Guy Schuh

Aristotle on the Impossibility of Pure Altruism opening pages (full dissertation available upon request) 


I argue that Aristotle accepts a form Psychological Eudaimonism (i.e., the view that one’s own eudaimonia is the ultimate goal of human action) that does not in principle rule out non-instrumental concern for others; that is, since eudaimonia means a blessed or flourishing life, as opposed to a narrower subjective condition like “happiness,” it is possible to aim at the well-being of others as an intrinsic part of one’s own eudaimonia. Call this sort of non-instrumental concern for others that still subordinates their well-being to one’s own eudaimonia “Impure Altruism.” Nevertheless, the interpretation that Aristotle adopts Psychological Eudaimonism has been, and continues to be, challenged. I therefore elaborate, and respond to, two prominent objections that have been made against this interpretation. The first objection takes its bearing from Aristotle’s statement that friends wish good things for each other “for each other’s own sake.” It then argues, on this basis, that friends do not benefit each other for one’s own sake but rather for the sake of one’s friend. And if friends do not benefit each other for one’s own sake, then they do not (necessarily) aim at their own eudaimonia when they act. I respond to this objection by pointing out that acting for the sake of one’s own eudaimonia does not in principle rule out acting for the sake of others’ as well, insofar as their eudaimonia may be an intrinsic component of one’s own. The second objection takes its bearing from Aristotle’s claim that virtuous action is kalon (“noble” or “fine”) and “for the sake of the kalon.” Kalon actions were popularly understood to be actions of selfless beneficence. This objection then argues that Aristotle employs the popular understanding of kalon actions and that, as a result, he does not believe that the actions of virtuous people necessarily aim at their own eudaimonia. In response, I argue that he claims kalon actions are personal goods that are pursued by the virtuous as such.


Many scholars think that if Aristotle accepts Psychological Eudaimonism, he assumes this position and never defends it. I argue, to the contrary, that he defends Psychological Eudaimonism; that is, he defends the view that human beings act ultimately for the sake of their own eudaimonia. In order to establish this, I show that, in the Nicomachean Ethics, he responds to a particular challenge to this view. This challenge is the popular claim that friends care about the well-being of their friends not only in a non-instrumental way but also selflessly—that is, without subordinating the well-being of their friend to their own eudaimonia. Call this sort of non-instrumental concern for the well-being of another “Pure Altruism.” Pure Altruism would thus appear to be a counterexample to Aristotle’s Psychological Eudaimonism. I argue that Aristotle relies on three observations about friendship to make the case that it does not exemplify pure altruism. The first observation is that friendship is dissolved by prolonged distance. He concludes from this that friendship aims primarily at the presence of the friend,  whose presence, he argues, is both a great pleasure and a great good and is sought as such. The second observation is that friends do not wish for their friends to become gods—i.e., perfectly blessed beings—which would result in the dissolution of their friendship. He concludes from this observation that friends care more about the personal good they find in their friendships than they do about the well-being of their friends per se. The third observation is that the reciprocation of benefits is required to preserve friendship. He concludes from this that the gifts of friends are given on the condition that they will be in some way reciprocated and so are not examples of pure altruism.