Sunday, November 11, 2012

Nicomachean Ethics (Pt. 1)

Time for a good old-fashioned blogmentary! In this series, I'm going all the way back to ancient Greek moral philosophy. Most of my previous readings in ethics have been more-or-less contemporary, with a side of Hume, Kant, and Mill. While I'm not a fan of confusing philosophy with history of philosophy, this Aristotle fellow keeps popping up in current, actively-defended philosophy. He's resilient! I decided it's high time to get acquainted with Aristotle's ethics beyond the popular quotes I've encountered elsewhere.

So you understand where I'm coming from, I have a very goal-oriented view of morality. Descriptively, morality arises from deeply-held human values. Normatively, moral truth arises from a fitting application of decisions or policies to the way the world works. This means I have a decidedly practical rather than mystical view of morality. In the not-so-helpful language of metaethics, "cognitivism," "success theory," "anti-realism," and "hybrid expressivism" should put you in the right neighborhood.

I will be using Robert C. Bartlett and Susan D. Collins' new (2011) translation, as pictured above. They pursued formal equivalence—as opposed to dynamic equivalence—to provide readers with a less filtered experience of Aristotle's wording. Think NASB instead of NIV or CEV, if you're familiar with Bible translations (and their acronyms!). I have no set plan on how much to write per original text or even if I'll comment on the whole thing. So long as I find the material interesting and worth discussing, I will. Finally, I encourage you to pick up a paperback copy for yourself. The Kindle edition has a typo in the first sentence and takes away from the excellent footnotes on nearly every page.

Series Links

Book I, Chapter 1
"Every art and every inquiry, and similarly every action as well as choice, is held to aim at some good. Hence people have nobly declared that the good is that at which all things aim."
Quite an opening line. The first sentence calls out for elaboration. Given an art, inquiry, action, or choice, what is the good being targeted? The second sentence is, intriguingly, hedged. Aristotle isn't flat-out saying all things aim at "the good." He's putting a common view on the table and expressing some sympathy for the people who take that view. It's one thing to say all things aim at "some good"; another to say all things aim at the same good. Even if they do, is this common good so abstract that we can only call it "the good"?

Aristotle immediately raises a difficulty with this noble declaration: how can all things aim at the same good when there are different types of things aimed at? As he puts it, "there appears to be a certain difference among the ends." Some ends are direct. The end of shipbuilding is the production of a ship. Other ends are indirect. The end of building warships isn't just the production of a warship, but of winning a war.

When one end is pursued as a means to a more encompassing end, Aristotle calls the encompassing end "naturally better" and "more choice-worthy." I'm less sure. Take bread-making, for example. The immediate end is the production of a loaf of bread. A further end is to alleviate hunger. Does this necessarily mean the work of alleviating hunger is better than the action of baking bread? Bread isn't the only way to take care of hunger; opening a can of beans could do the job. A person might value bread-making in itself, over and above its use as a hunger banisher. In other words, bread-making might have both instrumental and final value. (Or instrumental and intrinsic value, if you're not hip to Korsgaard).

I'm wary about pushing all value for one activity into its encompassing activity because it can lead pretty quickly to single-value ethics such as Mill's grand goal of aggregate happiness or Rand's grand goal of extending one's own lifespan. While we may value such broad ends and engage in many activities that promote them, I think it's a mistake—an error in judging human psychology—to empty all other values into such pools. The error is especially clear in Ayn Rand's case: we need to live to experience life, but what makes our lives worth living is more than just the time spent.

Book I, Chapter 2
"If, therefore, there is some end of our actions that we wish for on account of itself, the rest being things we wish for on account of this end, and if we do not choose all things on account of something else—for in this way the process will go on infinitely such that the longing involved is empty and pointless—clearly this would be the good, that is, the best."
Freshmen programmers who don't understand the need for a base case in recursive functions should be ashamed of themselves. The ancient Greeks knew this stuff! (They also put your middle school Geometry skills to shame.) Anyway, I still think Aristotle is wrong to ignore the possibility of multiple ends in the "on account of itself" category. But since he thunders on past that, what is his grand goal? ...the political art. Huh? I didn't see that coming, but it does make sense of this edition's beautiful cover art.

Aristotle lists activities such as economics, warfare, and rhetoric which can all be understood as supporting politics. Today we might say that all things are done for the good of society.
"[T]he good of the individual by himself is certainly desirable enough, but that of a nation and of cities is nobler and more divine."
Why not say that the good of nations and cities is subordinate to the good it produces for individuals? It will be interesting to see how Aristotle handles situations where what's good for the state is very bad for some individuals. Or when what's good for individuals is irrelevant to what's good or bad for society.

Book I, Chapter 3

This chapter argues for approaching political science in a rough—rather than an unduly precise—manner.
"The noble things and the just things, which the political art examines, admit of much dispute and variability, such that they are held to exist by law alone and not by nature. And even the good things admit of some such variability on account of the harm that befalls many people as a result of them: it has happened that some have been destroyed on account of their wealth, other on account of their courage"
Oh what a relief! He admits there are problems when civic good or other virtues are pushed to the extremes without considering their effects. Maybe he was familiar with Greek tragedies? This should have prompted some reflection on his part. If your great all-encompassing good can have bad effects, isn't this a flashing clue that you have the wrong fundamental good...or at least not the only fundamental good?

After some snappy characterizations of mathematicians and youngsters, Aristotle praises an attitude of patience when learning. He says his teachings are pointless for people who just follow their passions unreflectively, but of great benefit to people who "fashion their longings in accord with reason and act accordingly." This makes me ask myself, "When was the last time I allowed learning to shape my actions, and not just to justify them?" Honestly, not long ago, considering I participated in the political art just this week and made a different choice than I did four years ago.


  1. I don't understand your wariness of single-value ethics. I can understand the mistake made by Rand, but can you elaborate on mistakes you think are made by Mill? Also, do you, personally, prefer any moral goal or goals to aim toward?

  2. How can a value theory be mistaken? Would you agree that one way a
    value theory can be mistaken is a mismatch between { the values
    specified or implied by the system } and { what people actually value,
    plus what's implied by what they actually value }?

    Don't arguments about ethical systems often fit into this pattern...

    Critic: "People value X, but your system S doesn't seem to allow for X to be valuable."

    Defender: "People often value X, but only because X often promotes Y. And S does imply that Y is valuable."
    Defender: "S does imply that X is valuable. It's just not obvious."

    the case of Objectivism, we can say it's mistaken if it doesn't allow
    for valuing, say, art (and people do value art). Utilitarianism is less
    obviously mistaken; much that we value can be understood as increasing
    aggregate happiness.

    I consider Utilitarianism a much
    closer match to human values than Objectivism, but what about the times
    when people value something that results in negative aggregate
    happiness? I don't want to get tangled up in specifics, so let me know
    if you don't think that ever happens. On the assumption that it does
    happen, it seems like we can either say that something is lacking in
    Utilitarianism or we can insist that Utilitarianism is somehow "right"
    despite failing to match up with the values people actually have. In the
    latter case, I don't know what "right" is supposed to mean. (Without resorting to mysticism anyway.)

  3. As you know, I personally aim for utilitarianism. In bringing my personal behaviors to this goal, I now donate about 16% of my income to what I consider to be the most effective charities and refrain from eating meat (because of factory farming). I also try to advocate others to do the same.

    I would agree, however, that strictly speaking, Utilitarianism does not capture all of my values. I do value my family more than that of other people, I do buy toys that maximize my personal utility at the opportunity cost expense of aggregate utility. I think others argue that this is all "psychologically necessary" in order to maximize aggregate utility (especially given burnout), but I'm not sure if it isn't better captured by a multi-faceted value theory.

    I definitely wouldn't say that *everyone* is a utilitarian, of course. As for what values actually take place among "the folk", I'm a bit clueless as to how it works, and it's certainly incoherent.

    On the flipside, however, I don't think anything of personal value to me would be lost if I were to live in a world where everyone was ideally utilitarian.

  4. I think that implicit in that Chapter 2 quote is Aristotle's main mistake in his ethics - he assumes that all humans have the same nature, which defines the final good. At least, this is how I read him. I suspect humanity is more diverse, that different people have different final ends and trade-offs between values. While a "normal distribution" of values may exist, Aristotle here assumes a single human nature (which he will later identify with reason - another pivotal mistake), with no room for variability; this is just too narrow-minded. It's like the old joke about drowning in a pool that's 1 inch deep on average - no one is Normal, and a theory that doesn't recognize that and appeals to humans in their variety isn't worth much.

    I do, however, generally agree that instrumental values supercede final value. If someone values bread-making in itself, this just makes bread-making into a final value (for him). If one values bread-making for its culinary experience and feeding the world, however, and one finds better way of doing both, one should stop making bread! (The flip-side is that people aren't that rational, but then again this doesn't mean such irrationality should be taken to be the normative standard.)