What is the best, the happiest, the most worthwhile sort of life for human beings? Is it a life of honourable achievements: of pleasures and excitements; of service in one's community: of material productiveness: a life marked by happy personal relationships: by luxury and splendid belongings: by love of beauty: by culture of intellect and imagination: or whatever else might come to mind as we learn more about the possibilities of human nature? How are we to decide, and on what principle? Aristotle's Ethics begins and ends with this question of the best life, since the task of ethics, as he conceives it, is to seek a systematic answer.
Why should we be interested in such an inquiry? Because it is abstract philosophy, and we have a taste for that? If this were the only motive, it would make no practical difference what answer we found, or whether we found one at all. We might be convinced in advance that no answer can be better than another to a question of this kind, yet still be curious to see a philosopher trying to solve the insoluble. As connoisseurs it may interest us to compare Aristotle's performance in ethics with those of others. In that case, we should not think it a fruitless enterprise for him either, since he like us must enjoy the intellectual exercise.
But according to Aristotle himself, it would be a vain inquiry for all concerned unless a well-grounded answer is possible. Philosophical ethics is practical. 'The end is not knowledge but action' ( NE 1095 a 5-6; cf. EE 1216 b 21-25). We seek to know what the good life is so as to live better. The sheer desire to understand the nature of this life, unburdened by concern for the practical benefits of the knowledge, is not an attitude that Aristotle countenances in the Ethics. 1 If there are or might be practical benefits, it is hardly human not to take an interest in them. Hence someone who studies ethics with no eye to a practical end must really believe that the study can make no practical difference, either because philosophers' conclusions cannot influence behaviour or because no conclusion is possible. Yet whoever really believes