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From Nicomachean Ethics V1, 1129b1:

Since an unjust person is greedy, however, he will be concerned with goods---not with all of them but with those that are matters of good and bad luck, which are always good, unconditionally speaking, but for this or that person, not always so. (These are the ones we human beings pray for and pursue. But we shouldn't. Instead, we should pray that unconditionally good things will also be good for us, while choosing the ones that are good for us.

(Translated by Reeve 2014. Emphases mine.)

How can something which is unconditionally good be good for only some people? Doesn't "unconditionally good" just mean "good in all circumstances"?


EDIT: For any future readers: I've picked virmaior's answer as I think it answers the question fullest but Patrick R's answer is also great and gives some very useful context about the translation.

  • I think this knot can be quite easily unpicked if you read Reeve's tr. differently, as I suggest. – Geoffrey Thomas May 4 '18 at 18:06
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Much of what you're asking is tied up in the key distinction (at least in theory) between a utilitarian theory of the good and a virtue ethics one.

I agree with Mauro that the passage is tricky and unclear (and that might not be the fault of the translators).

I parse it in the following way:

  1. There are things that are good without qualification.
  2. There are people who for qualified reasons cannot receive these things as good.
  3. We should pursue goods (or perhaps good ends) that will be to our good.

Maybe to parse that out a bit, let's imagine that something is unconditionally good (following NE book VIII let's say "friendship"). What this would mean is that having friendship would be good for anyone (if they can have it) (per 1).

But let's say John is severely co-dependent. That would mean that he both desperately wants friends (which is good) but also that due to his co-dependency he suffers harm from pursuing friendship because he can't balance how he relates.

Thus, the good remains an unqualified good, but in John's case due to a qualification of John (or condition of John) it's not a good thing for him to pursue.

Ergo, what John ought to pursue as the good for him is help to not be co-dependent on people before he pursue the genuine good of friendship.

Aristotle provides a diagnostic for this in Book II (the section escapes me right now) where Aristotle explains that pleasure and pain are great signals of what is good or not -- but only for the phronemos (the man of practical wisdom). In the absence of this pleasure and pain are horrible mis-indicators because they indicate our proclivities which are not ordered towards our own good.

Or to give another example, maybe physical exercise is good. But clearly this is not the good a person who was just severely injured in an accident should pursue. Again, the problem is not with the good in any way; it's with the confused pursuit happening in a person that has a mediating condition (whether physically mentally or otherwise) which makes it not a good that they can achieve.

The unjust man is confused with this issue because he doesn't recognize that the challenge at hand is to distribute a good fairly rather than to take as much of this good for himself. In this sense, he is recognizing the unqualified good but not recognizing the senses in which the situation qualifies what one ought to do. (As in the above examples, the qualification is a property of the situation not the good).

  • This is an compelling analysis, and I agree with it as a general account. But how do you deal with the qualification that the goods of the pleonektes person are matters of fortune? – Patrick R May 4 '18 at 2:56
  • @PatrickR a very good question and one I need to think about. Perhaps I'm guilty of oversimplifying Aristotle by using this paradigm to make sense of particular things he writes (It's always confusing to read that Cicero claimed Aristotle was an excellent writer when many of the texts we have are confusing and hard to follow). – virmaior May 4 '18 at 3:44
  • On Aristotle's excellent writing: I had the good fortune of studying Aristotle's protrepticus, an apparently exoteric work "rediscovered" by Hutchinson and Johnson. – Patrick R May 4 '18 at 11:08
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Overcoming translation

First let's try to understand the language, and not have its meaning obscured by translation. Here is a more modern (and in my opinion generally excellent) translation, by Christopher Rowe:

Because the unjust person is grasping, his sphere of operation will be goods — not all of them, but those to which good and bad fortune relate, ones which are generally good, but not always for this or that particular person. (Human beings pray for these, and go after them; but they should rather pray that what are goods generally speaking be good for them too, while choosing the things that are good for them.)

And Sarah Broadie's commentary on 1129b1-2 (found in the same volume):

grasping [*pleonektês, lit. 'one who goes in for having more']

(a) 'Grasping is always perjorative in Ar. as in Plato, hence cannot be used of the laudable character who seeks more and more of the goods that depend on personal effort alone and are always good for one, namely excellence and excellent activity.

(b) At EE VII.15 (=VII. 3), 1248b25-33, excellence is said to be the condition under which the things that are 'generally good' (there called 'natural goods') are good for the individual. Thus the prayer at line 5 should be for excellence.

Remaining ambiguity

Nevertheless, we are left with ambiguity. The problem is that Aristotle is using ἁπλῶς which might mean "generally", "simply", or "absolutely" (and apparently "unconditionally" in your translation). And it isn't guaranteed that it means the same thing in each place! Translators are inclined to use the same English word for the same Greek word, especially within a passage, even if they are conscious that it makes things hard to understand.

Here we have the ἁπλῶς good being spoken of as if there are two kinds of ἁπλῶς good. This may be a deliberate play on words by Aristotle: in 1129a25ff Aristotle is talking about the homonymy of justice, perhaps he is continuing to riff on this theme.

How can something which is ἁπλῶς good be good only for some people?

Something which is "unconditionally good", as your translation puts it, surely can't be good only for some people. So what is going on?

Let's look at the surrounding facts describing the grasping person's "good's" apart from the fact they are ἁπλῶς:

  • they are related to good and bad fortune
  • they are not always good for this or that particular person
  • they are the goods people pray for

Result? "Unconditional" or "absolute" is probably a bad translation. Aristotle seems to have in mind goods that are both dependent on some feature of the person who receives them, and which are up to chance. These aren't qualities that jibe with "unconditional".

When discussing the "unconditional (or generally) good" for the greedy or grasping man, I suspect Aristotle has in mind things like: money, food, power, and sex. The general public speaks of these as unconditional goods, but in fact are conditional. If you're surrounded by robbers, must fast for medical reasons, are set upon by revolutionaries, or get the clap, they aren't unconditionally good. Perhaps more subtly, he is pointing towards the fact that money (for example) might be spoken about as if it is good, but having too much of it might also lead us to do things that both corrupt us morally and lead us to eventual ruin.

My diagnosis of the passage is that the first mention of the ἁπλῶς good is a homonymous use: here an appropriate translation is "general good". The second mention of the ἁπλῶς good is used in the same way Aristotle often speaks, to indicate "good without qualification".

What does Aristotle mean by "good without qualification"?

I'm happy to accept Broadie's commentary that the parenthetical prayer is about the "natural goods" described in the Eudemian Ethics. Basically: (1) we should pray to be excellent, and (2) it's better to pray for, e.g., the wisdom to use money so that it is good for us (i.e. for munificence and openhandedness), than to simply pray for more money.

In this regard, I'm happy to adopt @virmaior's answer insofar as it instructs us how ἁπλῶς goods might be pursued in a defective way.

This understanding of the unqualified good isn't merely based on this specific reference to the Eudemian Ethics. Aristotle's ethics is both philosophy and instruction manual. One of its constant normative themes is that the only good a person should pursue is to perfect their character. This is accomplished by making good choices and surround themselves with similarly virtuous persons.

  • 1
    I have a Grube translation of the Republic; it translates pleonektes as "outdoing," which Socrates says either is injustice or the source of injustice. I'm wondering if that makes a difference in your analysis. I think this difference actually lends some additional support, I just can't articulate it at the moment. Nice contribution. – simpatico May 4 '18 at 0:05
  • why do you think Aristotle's unconditional goods would be: I suspect Aristotle has in mind things like: money, food, power, and sex. That seems doubtful per his dismissal of money as the good we seek in EN I. – virmaior May 4 '18 at 1:37
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    @virmaior I'll improve my answer tomorrow to make it clearer, thank you for the note. I'm proposing that Aristotle is using "unconditional goods" in two different senses. While talking about the "grasping" or "outdoing" or "unjust" person's apprehension of what is "unconditionally good" he is suggesting this person is mistaken. These so-called "unconditional goods" like money, food, power, and sex, actually depend on both luck and the particular individual. The truly "unconditional goods" are the excellences / eudaimonia. – Patrick R May 4 '18 at 2:22
2

Hard to understand...

Maybe a different translation may help :

[1129a27 ] Let us then ascertain in how many senses a man is said to be ‘unjust.’ Now the term ‘unjust’ is held to apply both to the man who breaks the law and the man who takes more than his due, the unfair man. Hence it is clear that the law-abiding man and the fair man will both be just. ‘The just’ therefore means that which is lawful and that which is equal or fair, and ‘the unjust’ means that which is illegal and that which is unequal or unfair.

Thus, unjust can be used to describe two different kinds of people, those who break the law and those who are motivated by greed.

[ 1129b1 ] Again, as the unjust man is one who takes the larger share, he will be unjust in respect of good things; not all good things, but those on which good and bad fortune depend. These though always good in the absolute sense, are not always good for a particular person. Yet these are the goods men pray for and pursue, although they ought not to do so; they ought, while choosing the things that are good for them, to pray that what is good absolutely may also be good for them.

Thus, a greedy man is one who "wants more" of good things; not of every good things, but only of the ones related to good fortune : whealth, health, etc.

They are "good things" : thus, the greedy man is not unjust because he breaks the laws, but only because he wants a "larger share" of goods.

But not every man is greedy : so, a "larger share" is not necessarily better for everyone.

  • Can you expand on good in the absolute sense and how that differs from universally good? – Canyon May 3 '18 at 14:47
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I think what he has in mind is something like this :

'Since he is greedy the unjust man will seek good things, but not all good things - rather the 'goods of fortune' or external goods such as wealth which in the abstract are always good but not always good for the individual.'

This is my own free translation except that I take 'external goods' from Thomson & Tredennick, 114, footnote 1 where wealth is given as an instance. Wealth, Aristotle's idea seems to be, is a good thing in the abstract but not for the spendthrift.

'... always good, unconditionally speaking' does not, I think, mean 'unconditionally good' but rather 'good considered abstractly, in isolation from particular conditions in which they can be harmful', the condition for instance of a spendthrift who comes into wealth. In the abstract wealth is a good but it is not good for the spendthrift.

This makes maximum sense of what Aristotle says and seems also acceptable on its own terms. I am not out on a limb in this interpretation; I cite Joachim :

... we may notice that the unfairness [injustice] is shown in respect to the 'goods of fortune' - those goods which in the abstract are always good, but whose value depends upon the use made of them and which, therefore, are not necessarily always good without qualification to everyone. Joachim, 129.)

REFERENCES

Ethica Nicomachea, Gk text.

Aristotle, The Nicomachean Ethics, tr. J.A.K. Thomson & H. Tredennick, London : Penguin. (This is not my favoured translation but it has proved useful here.)

H.H. Joachim, Aristotle - The Nicomachean Ethics : A Commentary, ed. D.A. Rees, Oxford : Clarendon Press, 1951 rev. 1962.

1

I'm not absolutely certain here, but since this quotation is concerned with unjust people, maybe he is referring to the division of goods proposed by Plato to explain the inherent (unconditional?) goodness of justice:

  1. Goods that are good because they are pleasurable
  2. Goods that are good because they are both pleasurable and have good consequences
  3. Goods that are good because they have good consequences

According to Plato in Republic, 'justice' is the second type of good -- something that is inherently good; good in-and-of itself.

It sounds like maybe the confusion here arises from a translation issue?

  • This was my first thought as well, but I can't imagine either Plato or Aristotle ever saying justice isn't always good for a person. – Canyon May 3 '18 at 14:45
  • That is such a good point. I'm going to think on it. – simpatico May 3 '18 at 14:46
  • Okay, maybe he's saying here that unjust/greedy people, because they are unjust/greedy, are not concerned with goods for all people, but only for "this or that person," viz. him/herself. This sounds like an awfully Platonic interpretation, so I'm thinking I'm not quite on it. – simpatico May 3 '18 at 14:57
  • Now I'm thinking it maybe has to do with this notion of "good and bad luck" and how an unjust person would only desire the 'good luck' for himself and desire others to get the 'bad luck.' If a greedy/unjust person were to see someone else experiencing a stroke of good luck - like winning the lottery, say - or someone experiencing a stroke of bad luck - like living in a place that is struck by a natural disaster - the greedy/unjust person will only desire the positive good (the lottery) for himself and would prefer other people to get the negative 'good' (the disaster area.) – simpatico May 3 '18 at 15:04
  • This would also agree with his thinking on virtue, since a man who abstains from bodily pleasures, but is grieved by it, is still intemperate, and a man who stands firm in terrifying situations, but is pained by it, is still a coward. – simpatico May 3 '18 at 15:05

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