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.
- Pt. 1 — Introduction and Book I, Chapters 1-3.
- Pt. 2 — Book I, Chapters 4-6.
- [On hold indefinitely. Aristotle is so very repetitive.]
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.