A book on ethics and philosophy of values

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2/ The concept of finality

Aristotle is part of the Platonic ambiguity, since he too raises the question of values using the term "agathon" (good). In the opening of the Nicomachean Ethics, for example, when he says: Every art and every inquiry […] is thought to aim at some good 1, it is not clear whether he means: all art tends towards morality, or: towards the advantageous, or: towards something that has value in itself, or: towards happiness.

However, Aristotle will try to reverse the ambiguity of the concept of "agathon" by defining it in terms of finality. In the preceding quotation, rather than the term "good", we need to look at the term that precedes it: "to tend" (towards the good).
Aristotelian ethics are in fact founded entirely on the concept of "end", since it is through this that Aristotle defines the concept of good: 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.

We need to think through the profound reworking of axiology that is imposed by thinking about it in terms of the concept of the end. Plato had already proposed such an 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, this was just one of the characteristics of the good, whereas Aristotle makes it the essential predicate: purpose is what Aristotle uses to solve the problem of values. The axiological problem can be reformulated as the problem of determining the true hierarchy between beings (even if it means concluding that there is no hierarchy). And finality itself makes it possible to establish a hierarchy.

In the first place, it should be noted that there are several ends: 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 note that these ends imply one another, through hierarchical relationships: 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.

The ends thus articulate themselves in a hierarchy. But above all, they themselves pose the need for a summit of this hierarchy, an end to the chain of ends, in other words a supreme end: At that rate the process would go on to infinity, so that our desire would be empty and vain 6. Now this hierarchy of ends seems to coincide with the hierarchy of beings: to find the supreme end is to find the supreme good: Clearly this [supreme end] must be the good and the chief good 7.

We must now ask ourselves whether this axiological research, conducted using the concept of 'end', allows us to pose the problem of values without betraying it.

1. Nicomachean Ethics, I, 1
2. Ibid.
3. Gorgias, 499e
4. Nicomachean Ethics, I, 1
5. Ibid.
6. Ibid., I, 2
7. Ibid.