The 3 Types of Goods in Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics

In my History of Ancient Philosophy class (which is poorly labeled, considering we cover only a few selected works of Plato, Aristotle, and the pre-Socratics), we are currently reading Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics.

According to Aristotle, there are 3 categories of goods.

  1. goods which are valued for their own sake & never for the sake of something else (intrinsic goods)
  2. goods which are never valued for their own sake & only for the sake of something else (instrumental goods)
  3. goods which we value both for their own sake & for the sake of something else (goods which are both intrinsic & instrumental)

*Here the word good is being used as “that at which a thing is aimed” or an “end.” (the end of medical art is health, shipbuilding - a ship, strategy - victory)

Eventually Aristotle argues that there must be at least one [intrinsic] good which we value for its own sake and not for anything else because otherwise “the process [of desire] would go on to infinity, so that our desire would be empty and vain.” (Book I, Ch. 1) He argues that this ultimate end, towards which every other end aims, is Happiness.

DIFFICULTY: For some reason, it’s neither obvious nor clear to me that the 3rd category of goods would exist if Happiness was the ultimate end (or the only intrinsic good). Aristotle’s third category of goods includes goods which are valuable for their own sake and for the sake of something else. His examples are Honor, Pleasure, Reason, and Virtue.

  1. If we desire Happiness for its own sake and Honor, Pleasure, Reason, and Virtue as a means to that end (Happiness), how can we also desire goods like Honor, Pleasure, Reason, and Virtue in and of themselves as well?

Wouldn’t we value Honor, Pleasure, Reason, and Virtue only in so far as they are components of Happiness or a happy life (the good life)?

I’d argue that his idea of “happiness” is radically different from what “happiness” has come to colloquially mean in English, so I think there needs to be a very clear distinction made here.

For Aristotle, “happiness” was essentially the sum of all virtues in concord with each other – it is a formal definition as opposed to a pre-existing concept that gels with our understanding of the word.

As a way of tying everything together to make it nice and neat, I think it works rather elegantly. But I think that it is overly systematic. He is looking for a purpose for all-time when we exist in a constantly changing world and the only purposes we encounter are purposes of the moment. These purposes aren’t in vain, indeed, “the mind always achieves its goal” but they are ephemeral.

hi Xunian,

thank you for the response

I agree with you on making the distinction between Aristotle’s definition of Happiness and its common usage; however, I am not focusing on the merits or shortcomings of Aristotle’s theory of Happiness as the highest good. I’m just having trouble understanding how Aristotle’s 3rd category of goods can exist. How can an end be valued in and of itself as well as for the sake of Happiness if Happiness, as Aristotle defined it (thanks for that), is the ultimate good?

Maybe it’s a little clearer put this way:
If all goods aim towards Happiness (the ultimate good), then how can there be any other goods which are desirable in themselves?

Think of it this way: if you talked to Aristotle about numbers, he would say that if numbers kept going on indefinitely, counting would be in vain so he would create a new number “infinity” that was placed at the end of every series and describes the entirety of the series as well.

But that doesn’t mean that 1 and 2 can’t exist in-and-of-themselves.

In your analogy, Aristotle would say that infinity is what all other numbers aim at, and that we value the other numbers because they lead to infinity. If this is so, would any of the other numbers have intrinsic value if infinity is the good they aim at?

I guess I have some sort of confusion with Aristotle’s 3rd category, but even expressing my confusion clearly is difficult.

I’ll try to explain what my confusion is more clearly (it might just be that I’m having trouble with something that should be obvious):

I realize that it is logically possible for a thing to be both desirable in itself and for the sake of something else, but it doesn’t make sense to me that, in Aristotle’s theory, anything other than the highest good would have intrinsic value.

In Aristotle’s theory,
for what reasons would we desire Virtue if it was not a necessary condition of Happiness?
for what reasons would we desire Reason if it was not a necessary condition of Happiness?

*Both Virtue and Reason are two things which Aristotle says are desirable in themselves and for the sake of Happiness.