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Are Bad People Capable of Love? A Look at Aristote's Nicomachean Ethics for an Answer

By Edited Nov 13, 2013 1 0

While not necessarily the primary focus of Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, the issue of whether or not bad people are capable of love or becoming friends is one that is discussed, sometimes directly and other times more indirectly. This is an important issue because the layman does not generally consider the reality of relationships in ways that philosophers tend to do. Our general representation of what it means to be a “friend” is often very simplistic. This may in part be do to the advance in technology and social networking sites, which allow us to “add friends” in an almost whimsical fashion; and as such many of us can find that we are “friends” with people who we are only acquainted with or have very limited interest in knowing further. The ancient Greeks examined the nature of love, friendships, and relationships in general in ways much different than our own.

            To accurately detail how Aristotle would answer the question “are bad people capable of love/friendship?” is rather difficult, in part because the terminology he often uses leaves much to be desired if one is to objectively analyze his words. For example, throughout Nicomachean Ethics Aristotle references “the good” as what we should all strive for. This term can be viewed as somewhat ambiguous due to the subjective nature of what one would deem to be “good.” On page 217, Aristotle states, “Which good, then, is it that men love? Is it the good (in general) or is it what is good for them? There is sometimes a discrepancy between these two, and a discrepancy also in the case of what is pleasant.” As is evident, “goodness” has different natures (personal and impersonal), and the personal good can be broken down into sub-categories (such as different desires, different representations of what is pleasant or useful). Even more basic philosophical questions such as “What is the good?” arise and make answering the question of the capacity for bad people to love/become friends difficult.
            With that said, Aristotle would suggest that bad people are capable of friendship; however not in the purest sense. He states that there are three types of friendships, all categorized separately because of the motivation of the individual(s) pursuing the friendship. These include friendships based on utility or usefulness, friendships based on pleasure, and the superior form of friendship that pursues good.  As is evident, the nature of the relationship is most important when answering whether or not a bad person is capable of friendship. The most vital quote which can be used to summate Aristotle’s stance on bad people and friendships comes on pages 221-222 where he states, “To be friends with one another on the basis of pleasure and usefulness is, accordingly, also possible for bad people, just as it is for good men with bad, and for one who is neither good nor bad with any kind of person at all. But it is clear that good men alone can be friends on the basis of what they are, for bad people do not find joy in one another, unless they see some material advantage coming to them.” While Aristotle provides a sense of clarity on the topic of bad people and their capacity to form friendships, the ultimate problem is found in his lack of definition of what constitutes a “bad” person. Again, we must return to the ambiguity and poorly defined term “the good.”

            The ambiguity of the terms “good” and “bad” undoubtedly cause Aristotle’s discourse on friendship and love to be relatively moot points. While in the ancient Greek society I am sure Aristotle’s notions would be much more interested and acceptable, in our current time his writings are almost unbearable unless we provide operational definitions to these terms, which are undeniable key to understanding his writings. In many respects, Aristotle seems to have created a dualism between “good” and “bad” people; yet leaves very little room for morally ambiguous individuals to exist. For example, one can consider the basic moral dilemma that faces a man who must either watch his wife die from an illness or steal medication to save her because he does not have enough money for the treatment. This is a morally ambiguous issue, and as such there is no clear answer as to what is right (“the good”) or wrong (“bad”) in this scenario. To play devil’s advocate, one can consider his action (whichever he performs) as “bad”; which would necessarily imply that he incapable of friendship based on “the good.” The major problem I have with Aristotle’s notion of friendship stems from this, as it demeans this man’s ambiguous situation and merely calls him “bad”; which by extension means he is incapable of true friendship or true love with his wife. If we consider that that morally bad decision is the one in which he steals medication to allow his wife to survive, then I am not sure we could say this man falls into any Aristotelian definition of “friendship.” It would appear that his relationship with this woman is not currently one built on usefulness or pleasure, as it should be if he was a truly bad person. While some useful quality (she makes food at home) or pleasure (sexual relations) may exist in this relationship, these are not the basis of this man’s actions. We would then be tempted to say that his action (of stealing the medication) is one that is “good” and by extension say he is a good friend. However, that would also be inaccurate as theft is deemed to be a bad quality. It would then appear that this man is beyond the reach of any of Aristotle’s three friendship forms, in many ways because it is difficult to define what the right and wrong actions are. In short, what truly defines a bad person?

            As is evident, I do not agree with Aristotle’s view on the ability for bad people to love and form friendships. While Aristotle and I would agree that these people can have relationships, I feel that categorizing those relationships is not very useful because the moral questions regarding what a good or bad person continues to go unanswered to this day.  Additionally, Aristotle’s notions of the good and the bad seem to more often than not be metaphysical notions; and to apply metaphysics to human nature, relationships, and other topics seems in many ways to also be a moot point. We cannot be certain that a metaphysical concept of “the good” does exist as a form outside of our material world, and to apply it to our own analysis of human relationships without certainty that it does exist seems very irrational. Even an a priori notion of the good is lacking because it requires us to assume that the good really does exist in some infinite, eternal, and resolute sense. Though we may be able to define individual situations as good or bad, I do not believe we can clump behaviors, thoughts, and so on under one heading (“the good”) or another (“the bad”). Morality is much more complex, and by extension our resulting behaviors, relationships, ability to love, and so on are also complex.

            In Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle essentially streamlines the nature of friendship. On the whole, he oversimplifies the nature of love and friendship. On the surface I can agree with a few of his notions, as previously discussed, but in a broader sense his writings are not very useful when we examine the complexity of human actions. I do not believe that reality is nearly as black and white as Aristotle seems to make it out to be.


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