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"Classical Greek Philosophy -- fall '07: In the Nicomachean Ethics, I.7, Aristotle appeals to the function of human beings in order to reach more precise conclusions about the human good. His argument has long perplexed commentators and will probably perplex you if you stop to think about it. Briefly describe the "function argument" that Aristotle offers in I.7 and briefly explain how an intelligent critic of Aristotle might go about refuting it.

In the first part of Book I Aristotle explains that all of our actions are for the sake of something. That something which he is referring to is “the good (1094a4)”. In chapter 7 of Book I Aristotle is attempting to explain what “the good” is.

Aristotle says that in order to find out what “the good” is we first need to “grasp the function of a human being (1097b25)”. In other words we need to figure out what the function of a human being really is and once we’ve figured out that we can figure out what the ultimate outcome of that function is. In order to understand this better we look at a slightly more specific example. Aristotle says that “the good” for a craftsman depends on his function and “the same seems to be true for a human being (1097b28)”. A craftsman’s function is to craft things. By crafting things the craftsman is heading toward “the good”. This is not to say that just because a human being may be a craftsman that his ultimate function and “good” are directly related to being a craftsman. A craftsman’s function and “good” and a human being’s function and “good” are within that same craftsman.

Aristotle says that each body part has a function (1097b32), but what about the human being as a whole? Also, human beings happen to share certain traits with plants and animals. Both a human being and a plant are alive, so living life can’t really be the function of a human being. And both a human being and an animal have sense perception, so this also can’t be the specific function of a human being. So then what is different about human beings? What is their specific function? Aristotle says that their function is reason (1098a4). In order for a human being to achieve “the good” then, he must perform reason well.

Playing the critic here, we are left with a few unanswered questions it seems. Firstly, what is reason? And secondly, once we’ve found out what reason is, how can we do it well? What Aristotle probably meant by “reason” was that human beings are able to reason and decide what is right or wrong. And the way we can do this well is to always reason to do what is right and not what is wrong. Still though, we are left with the question of what is right and what is wrong? In American culture many people feel it is wrong to marry someone you do not love. In certain Chassidic sects of Judaism they believe that you do not need to love the person you marry and what is right is to meet your potential spouse only two times to decide if you want to marry them and then get engaged. And during that engagement period there is no contact between the bride and the groom until their wedding day. So what is right? Marrying for love or marrying because of a similar background? It’s really all relative. What Aristotle has left us with seems to be just the basics. He has told us that the way to reach “the good” is to reason well. If we assume that reasoning well is being able to decide between what is right and what is wrong, we need to know first what is right and what is wrong. If we do not know how to differentiate between what is right and wrong, how can we reason to do what is right?
All quotes from Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics.

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