Aristotle: Happiness and Climate Change

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President Obama recently returned from the 2015 Paris Climate Change Conference where various nations attempted to agree on future global greenhouse gas reductions. This, in turn, could result in new laws created in the United States that will regulate individuals, companies, and entire industries. The proposed new laws will inevitably bring up the questions: Is man-induced climate change real? Do CO2 emissions cause climate change? Will the United States’ marginal CO2 output reduction materially impact the world’s volume of CO2? How much will the law cost individuals, companies, and the country as a whole? Who will the law put out of business? What individuals will lose their job over the proposed law? What inconveniences will individual citizens incur because of the new laws? Each one of these questions is complicated enough for their own thorough consideration. Therefore, for the purposes of the article, assume that the burning of oil and natural gas has a negative effect on the environment, and that all people concerned will likely suffer at least in the beginning from new legislation regulating its emissions.

Aristotle, through his analysis of ethics and politics, would address these concerns through the “observance of the mean relatively to the person’s concern.”[1] Aristotle’s view was far-reaching to the ultimate ends of the individual attaining happiness through virtue and his relationship to society as a whole as a means to accomplish this goal. He writes that happiness is “the exercise of virtue.”[2] Therefore, the individual, the company for whom he works, and society as a whole are addressed through Aristotle’s writings.

As well as attaining happiness through virtue, the individual is also concerned with his immediate comforts. Does he have food and comfort for the day and the near future? He accomplishes these goals by earning a simple paycheck with the expectation that more paychecks will continue to come with regular employment. His longer-term concerns may be his ability to accumulate wealth. He may even confuse his immediate needs and his accumulation of wealth with happiness.

He accomplishes these immediate goals of comfort by working for a company, usually owned by other individuals with similar concerns. However, if he worked for an oil producer or a coal mining company, regulation would directly affect both the individual employee as well as his employer. Each may look at the new laws as a direct attack on their safety, security, and even happiness. Aristotle, however, would ask each of them to reconsider their view of happiness to one achieved through virtue and not immediate security or even future material gain arguing, “Nor does one day or any small space of time make a blessed or happy man.”[3]

Aristotle would remind both the worker and the business owner that each of them are social beings, and that the moneymaking life is something quite contrary to nature. Wealth is not the good of which they should be in search, but that “it is merely useful as a means to something else. So we might rather take pleasure and virtue or excellence to be ends than wealth.”[4] As for their fear of negative consequences to the legislation, “there is a similar uncertainty also about what is good, because good things often do people harm: men have before now been ruined by wealth.”[5] As each of the worker and employer question and challenge the new laws, Aristotle would state, “Nor must we in all cases alike demand the reason why; sometimes it is enough if the undemonstrated fact be fairly pointed out, as in the case of the starting-points or principles of a science.”[6] In other words, he would ask that they not waste their energy challenging their new circumstances, but to get on with the work of moving forward.

To move forward, each of them benefits from understanding the value of the other to achieve their goal of happiness through virtue. If the oil or coal business closed and the employee fired, each of the employee and business owner, although losing immediate comfort and wealth, should take a broader perspective to a better future for society as a whole, to which both will eventually benefit even greater. Obviously, “a dead planet has no jobs,”[7] so each of the employee and the business owner will depend on the other to achieve their security. The business owner could not produce his wealth without the employee doing the work, and the employee could not earn his paycheck if the employer had no business.

Aristotle reiterates that “man is naturally a social being.”[8] He finds companionship in others. More than being just social, however, “man is by nature a political animal. And he who by nature and not by mere accident is without a state, is either a bad man or above humanity; he is like the ‘tribeless, lawless, hearthless one.’”[9] In expanding the view of each individual from his immediate need for security and companionship to virtuous acts, Aristotle continues, “Political society exists for the sake of noble actions, and not of mere companionship. Hence they who contribute most to such a society have a greater share in it.”[10] The existence of a society larger than each of them with laws that they have to obey makes their relationship more than just companionship but profitable and more than that, virtuous. Society as a whole gains from their commitment to “happiness through virtue.”[11] Where does that leave the employee and the business owner who have lost their security and comforts?

Aristotle would provide comfort that all is not lost. Politics “prescribes which of the sciences a state needs, and which each man shall study.”[12] The new legislation, which causes immediate harm to the carbon producing industry, may open new opportunities, such as wind energy and solar energy technologies and manufacturing. After legislation causes the employee to loose his job, he would then educate and train in a more skilled industry making him valuable to at least two categories, the low skilled type of job, which he had previously, and the higher skilled job, where he is going. Likewise, the business owner may look to start or invest in a new technology in energy production in compliance with the new laws. What is “good is the same for the individual and the state, … and glad as one would be to do this service for a single individual, to do it for a people and for a number of states is nobler and more divine.”[13] Therefore, the individual in seeking his own security through new education and training, and the business owner in investing in a new wind or solar company, are paving the way for society as a whole to its new more efficient, cleaner, and more secure future for everyone.

Speaking in support of the emerging sciences, Aristotle would argue, “Those who direct their desires and actions by reason will gain much prophet from the knowledge of these matters.”[14] However, neither the employee nor the business owner would have even tried at these new endeavors had they simply focused on their own immediate needs and not pursued their happiness through virtuous thoughts and acts. Without their contributions, society would suffer by their limited thinking, but is better off by their virtuous acts and respect for their society and its laws. And even though each of them will seek material wealth in their new pursuits, “as for the money-making life, it is something quite contrary to nature; and wealth evidently is not the good of which we are in search, for it is merely useful as a means to something else. So we might rather take pleasure and virtue or excellence to be ends than wealth.”[15]

Therefore, it is by virtuous thinking and acting to pursue true happiness that wealth may be achieved, but even if material wealth is not achieved, happiness will still be attained. After all, the realizable good should “be [the] one end of all that man does.”[16] Happiness through virtue is the ultimate realizable good, which in a society of laws and mutual respect for others will provide comfort, security, and wealth in addition.


[1] Aristotle. “The Nicomachean Ethics.” In How to Find Happiness without a Free Lunch. ed. Bernardo Aparicio. Accessed 2015.

[2] Aristotle, The Nicomachean Ethics.

[3] Aristotle, The Nicomachean Ethics.

[4] Aristotle, The Nicomachean Ethics.

[5] Aristotle, The Nicomachean Ethics.

[6] Aristotle, The Nicomachean Ethics.

[7] “No Jobs on a Dead Planet – Trade Union Summit on Climate Change.” International Trade Union Confederation. Accessed December 5, 2015.

[8] Aristotle, The Nicomachean Ethics.

[9] Aristotle. “The Politics.” In How to Find Happiness without a Free Lunch. ed. Bernardo Aparicio. Accessed 2015.

[10] Aristotle, The Politics.

[11] Aristotle, The Nicomachean Ethics.

[12] Aristotle, The Nicomachean Ethics.

[13] Aristotle, The Nicomachean Ethics.

[14] Aristotle, The Nicomachean Ethics.

[15] Aristotle, The Nicomachean Ethics.

[16] Aristotle, The Nicomachean Ethics.


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