Saturday, November 13, 2010

On the Circularity of Aristotle's Ethics

As the philosophy stands today, Aristotelian ethics contains a circle in its logic and there is no way to get this circle to open up. It has been a controversy for a very long time.

However, Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics can be perfectly logical, and as such not circular, if the reader makes one, somewhat obvious, assumption: Aristotle's original audience, whether reader or lecture student, in seeking to understand virtuous action, is inherently engaging in virtuous behavior and establishing virtuous habits. This essentially makes the audience a group of virtuous individuals, and a few deductions later, can solve his logical circle.

Understanding the circle is necessary when understanding how it can be solved. Though the circle can really begin anywhere, I will begin with happiness. Aristotle sees happiness as the ultimate good. In this context, a good is the right end or goal. From the following excerpt, happiness is an activity, not a quality:

what remains is to discuss in outline the nature of happiness, since this is what we state the end of human nature to be...we must rather class happiness as an activity...” (Nicomachean Ethics, Book X, Section 6)

This understanding of happiness leads the reader into virtuous living:
The happy life is thought to be virtuous...” (Nicomachean Ethics, Book X, Section 6)
At this point, Aristotle has stated happiness to be the ultimate of human ends, described happiness as an activity, and finally related happy activity to virtuosity. So happiness and virtue both exist in activity. The next logical inquisitive step is, “What is virtue?” or, “What is virtuous action?” Aristotle's answer to this is such that:
virtue and the good man as such are the measure of each thing, those also will be pleasures which appear so to him, and those things pleasant which he enjoys.” (Nicomachean Ethics, Book X, Section 5)

In other words, the virtuous man is to be used as the measure for virtue. Also, it says here that virtuous pleasures are those experienced as pleasurable for the virtuous man. So pleasure is a part of the virtuous man's life, as a sort of byproduct of being virtuous. Previous to this excerpt, Aristotle has taken care to create an idea of pleasure which is in itself is not a proper end.

Here, he ties pleasure back to happiness:

that which is proper to each thing is by nature best and most pleasant for each thing; for man, therefore, the life according to reason is best and pleasantest, since reason more than anything else is man. This life therefore is also the happiest.” (Nicomachean Ethics, Book X, Section 7)

It is now established that attaining proper pleasure is part of the happiest life, connecting pleasure to happiness and completing the self-referencing circle.

Critics of Aristotle's ethics note that this circle sends the whole theory into the lonely realm of inapplicability. When attempting to answer the question, “What ought I to do?” using virtue theory, the answer continually flows around the circle. It looks about like this:
What ought I to do?
-- Do what the virtuous person would do in your situation.
What would the virtuous person do in my situation?
-- The virtuous person would take the virtuous action.
What is the virtuous action?
-- The virtuous action is that action taken out of virtue.
What is virtue?
-- Virtue is tied to happiness, as being virtuous equates being happy.
What is happiness?
-- Happiness is an activity which produces proper pleasure.
What is proper pleasure?
-- Proper pleasure is the pleasure a virtuous person would experience when acting.

Critics are correct to denounce the theory at this point. What good is a theory if, when applied, it will not hold up under any circumstances? To be even a poor moral theory, it must work under some condition. But when put to the test, it cannot solve even one problem. However, the theory's nugatory application changes if a simple assumption is made.

Aristotle's placement of untold trust in the virtuous person's ability to be happy occurs essentially for the reason that it is their nature to do so. In other words, happiness is the highest good and natural virtuosity is the requirement of it's achievement. As such, the virtuous and implicatively right act is analogous to the action a virtuous person would take. Take note, this sounds a bit like relativism.

Now, what non-virtuous person would have the time to study ethics, especially during the 3rd or 4th century before the common era, and upon having the time, actually take advantage of it? It is hard to picture a hardened criminal, caring little for human flourishing, sitting down and studying an ethics text, and then thoughtfully contemplating how to apply it to his life. Perhaps a hardened criminal would read some Nicomachean Ethics if he had the will to change his ways and become virtuous. But in that case, this person would be in pursuit of a virtuous life. A person who is in pursuit of the virtuous life can hardly be considered to be acting viciously, as they are acting in order to will bring about virtuous character. I assert that it would not be illogical for Aristotle to know this, if not consciously, then subconsciously, and it came through in his ethics, though not explicitly so. Perhaps Aristotle was under the assumption that the people reading his writings and listening to his lectures were already potentially virtuous.

Under the assumption that Aristotle intended for these ethics to be studied by those interested in being virtuous, what is to become of those uninterested in being virtuous? As such the empiricist that Aristotle was, using a scientific method of reasoning, he likely knew that forcing people to be a certain way doesn't really work. In fact, as teacher of Alexander the Great, Aristotle was the one responsible for Alexander's semi-policy of allowing newly conquered peoples to continue their culture. Once again, Aristotle had to know that force would not be an acceptable means to bring about virtuous changes in vicious people.

So how does one instruct the potentially virtuous into the good life? The Doctrine of the Mean, Aristotle's measure for virtuous traits, is a good way. It gives students a relatable conception of the word virtue, and then sends them on their way. Assuming that the people who are virtuous or potentially virtuous are the ones who are really interested in what Aristotle had to teach, this does not seem far-fetched. Sometimes people want such exact, precise, to the bone, realistic definitions of what they should do or how they should be that they seek the truth outside of themselves. But as Aristotle is prided for his practicality, it makes sense for his moral theory to be set up somewhat relative for those who are made the example. Also, Aristotle does not give any real instructions for the reader to find a particular virtuous person to study. This fact creates a surprisingly theoretical approach. As a reader, in attempting to apply the theory in my life, I was forced to assume myself to be the judge of virtue, as my own judgment has to be better than none at all.

By glancing over another Aristotelian text, Politics Book I, and considering the world in which Aristotle lived, further deductions can be made. First of all, Aristotle believed in classes of people: at the bottom being slaves, who's nature it is to serve a master, and at the top is the male citizen. The male citizen is the most fit to rule over others. It is well known that the governing of the city-state in Aristotle's time was done by these male citizens, the elite of society. Also, Aristotle's ideal form of government, an aristocracy, is rule by the elite. The importance of this upper society of men to Aristotle is clear. Also, in Book 1, Section 4 of Nicomachean Ethics, political science is stated to oriented to achieve the highest of all goods achievable by action, namely happiness of all members of the state:

in view of the fact that all knowledge and every pursuit aims at some good, what it is that we say political science aims at and what is the highest of all goods achievable by action.”

Since the activity of politics is to be reserved for the elite, it is easy to assume that the teaching of ethics, being the school from which politics derives its direction, is to be reserved for the elite as well.

When the context surrounding Aristotle's writing is considered in such a way that the audience is assumed to be inherently virtuous, there ceases to be a problematic circle in Nicomachean Ethics. By making a few deductions, virtue theory can become useful for those who study it, as a somewhat relative theory applicable to human life. 

No comments:

Post a Comment