Book I of Nicomachean Ethics

What is the goal of life?

One of the main questions that philosophy tries to answer is, How should we live? Aristotle narrows this question down to, What is the goal of life? Another way to put this is, what is the end to everything that we do in life?


Aristotle asserts that while living, we are constantly engaged in activities directed by goals. He splits goals into two categories: goals that we do just for themselves and goals that result in a product. An example of the former is listening to music, just to listen to music. An example of the latter is to boil water to cook pasta. Our activities can also be complex and require multiple activities to complete an end goal. For example, walking into the kitchen, moving our hands to turn on a burner, saute vegetables, and so on, to make supper. All these activities are engaged in completing the end or goal of making supper.

Aristotle also thinks our multiple goals exist in nested hierarchies. We make supper to give us energy. This energy we use to do our work. We work to make money. We make money to provide for our children. And so on. Aristotle then asks, is there any single goal that unifies all the goals and actions that we do in life? Is there an end goal to all these nested hierarchies?


The answer Aristotle comes up with is that the end goal everyone is working towards is happiness or eudaemonia. One of the things we need to be clear about is that how Aristotle defines happiness is different than the way we do. When we think about happiness, we think of a transitory state that changes in intensity, and winks in and out of existence. We think of happiness as a feeling and a state of being. To Aristotle, happiness is not a state or a feeling; it is an action or activity. This view is much different than the way we think about happiness. To Aristotle, we find happiness or eudaemonia in activity. If our goal is to walk, and our activity is walking, then the whole time we’re walking, we are participating in happiness or eudaemonia.

What should we be doing with our lives?

If we find happiness in activities, then in what activities should we be engaging? Or, what should we be doing in our lives? What is our function? Some have said that pleasure should be the goal of life. That happiness is pleasure. Aristotle disagrees because he thinks pleasure is a part of a happy life. Aristotle asks, if our lives consisted only of pleasure, how would we be different than a pig? He asserts that we’re different from the pig and all other animals because of our capacity for abstract reasoning.


According to Aristotle, our capacity for reason is what distinguishes us as humans. Other animals do have the capability to reason, but our abilities far outstrip the rest of the animal kingdom. Reason both distinguishes humans and is the primary characteristic of humans. The activity of reasoning well is Aristotle’s answer to the question, in what activities should we be engaging, or what is our function? Aristotle lays this out in his famous argument called the Function Argument. The argument as listed by Dr. Brian Reese:

  1. Living well for humans is doing well in the activity that is distinctive of humans
  2. The activity that is distinctive of humans is reasoning
  3. So, doing well in the activity that is distinctive of humans is reasoning well
  4. So, living well (i.e., happiness) for humans is reasoning well

Dr. Reese pointed out that if this argument is correct, then what happiness consists of isn’t up to you. You don’t get to decide. He makes the analogy that health is like this. What makes you healthy doesn’t depend on what you believe is healthy. You might believe that eating only doughnuts is a healthy diet. But it’s not, and it doesn’t matter what you believe or think about it. Our biology is such that eating only doughnuts is not healthy for humans.

Similarly, we don’t get to choose what characteristic makes us unique as humans, or what actions make a happy life. We all share the same characteristic that differentiates us from the rest of the animal kingdom, and that is reason. To live well, we need to participate in the action of reasoning well. You may think living life without reason would be better, but you’d be wrong because living any other way would be contrary to being human. We can’t escape who we are.


  • Aristotle: Nicomachean Ethics, Roger Crisp (2000: Cambridge)

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