Morality As Constitutive of Self-Interst

An Introduction to the Key Concepts of Plato and
Some philosophers, including Hobbes, claim that
what is in our interests is bound up with what we
happen to desire at the moment
But it makes sense to ask whether satisfying our
current desire really is in our interest, and to
question whether we can ever be mistaken about
what in our interests
We might chase after one desire, then another
without any consideration as to whether it’s really in
our interest; we might judge that something is good
for us now, without considering whether it will be
good for us in the long run; or we might simply be
wrong about whether something’s good for us
So there’s a distinction between a subjective
account of self-interest (one in which self-interest
is defined by what the individual thinks or feels
is in their interest) and an objective account of
self-interest (in which self-interest is defined
independently of an individuals judgement)
Plato and Aristotle argue for the latter – like
Hobbes they put a high value on self-interest, but
they also think we can be mistaken about what is
truly in our self-interest
Take a look at the following examples and consider:
The goal the person was striving for; whether they consider
it to be in their self-interest and if it is REALLY in their
self-interest; if not why do you think the person has striven
for something that isn’t in their interests?
Paris has always wanted to be famous, it didn’t matter to
her what for. Eventually she appeared in a reality TV
show about ordinary people who desired fame, and she
became a star overnight.
Howard had become a multi-millionaire and now devoted
his life to guarding his millions in his small fortified
apartment which he never left.
Mr Creosote, has just finished a meal of pâte de foie gras,
beluga caviar, eggs Benedictine, tart de poireaux, frogs’
legs amandine, some quails’ eggs on a bed of puréed
mushroom all mixed in a bucket and washed down with 6
crates of ale. He is offered a wafer-thin mint to finish off
the meal. On eating it he explodes.
As mentioned earlier, Plato and Aristotle are
concerned with an objective account of selfinterest.
They believe self-interest is defined by what is
good. And so we must seek an objective
understanding of what is good if we are really to
do what’s best for us.
Their analysis attempts to show that moral
action is part of our good, and so it turns out that
our true self-interests are best served by being
Some of the most important concepts in Ancient
Greek ethics are:
Eudaimonia (happiness)
 Ergon (function)
 Arete (Virtue)
A central question for Greek philosophers was
‘how should I live?’ – for many the short answer
was ‘I should try to be happy.
Both Plato and Aristotle believed that the
ultimate goal in life was to reach eudaimonia – in
other words to be happy and live the good life
On the face of it this seems a very self-interested
goal, and not far from the position of Hobbes
But... We can pick out at least 3 main difference
between the Greek concept of happiness and our
modern conception of it....
Happiness in the ancient Greek sense of the
word does not mean pleasure, contentment or
joy or any other emotional state that comes and
goes - Eudaimonia is more permanent than any
emotion and is a description applied to our lives
as a whole.
Eudaimonia is not something we can go out and
get or seek – it’s something that arises out of all
that we do so we can’t aim for it directly.
Eudaimonia is not one component against many
in a good life – Eudaimonia is the good life
Eudaimonia is described by Plato and Aristotle
as ‘flourishing’
This means having a good life in all its different
aspects: living well, reaching your goals and
generally thriving.
Do you think the Greek concept of eudaimonia is
a good motive for moral actions?
How self-interested do you think it is as a
For many ancient Greek philosopher, including
Plato and Aristotle, the concept of ‘good’ and
‘being good’ was intimately connected with the
idea of function (ergon)
To be good meant fulfilling your function well
Even today there remains a connection (although
we may not think of it as a moral connection)
between calling something ‘good’ and recognising
that it is fulfilling its function
Consider the following:
In the below examples what are the
qualities and attributes that distinguish
the good thing from the more ordinary
thing; which is better at fulfilling its
A good meal and an ordinary meal
 A good teacher and an average teacher
 A good video game and a mediocre video
 A good chair and an ordinary chair
Being a good person and living the good life was
linked to being good at whatever role you played
in society
For example, if you were a farmer then you were
good if you fulfilled your function well as a
So striving to be good, in the ancient Greek sense
of ‘good’, appears to be compatible with moral
action – as you’d be fulfilling your social and
economic role in society and everyone would
 However,
Aristotle believed that we had a
function that went above and beyond the
roles prescribed for us by society
 We
should strive to be good, and fulfil our
function, because of the benefits it brings
us as human beings
 So
once again the Greeks recommend
behaviour that is self-interested, rather
than moral in its focus
The third key concept to Greek moral thinking is
virtue (arete)
Our modern understanding of the word virtue
tends to suggest a sort of piety or saintliness, but
when thinking about Greek ethics we need to
cast aside this definition as it has nothing to do
with ‘virtue’ as Plato and Aristotle use the term
In Greek terms we need to think of ‘virtue’ in the
sense of ‘virtuosity’ or virtuoso’ – in other words,
being brilliant or excellent in a particular area of life
A virtue is a personal quality or habit or skill that has
been highly developed – like achieving virtuosity in
playing an instrument, through individual effort and
We begin by asking ‘what can I do to improve myself?’
not ‘what can I do to help others?’
So the emphasis placed by Plato and Aristotle on
developing virtues reinforces the view that selfinterest is the primary motivation for action

similar documents