Thoughts on Aristotle’s ethics

I wrote these brief notes as starting points for discussions in a PhD course I took on Aristotle’s ethics. The topics are eudaimonia, phronesis, the doctrine of the mean, and akrasia. Basic knowledge of Aristotle’s ethics is presumed.

Eudaimonia

One of the fundamental elements in Aristotle’s ethics is the notion of eudaimonia, which is sometimes translated into “happiness” or “flourishing”. Eudaimonia is the sole good; all other things are good only in so far as they contribute to it. It is a complex concept. First, while happiness and flourishing are states, Aristotle intends eudaimonia to be understood as an activity. Furthermore, individual instances of goods do not add up to eudaimonia, as it is an ongoing activity to be continuously practiced:

… the human good [is] activity of the soul in accordance with virtue, and if there are several virtues, in accordance with the best and most complete. Again, this must be over a complete life. For one swallow does not make a summer, nor one day. (1098a15–20)

One might believe that leading a virtuous life involves restraining oneself, subjecting one’s desires to burdensome obligations. However, on the contrary, just as “a horse-lover finds it in a horse, and someone who likes wonderful sights finds it in a wonderful sight,” a virtuous person finds pleasure in “what accords with virtue” (1099a5–15). Furthermore, one might also believe that eudaimonia and the virtuous life is something extraneous to humans. In fact, the opposite is true. Being virtuous resembles self-realization rather than self-alienation. The life in accordance with virtue “is best and pleasantest, since this, more than anything else, constitutes humanity” (1178a5).[1] It is, to paraphrase Aristotle, each human’s inherent purpose.

There are many issues concerning eudaimonia that are subject to interpretation and discussion. This short note accounts (very) briefly for three such issues, as they are treated by Thomas Nagel, J. L. Ackrill, and Kathleen V. Wilkes.

Nagel acknowledges that Aristotle seems to adhere to two different accounts of eudaimonia: “a comprehensive and an intellectualist” (p. 7). According to the intellectualist account, eudaimonia is a theoretical activity of contemplation. In the comprehensive account, on the other hand, “eudaimonia essentially involves not just the activity of the theoretical intellect but the full range of human life and action, in accordance with the broader excellences of moral virtue and practical wisdom” (ibid). According to Nagel, the comprehensive account builds on conjunctions that make the specific ergon (i.e. function) that distinguishes humans impossible; eudaimonia collapses conceptually. Instead, he favors an interpretation of Aristotle that supports the intellectualist account of eudaimonia:

… men are not simply the most complex species of animal but possess as their essential nature a capacity to transcend themselves and become like gods. It is in virtue of this capacity that they are capable of eudaimonia, whereas animals are incapable of it, children have not achieved it, and certain adults, such as slaves, are prevented from reaching it. (p. 13)

Ackrill introduces a distinction between “inclusive” and “dominant” doctrines of eudaimonia (pp. 16–7). An inclusive end, as Ackrill uses the term, combines more than one values or activities or goods. A dominant end, by contrast, is monolithic. The questions then are what kind of end eudaimonia is treated as in Book 1 of Nicomachean Ethics, and precisely how actions gain their moral status in relation to eudaimonia. Ackrill rebuts theorists who treat eudaimonia as a dominant doctrine, and argues that Aristotle’s account of eudaimonia in Book 1 is inclusive: eudaimonia does here not merely encompass the contemplative sphere of life (theoria), but also to the practical. If true, it follows that Aristotle must not be committed to the view that actions have value only as a means to theoria. Actions can be virtuous also with regards to other goods. Similarly, but more decisively, Wilkes argues that eudaimonia is an inclusive doctrine, in the terminology introduced by Ackrill:

It would be more charitable to Aristotle—and fortunately in keeping with remarks of his elsewhere—to stress the actively inquiring side of Sophia and to play down the praise of contemplation. We could then resolve the conflict between the “philosophic” and the “political” lives by agreeing that although the ergon of man is indeed “activity of the psuche in accordance with a rational principle,” the “rational principle” in question is, broadly, intelligence in general—intelligence that may be applied to art, craft, science, philosophy, politics, or any other domain. (pp. 353–4)

Phronesis

In Book VI, Aristotle treats the notion of practical wisdom (phronesis), and the standard by with it is to be determined (Kraut). “The person who knows his own interests,” Aristotle writes, “and makes these his concern seems to be a practically wise person” (1142a). Practical wisdom is an intellectual virtue. Björkman writes: “To have phronesis means to be good at thinking about how one should act in order to live a worthwhile life” (p. 62). It “provides the necessary infrastructure for deliberation and decision-making” (p. 63). However, the notion is more complex than so.

Practical wisdom gives commands (Aristotle, 1143a5–10). It is the distinguishing notion between a person who does what is right because the law prescribes such actions, and the person who does what is right for the sake of the actions themselves (1144a15–20). Broadie elaborates on two features of Aristotle’s practical wisdom:

(1) its objects are contingent particulars, non-abstract, imprecise, never completely articulable, by contrast with the objects of intellectual accomplishment, which are necessary, universal, abstract, capable of being made completely precise. Yet, in case these contrasts seem to cast doubt on wisdom’s claim to intellectuality, (2) it is an intellectual excellence coordinate with intellectual mastery. Each of the two is the excellence of a distinct kind of reason—a distinct ’part’ of the strictly rational part of the soul—and each enables its own kind of reason to achieve its own kind of truth. (p. 47)

The notion of practical wisdom is complex mainly because Aristotle essentially denies that general behavioral-governing principles can be formulated. John McDowell: “The rationality of virtue … is not demonstrable from an external standpoint” (p. 346). Ethical conduct requires the agent’s cognitive deliberation on particular instances of choice. David Wiggins: “In no case will there be a rule to which a man can simply appeal to tell him what to do (except in the special case where an absolute prohibition operates). The man may have no other recourse but to invent the answer to the problem. … Aristotle provides … a conceptual framework which we can apply [when doing so]” (pp. 236–7). Richard Sorabji: Practical wisdom “enables a man … to perceive what generosity requires of him, or more generally what virtue and to kalon require of him, in the particular case, and it instructs him to act accordingly” (p. 206).

The doctrine of the mean

The doctrine of the mean is central to Aristotle. He writes:

Virtue, then, is a state involving rational choice, consisting in a mean relative to us and determined by reason – the reason, that is, by reference to which the practically wise person would determine it. It is a mean between two vices, one of excess, the other of deficiency. (1106b35–1107a)

Accordingly, the virtue of e.g. modesty lies in between shyness, which is an excess, and shamelessness, which is a deficiency. The virtuous person displays neither too much nor too little of a certain behavior or emotion, but the right amount. Furthermore, the virtue is not only relative to the two vices, but relative to the virtue-carrier. Aristotle demonstrates this with the example of a wrestler, for whom it would be virtuous to eat this and that much; a meal that would be vicious—perhaps a display of overindulge—for a normal person to eat. Thus, virtue is a mean both relative to two vices and to the virtue-carrier.

However, this picture of the doctrine of the mean might be oversimplified. For instance, Crisp notes that Aristotle points out that “one can miss the mark in many ways … but one can get things right in only one” (Crisp, p. 159; Aristotle, 1106b29–32). Crisp writes:

Hitting the mean involves getting one’s actions and feelings right in all the various ways listed in the doctrine. … Thus, in the case of anger, the even-tempered person will get angry with someone at the correct point, whereas the irascible or irritable person will get angry too quickly; and the person with the virtue will remain angry for the right time, whereas the sulky person will remain angry for too long. And, of course, we can imagine corresponding vices: those of the person who takes too long to get angry, and of the person who gets over their anger too quickly. (ibid)

Hursthouse also notes that the idea that each virtue corresponds to precisely two vices is odd: what could explain “this extraordinary mathematical symmetry?” (p. 60). She then provides an explanation for why some hold on to a simplified picture of the doctrine of the mean. Aristotle makes background assumptions regarding human beings and the excess and deficiency of the virtues of courage and temperance (pp. 68–9). These assumptions suggest that virtue is the mean between two vices—albeit only in the case of these two specific virtues. Aristotle does not make such assumptions regarding other virtues. It is his contemporary readers that have brought with them these assumptions, thereby making a universal of what was originally a particular.

Losin suggests that hitting the mean should be thought of as a display of excellence, which is “not so much a matter of hitting one particular point on a target as it is a matter of avoiding the variety of mistakes it is possible to make in a complex situation” (p. 340). Setting aside the nature of the specific situation at hand, Losin identifies at least five continua on which the virtuous person identifies the mean: 1) frequency: never↔always; 2) degree: too mildly↔too violently; 3) duration: too short↔too long; 4) people: no one↔everyone; and 5) provoking circumstances: none↔everything (p. 335). Acts and feelings can fall “anywhere on each of these continua. Each presents, in principle anyway, a distinct variable, and each varies independently of the other four” (ibid).

Thus, the doctrine of the mean as sketched in the beginning of this text seems to be far too simple. The concept is much more complex, and requires close attention and deep analysis.

Akrasia

Akrasia is weakness of will, i.e., the failure to be motivated by reason. Failing to be motivated by reason means that one acknowledges what one should do, is rationally convinced of the truth of the supporting reasons thereof, yet does not act accordingly. In Aristotle’s ethics, the akratic person falls short of being virtuous.

Following Kraut’s explanation, there are two forms of akrasia present in Aristotle: impetuosity and weakness. The weak person knows rationally what is right by a process of deliberation, but is overwhelmed by the passion to act on the contrary. The impetuous person, on the other hand, does not experience such an internal conflict. She deliberates on her actions retroactively, and is guilty of knows that she should have known rather than did know yet failed to act accordingly. It could be said that since there was no internal conflict prior to the act, impetuosity has nothing to do with weakness of will. However, Aristotle speaks of consistent personality traits—not of individual actions. Therefore, one can be an akratic person although one never experiences the internal conflict of knowing what is right in a certain instance yet acting on the contrary in that instance.

One problem, discussed by Burnyeat, is how the conflict can arise between being motivated by rightness and being motivated by its contrary (pp. 83–6). The fact that humans are beings disposed so that they can fail to be motivated by the right reasons, and be aware of that while it is happening, presupposes certain ontological features. The “seeds of akrasia are going to be with us as we enter Aristotle’s lecture room” (p. 84). Therefore, akrasia is part of the moral education; it is to be unhabituated.

Another problem, discussed by Wiggins, is that the idea that human beings can fail to be motivated by the right reasons conflicts with the idea that they are value-maximizing and rational beings in the ends-means sense of the term (1980a). If humans are rational, the argument goes, they are motivated by that which provides them with reason to be motivated. On the contrary, Wiggins answers, since we know that humans often fail to be motivated by the right reasons, that idea of the rational being is flawed.[2]

Notes

[1] The full quote is on the life “in accordance with intellect”. However, as will be discussed below, it is a debatable issue whether it was Aristotle’s view that virtue is only a cognitive enterprise or if it is also something else. Therefore, I believe that Aristotle would endorse my formulation.

[2] However, I am not sure that I have understood Wiggins correctly.

References

Aristotle., and Crisp, R. (2014). Nicomachean Ethics. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.

Ackrill, J. L. (1980). Aristotle on Eudaimonia. In: A. Oksenberg Rorty, ed., Essays on Aristotle’s Ethics, 1st ed. University of California Press.

Björkman, B. (2008). Virtue Ethics, Bioethics and the Ownership of Biological Material. Doctoral thesis. Division of Philosophy, KTH Royal Institute of Technology. Stockholm, Sweden.

Broadie, S. (2002). “Philosophical Introduction”. In: S. Broadie, and C. Rowe, ed., Nicomachean Ethics: Translation, Introduction, and Commentary. Oxford University Press.

Burnyeat, M.F. (1980). “Aristotle on Learning to be Good”. In: A. Oksenberg Rorty, ed., Essays on Aristotle’s Ethics, 1st ed. University of California Press.

Crisp, R. (2006). Aristotle on Greatness of Soul, in Kraut R. Blackwell Companion to the Nicomachean Ethics, Blackwell Publishing.

Hursthouse, R. (1981). A False Doctrine of the Mean. Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, 81(1), 57–72.

Kraut, R. ”Aristotle’s Ethics”. In: The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2016 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL: https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/spr2016/entries/aristotle-ethics/

Losin, P. (1987). Aristotle’s Doctrine of the Mean. History of Philosophy Quarterly, 4(3), 329–341.

McDowell, J. (1979). “Virtue and Reason”. In: The Monist. 62:3. pp. 331–350.

Nagel, T. (1980). Aristotle on Eudaimonia. In: A. Oksenberg Rorty, ed., Essays on Aristotle’s Ethics, 1st ed. University of California Press.

Sorabji, R. “Aristotle on the Role of Intellect in Virtue”. In: A. Oksenberg Rorty, ed., Essays on Aristotle’s Ethics, 1st ed. University of California Press.

Wiggins, D. (1980a). “Weakness of Will, Commensurability, and the Objects of Deliberation and Desire”. In: A. Oksenberg Rorty, ed., Essays on Aristotle’s Ethics, 1st ed. University of California Press.

—. (1980b). “Deliberation and Practical Reason”. In: A. Oksenberg Rorty, ed., Essays on Aristotle’s Ethics, 1st ed. University of California Press.

Wilkes, K. V. (1980). The Good Man and the Good for Man in Aristotle’s Ethics. In: A. Oksenberg Rorty, ed., Essays on Aristotle’s Ethics, 1st ed. University of California Press.

1 Response to “Thoughts on Aristotle’s ethics”


  1. 1 Rikard 26 januari, 2017 kl. 21:39

    Hej.

    Inte för att det är något direkt fel på den gamle grekens funderingar, men jag skulle vilja erbjuda ‘slavens perspektiv’ på eudaimonia:

    Att slippa lidande.

    Att slippa svälta, att slippa frysa, att slippa törsta, att få leva under tak.
    Att slippa smärta, fruktan och även frihetens ansvar.

    Att kunna göra så utan att göra det som ont är.

    Måhända är vi ovillkorligen indelade i de som strävar mot stjärnorna, och de som strävar upp ur dyn, och därför för alltid delade i våra definitioner av det goda i varande, låtande och görande.

    Vi är födda olika, vi herrar och slavar, och där den enes strävan ses som dygd kan den andres ses som hot, eller svek eller förräderi och trots gränsande till hybris.

    Kamratliga hälsningar,
    Rikard, fd lärare


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