The nature of ends is addressed in book 1 of Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics. “Every art and every inquiry, and likewise every action and choice, seems to aim at some good, and hence it has been beautifully said that the good is that at which all things aim.” (Sachs translation, p.1.) The Kantian primacy of practical reason and the primacy of normativity in Brandom express a similar insight.
“Good”, however, is meant in as many ways as “being” is, so there is no common good that is one and universal, no good-in-itself.
In the course of this discussion, Aristotle repeatedly emphasizes that one should not seek more precision in a given subject than is appropriate to it. One also should not try to derive conclusions that are more exact than what they are derived from. In areas like ethics and politics especially, one should be content to point out the truth roughly and in outline, and to say what is true for the most part.
Aristotle would object to the notion of “value free” science. Even his physics is a pragmatic, broadly semantic inquiry. His notion of cause (aitia) is much broader and more pluralistic than the modern one. An end is a kind of cause in Aristotle’s sense, but not in the modern sense. Aristotelian ends are orthogonal to modern causality. Not until Kant and Hegel did the modern world begin to recover a similar sophistication. (See also Univocity; Free Will and Determinism.)
There is nothing subjective about an Aristotelian end. Aristotelian teleology does not involve any mental intentions of spiritual beings (see God and the Soul). An end is just what Brandom would call the conceptual content of something sought or achieved. It is a pure form. (An aim on the other hand is an end that is taken up subjectively.)
An end may be sought on its own account, or for the sake of something else. The realization of an end may involve the realization of subordinate ends, which may involve the realization of further subordinate ends, and so on. Ends for the sake of which other ends are realized and ends sought on their own account are considered to be of greater value. An end may be a way of being at work, or a work produced. An end sought on its own account is typically a way of being at work. Aristotle suggests that the most comprehensive and therefore most valuable end for humans is politics as an activity, which is concerned with the good of all. In general, a good or end is better the more complete and self-sufficient it is.
In accordance with the emphasis on completeness, the end of an individual is to live a whole life that is good, which can only be judged retrospectively. The work of a human being is “a being-at-work of the soul in accordance with reason, or not without reason… and actions that go along with reason… [done] well and beautifully” (p.11). (See also Reasonableness; Reasons; Commitment; Happiness.)
People are good at making distinctions about the things they are acquainted with. “This is why one who is going to listen adequately to things that are beautiful and just, and generally about things that pertain to political matters, needs to have been beautifully brought up by means of habits.” (p.4.)
I read Aristotle as suggesting that immanent ends of natural beings are ultimately the most influential of the “causes” or reasons why things turn out as they do. Yet they are a kind of soft “cause” that only attracts. All of Aristotle’s causes are soft in one way or another. Each of the four interacts with the others in quasi-reciprocal fashion, and none of them results in the sort of hard determination classically attributed to early modern mechanical impulse. (See also Efficient Cause; Form; Aristotelian Matter.)
Nothing in this is incompatible with also incorporating modern mathematics into the account, but Aristotle’s main concern is with a pragmatic semantics of experience.
It is relatively easy for us to imagine how nonrational, sentient beings that still have desire are moved by internal ends. Nonsentient things do not literally have desire, and we have been taught not to think as if they did. It is only a metaphor to say, e.g., that heavy objects “want” to fall, but there is no inherent category mistake or personification in talking about an apparent material tendency as exhibiting a kind of apparent end, below the level of sentient desire.
In quasi-Brandomian terms, Aristotelian ends are an expressive metaconcept useful in the interpretation of experience, not a hypothesis about something beyond experience. (See also Natural Ends; Kant’s Recovery of Ends.)