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June 14, 2009



So the stereotype is the final cause / nature of a thing? If one wants to be more natural or fulfill their purpose, all they have to do is strive towards the stereotype? That seems to be the implication of your world view. For how is one to answer the question "what is a German Shepherd?" without appeal to the stereotypical German Shepherd? Thus, a dog is not a German Shepherd to the extent that it does not fit the stereotype qua Plato's Forms.

As Nathan pointed out earlier, words and concepts are not generally this invariant, though I suppose the referent might be. If words or concepts no longer refer to a particular referent, due to natural evolutionary mechanisms, then the referent is no longer Humanly accounted for; the referent is no longer Humanly relevant. If a stereotype as referent becomes irrelevant or unaccounted for, how could it still be stereotypical?

Joyless Moralist

I suppose it depends on how you define "stereotype", but that probably wouldn't be the best word. It implies, in the first place, a human-created idea of the thing in question... but the nature of a thing is not dependent on human consensus or understanding. If there is a creature living in the deep depths of the ocean that we haven't discovered yet, it still has a nature, but you wouldn't normally say that there are any stereotypes about it. Also, though, the word "stereotype" tends to suggest oversimplification. Obviously, I don't think the best German Shepherd is the one that is most like an oversimplified human caricature of a German Shepherd.

But what you say isn't completely wrong, because there is a sense in which, in the Aristotelian picture, the best elm tree would be the most elm-like, the best radish the most radishy, and the best German Shepherd the most German Shepherdish. In other words, the best of a thing is also the most quintessentially representative of its kind; it most fully manifests the nature of its kind. I love this feature of the Aristotelian view, and I think it's plausible on lots of levels. For a fairly normal-life example, consider produce. When someone announces that they don't like a particular vegetable, it wouldn't be strange for someone else to reply, "Oh, but you haven't *really* tasted beets until you've had the ones from Beetsville; they grow the best ones there," or, "yes, boiled brussels sprouts are awful, but you don't really know brussels sprouts until you've tried them prepared with my superb recipe." Obviously, the beets or sprouts in question needn't be the most representative of the whole type in the sense of being the most numerous. Beets from Beetsville might be a relative rarity; boiling may be far and away the most common way to cook brussels sprouts. But still, it isn't strange to suggest that the *best* way of eating the food is also the way that most brings out its real flavor.

On a more serious level, I find this aspect of Aristotelianism enormously attractive in the realm of ethics. One of the really unhappy things about the two main branches of modern ethics (utilitarianism and Kantianism) is that when you imagine their principles applied with maximal rigor and consistency by a particular human agent, the portrait you get is, well, freakish. Utilitarians, when their theory is consistently applied, quickly have to start backing water, trying to come up with various "distancing" theories to show how the utilitarian agent can get away with not actually thinking or acting like a utilitarian most of the time. Thus, utilitarianism seems to have a fundamental dishonesty and insincerity built into it on the level of individual agents, which is hardly appealing. Meanwhile, the perfect Kantian agent is chillingly cold and lacking in natural human affections or attachments; it's a real problem for Kantians to try to explain how love *isn't* undesirable and even unethical on their view. An agent who adopted either theory unstintingly would be a very warped and maladjusted person indeed, lacking many of what most of us would consider to be natural and healthy feelings and attachments.

The perfect Aristotelian, by contrast, would embrace every healthy attachment, would have every proper feeling, would be able to discern the called-for response in all types of situations. All the different attributes that we admire in a person would be found in him -- courage but also forbearance, self-control but also the ability to enjoy earthly pleasures, reason but also love. He is, in a very real sense, the most human human being.

My husband likes to ask his students at the end of an ethics course: which would you rather have for a friend? The perfect utilitarian, the perfect Kantian, or the perfect Aristotelian? I think the question practically answers itself.

Nathan Smith

But I can understand the utilitarian and Kantian theories, more or less, and I can't understand the Aristotelian. How is it not question-begging? Embrace every "healthy" attachment; but what *is* a healthy attachment? What *is* a proper feeling? What is the *called-for* response? These are the questions that ethics ought to answer, and I don't see how Aristotelianism does so.

Joyless Moralist

Well, you can't lay out a firm strategy all in a paragraph, the way you can to some degree with Kantianism and even more with utilitarianism. But I'm not sure that's such a weakness, really. Why should the answers to the deepest questions be the sort of thing you can summarize in a few sentences?

For an Aristotelian, the answers to your questions will be found through an extended study of the human condition. The better we understand what human beings essentially *are*, the better we'll be able to perceive what individual people *ought* to be like. But Aristotle doesn't just tell us, "Be the most human human," and then go to lunch -- the whole Nicomachean Ethics is his exploration of these sorts of questions. At the end of the day, yes, the exploration is going to be a more laborious one than under some ethical views, and the view we emerge with will correspondingly be thicker, more nuanced, and more closely tied to the actual nature of human beings. That seems like a reasonable trade to me.


But what if the "actual nature of human beings" looks a importantly different from the perspective of, say, modern neurology? Is it permissible to allow this to affect ethical reasoning? If so, what is its influence to be?

It would seem to me that there are important (unique?) things about humans and unimportant (unique) things about humans, and a critical task is dividing one from the other. I'm not quite sure how a search for the stereotype can effect this. I'm not just alleging a collapsing of out and is (though I'm not sure that Aristotelian approaches are entirely innovent of this), but rather I wonder how it is that the study in question is to be sufficient.

Nathan Smith

I read the Nichomachean Ethics years ago, and my impression was that it was shallow, complacent, and question-begging. (In my youthful ardor for moral heroism I actually found the Golden Mean concept repugnant.) The danger is that if a "nuanced" ethic will be an "arbitrary" ethic. That is, it will lack any internal logic that compels an adherent of the ethic to approve or disapprove of any particular thing. What one person calls courageous another may call rash; what one person calls generous, another may call spendthrift. These decisions will be arbitrary, with the result that the ethic will simply be used to legitimize whatever the powers that be at a given time approve of-- aristocracy, slavery, abortion, immigration restrictions, whatever. Any social reformer will seem like an "extremist." The Golden Mean seems, if anything, rather opposite in character to the Gospels, with their "You have heard it said... But I say unto you..." always heightening and going further in its ethical demands.

If we begin with the belief that humans are sinful, i.e., they are not as they ought to be, it's not clear how studying how they are will show us how they ought to be. Suppose I show you a car that has been in a crash, and which is rusty and has its carburetor, engine, battery etc. all wrecked or spoiled or stolen. I want you to fix the car, that is, to change the car from the way it *is*, to the way it *ought* to be. You object that you do not know how a car ought to be. I tell you, "the better you understand what the car essentially *is*, the better you understand what it *ought* to be." This seems unhelpful.

But then, Aristotle doesn't seem to have a strong conception of human sinfulness, certainly nothing like the later Christians. He seems to have regarded the elegant Athenian gentleman as a moral paragon and asked for nothing more, which I think is why my idealistic 19-year-old self found him suffocatingly complacent. By contrast, in the Kantian and utilitarian ethics, there is at least this: the modes of behavior they advocate seem to be radically different than the way human beings actually live. How many of us live, at every moment, in such a way as to achieve the greatest happiness of the greatest number? How many of us act only according to maxims which we desire that all of mankind should practice? In this sense, both of these ethics seem to me more Christian, which is not surprising, since they were coined in the context of a society that had thoroughly absorbed Christianity in the course of many centuries.

Joyless Moralist

Yeah, I remember your negative report of reading the Ethics. It caused me great amusement. I hope you don't mind that I still use some of your comments as a sort of negative example (a sort of "how to read this work and what mistakes not to make") when setting up the book for my students. :)

But actually, the perspective you offer here is very classically Protestant. Luther didn't think much of Aristotle either, and he thought that human nature was so radically depraved that we couldn't expect observation of human activity and behavior to give us any real clues as to what God intended us to be like. (This is also how he makes his way into a kind of fideist position -- we shouldn't expect God's commands to be comprehensible to us, because our faculties are too corrupted. So we should just accept them as basic and obey.)

I actually think your car example might be pretty good for showing why an Aristotelian or Catholic doesn't think this way. Suppose your car has been pushed off a cliff into a lake. It's pretty seriously banged up, and badly waterlogged, so of course nothing will run. Now you give the car to someone who's never seen one before, but who has brilliant problem-solving skills. (Say, a Leonardo Da Vinci or an Isaac Newton.) Would they just throw their hands up and say, "Well, I have no idea what it's supposed to be like. It's broken. What do you want me to do?"

I don't think they would. They have certain information -- this started as a useful machine, but it's been dropped over a cliff into a lake. Using that, they can examine what's left and draw conclusions about what the different parts are for and what they're intended to do. A broken machine can give lots of information about what the functioning machine should be... especially if you know something about how it got broken.

Having said all this, your criticisms of Aristotle are not without some merit, and considering Aristotle's position, we should be able to understand why. Aristotle didn't understand that the whole human race was broken. He understood, obviously, that certain people fell well short of the standard, and maybe even that everyone fell short in certain ways. But he concluded that this was just because living virtuously was really hard. He didn't have any concept of original sin, and thus assumed that human perfection was achievable within the natural sphere. Obviously from a Christian perspective, this is a pretty serious limitation. When Aristotle resurfaced in Europe in the high Middle Ages, the Schoolmen were deeply impressed by the underlying metaphysical ideas, but they quickly saw that some adjustments would be in order if the specific advice on the virtues were to be useable in a Christian framework.

All that being said, however, you should really think more deeply about the limitations of your demand for novelty in a "Christian" ethical theory. If a radical departure from what actual human beings normally think or do is all it takes to lead you to regard a philosophy as Christian (or at least somewhat Christian) then you're going to find yourself sanctioning an awful lot of repugnant ideas. I think Kant's philosophy provides an excellent example of how this can go. When it comes down to it, the only absolute constraint that Kant can provide on any ethical theory is rational consistency. He insists that empirical observation should play no part in developing ethical maxims; pure reason alone should work them out. But in fact, this leaves the door open for all kinds of abhorrent things. There's no reason why "The Aryan race is the greatest of all, and should rule at any cost," can't be applied just as consistently as "All men are created equal."

Kant doesn't worry very much about this... he is remarkably uncurious about the actual content of morality, saying in passing that it's not worth dwelling on because everyone knows it already. Perhaps this is one area in which the provincial nature of his actual life insulated him from some of the problems with his theory (it's commonly said that Kant never traveled more than 100 miles from where he was born.) Those of us who do have more experience with the world should be a little less sanguine about an ethical theory that detaches ethical reasoning entirely from empirical observation or ordinary ethical intuitions. These things may seem plebeian and uninspiring to you, Nathan, but they also provide some check on efforts to use perversions of ethical theory to justify horrible atrocities.

But also, surely there is something appealing about the Aristotelian insight too? That is, even in our more idealistic frames of mind, we shouldn't be looking to transform the human race into something utterly alien to what it presently is. We want to *perfect* it -- to make it into the best version of itself. When I read about the lives of the saints, there is a level on which they do sometimes feel very strange or foreign from life as I know it, but there's also something wonderfully real about them; I can look at them and say, "yes, THAT is an excellent specimen of my species!" They uplift us and inspire us in part because they *do* seem like very admirable members of our same species. By contrast, the "perfect" utilitarian or Kantian, insofar as I can mentally construct them, aren't people I would even want to know, let alone emulate. They seem creepy and inhuman. That's not what I like to see in an ethical theory.

Joyless Moralist

Also, I should add -- distinguishing cowardice from rashness, frugality from stinginess, etc., will not be utterly arbitrary if you think that we actually have some faculties for perceiving the truth of the matter. Nobody says that this is easy, or doubts that our answers will sometimes be distorted by various cultural mistakes or prejudices. Within a Christian framework, that's one reason why God gives us religious authority and revelation -- to help free us from being slaves to the errors of our own particular time in history. Still, the claim here would be that we do have faculties that enable us to recognize human excellence and human thriving. There isn't a single, simply-stated maxim (such as "achieve the greatest good for the greatest number") that underlies all our ethical reasoning, but we can slowly and carefully use those natural faculties to build up our understanding of human excellence, which will in turn be the basis of our ethical reasoning. Of course, this won't just be a grab-bag of off-the-cuff intuitions. There are systematic ways to go about the project. As in the car example, we might start by looking at the various "parts" (in the case of human beings, physical traits, faculties, feelings, etc.) and trying to figure out what they're "for" and how they might best all work together. That approach, if we're honest, will create all kinds of constraints as to what ethical system we can ultimately approve -- much more than the Kantian would be subject to.

You'll still probably say that this is circular, and maybe it is on some level, but it's the kind of broad, expansive circularity that needn't necessarily be regarded as bad. After all, every ethical theory has to start somewhere. The Kantian has no further court of appeal if I say that I don't really care about rational consistency, or alternatively, that I don't think any of his maxims are the right ones; the utilitarian doesn't have much left to say if I express indifference to human happiness, or, on a different tack, declare that I'm not committed to the welfare of the "greatest number" per se. Likewise, the Aristotelian can't help you if you don't really want to flourish, or if you dismiss his picture of the flourishing human being as being sheer fantasy. If we declare that something can only qualify as a real ethical theory if it *logically demands* assent... well, then there ain't never been such a creature.

Nathan Smith

Yes, Da Vinci or Newton could learn a lot from looking at the ruined car, but not *merely* from looking at the car. They would have "outside knowledge," so to speak, of the sorts of human objectives that machines serve, as well as of principles of physics and chemistry. Kantian and utilitarian ethics seem like efforts, by no means wholly satisfactory I will readily admit, to supply the outside knowledge to repair something that is broken. Aristotelianism seems more like just looking at the car.

Of course a radical departure from human behavior is not all that it takes for an ethic to be Christian; it has to depart from it in the right ways! The way in which Christianity seems to be the opposite of Aristotle is that it takes moral precepts that already existed and makes them more *extreme,* whereas Aristotle valued moderation. As for Kantianism and utilitarianism, I think it would be truer to say, not that the perfect utilitarian or Kantian would be creepy and inhuman, as that they don't exist. Kant's incuriosity about the specific content of morality limits what can be said about the implications of his ethos; and utility has been elaborately refined/deconstructed as it has been absorbed into economics, ending up as rather contentless compared to what Bentham's "pleasure" and "pain" calculus suggests, leaving a gap that can be filled in by other conceptions of the good. (Economists habitually delegate the question of the good to individuals, and seek to organize social systems in which individuals can enjoy the most of whatever it is that they value. Hopefully they value the right things! But that's not our business...) The Kantian and utilitarian theories are more incomplete than those who developed them understood, as JM is saying of the Aristotelian ethic, too, if I understand her.

I wonder: are the Aristotelian, Kantian and utilitarian ethics really incompatible? Might not the best universal maxim (Kant) be to serve the greatest good of the greatest number (Bentham)? And might not the practice of the virtues (Aristotle) be the way to achieve that end?

Joyless Moralist

See, this is amusing to me. Are you suggesting that these modern theories might be somewhat useful when applied... in moderation?

I certainly don't think that modern ethical theories are wrong through and through. They contain certain true insights -- as all persuasive errors do. But of course, their proponents want to make much more of them than that. Kant's lack of interest in the specific content of morality may be partly explained in light of the limitations of his life circumstances, but that doesn't change the fact that his theory fundamentally depends on maxims being generated from a priori reasoning; empirical observation cannot be used. So, in other words, the deficiencies are not easily fixable. Of course, we can still admire him for caring so much about duty and rational consistency, but then, Aristotle cared about those things too. What's most distinctive about Kant is precisely the fact that he wanted to built a complete ethical theory on that foundation. Utilitarianism, likewise, is easy to endorse if you make it so general as to be almost vacuous. Aristotle thought that the most virtuous life would also be the most pleasant, and he wants to structure society so as to instill the virtues as effectively as possible, so does that make Aristotle a utilitarian? Maybe, but generally utilitarians, in an effort to make their theory more prescriptive and less elastic, want to push the maximizing principle more front and center, and the more substantive their claims become in that regard, the more I'm inclined to disagree with them.

What it finally comes back to is once again this question of natures. What these two main branches of modern ethics really represent is an effort to construct an ethical theory that is in no way reliant on having a particular conception of human (or any) nature. To get the utilitarian theory off the ground, all you need is the ability to feel pleasure or pain. For the Kantian, rationality is all that's required. As with so many aspects of modern philosophy, metaphysical "thinning" is the driving force; instead of having to flesh out a large, complex picture of what human beings might be like, we can put all our eggs in one little basket, and thereby simplify. But unsurprisingly, the deficiencies follow pretty naturally from the pared-down starting point. The utilitarian struggles to explain how something like justice (which often appears to go contrary to pleasure) can have a place in his system, while the Kantian, with his logic-based conception of rationality, has no room for something like love.

I wouldn't be too terribly hard on the Golden Mean principle, by the way. It's not the end-all and be-all of ethics, but there is something commonsensical to it. In a way (this is what seemed ironic to me about your last comment) the insight is just the one that you're grasping at here: lots of different thoughts, feelings, actions etc. have their appropriate place within human life, but if you try to make them into the WHOLE of human life, they can become destructive. So, for example, there's a place for anger, but it needs to be felt under the right circumstances, at the right time, to the right extent, etc. We shouldn't go around raging at absolutely anything that irritates us. Or, to take another example, generosity is good, but you shouldn't give absolutely anything to anyone who asks; some discernment is required to determine when giving is appropriate. It doesn't follow from this that you should never get really angry, should never be very generous, etc. But we do need discernment to figure out when each of these is appropriate.

I'm not saying that that *entirely* satisfies the tension with Christianity. I do think that Christian revelation opens the way for "extremities" of a kind that Aristotle would not have understood or necessarily approved. Partly I think that has to do with the addition of Almighty God to the "scale" -- Aristotle hadn't conceived of anything so big, so good, so powerful etc. as the Christian God. Still, within the natural realm, there is much sense in this idea.

Nathan Smith

re: "See, this is amusing to me. Are you suggesting that these modern theories might be somewhat useful when applied... in moderation?"

No, not really. I'm saying that the Kantian and utilitarian ethics are incomplete. If one tried to live by them one would find that one didn't know how. Live by universal maxims, but *which* universal maxims? Maximize pleasure, minimize pain, but *how*? Either ethic requires one to know and/or learn something about the nature of man-- the "rich, complex" nature of man, if you like to put it that way. It's not clear to me that either the Kantians or the utilitarians have to be averse to this effort, though it might make one evolve into something other than a Kantian or utilitarian at some point. At any rate, trying to live by universalizable maxims, and trying to work for the greatest happiness of the greatest number, would certainly be difficult, and would encourage moral effort and self-improvement, generally in good directions.

Well, I guess I shouldn't comment too much on this without rereading the Nichomachean Ethics. I'm a little out of my depth.

Joyless Moralist

Well, perhaps we can find a certain amount of agreement there. If utilitarians and Kantians were open to joining the better insights of their theories to a thicker account of human nature, that might be perfectly all right. Of course, I'm inclined to think that one of the primary goals of their more famous proponents was precisely to *avoid* having to do this, so I do think it would be a pretty major departure from the original theory. But if you're not interested per se in being a disciple of Kant or Bentham, then sure, you might find some worthwhile pieces of each theory that would be worth hanging onto.

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