Chapter 7, A short History of Ethics: History of Moral Philosophy from the Homeric Age to the Twentieth Century
“EVERY CRAFT and every inquiry, and similarly every action and project, seems to aim at some good; hence the good has been well defined as that at which everything aims.” The book which Aristotle opens with this trenchant sentence is traditionally known as the Nicomachean Ethics (it was either dedicated to or edited by Aristotle’s son Nicomachus), but its subject matter is declared to be “politics.” And the work which is called the Politics is presented as the sequel to the Ethics. Both are concerned with the practical science of human happiness in which we study what happiness is, what activities it consists in, and how to become happy. The Ethics shows us what form and style of life are necessary to happiness, the Politics what particular form of constitution, what set of institutions, are necessary to make this form of life possible and to safeguard it. But to say only this is misleading. For the word πολιτικός does not mean precisely what we mean by political; Aristotle’s word covers both what we mean by political and what we mean by social and does not discriminate between them. The reason for this is obvious. In the small-scale Greek city-state, the institutions of the πόλις are both those in which policy and the means to execute it are determined and those in which the face-to-face relationships of social life find their home. In the assembly a citizen meets his friends; with his friends he will be among fellow members of the assembly. There is a clue here to the understanding of parts of the Ethics which later on we shall have to follow up. For the moment we must return to the first sentence.
Good is defined at the outset in terms of the goal, purpose, or aim to which something or somebody moves. To call something good is to say that it is under certain conditions sought or aimed at. There are numerous activities, numerous aims, and hence numerous goods. To see that Aristotle is completely right in establishing this relationship between being good and being that at which we aim, let us consider three points about the use of the word good. First, if I aim at something, try to bring about some state of affairs, that I so aim is certainly not sufficient to justify my calling whatever I aim at good; but if I call what I aim at good, I shall be indicating that what I seek is what is sought in general by people who want what I want. If I call what I am trying to get good–a good cricket bat or a good holiday, for example–by using the word good, I invoke the criteria characteristically accepted as a standard by those who want cricket bats or holidays. That this is genuinely so is brought out by a second point: to call something good and to allow that it is not a thing which anyone who wanted that sort of thing would want would be to speak unintelligibly. In this good differs from red. That people in general want or do not want red objects is a contingent matter of fact; that people in general want what is good is a matter of the internal relationship of the concept of being good and being an object of desire. Or to make the same point in a third way: if we were trying to learn the language of a strange tribe, and a linguist asserted of one of their words that it was to be translated by good, but this word was never applied to what they sought or pursued, although its use was always accompanied, say, by smiles, we should know a priori that the linguist was mistaken.
“If, then, there is some one goal among those which we pursue in our actions, which we desire for its own sake, and if we desire other things for its sake, and if we do not choose everything for the sake of something else–in that case we should proceed to choose ad infinitum, so that all desire would be empty and futile –it is plain that this would be the good and the best of goods.”17 Aristotle’s definition of the supreme good leaves it open for the moment whether there is or is not such a good. Some medieval scholastic commentators, doubtless with an eye to theological implications, rewrote Aristotle as if he had written that everything is chosen for the sake of some good, and that therefore there is (one) good for the sake of which everything is chosen. But this fallacious inference is not in Aristotle. Aristotle’s procedure is to inquire whether anything does in fact answer to his description of a possible supreme good, and his method is to examine a number of opinions which have been held on the topic. Before he does this, however, he issues two warnings. The first is to remember that every sort of inquiry has its own standards and possibilities of precision. In ethics we are guided by general considerations to general conclusions, which nonetheless admit of exceptions. Courage and wealth are good, for example, but wealth sometimes causes harm and men have died as a result of being brave. What is required is a kind of judgment altogether different from that of mathematics. Moreover, young men will be no good at “politics”: they lack experience and hence they lack judgment. I mention these dicta of Aristotle only because they are so often quoted; certainly there is something very middle-aged about the spirit which Aristotle breathes. But we ought to remember that what we have now is the text of lectures, and we ought not to treat what are clearly lecturer’s asides as if they are developed arguments.
Aristotle’s next move is to give a name to his possible supreme good: the name εὐδαιμονία is badly but inevitably translated by happiness, badly because it includes both the notion of behaving well and the notion of faring well. Aristotle’s use of this word reflects the strong Greek sense that virtue and happiness, in the sense of prosperity, cannot be entirely divorced. The Kantian injunction which a million puritan parents have made their own, “Do not seek to be happy, seek to be deserving of happiness,” makes no sense if εὐδαίμων and εὐδαιμονίa are substituted for happy and happiness. Once again the change of language is also a change of concepts. In what does εὐδαιμονία consist? Some say in pleasure, some say in wealth, some say in honor and reputation; and some have said that there is a supreme good over and above all particular goods which is the cause of their being good. Aristotle dismisses pleasure rather brusquely at this point–“The many in choosing a life fit for cattle exhibit themselves as totally slavish”–but later on he is to deal with it at great length. Wealth cannot be the good, for it is only a means to an end; and men prize honor and reputation not as such, but they prize being honored because they are virtuous. So honor is envisaged as a desirable by-product of virtue. Does happiness, then, consist in virtue? No, because to call a man virtuous is to talk not of the state he is in, but of his disposition. A man is virtuous if he would behave in such and such a way if such and such a situation were to occur. Hence a man is no less virtuous while asleep or on other occasions when he is not exercising his virtues. More than this, however, a man can be virtuous and wretched and such a man is certainly not εὐδαίμων.
Aristotle at this point challenges not merely the Kantians and the puritans to come, but also the Platonists. Plato in both the Gorgias and the Republic looked back to Socrates and asserted that “it is better to suffer tortures on the rack than to have a soul burdened with the guilt of doing evil.” Aristotle does not confront this position directly: he merely emphasizes that it is better still both to be free from having done evil and to be free from being tortured on the rack. The fact that, strictly speaking, what Aristotle says and what Plato says are not inconsistent could be misleading. The point is that if we begin by asking for an account of goodness which is compatible with the good man suffering any degree of torture and injustice, the whole perspective of our ethics will be different from that of an ethics which begins from asking in what form of life doing well and faring well may be found together. The first perspective will end up wth an ethics which is irrelevant to the task of creating such a form of life. Our choice between these two perspectives is the choice between an ethics which is engaged in telling us how to endure a society in which the just man is crucified and an ethics which is concerned with how to create a society in which this no longer happens. But to talk like this makes Aristotle sound like a revolutionary beside Plato’s conservatism. And this is a mistake. For, indeed, Plato’s memory of Socrates insures that even at his worst he has a deep dissatisfaction with all actually existing societies, while Aristotle is in fact always extremely complacent about the existing order. And yet Aristotle is at this point in his argument far more positive than Plato. “No one would call a man suffering miseries and misfortunes happy, unless he were merely arguing a case.”
Plato’s making goodness independent of any this-worldly happiness follows, of course, from his concept of the good as well as from his memories of Socrates. It is this concept of the good which Aristotle now proceeds to attack. For Plato the word good’s paradigmatic meaning is given by considering it as the name of the Form of the Good; consequently, good is a single and unitary notion. Of whatever we use it, we ascribe the same relationship to the Form of the Good. But in fact we use the word in judgments in all the categories–of some subjects, such as god or intelligence, of the mode of a subject, how it is, the excellence it has, its possession of the right amount of something, its existence in the right time or place for something, and so on. Moreover, on the Platonic view everything that falls under a single Form should be the subject of a single science or inquiry; but things that are good are dealt with by a number of sciences– such as, for example, medicine and strategy. Thus Aristotle argues that Plato cannot account for the diversity of uses of good. Moreover, the phrases Plato uses to explain the concept of the Form of the Good are not in fact explanatory. To speak of the good “itself” or “as such” does not clearly add anything to good. To call the Form eternal is misleading: that something lasts forever does not render it any the better, any more than long-enduring whiteness is whiter than ephemeral whiteness. Moreover, knowledge of Plato’s Form is of no use to those in fact engaged in the sciences and crafts in which goods are achieved; they appear to be able to do without this knowledge perfectly well. But the heart of Aristotle’s criticism of Plato is in the sentence: “For even if there is some unitary being which is the good, predicated of different things in virtue of something they share or existing separated itself by itself, plainly it would not be something to be done or attained by a man; but it is something which is just that which we are now looking for.” That is, good in the sense in which it appears in human language, good in the sense of that which men seek or desire, cannot be the name of a transcendental object. To call a state of affairs good is not necessarily to say that it exists or to relate it to any object that exists, whether transcendental or not; it is to place it as a proper object of desire. And this brings us back to the identification of the good with happiness in the sense of εὐδαιμονία.
That happiness is the final end or goal, the good (and that more than a name is involved here), appears from considering two crucial properties which anything which is to be the final end must possess, and which happiness does in fact possess. The first of these is that it must be something which is always chosen for its own sake and never merely as a means to something else. There are many things which we can choose for their own sake, but may choose for the sake of some further end. But happiness is not among these. We may choose to pursue intelligence, honor, pleasure, wealth, or what we will for the sake of happiness; we could not choose to pursue happiness in order to secure intelligence, honor, pleasure, or wealth. What sort of “could not” is this? Clearly, Aristotle is saying that the concept of happiness is such that we could not use it of anything but a final end. Equally, happiness is a self-sufficient good; by self-sufficiency Aristotle intends that happiness is not a component in some other state of affairs, nor is it just one good among others. In a choice between goods, if happiness were offered along with one but not the others, this would always and necessarily tilt the scales of choice. Thus, to justify some action by saying “Happiness is brought by this” or “Happiness consists in doing this” is always to give a reason for acting which terminates argument. No further why? can be raised. To have elucidated these logical properties of the concept of happiness is not, of course, to have said anything about what happiness consists in. To this Aristotle turns next.
In what does the final end of a man consist? The final end of a flute player is to play well, of a shoemaker to make good shoes, and so on. Each of these kinds of man has a function which he discharges by performing a specific activity and which he discharges well by doing whatever it may be well. Have men therefore a specific activity which belongs to them as men, as members of a species, and not merely as kinds of men? Men share some capacities, those of nutrition and growth, with plants, and others, those of consciousness and feeling, with animals. But rationality is exclusively human. In man’s exercise of his rational powers therefore the specific human activity consists, and in the right and able exercise of them lies the specific human excellence.
Aristotle advances this argument as though it were obvious, and against the background of the general Aristotelian view of the universe it is obvious. Nature is composed of well-marked and distinct kinds of being; each of these moves and is moved from its potentiality to that state of activity in which it achieves its end. At the top of the scale is the Unmoved Mover, thought unchangingly thinking itself, to which all things are moved. Man, like every other species, moves toward his end, and his end can be determined simply by considering what distinguishes him from other species. Given the general vision, the conclusion appears unassailable; lacking it, the conclusion appears highly implausible. But very little in Aristotle’s argument is affected by this. For when he proceeds to his definition of the good, he depends only on the view that rational behavior is the characteristic exercise of human beings, in the light of which any characteristically human good has to be defined. The good of man is defined as the activity of the soul in accordance with virtue, or if there are a number of human excellences or virtues, in accordance with the best and most perfect of them. “What is more, it is this activity throughout a whole life. One swallow does not make a summer, nor one fine day. So one good day or short period does not make a man blessed and happy.”
Happy, that is, is a predicate to be used of a whole life. It is lives that we are judging when we call someone happy or unhappy and not particular states or actions. The individual actions and projects which make up a life are judged as virtuous or not, and the whole as happy or unhappy. We can see, says Aristotle, the connection between happiness thus understood and all those things which are popularly thought to constitute happiness: virtue, though not man’s final end, is an essential part of the form of life that is; pleasure is taken by a good man in virtuous activity, and hence pleasure rightly comes in; a modicum of external goods is needed for characteristic human well-being and well-doing; and so on.
We have two large questions on our agenda as a result of Aristotle’s definition of the good for man. There is the question to be answered at the end of the Ethics as to the activity in which the good man will be chiefly employed. And there is the question of the excellences, of the virtues, which he has to manifest in all his activities. When Aristotle proceeds to the discussion of the virtues he subdivides them in accordance with his division of the soul. Aristotle’s use of the expression soul is quite different from Plato’s. For Plato soul and body are two entities, contingently and perhaps unhappily united. For Aristotle the soul is form to the body’s matter. When Aristotle speaks of the soul we could very often retain his meaning by speaking of personality. Thus nothing peculiar to the Aristotelian psychology turns on his distinction between the rational and nonrational parts of the soul. For this is simply a contrast between reasoning and other human faculties. The nonrational part of the soul includes the merely physiological as well as the realm of feelings and impulses. These latter can be called rational or irrational insofar as they accord with what reason enjoins, and their characteristic excellence is to so accord. There is no necessary conflict between reason and desire, such as Plato envisages, although Aristotle is fully aware of the facts of such conflicts.
We therefore exhibit rationality in two kinds of activity: in thinking, where reasoning is what constitutes the activity itself; and in such activities other than thinking where we may succeed or fail in obeying the precepts of reason. The excellences of the former Aristotle calls the intellectual virtues; of the latter, the moral virtues. Examples of the former are wisdom, intelligence, and prudence; of the latter, liberality and temperance. Intellectual virtue is the consequence usually of explicit instruction; moral, of habit. Virtue is not inborn, but a consequence of training. The contrast with our natural capacities is plain: first we have the natural capacity, and then we exercise it; whereas with virtues we acquire the habit by first performing the acts. We become just men by performing just actions, courageous by performing courageous actions, and so on. There is no paradox here: one brave action does not make a brave man. But continuing to perform brave actions will inculcate the habit in respect of which we call not merely the action but also the man brave.
Pleasures and pains are a useful guide here. Just as they can corrupt us by distracting us from habits of virtue, so they can be used to inculcate the virtues. For Aristotle one sign of a virtuous man is that he gets pleasure from virtuous activity, and another is that he knows how to choose among pleasures and pains. It is this matter of virtue as involving choice that makes it clear that virtue cannot be either an emotion or a capacity. We are not called good or bad, we are not praised or blamed, by reason of our emotions or capacities. It is rather what we choose to do with them that entitles us to be called virtuous or vicious. Virtuous choice is choice in accordance with a mean.
This notion of the mean is perhaps the single most difficult concept in the Ethics. It will be most conveniently introduced by an example. The virtue of courage is said to be the mean between two vices–a vice of excess, which is rashness, and a vice of deficiency, which is cowardice. A mean is thus a rule or principle of choice between two extremes. Extremes of what? Of emotion or of action. In the case of courage, I give way too much to the impulses which danger arouses when I am a coward, too little to them when I am foolhardy. Three obvious objections at once arise. The first is that there are many emotions and actions for which there cannot be a “too much” or a “too little.” Aristotle specifically allows for this. He says that a man “can be afraid and be bold and desire and be angry and pity and feel pleasure and pain in general, too much or too little”; but he says also that malice, shamelessness, and envy are such that their names imply that they are evil. So also with actions such as adultery, theft, and murder. But Aristotle states no principle which will enable us to recognize what falls in one class, what in the other. We can, however, attempt to interpret Aristotle at this point and try to state the principle implicit in his examples.
If I merely ascribe anger or pity to a man, I thereby neither applaud nor condemn him. If I ascribe envy, I do so condemn him. Those emotions of which there can be a mean–and the actions which correspond to them–are those which I can characterize without any moral commitment. It is where I can characterize an emotion or action as a case of anger or whatever it is, prior to and independently of asking whether there is too much or too little of it, that I have a subject for the mean. But if this is what Aristotle means, then he is committed to showing that every virtue and vice are mean and extreme for some emotion or concern with pleasure and pain characterizeable and identifiable in nonmoral terms. Just this is what Aristotle sets out to show in the latter part of Book II of the Ethics. Envy, for example, is one extreme, and malice another, of a certain attitude to the fortunes of others. The virtue which is the mean is righteous indignation. But this very example brings out a new difficulty in the doctrine. The righteously indignant man is one who is upset by the undeserved good fortune of others (this example is perhaps the first indication that Aristotle was not a nice or a good man: the words “supercilious prig” spring to mind very often in reading the Ethics). The jealous man has an excess of this attitude–he is upset even by the deserved good fortune of others; and the malicious man is alleged to have a defect here in that he falls short of being pained–he takes pleasure. But this is absurd. The malicious man rejoices in the ill-fortune of others. The Greek word for malice, ἐπιχειρεκακία, means this. Thus what he rejoices in is not the same as what the jealous and the righteously indignant man are pained by. His attitude cannot be placed on the same scale as theirs, and only a determination to make the schematism of mean, excess, and defect work at all costs could have led Aristotle to make this slip. Perhaps with a little ingenuity Aristotle could be emended here so as to save his doctrine. But what of the virtue of liberality? The vices here are prodigality and meanness. Prodigality is excess in giving, deficiency in getting, and meanness is excess in getting, deficiency in giving. So these are not after all excess or defect of the same emotion or action. And Aristotle himself half admits that to the virtue of temperance and the excess of profligacy there is no corresponding defect. “Men deficient in the enjoyment of pleasures scarcely occur.” Thus the doctrine finally appears as at best of varying degrees of usefulness in exposition, but scarcely as picking out something logically necessary to the character of a virtue.
Moreover, there is a falsely abstract air about the doctrine. For Aristotle does not, as he might seem to, think that there is one and only one right choice of emotion or action, independent of circumstances. What is courage in one situation would in another be rashness and in a third cowardice. Virtuous action cannot be specified without reference to the judgment of a prudent man– that is, of one who knows how to take account of circumstances. Consequently, knowledge of the mean cannot just be knowledge of a formula, it must be knowledge of how to apply the rules to choices. And here the notions of excess and defect will not help us. A man who is suspicious of his own tendency to indignation will rightly consider how much envy and malice there is in it; but the connection of envy and malice with indignation is that in the one case I evince a desire to possess the goods of others, and in the other I evince a desire for the harm of others. What makes these wrong is that I desire that what is not mine should be mine, without thought for the deserts of others or myself, and that I desire harm. The viciousness of these desires is in no way due to their being excess or defect of the same desire, and therefore the doctrine of the mean is no guide here. But if this classification in terms of the mean is no practical help, what is its point? Aristotle relates it to no theoretical account of, for example, the emotions, and it therefore appears more and more as an arbitrary construction. But we can see how Aristotle may have arrived at it. For he may have examined everything commonly called a virtue, looked for a recurrent pattern, and thought that he had found one in the mean. The list of virtues in the Ethics is not a list resting on Aristotle’s own personal choices and evaluations. It reflects what Aristotle takes to be “the code of a gentleman” in contemporary Greek society. Aristotle himself endorses this code. Just as in analyzing political constitutions he treats Greek society as normative, so in explaining the virtues he treats upper-class Greek life as normative. And what else could we have expected? To this there are two answers. The first is that it would be purely unhistorical to look in the Ethics for a moral virtue such as meekness, which enters only with the Christian gospels, or thrift, which enters only with the puritan ethics of work, or for an intellectual virtue such as curiosity, which enters self-consciously with systematic experimental science. (Aristotle himself, in fact, exhibited this virtue, but perhaps could not have envisaged it as a virtue.) Yet this is not good enough as an answer, for Aristotle was aware of alternative codes. There is in Aristotle’s Ethics not merely a contempt for the morality of artisans or of barbarians, but also a systematic repudiation of the morality of Socrates. It is not just that the undeserved suffering of the good man is never attended to. But when Aristotle considers justice he so defines it that the enactments of a state are unlikely to be unjust provided that they are properly enacted, without undue haste and in due form. It cannot therefore–generally speaking–be just to break the law. Moreover, in the discussion of the virtues, the defect of the virtue of truthfulness is the vice of the self-deprecator which is named εἰρωνεία, irony. This is a word closely associated with Socrates’ claim to ignorance, and its use can scarcely have been accidental. Thus at every point where a reference to Socrates occurs in Aristotle we find none of Plato’s respect, although a deep respect for Plato himself is shown. It is difficult to resist the conclusion that what we see here is Aristotle’s class-bound conservatism silently and partisanly rewriting the table of the virtues, and so from yet another point of view suspicion is cast upon the doctrine of the mean.
The detail of Aristotle’s account of particular virtues is rendered with brilliant analysis and perceptive insight, especially in the case of courage. It is much more, as I have just suggested, the list of virtues which raises questions. The virtues discussed are courage, temperance, liberality, magnificence, greatness of soul, good temper or gentleness, being agreeable in company, wittiness, and lastly, modesty, which is treated as not a virtue, but akin to one. Of these, greatness of soul is to do in part with how to behave to one’s social inferiors, and liberality and magnificence concern one’s attitudes to one’s wealth. Three of the other virtues have to do with what are sometimes called manners in polite society. Aristotle’s social bias is thus unmistakable. This bias would not matter philosophically but for the fact that it prevents Aristotle from raising the questions, How do I decide what is in fact included in the list of the virtues? could I invent a virtue? is it logically open to me to consider a vice what others have considered a virtue? And to beg these questions is to suggest strongly that there just are so many virtues–in the same sense that at a given period there just are so many Greek states.
Aristotle’s account of the particular virtues is preceded by an account of the concept of voluntary action, necessary, as he says, because it is only to voluntary actions that praise and blame are assigned. Hence, on Aristotle’s own premise, only in voluntary actions are virtues and vices manifested. Aristotle’s method here is to give criteria for holding an action to be nonvoluntary. (The usual translation for ἀκούσιος is involuntary, but this is a mistake. Involuntary in English usage is contrasted with “deliberate” or “done on purpose,” not with “voluntary.”) An action is nonvoluntary when it is done under compulsion or in ignorance. Compulsion covers all cases when the agent is really not an agent at all. The wind carries his ship somewhere, for example. Actions can also be nonvoluntary where other people have the agent in their power, but actions done under threat of one’s parents or one’s children being put to death are borderline cases. They satisfy the ordinary criteria of voluntary actions in that they are deliberately chosen. But no one apart from such special circumstances would deliberately choose to act as he would under such threats. In some cases we allow the circumstances to be an excuse, in others not. As an example of the latter, Aristotle cites our attitude to the character of Alcmaeon in Euripides’ play, who murders his mother under threats.
Aristotle is careful to point out that the fact that I am motivated in some particular way never entails that I am compelled. If I could allow that my being moved by pleasure or for some noble end was enough to show that I was compelled, then I could not conceive of an action which could not be shown by this or a similar argument to be compulsory. But the whole point of the concept of being compelled is to distinguish actions which we have chosen on the basis of our own criteria, such as the pleasure we shall get or the nobility of the object, from those things we do in which our own choice was not part of the effective agency. Thus, to include too much under the heading of compulsion would be to destroy the point of the concept.
In the case of ignorance Aristotle distinguishes the nonvoluntary from the merely not-voluntary. For an action to be nonvoluntary through ignorance, the discovery of what he has done must cause the agent pain and a wish that he had not so acted. The rationale of this is clear. A man who, having discovered what he has unwittingly done, says, “But if I had known, that is just what I would have chosen to do” thereby assumes a kind of responsibility for the action, and so cannot use his ignorance to disclaim such responsibility. Aristotle next distinguishes actions done in a state of ignorance, such as when drunk or raging, from actions done through ignorance, and points out that moral ignorance–ignorance of what constitutes virtue and vice–is not exculpatory, but is indeed what constitutes vice. The ignorance which is exculpatory is that through which a particular action is done, which would otherwise not have been done, and it is ignorance as to the particular circumstances of the particular action. The examples of such ignorance are various. A man may not know what he is doing, as when someone tells of a matter which he does not know is a secret and so does not know that he is revealing something hidden. A man may mistake one person for another (his son for an enemy) or one thing for another (a harmless weapon for a deadly one). A man may not realize that a medicine is in this type of case deadly, or how hard he is hitting. All these types of ignorance are exculpatory, for it is a necessary condition of an action being voluntary that the agent knows what he is doing.
What is most worth remarking on here is Aristotle’s method. He does not begin by looking for some characteristic of voluntary action which all voluntary actions must have in common. He rather looks for a list of characteristics any one of which would if present in an action, be sufficient to withdraw the title “voluntary” from it. An action is treated as voluntary unless done through compulsion or ignorance. Thus Aristotle never gets involved in the riddles of later philosophers about free will. He delineates the concepts of the voluntary and the involuntary as we possess them, and brings out the point about them that they enable us to contrast those cases where we admit the validity of excuses and those cases where we do not. Because this is so, Aristotle only raises marginally–in discussing our responsibility for our own character formation–the question which has haunted modern free-will discussions, Is it possible that all actions are determined by causes independent of the agent’s deliberations and choices, so that no actions are voluntary? For Aristotle, even if all actions were somehow thus determined, there would still be a distinction between agents acting under compulsion or through ignorance and agents not so acting. And Aristotle would surely be right about this. We should not be able to escape his distinction no matter what the causation of action might be.
What does emerge about voluntary action in a positive sense is that choice and deliberation have a key role in it. The deliberation which leads up to action always concerns means and not ends. This is yet another Aristotelian saying which may mislead us if we read it anachronistically. Some modern philosophers have contrasted reason and emotion or desire in such a way that ends were merely the outcome of nonrational passions, while reason could calculate only as to the means to attain such ends. We shall see later on that Hume took such a view. But this view is alien to Aristotle’s moral psychology. Aristotle’s point is a conceptual one. If I in fact deliberate about something, it must be about alternatives. Deliberation can only be as to things which are not necessarily and inevitably what they are, and as to things which are within my power to alter. Otherwise there is no room for deliberation. But if I choose between two alternatives, then I must envisage something beyond these alternatives in the light of which I make my choice, that for the sake of which I shall choose one rather than another, that which provides me with a criterion in my deliberation. This will in fact be what in that particular case I am treating as an end. It follows that if I can deliberate about whether or not to do something, it will always be about means that I am deliberating in the light of some end. If I then deliberate about what was in the former case the end, I shall now be treating it as a means, with alternatives, to some further end. Thus, necessarily, deliberation is of means, not of ends, without there being any commitment to a moral psychology of a Humean kind.
The form of the deliberation involved Aristotle characterizes as that of the practical syllogism. The major premise of such a syllogism is a principle of action to the effect that a certain sort of thing is good for, befits, satisfies a certain class of person. The minor premise is a statement, warranted by perception, that here is some of whatever it is; and the conclusion is the action. An example which, although its content is mysterious, makes the form of the practical syllogism clear is given by Aristotle: Dry food is good for man–major premise; Here’s some dry food– minor premise; and the conclusion is that the agent eats it. That the conclusion is an action makes it plain that the practical syllogism is a pattern of reasoning by the agent and not a pattern of reasoning by others about what the agent ought to do. (That is why a second minor premise–e.g., And here is a man–would be redundant, and indeed misleading, since it would distract from the point.) Nor indeed is it a pattern of reasoning by the agent about what he ought to do. It is not to be confused with perfectly ordinary syllogisms, whose conclusion is a statement of that order. Its whole point is to probe the sense in which an action may be the outcome of reasoning.
A probable first reaction to Aristotle’s account will fasten upon just this point. How can an action follow from premises as a conclusion? Surely only a statement can do that. To remove this doubt, consider some possible relations between actions and beliefs. An action can be inconsistent with beliefs in a way analogous to that in which one belief can be inconsistent with another. If I assert that all men are mortal, and that Socrates is a man, but deny that Socrates is mortal, I become unintelligible in my utterance; if I assert that dry food is good for man, and I am a man, and I assert that this is dry food, and I do not eat it, my behavior is analogously unintelligible. But perhaps the example is bad. For it may be that I can provide an explanation which will remove the apparent inconsistency. How? By making another statement, such as that I am not hungry, having just finished gorging myself on dry food, or that I suspect that this dry food is poisoned. But this strengthens, not weakens the parallel with ordinary deductive reasoning. If I allow that a warm front’s approach causes rain, and that a warm front is approaching, but deny that it is going to rain, I can remove the appearance of inconsistency in this case also by making some further statement, such as that before the warm front reaches here it will be intercepted. So that actions can be consistent and inconsistent with beliefs in much the way that other beliefs can be. And this is because actions embody principles. It is in holding this that Aristotle lays himself open to the charge of “intellectualism.” To understand this charge, let us consider it first in a crude form and then in a more sophisticated one.
The crude version of the attack is that made by Bertrand Russell.18 It is because his actions embody principles, conform or fail to conform to precepts of reason in a way that those of no other species do, that Aristotle defines man as a rational animal. Russell’s comment upon this is to invoke the history of human folly and irrationality: men just are not rational in fact. But this is to miss Aristotle’s point massively. For Aristotle is in no sense maintaining that men always act rationally, but that the standards by which men judge their own actions are those of reason. To call human beings irrational, as Russell rightly does, is to imply that it makes sense and is appropriate to judge men as succeeding or failing in the light of rational standards, and when Aristotle calls men rational beings, he is simply pointing out the meaningfulness and appropriateness of the application of predicates which refer to such standards. However, Aristotle is committed to more than this. For he has to maintain that men characteristically act rationaly, and what this implies is that the concept of human action is such that unless a piece of behavior fulfills some elementary criterion of rationality, it does not count as an action. That is, unless implicit in the behavior there is a purpose of a recognizably human kind, unless the agent knows under some description what he is doing, and unless we can detect some principle of action in his behavior, what we have is not an action at all, but merely a bodily movement, perhaps a reflex, only to be explained in terms of other bodily movements, such as those of muscles and nerves. That Aristotle is right about this appears if we consider another kind of criticism of his intellectualism, implied in the injunctions of all those moralists who believe that reason is a misleading guide, that we should rely on instinct or on feeling. This appeal to feeling as a moral guide is central to the Romantic period; it emerges again in modern times in the appeal to dark, visceral emotion of D. H. Lawrence’s Mexican period; and in its most detestable form it is expressed in the Nazi cry to think with the blood. But these injunctions are intelligible only because they are backed up by reasons; and these reasons are usually assertions to the effect that too much reasoning leads to a calculating, insufficiently spontaneous nature, that it inhibits and frustrates. In other words, it is argued that our actions, if the product of too much calculation, will exhibit undesirable traits or will produce undesirable effects. But to argue like this is to meet Aristotle on his own ground. It is to suggest that there is some criterion or principle of action which cannot be embodied in deliberate action, and thus that deliberate action would be to that extent irrational. And to argue thus is to accept, not to dissent from, a central thesis of Aristotle’s rationalism.
Does Aristotle in any case believe that every human action is preceded by an act of deliberation? Clearly if he does believe this, what he believes is false. But he does not. It is only acts which are chosen (in a specially defined sense of chosen which involves deliberation) which are preceded by deliberation, and Aristotle says explicitly that “not all voluntary actions are chosen.” What does follow from Aristotle’s account is that we can assess every action in the light of what would have been done by an agent who had in fact deliberated before he acted. But this imagined agent cannot, of course, just be any agent. He has to be ὁ ϕρόνιμος, the prudent man. Once again translation raises difficulties. Φρόνησιϛ is well translated in medieval Latin by prudentia, but badly in English by prudence. For later generations of puritans have connected prudence with thrift, and especially with thrift in monetary matters (it is the “virtue” embodied in life insurance), and so in modern English prudent has something of the flavor of “cautious and calculating in one’s own interest.” But ϕρόνησις has no particular connection either with caution or with self-interest. It is the virtue of practical intelligence, of knowing how to apply general principles in particular situations. It is not the ability to formulate principles intellectually, or to deduce what ought to be done. It is the ability to act so that principle will take a concrete form. Prudence is not only itself a virtue, it is the keystone of all virtue. For without it one cannot be virtuous. A man may have excellent principles, but not act on them. Or he may perform just or courageous actions, but not be just or courageous, having acted through fear of punishment, say. In each case he lacks prudence. Prudence is the virtue which is manifested in acting so that one’s adherence to other virtues is exemplified in one’s actions.
Prudence is not to be confused with a simple faculty for seeing what means will bring about a given end. Aristotle denominates that particular faculty cleverness and holds that it is morally neutral, since it is of equal use to the man who pursues praiseworthy and to the man who pursues blameworthy ends. Prudence includes cleverness; it is the cleverness of the man who possesses virtue in the sense that his actions always flow from a practical syllogism whose major premise is of the form “Since the end and the best thing to do is. . . . ” It is a conjunction of a grasp of the true τέλος of men with cleverness. For Aristotle the role of intelligence is to make articulate principles on which a man whose natural dispositions are good will have already been acting unconsciously, so that we are less likely to make mistakes; the role of prudence is to know how a given principle (which will always be of a certain degree of generality) applies in a given situation. There is, therefore, after all a point in the argument at which Aristotle clashes with irrationalists such as D. H. Lawrence and with Tolstoy. For Aristotle holds that an explicit and articulate grasp of principle will help to insure the right sort of conduct, while Lawrence’s praise of spontaneity and Tolstoy’s adulation of peasant ways of life rest on the contention that being explicit and articulate about principles is morally crippling. This clash has more than one root. To a certain extent Aristotle and Lawrence or Tolstoy disagree as to what the right sort of conduct is; and to a certain extent they disagree about what the actual consequences of being articulate are. But once again we must note that although one can be a Lawrentian or a Tolstoyan without inconsistency, what one cannot consistently do is to offer an explicit and articulate rational defense of their doctrines. And the fact that both Lawrence and Tolstoy exhibited all the intellectualism which they used their intellectual resources to condemn strongly suggests that an Aristotelian position of some sort is unavoidable. Moreover, it is only when one is explicit and articulate about principle that one is able to mark clearly the cases where one has failed to do what one should have done. And because this is such a strong point in favor of Aristotle’s position, we may well be puzzled that for Aristotle failure constitutes a problem. But it does.
Aristotle begins from Socrates’ position, discussed in an earlier chapter, that nobody ever fails to do what he thinks to be best. If a man does anything, then his doing it is sufficient to show that he thought it the best thing to do. Consequently moral failure is logically impossible. This, says Aristotle, flies in the face of the facts. But, for Aristotle, that men should fail to do what they believe they ought to do still constitutes a problem. His explanations are several. A man may, for example, know what he ought to do, in the sense of being committed to a principle of action, but ignore his principle because he is not exercising his knowledge, as may happen when a man is drunk or mad or asleep. So a man carried away may do what in one sense he knows he ought not to do. Or a man may fail to recognize an occasion as one appropriate to the application of one of his principles. What we need to underline here is, however, not the adequacy of Aristotle’s explanations. We can set out a wide range of different kinds of case in which there is a gap between what an agent professes and what he does. What is interesting, however, is that Aristotle, and in this he is very close to Socrates, feels that there is something special to be explained in the facts of moral weakness or failure, that such weakness or failure constitutes a problem. This suggests strongly that Aristotle’s initial assumption is that men are rational beings in a much stronger sense than we have hitherto ascribed to him. For the suggestion is that if men always did what they thought best, there would be nothing to explain. Yet any account of men as agents which only introduces the facts of weakness and failure by a kind of afterthought is bound to be defective. For human desires are not straightforward drives to unambiguous goals in the way that biological instincts and drives are. Desires have to be given goals, and men have to be trained to reach them, and the point of having principles is in part to detect and diagnose failure in the attempt to reach them. Thus fallibility is central to human nature and not peripheral to it. Hence the portrait of a being who was not liable to error could not be the portrait of a human being. The portrait of the Jesus of the Gospels needs the temptations in the wilderness and the temptation in Gethsemane in order that we can be shown, at least in the intention of the authors, not merely a perfect man, but a perfect man.
Aristotle’s halfhearted admission of fallibility is connected not merely with a philosophical blindness to the importance of this human characteristic but also with a moral attitude to prosperity of a kind that can only be called priggish. This emerges clearly in the course of his account of the virtues. Aristotle’s list of virtues falls clearly into two parts, a division obviously not perceived by Aristotle himself. There are, on the one hand, traits such as courage, restraint, and agreeableness which it is hard to conceive of as not being valued in any human community. Even these, of course, fall on a scale. At one end of this scale there are norms and traits which could not be disavowed totally in any human society, because no group in which they were absent could fall under the concept of a society. This is a matter of logic. When Victorian anthropologists sailed round the world they reported the recurrence of certain norms in all societies as an empirical generalization, just as a comparative anatomist might report similarites in bone structure. But consider the case of truth telling. It is a logically necessary condition for any group of beings to be recognized as a human society that they should possess a language. It is a necessary condition for a language to exist that there should be shared rules, and shared rules of such a kind that an intention to say that what is, is can always be presumed. For if when a man said, “It is raining” we could not have such a presumption, then what he said would not communicate anything to us at all. But this presumption, necessary for language to be meaningful, is only possible where truth telling is the socially accepted and recognized norm. Indeed, lying itself is only possible where and on the assumption that men expect the truth to be told. Where there is no such expectation, the possibility of deception disappears too. Thus the recognition of a norm of truth telling and of a virtue of honesty seems written into the concept of a society. Other virtues, although not logically necessary to social life, are obviously causally necessary to the maintenance of such life, given that certain very widespread and elementary facts about human life and its environment are what they are. Thus the existence of material scarcity, of physical dangers, and of competitive aspirations bring both courage and justice or fairness on the scene. These are virtues which, given such facts, appear to belong to the form of human life as such. Other virtues again appear unavoidable for recognition by any society in which fairly widespread human desires are present. There can be exceptions, but as a matter of fact they will be rare. So agreeableness is a general human virtue, although we may come across an occasional people, such as the bad-tempered Dobuans, who may not rate it as such. But toward the other end of the scale there are virtues which are more or less optional, so to speak, which belong to particular contingent social forms, or which are matters of purely individual choice. The non-Aristotelian, but Christian virtues of loving one’s enemies and of humility, with the practice of turning the other cheek, appear to belong in the latter category; the English and much more Aristotelian public school virtue of being “a gentleman” in the former. These differences Aristotle does not recognize, and so we find side by side in Aristotle’s list virtues which anyone would find it hard not to recognize as virtues and alleged virtues which are difficult to comprehend outside Aristotle’s own social context and Aristotle’s own preferences within that context.
The two Aristotelian virtues which demand attention in this respect are those of “the great-souled man” (μεγαλόμνχος) and of justice. The great-souled man “claims much and deserves much.” It is for Aristotle a vice to claim less than you deserve, just as much as it is to claim more. It is particularly in relation to honor that the great-souled man claims and deserves much. And since the great-souled man has to deserve most, he must have all the other virtues too. This paragon is extremely proud. He despises honors offered by common people. He is gracious to inferiors. He repays benefits so as not to be put under obligations, and “when he repays a service, it is with interest, for in this way the original benefactor will become the beneficiary and debtor in turn.” He speaks his mind without fear or favor, because he has a poor opinion of others and would not care to conceal his opinion. He runs into few dangers, because there are few things which he values and would wish to preserve from harm.
It is because Aristotle conceives of him as not failing that Aristotle endows the great-souled man with no sense of his own fallibility. The great-souled man’s characteristic attitudes require a society of superiors and inferiors in which he can exhibit his peculiar brand of condescension. He is essentially a member of a society of unequals. In such a society he is self-sufficient and independent. He indulges in conspicuous consumption, for “he likes to own beautiful and useless things, since they are better marks of his independence.” Incidentally, he walks slowly, has a deep voice and a deliberate mode of utterance. He thinks nothing great. He only gives offense intentionally. He is very nearly an English gentleman.
This appalling picture of the crown of the virtuous life has an almost equally distressing counterpart in one aspect of Aristotle’s account of justice. Much of what Aristotle says about justice is illuminating and far from objectionable. He distinguishes between distributive justice–fairness–and the corrective justice which is involved in redress for a harm done. He defines distributive justice in terms of the mean: “To do injustice is to have more than one ought, and to suffer it is to have less than one ought,” and justice is the mean between doing injustice and suffering it. But when Aristotle comes up against the use of δίκαιος as meaning either “fair” or “right,” or “in accordance with the laws,” he asserts without argument that although everything unlawful is unfair, everything unfair is unlawful. It is less clear in the Ethics than it is in the Politics that Aristotle is prepared to believe that the positive laws of existing states can be more than marginally a variance with what is fair and right. “The laws aim either at the common interest of all, or at the interest of those in power determined in accordance with virtue or in some such way; so that in one sense we call just anything that effects or maintains the happiness or the components of the happiness of the political community.” Aristotle goes on to describe the law as enjoining virtue and forbidding vice, except where it has been carelessly enacted. And this must remind us of Aristotle’s complacency with the existing social arrangement. It is perhaps no accident that he also believes that some men are slaves by nature.
By contrast, Aristotle appears to advantage in his inclusion of friendship as among the necessities of the man who achieves or is to achieve the good. He distinguishes the varieties of friendship –those between equals and unequals; those based on shared pleasure, mutual usefulness, or common virtue–and produces a typical catalogue, whose details perhaps matter less than the fact that the discussion is there at all. But the self-sufficiency of Aristotle’s ideal man deeply injures and deforms his account of friendship. For his catalogue of types of friend presupposes that we can always ask the questions, On what is this friendship based? for the sake of what does it exist? There is therefore no room left for the type of human relationship of which it would miss the point totally to ask on what it was based, for the sake of what it existed. Such relationships can be very different: the homosexual love of Achilles for Patroclus, or of Alcibiades for Socrates; the romantic devotion of Petrarch to Laura; the marital fidelity of Sir Thomas More and his wife. But none of these could be included in the Aristotelian catalogue. For the love of the person, as against the goodness, pleasantness, or usefulness of the person, Aristotle can have no place. And we can understand why when we remember the great-souled man. He admires all that is good, so he will admire it in others. But he needs nothing, he is self-contained in his virtue. Hence friendship for him will always be a kind of moral mutual admiration society, and this is just the friendship which Aristotle describes. And this again illuminates Aristotle’s social conservatism. How could there be an ideal society for a man for whom the ideal is as ego centered as it is for Aristotle?
The exercise of virtue is, of course, for Aristotle not an end in itself. Virtues are dispositions which issue in the types of action which manifest human excellence. But the injunctions “Be virtuous,” “Be courageous,” “Be great-souled,” “Be liberal” do not tell us what to do in the sense of what to aim at; they rather tell us how we should behave in the pursuit of our aim, whatever it is. But what should that aim be? What, after all this, does εὐδαιμονία consist in? What is the τέλος of human life? A claim which Aristotle takes with immense seriousness, but nonetheless finally dismisses, is that of pleasure. On this subject he has to argue against two kinds of opponent. Speusippus, who was Plato’s immediate successor as head of the Academy, had argued that pleasure was in no sense a good. Eudoxus the astronomer, who was also a pupil of Plato, held by contrast that pleasure was the supreme good. Aristotle wished to deny the position of Speusippus without laying himself open to Eudoxus’ arguments. His arguments for the goodness of pleasure, or at least for the goodness of some pleasures, are partly a refutation of Speusippus’ position. To argue, for example, that pleasures are bad because some are harmful to health is like arguing that health is an evil because sometimes the pursuit of health conflicts with the pursuit of wealth. More positively, Aristotle points to the fact that everyone pursues pleasure as evidence that it is a good, and he advances another argument to the effect that pleasure is taken in what he calls unimpeded activity. By unimpeded activity he means activity which achieves its end, which is well done. Everybody, he argues, takes pleasure in unimpeded activity; everybody wishes his activities to be unimpeded; everybody therefore must see pleasure as a good. But in fact pleasure appears to be common to all forms of activity, and to be the only factor common to all; Aristotle finds himself for a moment close to the position of Eudoxus, and some scholars have held that in Book VII of the Ethics this is the position which he in fact takes. But, in Book X at any rate, he produces arguments against this Eudoxian position, although even here he is clearly puzzled by the relation of pleasure to the τέλος of human life. The reason why he is puzzled is evident. Pleasure clearly satisfies some of the criteria which anything which is to play the role of such a τέλος must satisfy, but equally clearly it fails to satisfy others. We take pleasure in what we do well (unimpeded activity again), and thus taking pleasure in an activity is a criterion of doing it as we wish to do it, of achieving the τέλος of that action. A τέλος must be a reason for acting, and that we would get pleasure is always a reason for acting, even if not always a finally conclusive one. Pleasure, too, is not only sought by almost everybody, and therefore appears to be a universal τέλος but it cannot be a means to anything else. We do not seek pleasure for the sake of anything further to be got out of it. At the same time, pleasure has characteristics that make it appear not to be a τέλος. It does not complete or terminate an activity; that is, the pleasure we get from doing something is not a sign that we have reached our goal and should therefore stop. Rather, getting pleasure is a reason for continuing the activity. Moreover, there is no particular action or set of actions which can be specified as ways of getting pleasure. Pleasure comes from many different kinds of activity, and so to say that pleasure was the τέλος would not of itself ever give us a reason for choosing one of those kinds of activity rather than another. But to do this is the function of a τέλος. And finally the pleasure that we take in an activity cannot be identified separately from the activity itself; to enjoy or take pleasure in doing something is not to do something and to have an accompanying experience of something else which is the pleasure. To enjoy playing a game is not to play the game, and in addition, to experience some sensations, say, which are the pleasure. To enjoy playing a game is simply to play well and not to be distracted, to be, as we say, thoroughly involved in the game. Thus we cannot identify pleasure as a τέλος external to the activity, to which the activity is a means. Pleasure, says Aristotle, in a memorable but unhelpful phrase supervenes on the τέλος “like the bloom on the cheek of youth.”
Different activities, different pleasures; which activities then? The activities of the good man. But which will these be? “If happiness consists in activity in accordance with virtue, it is reasonable that it should be activity in accordance with the highest virtue; and this will be the virtue of what is best in us.” What is best in us is reason and the characteristic activity of reason is θεωρία, that speculative reasoning which deals with unchanging truths. Such speculation can be a continuous and pleasant–it is, Aristotle says brusquely, “the pleasantest”–form of activity. It is a self-sufficient occupation. It has no practical outcome, so it cannot be a means to anything else. It is an activity of leisure and peacetime, and leisure is the time when we do things for their own sake, since business affairs are for the sake of leisure and war is for the sake of peace. Above all, since it is concerned with what is unchanging and timeless, it is concerned with the divine. Aristotle follows Plato and much else in Greek thought in equating changelessness and divinity.
Thus, surprisingly, the end of human life is metaphysical contemplation of truth. The treatise which began with an attack on Plato’s conception of the Form of the Good ends not so far away from the same attitude of contempt for the merely human. External goods are necessary only to a limited extent, and the wealth required is only moderate. Thus the whole of human life reaches its highest point in the activity of a speculative philosopher with a reasonable income. The banality of the conclusion could not be more apparent. Why then is it reached? One clue is in Aristotle’s concept of self-sufficiency. A man’s activities in his relations with other men are for Aristotle in the end subservient to this. Man may be a social-cum-political animal, but his social and political activity is not what is central. Yet who can live with this degree of leisure and wealth and this degree of disengagement from affairs outside himself? Clearly only a few people. This however could not appear as an objection to Aristotle: “For it is the nature of the many to be moved by fear, but not a sense of honor, to abstain from what is bad not on account of its baseness but for fear of the penalties; for, living on their emotions, they pursue the appropriate pleasures and the means to these pleasures, and avoid the opposite pains, but they lack even a concept of the noble end of true pleasure, never having tasted it.” So, Aristotle concludes, they could not be attracted or changed by ethical theorizing. The tone is that of Plato’s Laws.
Aristotle’s audience, then, is explicitly a small leisured minority. We are no longer faced with a τέλος for human life as such, but with a τέλος for one kind of life which presupposes a certain kind of hierarchical social order and which presupposes also a view of the universe in which the realm of timeless truth is metaphysically superior to the human world of change and sense experience and ordinary rationality. All Aristotle’s conceptual brilliance in the course of the argument declines at the end to an apology for this extraordinarily parochial form of human existence. At once the objection will be made: this is to judge Aristotle against the background of our values, not of his. It is to be guilty of anachronism. But this is not true. Socrates had already presented an alternative set of values in both his teaching and his life; Greek tragedy presents other, different possibilities; Aristotle did not choose what he chose for lack of knowledge of alternative views of human life. How, then, are we to understand this union in the Ethics of philosophical acumen and social obscurantism? To answer this we must look at his work in a wider perspective.
MacIntyre, Alasdair. (2002). Short History of Ethics, A: History of Moral Philosophy from the Homeric Age to the Twentieth Century. (Taylor & Francis 2002)