Introduction to Philosophy Course: Aristotle Part 4: Ethics(Phronimos, logos, areté, eudaimonia, akrasia)

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Jonathan Lear in his work “Aristotle” says the following on p149:

“Freedom is important to us not as one value among others, but as that which constitutes our very being. Other animals may have beliefs and desire but humans distinguish themselves from the rest of nature by the ability to become consciously aware of these beliefs and desires, to consider them and to decide what to do on the basis of that consideration. A human agent need not merely be caused to act by his desires: by his reflecting on his desires and deciding which to satisfy and how, the desires become reasons for him. In acting for these reasons and agent manifests his freedom and humanity but, unfortunately, we have little understanding of what this manifestation of freedom consists in. Since this freedom helps to constitute our humanity, in being ignorant of its working we are ignorant of our essence. We lack an understanding of what it is, fundamentally to be us:”

Now we could be forgiven for believing that the above remarks are about the ethics of Kant but they are rather meant to articulate what Lear thinks is an important implication of Aristotle’s ethics. Lear does however throughout his work on Aristotle articulate support for the claim that Aristotelian ethics is an ethics of freedom. In the course of this “comparison”, however, a surprise is in store:

“According to Kant, a free agent must reflect on his desires from a standpoint outside the desires themselves. The deliberation will not be truly free unless it is carried out from a perspective which can view the desire and so consider it as one factor among others, but which remains independent of its causal sway.On this conception of reflection is a manifestation of freedom precisely because it is a form of detachment. The moral agent, for Kant, is one, who, in thought detaches himself from his desires, particular interests and circumstances and considers solely what a purely rational would will.Hegel, a devoted student of Aristotle, criticised Kant’s conception of free will. Such a will, Hegel argued, would be so detached from its own desires and from the circumstances of deliberation and action that it would be empty: it would never be able to determine what to will.”

Hegel claimed that he would stand the philosophy of Kant on its head ad in attempting to do so may well have turned the worlds of Aristotle, Kant and the common man upside down. Hegel’s dialectical logic replaced the Metaphysical Logic of Aristotle and the Transcendental Logic of Kant. Hegel’s inversion of bottom and top via his dialectical logic remind one of the psychological subjects of Stratton, wearing glasses which invert their retinal images and seeing the landscape upside down on the first day. On the second day these subjects felt that their bodies were upside down until finally after a number of days acting under these strange circumstances everything returned to normal again. Wearing the glasses of Hegel to view the Philosophy of Kant can indeed make the world of Kant seem a strange world itself in need of conversion. It is to say the very least rather surprising to find Lear subscribing to this Hegelian position, succumbing to this Hegelian deconstruction. We need in such a context, to remind ourselves of the texts of Kant which disprove the detachment thesis. Firstly, in the Critique of Judgment Kant clearly claims the existence of an intimate relation between practical reason and desire:

“In the same way reason which contains constitutive a priori principles solely in respect of the faculty of desire gets its holding assigned to it by the critique of Practical Reason.”(Preface)

Lear is apparently failing to register Kant’s claim that there are two kinds of concepts, theoretical and practical which generate separate and different principles of the possibility of their objects. Concepts of nature and concepts of freedom have a reflectively different structure. The application of concepts of nature an acting will generates what Kant calls technically-practical principles in which it is legitimate to conceive of a kind of separation or detachment of the subject and his/her action. Such technically-practical principles regulate and agents skills in accordance with the law of cause and effect and this places such concepts and principles clearly in the realm of theoretical philosophy far from the ream of desire. Kant defines desire in the following terms:

” a faculty which by means of its representations is the cause of the actuality of the objects of those representations.”

This clearly relates desire to practical reason and to the bringing about of states of affairs by means of principles in the practical world. Kant, in this discussion is careful to distinguish between empirical cases in which ones desire for a particular object precedes the practical principle and transcendental cases in which the determining ground of choice is the practical principle. An example of the latter would be in the case where the principle “Promises ought to be kept” determines my choice of what I must do and transmits my desire down a chain of action related reflections. There is no space for any detachment or separation of the agent from his action in such circumstances. In cases of a desire for a material object which is not being directed by a principle, the desire could arise and be abandoned in favour of another desire and in such circumstances one might say that the agent had a detachable relation to the object of the desire and the desire. This possibility on Kant’s view is a result of what he refers to as a lower faculty of desire which he contrasts with a higher faculty in which “promises ought to be kept” is a principle which one cannot abandon as a practical agent. The former lower faculty of desire, argues Kant is concerned with pleasure related to the object desired and its agreeableness. The Latter is concerned with what Aristotle would call the good in itself which in its turn is a concern with our well being and worthiness to be happy. For Kant this is a key condition for an ethical position and this may indicate a key difference between his position and the finality of the happiness condition which Aristotle proposes.

It is therefore puzzling to find Lear asking how a self conscious being on the Kantian account could make decisions at all as if the Kantian self consciousness resembled the Cartesian self consciousness reflecting theoretically upon its own desires. Hegel, we know, did not appreciate the relation of Kantian ethical theory to the ethical theory of Aristotle’s in which we see both adopting the vantage point of reflecting upon the relation of practical reason to its object rather than reflecting on the relation of a state of mind to its object.

One may wish to contradict this account by insisting that Aristotle’s theory of virtue specifically argues that virtue is a state(lexis) rather than a capacity(dunamis) or a feeling(pathos). The question, however, is how would Aristotle wish to characterise the state of the soul. He would not for example countenance this state as a state of consciousness and he would not want to countenance this state being characterised as many modern philosophy of mind theorists do as something “private”(feelings are private and particular). Rather, the “state” Aristotle is referring to here is a state of the soul which for him is differentiated in terms of different principles, defining different kinds or essences. Indeed, the word “disposition” might be a more appropriate term. For these purposes a practical disposition would be construed in terms of a law-like principle that has been sculpted by the processes of training, education and habituation in accordance with social and cultural processes such as that of the “Golden Mean”.

Practical dispositions are given their initial characterisation in the opening remarks of the Nichomachean Ethics:

“Every art and every enquiry, every action and choice, seems to aim at some good:whence the good has rightly been defined as that at which all things aim.”

For Aristotle, we should recall, the good has many meanings depending upon whether it is aiming in discourse at peoples character, their actions, the place or time they live in etc. But all have in common the essence of the good for man or eudaimonia, which for Kant was a part of his ethical religious idea of the summum bonum. It is especially difficult given this rather strong resemblance in their positions to imagine the ethical Kantian agent being detached from his own happiness or flourishing life. There is moreover a hylomorphic element to Kants theorizing which is unmistakeable. In much of his reasoning there is specific reference to matter and form and if we analyse the two formulations of the categorical imperative it would be difficult not to see the formal aspect of the ethical law in the first formulation and the material aspect in the second formulation. Were there to be only one formulation, namely, the first, one might be able to argue more forcefully for if not the detachment thesis Lear proposes, perhaps an accusation of formalism or “emptiness”. The first formulation asks us to “will” that the maxim of ones action be regarded as a universal law and if there is no such universal law then the logical consequence is surely at the very least “emptiness” and more seriously perhaps the impossibility of ethical action. The second formulation however fills the first formulation with content by insisting that we should act so that we treat everyone including ourselves as ends in themselves. This latter formulation is moreover, reminiscent of the kind of respect embedded in the Aristotelian account of friendship in the Nichomachean Ethics. Aristotle speaks here of a kind of fellowship existing between individuals or citizens of a polis which is similar to the the affection that siblings have for one another. In Aristotle the good is in mans character from the beginning in the form of a capacity to be developed by nurturing and education into a disposition. Just as we learn to be builders by building, and teachers by teaching doctors by doctoring, we learn to be brace by doing brave acts in encouraging circumstances. This is the route by which states of character are formed. In this process of forming a good disposition pleasures and pains need to be organised because, as Aristotle claims, “the pursuit of pleasure and the avoidance of pain” are the main sources of vicious action. Feelings are originally also capacities and are part of the material that needs to be formed by the nurturing of a virtuous disposition so that one feels the right feeling in the right circumstances at the right time.

It is obvious from the above account that virtue cannot itself be merely a feeling because as Aristotle rightly argues we do not praise or blame men for the feelings they are having, because this is something passive, something that is happening to them, within the privacy of their own bodies. The ethical attitude is an active attitude inextricably tied up with human activity, with action and with choice. Such activity is formed by a method shaped by an aim to hit a target or achieve an end. The difference between the generous man, the spendthrift and the miser is one of an active attitude towards men and money.

We can only choose to act, Aristotle argues if the action is of the kind, voluntary. Actions caused by external factors(compulsions) or ignorance are for him involuntary actions and cannot be freely chosen: such actions can therefore neither be praised nor blamed, i.e the agent cannot be held fully responsible for them. The notion of choice however is not related to the end of the flourishing life because this latter is a rational wish of Eros and is not itself chosen but rather succumbed to in the manner an educational process is succumbed to. Deliberation chooses the means to accomplish the flourishing life. For a holistic view of the process of deliberation stretching from the moment of succumbing to the moment of making the good occur see Sir David Ross’s account in “Aristotle”:

Ross situates choice in the matrix of desire, deliberation perception and Art:

“Desire I desire A
Deliberation B is the means to A
C is the means to B
N is the means to M

Perception N is something I can do here and now
Choice I choose N
Art I do N “

Ross does not do this but one can describe this process of deliberation in terms of areté which is a term Aristotle uses for both ones moral character and ones skill in thinking. Translating this term as virtue becomes clearer when it is used in the context of “the virtuous life” which when coupled to the term eudaimonia or the flourishing life embraces both the intellectual virtues and the moral/ethical virtues which include phronesis, courage and temperance.
The character of a virtuous man is, then, a set of dispositions(formed capacities) which organise ones desires and feelings in relation to the final end of eudaimonia or the flourishing life which inits turn is also the actualisation of the potential of the rational animal capable of discourse.
The Phronimos, the man possessing practical wisdom which he demonstrates with his correct reasoning , reasoning in the right way, or orthos logos, is the man whose psuche or soul best integrates the rational and the irrational parts of the soul. Aristotle indicates the consequences of falling short in the aim of fulfilling ones potential, namely forms of life which are neither excellent(areté) nor flourishing(eudaimonia. He illustrates this claim by pointing to the life of pleasure pursued by non rational animals, the life of honour pursued by men of ambition and the life of the Phronimos who, one assumes, fulfils his potential most completely because of the Platonic argument that he is the being who has experienced all the three forms of pleasure associated with these different life forms and as a consequence knows which pleasure is the best.Plato would have argued that the pleasure experienced by the Phronimos is pure(more intellectual) and unrelated to pain which by definition is a condition caused by a body striving for homeostasis. The lives of the hedonist, the wealthy man, the ambitious man are all pain avoidance related and therefore dependent on either external or internal causal factors. None of these forms of life meet the criteria of the self sufficient flourishing life.The great souled, Phronimos, on the other hand, is self sufficient because he reasons in the right way about the world of conduct and feelings(the feelings of pleasure and pain, fear and anger).

It is also important not to lose sight of the systematic connections of the above account with Aristotle’s claims about the psuche and human nature. Because humans are animals and organisms they necessarily possess an ergon(inbuilt function)as well as a telos which is dependent upon material and efficient causes. The human however, distinguishes itself from other forms of life through a unique capacity and its potential: rationality. Rationality is a term we attribute to humankind for its disposition to reason well and excellently. Reason is on this account a capacity and rationality a disposition(the well developed capacity of reasoning excellently).

One can wonder, as G E Moore did, whether including the natural, biological material and efficient causes of being a human in the definition of “moral value” condemns Aristotle’s account to committing the naturalistic fallacy, i.e. the fallacy of defining moral value in terms of natural capacities. We have argued above that moral virtue is dispositional and dispositions are formal and developed capacities. If this distinction is observed, there is no fallacy, no contradiction: capacities, we have argued, are actualised into dispositions given the appropriate conditions for the actualisation process to occur. That is to say, there is no logical equivalence between the natural capacities of a human organism and its moral dispositions which are , as has been argued, constituted of the exercise of natural capacities excellently.

Aristotle characterises all forms of activity and art as striving for the good and areté so it is important to point out that even if one possesses the capacity to build a house and do it well this activity of an artisan is not a form of moral excellence but rather a form of aesthetic excellence. Lear points out the fundamental differences between these forms of excellence:

“There are three conditions of acting virtuously. 1. The agent must have practical knowledge. For example for a given act to be courageous(not merely done in accordance with courage) a person must know that in these circumstances taking a stand would be the right thing to do. He must be aware that this is not a case of foolhardiness, bravado, or silliness. 2.He must choose the act and choose it for its own sake. He must be doing it because , in these circumstances, it is the courageous thing to do. 3. The act must flow from a firm character. It should not be a chance event as it would be, for example, if a man fought fiercely because in those circumstances he happened to find no way to flee. Such a person may have a strong survival instinct, but he is not courageous.”(p170)

The pursuit of aesthetic excellence requires only the first condition of the above three conditions. Lear continues:

” A builder needs only know how to build a house–choice and character are essential to virtue.”

There is a further major difference between moral and aesthetic virtue or excellence which is connected to the distinction Aristotle recognizes between acting(praxis) and producing(poesis). This is noted by G J Hughes in his Routledge guidebook: “Aristotle on Ethics”:

“Health is indeed the product of the art of medicine just as a house is the product of architecture, or a statue of sculpture. But eudaimonia is not the product of the actions of a good person. Fulfilment in life is not something over and above someone’s actions which those actions produce. Fulfilment consists in doing what one does just because one sees those actions as noble and worthwhile…. living is not a process one undertakes for the sake of something else which is produced as a result. The point of the good life just is the living of it.”

Hughes continues by pointing out that this puts Aristotle in the deontological camp in our modern ethical debates. He cannot be a consequentialist, argues Hughes, because:

“Aristotle has nothing comparable to Bentham’s definition of an action as a “mere bodily movement” from which it would indeed follow that the value of an action must depend the consequences that action produces, as Bentham says. Instead Aristotle defines an action in terms of how the agent describes or sees their behaviour at the time and draws no particular line between action and its consequences”

The implications of this are devastating for the utilitarian position which finds itself at odds with two of the most important ethical positions. For Aristotle, the agent must adopt a first person perspective to what they are doing and not a third person observationalist perspective which in the absence of the declaration of intention by the agent of the action might well see “mere bodily movement”. Confusion is endemic in this area of debate. We can see one kind of confusion in the utilitarian camp where the theoretical obsession with a reductive-compositive method together with an observationalist/experimental interpretation of that method postulates “atoms” of pure movement which can then be inserted into a theoretical framework of linear causes and effects. The movement “causes” a state of affairs which is logically different from its cause, thus dividing what was a unitary action into two elements which can only be composed into a unity at the expense of the holistic account of deliberative practical reasoning we find in Aristotelian ethics.

Confusions between praxis and poesis may even assist in this attempt to subject this domain to the theoretical framework of scientific reasoning. It is of course easier to dissolve a skill(needed for the production of an object) into movement and the product produced at the end of the activity because here quite clearly the observer can for example see the builder building and the “consequence”, the completed, produced house. Aristotle would immediately criticise this theoretical attempt for failing to appreciate the role of intention in identifying the activity, in correctly describing the activity. This for him could only occur from the first person point of view. The builder sees what he is doing from the point of view of the idea or form of the house he has in mind and this for him logically determines how one can describe such building activity. All art aims at the good, Aristotle declared but there is a difference between the good house being built which is largely an aesthetic matter and leading a good flourishing life which is a broader, ethical/political good. We need also to recall that we are in the realm of forms for Aristotle, forms which are subject to his metaphysical theory of change. Forms for Aristotle were hierarchically structured with sexual reproduction of living forms at the lower end of the scale being followed by the production of artefacts and finally by the learning and teaching of the forms. The production of artefacts as we pointed out involves practical knowledge but not choice and a stable character. Here it seems we are clearly dealing with an activity or work but not fully fledged action(Arendt distinguished in her work between labour, work and action) An organised soul is required to perform the actions which aim at a flourishing life: only work-activity is required to produce the objects of techné.

So, knowledge is involved in firstly, the action as a result of practical reasoning and secondly, in the deliberative calculation of the work activity behind the creation of objects of techné. We need to enquire into the different kinds of knowledge one can encounter in the different kinds of science one can encounter as part of the flourishing life. Aristotle distinguishes between three different kinds of science: the theoretical, practical and productive sciences. In relation to theoretical science he claims, in the spirit of knowledge being justified true belief, that essence specifying definitions or principles are the justifications we find in the theoretical sphere of scientific activity. These both provide a form of logical necessity not to be found in the other two sciences, which are both aiming at something for which, as yet, there are no essence specifying definitions but there are principles. Theoretical sciences aim at the truth and use logical demonstration that move from first principles or essence specifying definitions to logically related conclusions. Practical sciences may be related to the truth and logic or “analytics” as Aristotle called logic, but the primary aim of these sciences is the good. Because of areas of commonality we find in this area that particular conclusive judgments follow from universal and particular premises. Similarly, in the practical sciences “justification” will also involve the elements of Aristotle’s metaphysical theory of change in which reference will be made to 4 kinds of change, three principles and 4 “causes” but here agents, powers and actions will be the focus of attention.

In the “Posterior Analytics” Aristotle gives us an account of the acquisition of knowledge which it has been argued by Jonathan Lear is common for all the sciences:

“Man is not born with knowledge but he is born with the capacity to acquire it. But the world must cooperate with him if he is to exercise that capacity. Man starts life with the ability to discriminate among sensory phenomena, an ability he shares with other animals. His soul retains a record of its sensory encounters. Through repeated encounters with items in the world our sensory discriminations develop into memory and then into what Aristotle calls “experience”. Experience, Aristotle characterises as “the whole universal that has come to rest in the soul”. From repeated perception of particular men, we form the concept of a man, and the knowledge that this thing we see is a man is experience. If the universal or concept were not somehow already embedded in the particular, we could not make the transition from bare sensory discrimination to knowledge of the individual. As Aristotle says, “though one perceives the particular, perception is of the universal”(p2)

The above is a fine account of how the desire to understand involves powers building upon powers and integrating into the unified disposition of mind that we believe generates knowledge. This process, surely is, as lear claims, common to all the sciences. It accounts for how we differentiate animals from each other, of how we differentiate men from each other and also finally how we differentiate objects and actions from each other. The above account does not mention the powers of language and reason but these will certainly be involved in the generation of knowledge. The 4 causes or explanations of the theory of change will also be involved in our judgments of the good man striving to actualise his potential to live the flourishing life. They will also be involved in scientific judgments in relation to the good action which as we have been told plays an important role in the above actualisation process. The desire to understand oneself and know oneself will also probably be a part of this journey of awe and wonder. Aristotle’s idea of the flourishing life is one where both the moral and intellectual virtues form a unity in which knowledge whilst not being perhaps a seamless robe is at least one coat of many colours.
The idea of the good will in this account include both knowledge and understanding of oneself and the world one lives in.
Aristotle did engage in discussion of one aporetic issue which directly highlights the ways in which theoretical and practical knowledge are integrated in ethical action. Socrates argued that if a man knows the good, i.e. really knows and understands the universal idea of the good, then he will necessarily always do the good in his actions. On the fact of it the opening sentences of the Nichomachean Ethics, claiming as they do that all art, activity and enquiry aim at the good suggests that Aristotle too, must accept this Socratic analysis. Awareness of the phenomenon of the man claiming to know the good and then not doing it, however, pushed Aristotle into giving a more nuanced account of this so called phenomenon of akrasia or incontinence. For Aristotle it was necessary for him to acknowledge this phenomenon and give it an acceptable explanation. Now if it was the case that all men as agents aim at the good, it is difficult to understand how an agent can perform an incontinent action where that is defined as an action that is intentional and performed against a background of the knowledge that a preferable alternative action is available to the agent. If we are imagining a rational agent wholly constituted of their beliefs, desires, values and actions then:

“We can see a being as an agent, as acting intentionally, only insofar as we can see his behaviour within the schema of beliefs and desires that we attribute to him. It is among his beliefs and desires that we must find a reason for acting as he does. But we are able to identify his beliefs and desires only via his intentional actions, by what he says and otherwise does.It is in these actions that what is of value is revealed:there is , in principle, no independent access to his values.”(p176)

Socrates was criticized by Lear because he wanted to characterise akrasia in terms of states of the soul but the above quote seems to be a similar attempt, using states of mind and the terminology of analytical Philosophy. Aristotle’s account of akrasia is actually better characterised in terms of his own terminology of the powers of perception, memory, language, knowledge and reason in an organised soul: . On this account it is not possible. If there is an alternative action for which there are good reasons, it must be the case in an organised soul that all things considered and understood this must be the action one chooses to perform(not being aware of what one is doing and being drunk with passion are excluded as possibilities). This suggests that the phenomenon of incontinence must be explained by their either being a lack of knowledge or ignorance of how to act.
The power of judgment will also necessarily play a part in the deliberative process which leads to action. Lear develops this point in the following manner:

“Given that the premisses of a practical syllogism necessitate the action-conclusion, Aristotle needs an account of how the premisses might on occasion be blocked, rendered inoperative. He distinguishes various senses in which one can have knowledge or understanding: there is the sense in which one possesses the knowledge though one is not at present exercising it, and the sense in which one is actively contemplating. Aristotle accepts that a man actively exercising his knowledge could not act incontinently with respect to it, so he concentrates on those cases in which a man may possess the knowledge but somehow be prevented from exercising it. Strong anger r appetites may actually change the condition of the body…strong passions work like a drug which shuts judgment down, just as does wine or sleep.”

The virtuous soul, of course, is a well organised soul and will not allow its powers to be compromised in the above ways. The soul on its way to virtuous organisation may, however, be like an actor on a stage and be going through the motions of knowing, i.e. exercising deficient powers of knowledge by believing that he ought to be doing some alternative better action but because of the confusion in his soul is not able to settle on the completely articulated reason for what ought to be done. We should also remember, considering the fact that we are dealing with practical reasoning and rationality that the soul will not acquire what he calls the logos by merely hearing something and assenting to it: language is not a sufficient power to install the kind of knowledge being referred to. The apprentice knower, that is, must imitate his betters in an environment of ethical guidance and the journey from being an apprentice to being a virtuous man is one in which one is learning about oneself and the world . The possibility of course exists in such circumstances that someone may be right in ones judgments about the world but wrong in ones judgments about oneself, i.e. incontinence will be on display in such a case.