Nov 11, 2011

How Do We Get It Wrong? Four Ways Aristotle Addresses

In the piece I started yesterday, I promised to talk about how and why a contemporary virtue ethicist and a classic virtue ethicist distinguish different types of moral failure from each other.  Discussing the contemporary, Alasdair MacIntyre, I placed more focus on the why -- the reasons we ought to be concerned not only whether we've done wrong, but to what degree, for what reasons -- and what we learn about ourselves in the process, including how -- like a bus that has left the road for short-cut dirt paths and is now bouncing over unfamiliar, dusty, and trackless terrain -- we might discern not only the overall direction we need to steer back towards, but how we might discern where trails run, which grooves and ruts we need to avoid and which might lead us back onto the straighter, more reliable roads towards the good.

As the post got longer and longer, I had to defer my promise to discuss Aristotle -- one of the worthies among the Virtue Ethics's classic thinkers -- since the whole goal of Virtue Ethics Digest was to have shorter pieces than those you might find on my other blog, Orexis Dianoētikē.  So, here it is, with more attention tonight to the how and less to the why in Aristotle's works -- though I don't want to give that short shrift, and will accordingly discuss that first.

Differentiating Types of Moral Failures

Why is it important to think about and attempt to puzzle out different modalities of moral failures?  Isn't it enough just to say: this is right, this is wrong, that's good, that's bad?  You can do this by setting out sets of rules, trying to cover each possible case and contingency. Or you can set out a plethora of examples, perhaps supplemented by proverbial adages passed down as well as coined through culture.  Or you can derive, distill, describe, then promulgate more general (and thus hopefully more powerful) principles.  Why bother distinguishing all these varied manners of going wrong?  Isn't it enough just to know something is wrong, bad, off the mark?

For Aristotle, the answer is clearly no.  And, this is not only because virtue and vice are basic, essential concepts in his moral theory, concepts that are not themselves readily reducible to other moral concepts -- as virtues and vices are in, e.g. Utilitarian, Kantian, or Humean moral theories.  Virtue's and vice's centrality and irreducibility means that actions are evaluated as good or bad, right or wrong, by reference to what the appropriate virtues and vices are, the habitual and complex patterns of action, intention, attitude and affectivity.

It's not enough, in order to understand a vice, to simply grasp it as bad or wrong -- one must know how and why -- and practically speaking, one must grasp this not only in general and in the abstract, but in the concrete situations, actualities, choices, acts, partial successes and failures of the moral life and environment in which one lives and moves.  One must dig a character open, so to speak, vivisect it (without killing it of course!), examine it not only on the surface but from the inside, scrutinizing the connections of its tissues and sinews, determine which parts are hale and healthy, which parts corrupted and in need of remedy or incision.

In the Nicomachean Ethics and Eudemian Ethics Aristotle argues the importance of distinguishing between substantively different sorts of moral failings -- no surprise there.  What might be surprising at first, however, is that he explores these distinctions in other texts as well, particularly the Politics and the Politics.  The statesperson or the political scientist ideally needs to have a full grasp of human nature, including all of its positive and negative dimensions and possibilities, as does the rhetor, the communicator, the wordsmith, the producer of persuasion -- as does the producer of narratives and the critic (we discover in the Poetics).

Vice, Brutality, Error, and Mischance

What are the main categories of moral failures, the modes of bad or wrong actions, that Aristotle addresses?  One of the distinctions he makes differentiates unjust, vicious actions (adikema), from wrong actions or moral errors (hamartemata), from mistakes or unfortunate results (atukhemata).
Unjust actions, or vicious actions considered more broadly (since Aristotle considers justice to in some sense comprise all the virtues -- a topic to address in another post) are in one sense the worst type of moral failure.  Vices (kakiai, moktheriai) become rooted in the very character, the personality, of the one who has it, or in some sense becomes possessed by it -- not only establishing habitual structures of action and emotion, vectors of desire and motivation, ruts into which one easily, even unconsciously slips and travels, but also distorting the very outlook, attitudes, assessments of the person.

Another state similar to vice, in some ways yet worse, in others not as bad, is what Aristotle called "brutality" (theriotes), sometimes rather misleadingly translated as "bestiality," in which some sort of damage to the human person incapacitates the distinctively human dimension of rationality, leaving behind only animality.  In the vicious person, Aristotle says, the highest part has become corrupted, functioning poorly and contrary to how it should, but in the brutal person, it is lacking or not functioning at all.  In one way, the vicious person is worse, since they are still responsible for their character and actions, whereas the brutal person does not bear responsibility -- but for that reason, their actions are in some sense even more disturbing, wrong, even terrifying.

At the entire opposite end of the scale are what we might translate as "mischances," "things coming out badly," cases where one's action goes astray, with bad consequences, perhaps foreseeable, but perhaps not -- likely due to ignorance of some of the particulars of the situation.  It is significant that Aristotle does not simply write these off, say they ought to be forgiven as matter of course, remove any moral significance from them. He does consider them the least serious from a moral perspective, and would class them as involuntary.

Wrong actions are not the expression of a vice established within the acting person -- although if one keeps doing such actions, one will inevitably render oneself vicious.  They are, however, actions in accordance with vice -- or actions contrary to what virtue would require, against --or deviating from -- what in all of its particulars a fully functioning practical reason would indicate one ought to do. Wrong actions in this restricted, non-vicious sense, will often be the product of what Aristotle calls "incontinence", "weakness of will," "lack of self-control" (akrasia), a state in which one does know what one ought to do, but finds oneself nevertheless doing what one ought not.  Alternately, one might have a deficient understanding of, as well as affective attitude towards, what fully functioning practical reason would dictate.

From an Aristotelian Virtue Ethics perspective, each of these distinct types of moral failure require different moral evaluations, different courses of treatment, different approaches and policies, even fundamentally different artistic depictions.  Later Virtue Ethics, developing as alternate -- at times rival, at others overlapping -- traditions would add yet more complexity of analysis and description of moral life -- but I suspect it would constitute a significant advance for many in our time simply to shift to a robust Aristotelian perspective like that sketched here.

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