is that virtue ethics is based on the idea that open-ended judgment is going to be exercised in any ethically significant situation, and it does not attempt to give a rigid framework for decision-making. I would suggest that any framework that does try to do that is brittle, and trading flexibility for false clarity.

It definitely is written from a perspective of socioeconomic privilege (it's written for a literate citizen, which implies a free male who's leading a household in at least the top economic quartile if not the top decile, owns land and controls people working on it), but it does not make it a conceptual mess, it makes it focused on a specific question for a specific audience. I don't understand why you consider it a moral failure - of course every reasonable reader of this work in classical Greece is likely to be from 'the wealthy', the poor would not be able to read it (or anything else - they would not be literate), and it makes all sense that it should be written to advise the expected reader instead of someone else.

It's about the question of how a man should live, and how should he choose to act - which presumes the availability of reasonable choices, the practical ability to make these choices, and considers the effect these choices have on the community. Yes, slaves or many other less-than-free laborers of classical Greece are not the target audience of this book - as they don't have the option of freely making many of the choices in their life, it's kind of worthless to discuss what should they choose to do if they can't.

It does not argue about how do develop virtues in others, it does presume taking some responsibility for others and being virtuous "on their behalf" (a very paternalistic approach) - it's reasoning about how to best use power and agency assuming you have it, and if you don't, then presuming that obtaining power and agency is the first prerequisite step, you can't make virtuous choices if you're not in position to choose, you can't make virtuous acts if you don't have the ability to act with meaningful influence. Without free will there's neither virtue or vice, just acts that are outside of ethics.

It's not a conceptual mess, it simply argues for a moral position with which (it seems) you strongly disagree, just as it would disagree with yours. Coming back to the issue of socioeconomic privilege, Nichomachean ethics pretty much argues that you have to have socioeconomic privilege in order to be ethical according to these standards. If you're a slave then you are neither ethical or unethical, the whole concept does not apply to you; It makes an argument that the concept of ethics (in the limited, narrow definition of ethics used there, which substantially differs from what we consider ethics in the modern world) starts to make sense once you're above the "food and necessities" level of life and have the liberty to act freely and deliberately make wide-ranging choices with significant influence; then you should study ethics-as-in-the-science-of-making-these-choices.

It would be helpful if, in your critique, you could share what precisely you are critiquing. Otherwise it seems very dismissive.

It's difficult to go through everything with specific examples, because that would be an essay onto itself.

But, for example, in Book 3 (via the Rackham translation; http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%...):

"If then whereas we wish for our end, the means to our end are matters of deliberation and choice, it follows that actions dealing with these means are done by choice, and voluntary. But the activities in which the virtues are exercised deal with means.

Therefore virtue also depends on ourselves. And so also does vice. For where we are free to act we are also free to refrain from acting, and where we are able to say No we are also able to say Yes; if therefore we are responsible for doing a thing when to do it is right, we are also responsible for not doing it when not to do it is wrong, and if we are responsible for rightly not doing a thing, we are also responsible for wrongly doing it.

But if it is in our power to do and to refrain from doing right and wrong, and if, as we saw,1 being good or bad is doing right or wrong, it consequently depends on us whether we are virtuous or vicious."

These types of passages assume or assert (1) free will, (2) the notion of responsibility for behavior as a consequence of this, and (3) a schema that is framed in terms of broad evaluative personal characteristics rather than specific decisions. If you believe that the notion of free will is specious, even partially in significant cases of vice, the entire Ethics starts to become questionable. To be even more specific: what if you believe that society (if not now due to scientific-technical limitations, then some day) has a moral obligation to address criminal wrongdoing by means of neurobehavioral intervention, to treat criminal predisposition as a disease? Is relying on an Aristotlian view of ethics as personal responsibility then unethical because it elevates an erroneous assumption of free will above the societal consequences of reducing suffering from criminal behavior?

This is taken out of context to some extent, as Aristotle also discusses free will, voluntary vs. nonvoluntary actions etc. But I'd argue that those discussions are kind of beside the point, and amount to logical loopholes of sorts in that they amount to something like "I'm not talking about cases where there isn't free will." But what if that is the main issue at some level?

The discussion of virtue ethics in general, to be contrasted with deontological or consequentialist ethical reasoning, for example, is a whole other topic, about which books have been written.

you believe that the notion of free will is specious, even partially in significant cases of vice

Don't mix your modalities.

It's possible to reason in terms of free will and decisions between right and wrong; or in terms of causes and effects, from mental illness and broken childhoods through to poverty and criminality; but separately.

The problem with reasoning in just one modality or the other is that you miss what the other modality captures. Reason entirely in the former, and you can miss out on social and political changes which can result in better outcomes in the aggregate. Reason entirely in the latter, and you miss out on the ability for the individual to improve themselves, and deny them agency in choosing their own destiny.

(Personally, I think "believing that the notion free will is specious" - actually wrong - is incredibly disempowering, and will have the effect of causing people to blame externalities even when they have the power to change their situation. It has an effect all of its own. You don't need to have free will at the Physics level in order for belief in free will to have a positive mental effect in a mechanistic cause and effect way.)

I appreciate what you're saying, but I think you might be mixing modalities. Considering that free will may be a pleasant deception doesn't necessarily lead to blaming externalities instead of changing a bad situation.

The concept of blame as it is usually expressed depends on the belief in free will. The person whose free choices led to an outcome bears the greatest responsibility. Assigning blame to others is therefore accomplished by proving that the self didn't possess this freedom. When no choice exists, responsibility reverts to environmental circumstances.

The condition you're describing can only be coherent if a person believes they lack personal agency but that the framework of free will and the primary responsibility of those who have a choice remains in place. This is a real condition that many people suffer from, and many will disguise it as giving in to inevitable causes and effects, but the problem is not that they lack faith in free will, but that they have assigned freedom elsewhere.

If a person accepts the idea that free will is unattainable, the conventional concept of blame becomes incomprehensible. Every dependent choice is related to every other choice. There is no hierarchy of blame that defaults to the environment. A person can either accept no responsibility or all responsibility. Accepting all responsibility will appear impossible to a person holding on to the idea of free will, but to someone who fully abandons it and considers that they are part of a larger whole, personal responsibility for every outcome becomes a natural consequence.

personal responsibility for every outcome becomes a natural consequence

I don't see how this works. The biggest reason is that if everyone is personally responsible then noone is responsible; this is pretty well established in psychology, with diffusion of responsibility.

People follow that trend differently. Strong believers in free will tend to be especially against collective responsibility or guilt. I also don't believe there's any evidence that ethical systems or religions that traditionally deny free will produce less responsible societies.

> what if you believe that society (if not now due to scientific-technical limitations, then some day) has a moral obligation to address criminal wrongdoing by means of neurobehavioral intervention, to treat criminal predisposition as a disease?

Then you are contradicting yourself, because on the one hand you claim the right to treat certain people (the ones you call "criminals") as not having free will, and "cure" them with "neurobehavioral intervention", but on the other hand you claim this right based on "moral obligation", which assumes that you, the person claiming this right, do have free will, because you are claiming the ability to choose who needs to be "cured".

There have been societies in human history that were organized according to such principles as these. They did not turn out well.

> The sort of paradigm being asserted in The Ethics provides no way out to address the question of "how do I improve the lot of my fellow persons?" or to develop virtues in others.

Aristotle says that the peak of virtuousness isn't living a life devoted to the theory, but one that puts it into practical use through politics and legislation.

This seems like a direct call to action to help improve society and bring the theory to more people such that they may improve themselves.

In Plato's Protagoras it is argued that virtue is a unity and is basically knowing what one should do (e.g. courage is knowing what should really be feared and what should not be).

I'm not sure what you are asking in your last question btw.

I read HN because it's the only place on the Internet where a link to a Wikipedia page on Nicomachean Ethics could hit the #1 position.

I read HN because not just that happens, but also the comments will usually provide several other insights or links of equal value!

Perhaps this is an idea for a bookmarklet: for any Wikipedia article, click on the bookmarklet and get the HN comments related to it.


(Linked at the bottom of every HN page.)

You might be able to use https://hn.algolia.com/ which searches every comment/submission from HN. Just paste in a wikipedia link to see if it has already been submitted, then click to the comment section.

Or any URL more generally. I'd use this.

There was something like this in the past, I think it even was nice enough to check URLs client-side to preserve privacy.

Is HN the only place that happens? Has anyone found another site that has a lots of well organized quality intellectually stimulating content?

There is slatestarcodex.com and a handful of twitter accounts. Also, there are some think tank slacks that are out there, but most of the good stuff is private. Occasionally the ArmsControlWonk slack will be hours ahead of the news and with a lot more certainty over something.

These are specialized sites - I'm wondering if there's an aggregate site like HN for well educated commenters.

We need a healthy ecosystem of sites like HN.


Definitely not the only place but yeah it's cool such links are getting some love here.

So true. Love the diversity.

I'm truly baffled by this. Was it an attempt to display marketing prowess?

indeed, this could be a good 'news' for hackers ;p

Aristotle's Ethics is indeed a foundational text. To simplify things greatly, there is basically only one alternative to it: Nietzsche. As Alasdair MacIntyre explains (the erstwhile Marxist, now Catholic, who helped revive virtue ethics with his book After Virtue), "the underlying structure of [Nietzsche's] argument is as follows: if there is nothing to morality but expressions of will, my morality can only be what my will creates. There can be no place for such fictions as natural rights, utility, the greatest happiness of the greatest number. I myself must now bring into existence 'new tables of what is good'" (AV 114).

Nietzsche is commonly misread as a nihilist, but nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, Nietzsche recognizes clearly that is precisely the installation of fictional moralities that is the source of nihilism, not the denial of those fictions. (This is also something that Heidegger sees clearly, e.g, in "The Letter on Humanism.")

At the end of the day, then, the question is this: Do you believe in some kind of "objective" morality that governs human life, gives meaning to our existence, and so forth? If so, then Aristotle's Ethics is by far the most cogent articulation of that view. However, if you believe that morality is just conventional, historically contingent, and a product of our "wills," then Nietzsche helps us see that clearest. To admit the latter view is not to succumb to nihilism; it is rather to free us to truly pursue the activities of greatness.

Ultimately, MacIntyre (inter alia) thinks that we have to choose. For an example of someone who, by contrast, tries to reconcile Aristotle and Nieztsche, see Hannah Arendt.

From an evolutionary perspective there are some objective morals, the most obvious being incest (simple genetics) and cold-blooded murder (mix of genetics and whatever dynamics give rise to human altruism, which is at the root of our specie's survival fitness).

Unfortunately, the universe defies simple, categorical distinctions. Kant's categorical imperative superficially comes closest to capturing the above examples, but not really, because Aristotle, Kant, and Nietzsche, all seem to side-step the question of free will, at least as it relates to the meaning of morality. Free will itself of course also defies simple distinctions. The problem in all these explorations of morality is that the number of implied assumptions is enormous, and it's the character of those assumptions which matters far more than the effectively trite observations about human behavior these philosophers often make.

Although viable offspring and stable communities are pretty natural choices for moral goods, a preference for the long term over the short term that predicates them is still a subjective decision.

It depends on your definition of objective, which is part of the point. What it means to be "human" will color everybody's preferences. How many outliers does it take for a preference to become subjective rather than objective? The nature of the question, more than the question itself, will determine whether something is "subjective" or "objective".

Are there objective moralities? Yes, if you qualify what objective means--e.g., approximately universally manifest preferences among humans. The particular morals, or at least the simplest aspects[1], will then tend to fall naturally from that.

But if our benchmark of objectivity is something completely abstract, then objectivity is unlikely to exist. Pure math allows us to create infinite universes with consistent rules, yet only one of those universes can exist in any physical sense. As long as you can pick from those non-existent realities (which is pretty much what philosophers do), then you can always rebut any claim of universality, objectivity, etc; or even, conversely, assert objectivity of a finely detailed morality by simply predicating a claim on your universe of choice (see, e.g., Social Darwinism).

[1] We don't have a good track record of fully comprehending biological determinants, especially as applied to human behavior. The interplay of culture and biology is extremely complex, and we suck at even identifying which is which, let alone inferring anything complex from the distinction.

Another way I like to phrase this thought (without getting into the details about whether Aristotle and Nietzsche agree or disagree), is that morality is a system of rules for making decisions. Turing machines and computation more generally allow for the implementation of arbitrary decision procedures. However, if you want that those decision procedures to be consistent, you need something else, namely a set of axioms. Goedel, Turing, Church, etc. have proved (more or less) that there is no set of axioms that gives universally true answers for all decisions, so there can be no provably objective system of morality. Thus, we must choose our axioms, if we do not, we usually choose implicitly (which I think is related to Nietzsche's abhorrence of slave morality). Aristotle represents a set of axioms that are practically applicable to many human relations, representing a pretty good default, if you have to choose one. Nietzsche says, (to use the words of another) 'choose again.'

I'm clearly not as deep as you in the reading of Aristotle (though I did read Nietzsche's BGE a long time ago). However, I'd point out the distinction from an ethics course I took between 'descriptive' ethics and 'normative' ethics. Both can coexist and they serve useful purposes.

The ethics of a group is the rule set agreed to by the group, including how to deal with deviations that naturally arise. This is more of a descriptive, evolutionary phenomenon. Normative ethics is more a proposal of an ideal or future ruleset, which needs to both appeal to those with the power to follow and enforce the rules, and to also ensure the preservation and stability of the rules and the people who follow them.

This is one of the books that, until yo do read it, you think (because that is the “folklore wisdom”) will be a huge bore.

Then it blows your mind, and you start to understand freedom.

Aristotle is difficult to read, for a number of reasons. The main one in my opinion is that it is so dense of inestimable content that I am overwhelmed at every paragraph.

My suggestion, based on what worked for me, is to use a highlighter. Highlight things that are both interesting and confusing. At the end of a chapter, review. I found the passages I highlighted because they were confusing ended up being truly interesting.

Yes, very hard because it is like my lecture notes: good for an educated person, bad for a student.

However, I always make the decision: better getting the gist of it and if, possible, reread later on than stopping too much the first time.

Of course, it goes with personalities, I know.

I have read the Ethics. Tried the metaphysics and simply could not, though.

Trying to get through the Ethics without taking notes is just self-sabotage and a fool's errand to begin with. It's really just work.

I had the same experience. I read it in 2007, and have been thinking about it ever since. One of my top 5 books ever, maybe to 3.

As an aside, I strongly recommend reading Thucydides. Once you know the story of the Peloponnesian War, everything that Socrates and Aristotle talked about will have a much deeper meaning.

Seconding this - I would add that the entire debate at Lacedaemon (book 1 67-88) and Pericles' Funeral Oration (book 2 34-46) are especially illuminating. The funeral oration is one of the surviving accounts of Athenian democracy from an indirect viewpoint, and Thucydides presents an interesting comparison between death by battle vs. death by plague (timely perhaps?).


Socrates and Aristotle both sound very anti-democratic.

Thucydides explains why.

To what extent is democracy just re-branding of the concept of letting the popularity contest winner run things? Though at face value the unpopularity of winners (and near winners) makes this seem counter intuitive, but that may be explained by the extent that our sense of popularity can be and is being manipulated.

As such, democracy would seem a very unpalatable outcome. Better than the alternatives they had, but lacking enough that they would have distaste for it and seek something better.

Similar the Churchill quote (which itself is rephrasing an earlier quote.

>Indeed it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.

> To what extent is democracy just re-branding of the concept of letting the popularity contest winner run things?

Not all democracies are created equal, and the Churchill quote is a grand feat of equivocation that paints many different systems as if they were a single immutable institution.

Athenian democracy was a direct democracy where any citizen could get up and talk. Where officers were needed it mostly used a lottery system [0] instead of elections precisely because they were afraid that elections just become a popularity contest that favors the incumbent oligarchic interests.

Generals were an exception because they had to be skilled at war. Handling money was also a skilled profession, and favored the rich so that the money could be recovered from their estate in the case of embezzlement. Politics, on the other hand, was not seen as a skilled profession, and what was important was loyalty to democratic ideals.

Looking at the quality of politicians we have and the power of entrenched oligarchic interests in our society, it really makes me appreciate the wisdom of the ancients.

[0]: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Athenian_democracy#Officeholde...

It’s less about Democracy vs non-Democracy, and more about virtuous Democracy vs corrupt Democracy.

It’s better to live in a virtuous aristocracy than a corrupt Democracy, and but a virtuous democracy is better than both.

It’s easy to idolize Athenian democracy, but by the time of Thucydides, it was on its last legs.

The only question is “what comes next.”

The answer history gave was “2500 years of subjugation to foreign rulers.”

Something to consider as modern Greece integrates into the EU: they have no tradition of independent democracy.

For example, Greece is currently raising cash by letting the Chinese take over the Piraeus.

To Americans that sounds horrible!

But the Greeks have been pimping their country for over two millennia, and aren’t about to stop now.

Reading Russel’s post WWII take on The Republic in A History of Western Philosophy is as close to taking a great class in college as I got after I was no longer in that setting. So many of those eye opening moments that make you reevaluate what you felt like you understand.

Quibble: HoWP was written and published during WWII.

Excellent, though.

In different senses. Socrates prefers philosopher kings. Aristotle, a mixed polity, e.g. a government with checks and balances.

Of course Socrates we should let you philosopher rule the world

Philosopher kings are mentioned in Republic, which didn't necessarily represent Socrates' views.

Generally I think he believed that someone with the relevant skills should run things as opposed to anybody and everybody (as in a true democracy) in the same way you wouldn't just want anybody attending to your healthcare, but a physician.

That was not a practical policy recommendation.

Who said it was?

Yeah Thucydides is a must read, especially some of the speeches.

I read this book during law school. The conclusions are nice, but the book writing is obtuse.

Or maybe you were too young ;)

And maybe such complex problems don't come with very clear solutions.

Re-read it :D

Aristotle is notoriously a terrible writer. A lot of these books are thought to just be lecture notes and things like that pieced together. Compare that to something like Plato's and it's a big difference. I imagine nobody will ever beat Kant in the terrible writing department though.

Many writers are terrible by accident, but Kant elevated it to an artform.

As I understand, he left penning down his philosophical thoughts till a rather late age and wrote the Critique of Pure Reason at a point where he was worried he wouldn’t remember it all and consequently it was done under a lot of haste.

Now I want to really read his writings

Take first Critique, and read it as if a software engineer wrote his ideas now some software might be architected in order order to work as it is working right now: that is the point of Transcendental Argument.

> Aristotle is notoriously a terrible writer.

Is this really uncontroversial? I can't say I've heard that said before, or found Aristotle more difficult than other texts of that time. Obviously there are stylistic differences between this and Plator's dialogues, but I imagine a large part of your impression could be due to the particular translations you read.

Pretty incontrovertial. Most of our surviving writings “by Aristotle” are actually lecture notes from his students rewritten later. So it’s got a lot of the hallmarks of being written by committee and coming across as being very dry.

Compare this to Plato, whose writings were actually pretty entertaining even as pure fiction. He’s full of side stories, lurid metaphors, and funny turns of phrase.

I've read Aristotle in two classes, and both times the professors have commented on the writing style to prepare us. In an ancient philosophy class, Aristotle still stood out as densest and dryest.

Derrida and Foucault are far worse than Kant. At least Kant has substance ;)

I'll second that. After reading the history of sexuality by Foucault in college, I remember coming to the frustrated realization that the point of this jargony disaster of a book could have been made in a couple pages, possibly less. In essence, it says that to be free in one's sexuality, putting words on things which may feel rebellious is actually just trying to define practices and feelings that don't need this to exist. So, talking about sex is actually not rebellious and freeing in any way but rather normative and constraining. This was actually an interesting point to consider as a young adult, and I am glad I encountered this when I did, but a whole book for this is beyond overkill.

What got me is that he spends the very beginning of that book being like "People in the Victorian era thought that they were sexually repressed... They aren't, but let's spend 300+ pages on why they thought that they were sexually repressed."

Between this and his BS explanations for why Leprosy disappeared from Europe I realized that Foucault was a charlatan.

Hmm, I was a philosophy major in college and I always loved Aristotles (and to a lesser degree Thomas Aquinas) writing styles. They're very dense and to the point.

It's the continental philosophers of the enlightenment era that drive me nuts with their meandering arguments.

Other than the structuring, moving from topic to topic without explanation (e.g. Categories), I actually agree. Maybe terrible isn't the right word. He's a lot more like reading modern math.

Oh, Hegel is surely an even more terrible writer than Kant: https://existentialcomics.com/comic/302

Oh, but they are just lecture notes. I am quite a bad lecture-note writer (and, honestly, anything else) but for lecture notes, the Nichomachean Ethics is splendid.

Ironically, I find Kant's notes to be very easy reading and informative, relative to his prepared pieces.

I've not read the article, will print out and read this evening but I'd like a comeback on responses of this type.

Sometimes shit is shit but people will defend it because everyone else does. Emperor's new clothes style. One way of slapping someone down is that they're too young (because kid -> stupid) or they don't have the background, or they're just too dumb.

Also the presumption that complex problems can't have simple solutions[0] annoys me. Ethics can be complex but sometimes that is just sophistry. I get wary of such responses (again [0])

I'm not disagreeing with you in any way - yet - because I've not read it, but I have grown long antennae for such comebacks.

[0] which is not what you said

>the book writing is obtuse It could be by translation but I found it quite plain.

I took a “History of Philosophy” class as a GE my freshman year of college. It’s pretty astounding, when you start tracing it back, how much of our law, literature, politics, ethics, and aesthetics come from, like, four or five Greek guys.

From works written down by four or five Greek guys, or by other guys who cited those Greek guys as the source.

The fact that our surviving records all happen to funnel through those guys is not proof that it all originated with those guys. It is highly likely that they were both building on an extensive unrecorded philosophical tradition, and participating in a broader contemporary cultural conversation whose other participants have merely not been lucky enough to have their names recorded by history.

Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle unoriginal? Enlightenment Europe is similarly the work done by a handful of geniuses participating in an intellectual culture. We can patently see their originality - what makes you so sure the Greeks did not have the same?

Nothing. I am not saying they weren't geniuses. I am merely pointing out that there is insufficient evidence for a definite conclusion either way.

Cf. Shakespeare. Yes, he was a genius, but not nearly so much of a genius as many people often claim, because a lot of people confuse "Shakespeare is our earliest surviving recorded source for a lot of features of the English language" for "Shakespeare single-handedly invented half of the English language", which is absurd.

And the great minds of the European Enlightenment may also have been genuinely great... but they are also nearly all rich men with patrons and leisure time, and the means to preserve their thoughts in writing. Our view on their history is much clearer than our view of the ancient Greeks, but there's still no telling exactly how much influence there was from their surrounding unrecorded culture, or how many important ideas would've been independently proposed by others if others had the same access to publication and historical preservation.

There is a very clear heritage of the ideas of those Ancient Greek thinkers which have moved and influence world history. So I'm befuddled how you don't see sufficient evidence, nor what constitutes such sufficiency for genius?

I highly recommend you read Arthur Schopenhauer's essay On Philosophy at the Universities: https://archive.org/stream/23341891SchopenhauerParergaAndPar...

It is a persuasive essay that, no matter the resources, genuine philosophers or geniuses pursue the truth for its very sake. I concur that historically this has been the art of the aristocracy, but so what? Hypothetical or "unrewarded genius" doesn't amount to much in world history. Results do. And such fruit is actually the result of a cohesive organization of a society, ie genius is the goal of civilization proper. Plato and Descartes both had to have their trash picked up by somebody in order for them to impact us today.

> There is a very clear heritage of the ideas of those Ancient Greek thinkers which have moved and influence world history.

Yes, there is. But that is a very different thing from having very clear evidence that those ideas originated uniquely in a specific small set of brains whose owner's names are recorded. "This person's writings have a clear influence on history" is a very different claim from "This person was the very first person to ever think the thoughts that he wrote down."

Original minds do not find satisfaction in being derivative. Searching for truth leads to originality for this very reason. So it is safe to say that Socrates was a novelty in the human race because of his philosophical turn towards examining moral knowledge, which there was no previous recording of. I guess I don’t see the point in questioning it, chiefly because such genius is normally a culmination of rare and successful inter-generational cultural growth, so it really is “one-of-a-kind.”

Counterpoint: Aristotle's life is widely documented, having been born in the small ancient city of Stagira, and famously taught Alexander the Great.

We know. And Aristotle was certainly a star of his era. But we also know that Aristotle didn't come up with this all from nothing; he was engaging in a number of disputes with other philosophers of the time. You can see this reflected in his work, where he often gives accounts of what his opponents' theories are as well before offering his rebuttal.

In fact, the work of Aristotle is one of the better sources we have for views of philosophers whose writings are largely lost.

Which ironic, because his actual works are almost entirely lost.

> It’s pretty astounding

It's not astounding at all: the (Catholic) Church very much absorbed quite a lot of Aristotle's meta-physics. He was simply called "The Philosopher" in many writings.

And given that "Western values" are basically Christian values:

* https://www.theguardian.com/books/2019/nov/21/dominion-makin...

* https://historyforatheists.com/2020/01/tom-holland-dominion/

it's no surprise then that you can draw a straight line from the Ancient Greeks to the modern day.

> how much of our law, literature, politics, ethics, and aesthetics come from, like, four or five Greek guys.

I always wondered what the world would have been like if these people got fervent followers and governed nations/cultures instead of the religious "prophets"

That's what I call a high "impact factor"!

Ancient Greece is considered the cradle of european civilization for a reason. But I wouldn't go so far as to say much of our law, literature, politics, ethics, and aesthetics comes from them. Certainly, we borrowed a lot of words and ancient greece laid the foundations for modern society but most of what we have today doesn't come from ancient greece. Ancient greece contributed to architecture but I wouldn't say most of our architecture today comes from ancient greece. Ancient greece didn't have skyscrapers. The greeks gave us the foundations of mathematics but most mathematics we have today do not come from the greeks. This goes for ethics ( we don't force people to take hemlock ), literature, politics ( don't own slaves ), aesthetics, etc. If anything, the thinkers of the enlightenment probably influenced modern society the most. But of course, they themselves were influenced by the ancient greeks, romans, etc.

Understanding the concept of “eudaimonia”, discussed in this work, is something that has genuinely improved my life.

Eudaimonia dramatically improved my late game economy in Alpha Centauri.

I still like the clarity of Plato, where harmony is the basis of health, happiness, wellbeing, virtue, justice and the good. He describes harmony in the individual, in society and in the cosmos. For instance, when there is harmony in the parts of the soul (reason, appetite and passion) a person is virtuous and happy.

Obviously much more can be said -- especially considering that harmony is found in the tension of opposing forces -- but that's a remarkably enduring approach

Friedrich N, the philosopher heavily criticized Plato, also Plato's Republic was brain-food for Stalin, Hitler etc. it is a great work nonetheless

What was Nietzsche's critiques? Or where can I find them?

N.b. CUP has made an upcoming Elements book, “Aquinas’ Ethics”, available for free[0] until mid-May. (Aquinas draws a great deal from the Nicomachean Ethics.)

[0] https://www.cambridge.org/core/elements/aquinass-ethics/6E12...

How did this end up on the front page? Hacker News has always struck me as anti-philosophical and anti-literature.

This was one of the book that I read on my own after reading Bloom's "Closing of the American Mind."

My reading of the book was tinged with melancholy, for if virtue is a skill necessary for happiness, and if only a few can master a skill, then only a few can be happy.

I was 17 at the time and thought, "What an awful world that would give happiness to so few!"

Men from first world countries like to philosophize about ancient Greeks and stoics. That is because some of this philosophy helps them deal with their white-collar jobs and helps establish some meaning in their lives, that's my guess.

To help put this into context for others here.

It's interesting to note that Aristotle's "virtue ethics" -- based primarily on this work -- have come "back into fashion" over the past few decades, after being largely ignored by philosophers for centuries as having any contemporary relevance. (I.e. you studied it for the historical value mainly, but it had zero connection otherwise to contemporary analytic philosophy.)

The two main strands of philosophical thought over the past few centuries have been deontology (best exemplified by Kant) which is that you follow specific moral rules ("don't kill", "don't lie", "keep a promise") no matter what, and utilitarianism (Bentham/Mill) which is "the greatest good for the greatest number" (divert the trolley to kill one person instead of five).

They both obviously have truth to them but are also deeply incompatible with each other. Aristotle's "virtue ethics" says instead that what is most important is one's character, and that a virtuous character comes from a balance of temperaments. For example, you shouldn't get angry all the time, but you also shouldn't be cowardly all the time. Good character means knowing the right times to take bold angry action, but also knowing the right times to stay back out of fear -- and that honing good judgment is the key to knowing when. Sometimes it means breaking a promise, sometimes it means sacrificing a greater good for another principle, and there isn't always an obviously right answer.

Thus the idea of "good judgment that can't be reduced to strict rules" is now seen as an equally viable alternative to deontology and utilitarianism. Perhaps because it seems particularly relevant in an age of relativism.

Also perhaps particularly telling, in the TV show The Good Place which recently ended, and where every episode is about a different philosophical dilemma, when the creater Mike Schur was asked about which philosophical system was closest to his own beliefs, he replied that it would have to be Aristotle's virtue ethics.

I personally found reading Nicomachean Ethics a fascinating experience, because it was written pre-Christianity, so the complete and utter lack of notions of "good and evil" is revelatory. We're so used to thinking in such terms in much of the world, it's refreshing to see a totally different worldview.

In case anyone is curious for a modern treatment of Aristotelian thought, Martha Nussbaum's book Upheaveals of Thought played a big part in "rehabilitating" Aristotle in contemporary philosophy. It has parallels to the vein of "emotional intelligence" that became popular a few years earlier.

For additional context, other Socratic schools like Stoicism are also virtue-ethical schools. For folks who are looking for a very specific rule to a life situation, virtue ethics can feel too ambiguous, but for someone like myself, who believes that life is extremely contextual and there can be a lot of legitimate variation in responding to something, Virtue Ethics is wonderfully nuanced and flexible.

I for one really appreciate the renewed attention to ethics in recent decades from philosophers. It's a reorientation to one of the oldest purposes of philosophy -- to teach us how to live well.

>like Stoicism are also virtue-ethical schools.

Look up Christian virtue ethics, virtuous pagans

My favorite course in college. An entire semester dedicated to Nicomachaen Ethics. Helped me think so much about what "happiness" truly is, and what type of a "virtuous" life one should lead to achieve maximum happiness.

Well don't leave us hanging. What's the answer?

Eat when hungry, sleep when tired

I can tell you that a “political” life is one that doesn’t lead to happiness.

For those new to philosophy I recommend starting with Plato, Then reading his Republic especially chapter XI , then read some Descartes, Hume, Kant and then read Aristotle who is simply know as The Philosopher

I would recommend that people start with something they are interested in.

Any recommendations on which edition or translation to get? Thanks in advance!

This newer one from University of Chicago Press is really nice.


I thought the "Aristotle: Nicomachean Ethics (Cambridge Texts in the History of Philosophy) 2nd Edition" revision was quite good. Can be found on Amazon.

Always glad to see philosophy on HN, I have fond memories learning about NE during my ethics class at Cal. We spent the most amount of time on this, and then slowly went on towards other ethic systems.

A nice canonical compendium of philosophical theories https://plato.stanford.edu/contents.html#a

Years ago a good friend had this quote hung up on the wall by her desk: "ἔστι ... ὁ φίλος ἄλλος αὐτός" (A friend is another self), which I loved: you experience the world through loved ones too, and expand your consciousness (on a related note see Hofstadter's Strange Loop on his thoughts about having a version of his deceased wife's consciousness "running" in his brain).

Later I learned that it came from the Nicomachean Ethics (https://www.loebclassics.com/view/aristotle-nicomachean_ethi...) and is much deeper that I thought.

Bonus quote from Antisthenes: "τῷ σοφῷ ξένον οὐδὲν" (The wise person is foreign to nothing). One interesting thing about this one is that Ancient Greek had two words fro nothing: ouden and meden.

I bought the paperback of this book a few years ago, and I make a point to read it at least once a year. Every time I do, I find something new.

Continually amazed that humans were so insightful so long ago.

For those interested in a grand overview of history of philosophy (the ideas themselves and the people behind them), this is a worth-reading classic:

A History of Western Philosophy by Bertrand Russell


Just bear in mind that Russell was very biased in favor of Analytic philosophy, so you're not going to get much from him on the Continentals.

Like many other Analytics, he seriously misreads Nietzsche, and he doesn't even mention Heidegger, Husserl, Sartre, or Foucault.

I like Russell, though. He's clear and eloquent, writing well on the subjects he does appreciate and understand.

Russell is up front about his biases and limitations in that book, at least. IIRC he divides most chapters into his best effort to describe a philosopher or movement's positions or ideas, then an analysis of how those have held up since (this is incredibly helpful and absent in a lot of texts that try to be dryly objective and not even report any more-or-less consensus passing-of-judgement by philosophy as a field) and, to varying extents, his own takes on them.

The funniest one I recall is Bergson, near the end of the book, which he prefaces with (loosely paraphrasing) "Look, this whole thing seems like total bullshit to me, and I've never read any description of it that doesn't seem like total bullshit, so when I try to describe it and it seems like bullshit that's just the best I can do. Sorry."

Yeah, that dismissive, condescending view of Bergson is par for the course of many Analytic's attitudes towards Continentals (though Bergson himself was not part of the Continental tradition).

Sure, such condescension may be the best that Russell can muster, but I'm not sure you'd get a charitable reading of Bergson (or any other philosopher Russell didn't like) from someone so hostile and unappreciative of him.

Russell did take Nietzsche more seriously, but to me it seems Nietzsche just went over Russell's head. Russell is best at reading other philosophers who, like himself, are clear, easy to understand, and relatively conventional.

Continental philosophers were approaching the topic of philosophy very differently. Much of it comes off as convoluted nonsense: rather than clarity of expression it feels like mysticism for which you need a 'guru' to elaborate and elucidate.

To take existentialism, the basic message is "you have to decide and take control of your life". Sure, that sounds good, but what is the advice about how to do it? Existentialism seems to offer no guide.

May I suggest a more equanimous modern re-telling of Western philosophy that I have currently started reading: A New History of Western Philosophy by Kenny https://www.amazon.com/New-History-Western-Philosophy-ebook/...

> he doesn't even mention ... Foucault.

It was written during WWII, before Foucault had published anything. I'm pretty sure he wouldn't have been a fan, though.

I was surprised by how many times I laughed out loud while reading Russell's HoWP - his wit really showed through while giving a great philosophy primer. I also enjoyed the audiobook and found that the narrator nailed the dry wit and did credit to the writing.

Great submission! I found the examples on the cardinal virtues very useful.

Anyone rememer how that New Yorker piece describes HN as a place full of performative erudition?

I'd much rather "performative erudition" than "performative idiocy" (a.k.a. trolling), because the latter makes visiting idiots feel they're in good company[0].

[0] Paraphrased (surprisingly to me) from a Hacker News user: https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=1012082

Funny in its way. I was thinking about this a while back. IMO HN as a community is mostly introverted (subjective/qualitative) and structure-biased, so open-ended discussions on "erudite" topics which may not be direct specialties of commenters will encourage a sort of performing or even bluffing effect, out of community-identity stress.

At that time I think I concluded that the least-pressured conversations, and likely most positive and upbeat, would be those on topics like retro computing. Such a topic is close to the HN tech-user specialty, close to the heart because of its strong integration with personal past experiences, and mostly made up of "known" or "closed-ended" topics. So, far from a performance or bluff, you get some pretty passionate tales from direct experience, and erudition be damned.

Not sure if that's a rule, but so far it matches my personal perceptions of what makes a really good discussion here, vs. one that's...less like that.

I’ll take “performative” erudition over a lack of any erudition at all.

Lol the New Yorker is the epitome of "performative erudition".

Ha! That rings true ^_^

Although it has to be said: Takes one to know one, New Yorker. Contemptuousness toward amateurs might be justified though.

Wow--that's quite a bit of (presumably unintentional) irony, coming from them.

Why "performative" though? Sorta relevant xkcd: https://xkcd.com/774/

I’d have a witty retort to this, but I can’t find the relevant XKCD.

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