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Virtue Ethics

Moral theory

Eudaimonia: An introduction

Information: This article looks at the concept of eudaimonia, and in particular Aristotle's use and understanding of the term. A version of this article was originally published on the website


Eudaimonia is often mistakenly understood to mean 'happiness', but it is in fact more to do with the idea of someone being successful (thus leading them to be happy). In Greek, the word is comprised of eu meaning 'good', and daimon meaning 'spirit' or 'god'.

The Ancient Greeks believed Eudaemons acted like guardian angels, who watch over people and keep them out of trouble (just as the saints do in modern Catholic Christianity, as well as the gods in various branches of Hinduism).

Eudaimonia originally described the state of having a Eudaemon (a guardian spirit), which would mean that they would then have a lot of good fortune in life, be well-off, at peace with themselves, and basically happy.

Aristotle, marble portrait bust, Roman copy (2nd century BC) of a Greek original (c. 325 BC)Aristotle and eudaimonia

The 'Father of Eudaimonia' was Aristotle (384-322 BCE). He introduced and famously explored the concept in the Nicomachean Ethics, where he argued that all 'good' acts performed by someone would lead to their greater well-being (eudaimonia). His main argument for this rested on the assumption that everything in the world had a telos (end/purpose). For example, a knife is made for the purpose of cutting things and as such the best use of it is the purpose for which it was made (i.e. for cutting things), rather than say digging a hole in the ground, or turning a screw in the wall.

One of the ways Aristotle's moral theory has been put into practice, is found in the concept of natural moral law. This is the idea that the 'right' thing to do, is what it is natural for something to do. The Catholic Church has particularly adopted this way of looking at the moral issue of abortion, saying that it is not natural to stop a pregnancy, and as such doing so is morally wrong.

In the same way, Aristotle argued that humans have a telos, and as such the best life they can live is one where everything they do is directed towards fulfilling it. As such, fulfilling their 'telos' (purpose) would lead people to adopt certain attitudes and behaviours in order to do so, which were understood as the 'virtues' (or the right/proper attitudes/dispositions for someone to adopt, because they led people to fulfil their telos). All this meant that the desire to be successful in life (or to do what one was meant to do, and as such achieve eudaimonia), led people to become 'good' people.

Not duty, not happiness, but eudaimonia!

Modern ethical debate tends to be about exploring what makes an action moral. For instance, Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) argued that moral activity was about doing our 'duty', whereas Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) and John Stuart Mill (1806-1873) believed it was about doing that which benefited the greatest number of people. This meant that for Kant acting in the right way occurred when one did their duty, whereas for Bentham and Mill it was when we maximised the amount of pleasure to others through our actions.

However, for Aristotle eudaimonia was not to be sought for any particular reason, but was an end in itself. In other words, we should not desire eudaimonia because it is our duty to seek it, or in order to increase the amount of happiness in the world.

If we wanted to achieve eudaimonia in order to be happy for example, then 'happiness' would be the 'end', not eudaimonia.

For Aristotle, the desire to achieve eudaimonia is a defining characteristic of what it means to be human. In other words, wanting to be successful is a defining (and fundamental) aspect of being human. For instance, if we take a look around us we only really see people doing those things they believe they will be good/successful at, and also because they believe they will be content by doing so. We do not see people putting a lot of time and effort into things they believe they will fail at (or which they believe will make them unhappy). For everyone, no matter who they are or where they live, seek to develop those skills, qualities, or obtain certain things and even get to know people that will enable them to live successful, prosperous, happy and contented lives. This is why Aristotle believed eudaimonia was the telos of human life, for it can be seen to affect all of our choices and decisions.


Some issues

Of course, one of the biggest problems Aristotle's concept of eudaimonia raises, is that it seems to require a whole lot of luck in order to achieve it. Aristotle himself accepted that those who were deemed 'unattractive', 'disabled' or born into socially challenging situations, began life with a significant disadvantage over those considered to be 'attractive', 'able-bodied' and socially privileged. In fact, he actually believed that some people were unable to (and should not be able to) achieve eudaimonia for this reason (such as slaves).

Now no doubt there will be many people in our 'politically correct' societies, who would be absolutely horrified at a 'moral code' based on such ideas. Yet we need to remember that Aristotle lived at a different time to us, and as such he was naturally going to have certain social and political presuppositions which might not be agreeable to us today.

If we want to adopt an Aristotelian-based virtue ethic, we will first have to work through (and possibly remove) some of these 'unattractive' notions (as Alistair McIntyre attempts to do in his book After Virtue (Gerald Duckworth & Co Ltd, 1985)).

Furthermore, the belief in Eudaemons (or guardian angels) in order to explain how and why some people are born with certain advantages over others, raises problems for those who might seek to utilise 'virtue ethics' in a largely secular (western) society; this being how a secular society is able to work with, and justify its use of, a moral code which appears to be grounded in certain metaphysical presuppositions.

Picture of the EarthNow although we might remove any religious notions by internalising the ideas and concepts they are said to represent, we are still left with the matter of trying to justify the idea that all humanity has a universal telos, which precedes our experience (or is present in us prior to being born). In other words, in order that all of us, no matter who we are or where we have been born can be happy and content in life, we surely have to be seen to be working towards the same 'common goal'. Yet with so much diversity in the world, it is difficult to see how this can be justified (let alone achieved).

This task is made even more problematic for the modern Virtuist, as they have to take into account Aristotle's belief that conflict was only ever a bad thing. Now although many people might agree with him on one level (especially when conflict leads to war), they would surely at the same allow conflict to be seen as a viable means by which people can work towards unity, rather than the other way round. As the philosopher David Hume once said, 'Truth springs from argument amongst friends'.

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