2/ The concept of finality
Aristotle is as ambiguous as Plato, on this point, since he formulates the problem of values by using the term “agathon” (good). Thus, in the opening of the Nicomachean Ethics, when he says
Every art and every inquiry […] is thought to aim at some good 1, we do not know if he means: every art aims at something moral, useful, or valuable in itself, or at something making us happy.
However, Aristotle tries to dispel the ambiguity by using a definition based on the concept of finality. We need to take a closer look at the term “aim at” rather than that of “good”, in the above quote.
Aristotelian ethics are entirely based on the concept of “finality”, defining the concept of good by the latter:
Every art and every inquiry, and similarly every action and pursuit, is thought to aim at some good; and for this reason the good has rightly been declared to be that at which all things aim 2.
It is necessary to perceive the deep changes in axiology caused by the use of the concept of finality for its elaboration. Plato had already proposed a similar idea:
Because, you know, Polus and I, if you recollect, decided that everything we do should be for the sake of what is good. Do you agree with us in this view—that the good is the end of all our actions, and it is for its sake that all other things should be done, and not it for theirs? 3.
However, it was just a feature among others, whereas in the Aristotelian thought process, it is an essential predicate as Aristotle believes that he will manage to solve the problem of values with this very concept. The axiological problem seems to consist in the task of establishing the real hierarchy of beings, even if our search may lead us to the conclusion that this concept does not exist, or that this notion is meaningless. The concept of finality allows us to establish a hierarchy. But for what reason?
Firstly, it has been noted that several ends may be aimed at:
Now, as there are many actions, arts, and sciences, their ends also are many; the end of the medical art is health, that of shipbuilding a vessel, that of strategy victory, that of economics wealth… 4.
Secondly, we can see that these purposes are related to each other by a hierarchical relationship:
But where such arts fall under a single capacity- as bridle-making and the other arts concerned with the equipment of horses fall under the art of riding, and this and every military action under strategy, in the same way other arts fall under yet others- in all of these the ends of the master arts are to be preferred to all the subordinate ends; for it is for the sake of the former that the latter are pursued 5.
Therefore, ends are organized by themselves in a hierarchical fashion. But above all, this hierarchy necessarily involves a top level end (so as to avoid infinite regress), that is to say, a supreme end. Otherwise,
at that rate the process would go on to infinity, so that our desire would be empty and vain 6. This hierarchy of ends seems to coincide with the hierarchy of beings: to find the supreme end and to determine what is the supreme good are one and the same thing:
Clearly this [supreme end] must be the good and the chief good 7.
We must now ask ourselves if the axiological research can be based on the concept of finality, in other words, if this concept enables us to formulate the problem of values without betraying it.
1. Nicomachean Ethics, I, 1
3. Gorgias, 499e
4. Nicomachean Ethics, I, 1
6. Ibid., I, 2