Monday, January 16, 2012

Aristotle and the Nicomachean Ethics

I just finished reading Aristotle's The Nicomachean Ethics (Penguin Classics), stimulated by reading After Virtue a few weeks ago. For a treatise two and a half thousand years old, it reads well. It is often wry and perceptive about human nature.

On the one hand, a lot of it seems strangely familiar, which must be put down to the fact it had such a huge impact on classical and medieval thinking and behavior. It has had very deep influence on more traditional views of ethics, including gentlemanly behavior, restraint, and particularized versions of the common law. 

On the  other hand it is profoundly strange - a different approach to ethics than the one we are used to in our broad post-enlightenment tradition. There is no talk of rights or consequentialism and very little talk about fairness. Equality is an incidental consideration. 

Above all, it is about virtue and the cultivation of character and judgment, rather than deriving universal rational laws that all people must assent to.  It is about context and perception and judgment, not rules or rights which apply neutrally to everyone. 

Happiness and the good for man

Aristotle's system has a teleology. Man is for something. Man has a purpose, an end:
Just as we see eye and hand and foot and every one of our members have some function, should we not assume that in like manner a human being has a function over and above these particular functions? (p15)

Happiness is the end for man, he says, because we seek it for itself, rather than for the sake of some more ultimate objective. It is the good for man. 
And so what is happiness? It has to be more than those functions or ends we share with plants or animals, he says. It must be more than just nutrition, growth or sentient existence. It must involve reason. Therefore,  

..the good for man is an activity of the soul in accordance with virtue, or if there are more kinds of virtue than one, in accordance with the best and most perfect kind. (p16)
Importantly, it is an activity, and not a state. And by soul he means mind, rather than our conception of soul as a religious essence. 

The good life also requires some resources, and stretches over a lifetime. 
We are now in a position to define the happy man as 'one who is active in accordance with complete virtue, and who is adequately furnished with external goods , and that not for some unspecified period but throughout a complete life. (p24)


So if virtues are so important, what is virtue? He approaches the issue gradually. First,  virtues are dispositions, not feelings. And they are not theoretical. They are acquired, like craftmanship, through learning by doing. "Anything that we have to learn to do we learn by the actual doing of it." (p32) Otherwise it is like "invalids who listen carefully to their doctor, but carry out none of his instructions." We must be habituated to do the right thing.

Virtue involves arete, or excellence. 
..any kind of excellence renders that of which it is the excellence good, and makes it perform its function well. .. then human excellence will be the disposition that makes one a good man and causes him to perform his function well. p40

Aiming for the mean

That leads to one of the central parts of his system, the doctrine of the mean. 

By virtue I mean moral virtue, since it is this which is concerned with feelings and actions, and these involve excess, deficiency and a mean. It is possible, for example, to feel fear, confidence, desire, anger, pity and pleasure and pain generally, too much and too little, and both of these are wrong. But to have these feelings at the right times on the right grounds towards the right people for the right motive and in the right way is to feel them to an intermediate , that is, to the best degree; and this is the mark of virtue. (p41)

But it is not easy to do this, nor is it easy to sum it up in rules, as it depends on particular cases. It involves deliberation to decide the right course. 

What does all this mean in concrete terms? He sets out his own ancient greek account of the virtues: courage, which is the mean between rashness and cowardice; temperance (ie self control), which is the mean between licentiousness and insensibility; wit, which is the mean between buffoonery and boorishness, and so on. Some of them would not resonate with us now, such as magnificence, the mean between vulgarity and pettiness. 

Justice and (lack of) equality

Justice, he says, is a "sort of proportion." It is when one share is larger than one deserves, or too small. This is one of the biggest differences between Aristotle and contemporary views. There is little regard for equality, or indeed the equal importance of each individual in his system. 

Incidentally, Bernard Russell  amusingly calls Aristotle's Ethics "repulsive" in his A History of Western Philosophy, largely for this reason. It is not consistent with our comtemporary ethical sense, Russell says, particularly our greater interest in equality. It is ethics for the aristocratic few.

Prudence and practical ability

Acting in accordance with virtue requires prudence, Aristotle continues, which is the ability to "deliberate rightly about what is good and advantageous for himself."(p150).  This quality of practical reason and calculation,  phronesis in the original Greek, is a fundamental part of his system. 
That practical nous and savoir-faire is related to wisdom, which is a knowledge of what is good for what is beneficial for a particular species as a matter of permanent, necessary truths. 
..wisdom is scientific and intuitive knowledge of what is by nature most precious. (p153). 

But sometimes the wise are not very practical.

Aristotle is also very concerned with willpower, or continence. People often do the wrong thing through impetuousity or weakness, even when they realize it is the wrong thing. "Some people deliberate and then under the influence of their feelings fail to abide by their decision; others are carried away by their feelings because they have failed to deliberate. " (p185.)

So much of it echoes in aristocratic attitudes through the ages, a sense of what is appropriate or what fits of being at ease in social circles and doing the right thing. And indeed Aristotle is very much an aristocrat in many of his attitudes:
The utter servility of the masses comes out in their preference for a bovine existence. (p8)

Finally, the contemplative life is the highest form of life and happiness (conveniently enough for philosophers). 
The virtue of a thing is related to its proper function. (p146)
if happiness is an activity in accordance with virtue, it is reasonable to assume that it is in accordance with the highest virtuee, and this will be the virtue of the best part of us. .. contemplation would seem to be the only activity that is appreciated for its own sake; because nothing is gained from it except the act of contemplation.(p270)

Why care about the book?

Surely Greek ethics, from an age where slavery was accepted as a matter of fact and ferocious warfare with "barbarians" was a way of life has little to teach us? Certainly, the older Aristotelian tradition disappeared from view for two centuries. 

But it has come roaring back in the last two decades, at least in quads and some philosophy seminars. While reading the book I was idly reading the wikipedia entry on virtue ethics, and I've ordered several books as a result. So I will have more to say about this approach in due course. 

Perhaps the Greek notion of arete is just not compatible with contemporary views of equality. And it is not consistent with contemporary relativism or equal respect for different ways of life or cultures. Aristotle is always insistent that some people are better than others, and indeed some virtues are better than others. 

 But the fundamental reason I find it interesting is it intimately relates morality to purpose, to a sense of human flourishing, which is something I have  identified in a number of places as essential to move discussion about the economy forward.

I increasingly think we have reached a dead end in the economy because we do no thave an accepted sense of what people want or need. Reaching back to the roots of western ethical philosophy is one way to examine how to get out of our trap.

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