Our Desires (and Where they come from) – MacIntyre, Aquinas, Aristotle

July 5, 2018 — Leave a comment


I’ve recently been digging into one of Alasdair MacIntyre’s recent books (that somehow slipped past our radar)

Ethics in the Conflicts of Modernity:
An Essay on Desire, Practical Reasoning, and Narrative
Alasdair MacIntyre

Hardback: Cambridge UP, 2016
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Our Intro Guide to

I turned to MacIntyre to help me understand the desires we have has humans and where they come from. Those familiar with MacIntyre’s work will not be surprised to find that his exploration of these questions winds its way back in history through St. Thomas Aquinas to Aristotle. It has been very helpful for me to follow this trajectory, and I thought it might also be helpful for some of our readers. 

[ MacIntyre ]  [ Aquinas ]  [ Aristotle ]


Aristotle on Desire
Summarized by MacIntyre

Ethics in the Conflicts of Modernity, p. 30

Aristotle - Desire

For a fuller account (and primary source), see:

Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics
Book I 

Part 1

Every art and every inquiry, and similarly every action and pursuit, is thought to aim at some good; and for this reason the good has rightly been declared to be that at which all things aim. But a certain difference is found among ends; some are activities, others are products apart from the activities that produce them. Where there are ends apart from the actions, it is the nature of the products to be better than the activities. Now, as there are many actions, arts, and sciences, their ends also are many; the end of the medical art is health, that of shipbuilding a vessel, that of strategy victory, that of economics wealth. But where such arts fall under a single capacity- as bridle-making and the other arts concerned with the equipment of horses fall under the art of riding, and this and every military action under strategy, in the same way other arts fall under yet others- in all of these the ends of the master arts are to be preferred to all the subordinate ends; for it is for the sake of the former that the latter are pursued. It makes no difference whether the activities themselves are the ends of the actions, or something else apart from the activities, as in the case of the sciences just mentioned.

Part 2

If, then, there is some end of the things we do, which we desire for its own sake (everything else being desired for the sake of this), and if we do not choose everything for the sake of something else (for at that rate the process would go on to infinity, so that our desire would be empty and vain), clearly this must be the good and the chief good. Will not the knowledge of it, then, have a great influence on life? Shall we not, like archers who have a mark to aim at, be more likely to hit upon what is right? If so, we must try, in outline at least, to determine what it is, and of which of the sciences or capacities it is the object. It would seem to belong to the most authoritative art and that which is most truly the master art. And politics appears to be of this nature; for it is this that ordains which of the sciences should be studied in a state, and which each class of citizens should learn and up to what point they should learn them; and we see even the most highly esteemed of capacities to fall under this, e.g. strategy, economics, rhetoric; now, since politics uses the rest of the sciences, and since, again, it legislates as to what we are to do and what we are to abstain from, the end of this science must include those of the others, so that this end must be the good for man. For even if the end is the same for a single man and for a state, that of the state seems at all events something greater and more complete whether to attain or to preserve; though it is worth while to attain the end merely for one man, it is finer and more godlike to attain it for a nation or for city-states. These, then, are the ends at which our inquiry aims, since it is political science, in one sense of that term.