If the highest value is referred to as “supreme good” and if we achieve it through the concept of end, we presuppose something very important, which is that we, as individuals, and more generally mankind, can aim for the supreme value as a finality. However, aiming for something as an end is only possible if it represents an advantage for us, and is neither harmful nor leaves us indifferent. This advantage may take many forms: it may be moral (to achieve this goal improves us), useful or agreeable, or even financial. To define something as an end for man amounts to saying that it is useful for the human species in general, and for every person in particular. That is an –interested- idea which is presupposed in any use of the concept of end.
If, therefore, we formulate the problem of values in this way (“What is the supreme end?”), our question would not be neutral, but full of bias. We postulate that the top of the hierarchy (supreme value) is useful, benevolent, or beneficent for human beings. We do not even imagine that the supreme value may be indifferent, or even prejudicial to man.
Before then, man thought that the cosmos revolved around himself, that he was the centre of the universe. This physical anthropocentrism is a simple introduction to the axiological approach, which considers that the supreme value can only be a purpose for mankind. And what if the supreme value did not concern man in any way? What if it was not kind, nor nice, or was even harmful?
This idea of a well-disposed supreme value, which would be as beneficial for us as a supreme end, may be a wish, something we desire or which we dream of. And maybe the axiological enquiry will prove its truth. However, this idea cannot be a prejudice, leading us to wrong conclusions, even less an unconscious idea hidden behind the words we employ to formulate this question. In other words, to use the concept of finality in order to raise the problem of value amounts to betraying it, because we adopt an anthropocentric perspective, without being aware of it.
There remains a possibility: Aristotle would not have tried to raise and solve the problem of values, but simply the question of what is best for man (“What is human good?”). In other words, he would have not wondered whether there is a universal hierarchy of beings and entities, but simply asked himself what man loves most, what is most advantageous to man, and makes him happiest. A task which has clearly nothing to do with the problem of values. He seems to affirm this explicitly when he says that
Clearly the virtue we must study is human virtue; for the good we were seeking was human good and the happiness human happiness 1.
It is not surprising then that happiness is the supreme end, according to Aristotle. For it is obviously that which is the most advantageous to man, and makes him happier: this is a mere tautology.
Aristotle remarks that
Verbally, there is a very general agreement [about supreme good]; for both the general run of men and people of superior refinement say that it is happiness, and identify living well and doing well with being happy; but with regard to what happiness is they differ, and many do not give the same account as the wise 2. This consensus is explained by the fact that this is a tautology, which no one can deny.
To sum it up, either the axiological problem is not at all raised by Aristotle, who would only reflect upon human good, which has a value for us, or it is raised with misleading terms which betray this problem, dogmatically assigning, without examination, two predicates to the supreme value: what we desire and what is an end for us.
Maybe can we conclude that the concept of finality can by no means be that on which axiology should be based, and every “ethics of ends” must be either tautological, or dogmatic.
Above all, let us conclude that the value is not the end: these are two irreducible concepts.
If value is neither good, nor an end, we are confused. What is it then? Perhaps we can be satisfied with a minimal definition: value seems to be the quality of something. To search for the value of an object and to search for its qualities probably comes down to the same thing. Is this true? Let us now examine this hypothesis in more detail.
1. Nicomachean Ethics, I, 13
2. Ibid. I, 4