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A metaphysical basis for Aristotle's ethics


To: Matt T.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: A metaphysical basis for Aristotle's ethics
Date: 26th May 2010 11:51

Dear Matt,

Thank you for your email of 20 May, with your first essay towards the ISFP Associate Award, addressing the question, 'What is the basis of Aristotle's Ethics? Is there a metaphysical basis to Aristotle's Ethics?'

This is a knowledgeable and judicious assessment of the question of a basis for Aristotle's ethics, which as you state has consequences for contemporary debates.

Your aim has been fairly modest, to find a middle ground between the view that Aristotle's ethics is independent of his metaphysics, and the view that it is derived from his metaphysics. My take on this, as you will see below, is that Aristotle's hylemorphism, this theory of matter and form as an account of how things act and change -- and indeed what makes anything a 'thing' or spatio-temporal particular -- is inseparable from what he says about the nature and ends of human life in the Ethics. However, the very fact that we are unique in the cosmos means that all the philosophical work is still there to do; metaphysical considerations take very much a back seat.

One view of the virtues which has been popular in Anglo-Saxon philosophy is that consideration of the nature of human virtues shows how ethics can have a basis in naturalism, in effect bridging the is-ought gap. You cannot understand, e.g., what courage is without realizing that courage is a good thing to have. But is courage a good thing, in every circumstance? I once heard a paper where a philosopher described a science fiction thought experiment of a future world where human beings were slaves of an alien race, and where the slightest nuance of resistance was ruthlessly crushed. In such circumstances, could there be courage? would it be more courageous to accept the lash without resistance, knowing the terrible consequences for one's comrades if one failed to keep one's head bowed at all times?

Through a glass darkly, you can see this as just a rehash of G.E. Moore's naturalistic fallacy. Whatever your natural description of courage, there still remains the question whether it is 'good' to have courage in this or that situation.

Aristotle would have brushed this off with amusement. It is plainly obvious to Aristotle that there are conditions for human flourishing, some of which we do not have control over. In the alien scenario, eudaimonia or the good life is not possible, period. This is not a view that all Greek thinkers shared: witness the very different conception of virtue held by the Stoics. A virtuous man can be 'happy' on the rack.

In his own terms, Aristotle is a naturalist. Human beings are part of nature, and consideration of the good for a human being is no different from a logical standpoint than consideration of the good for a tree or a horse. That said, possession of reason makes human beings unique amongst natural things: we do not merely grow and develop according to a given plan or teleology, but we formulate ends for ourselves and act, in so doing fulfilling our own unique teleology. The possibilities of this deep insight occupy much of the Ethics. The human capacity of pursuing an end, itself has an end which is determined by what human beings essentially are, their matter and form.

I have to confess that I didn't fully understand your account of Halper's argument. Where is the evidence that Aristotle 'considers the good as substance'? Surely, the very fact that the cosmos is conceived teleologically, with the telos of each constituent part contributing to the whole brings about the same effect as Plato's conception of a hierarchy of forms leading up to the form of the Good, but without Plato's ontological commitment.

However, this very fact clearly distinguishes Aristotle's conception of the universe from any modern 'naturalist' view, according to which all teleological explanation is necessarily reducible to non-teleological explanation (the paradigm is of course Darwinian evolution).

Following this line of thought, the answer to your question is that there is indeed a 'metaphysical' basis to Aristotle's Ethics, in the same sense as there is a metaphysical basis to Aristotle's physics and biology.

Within his teleological weltanschauung, Aristotle is free to be as empirical and pragmatic as the subject requires. This in now way belies the underlying metaphysical current which makes the whole inquiry meaningful. Indeed, this sets a challenge for modern 'Aristotelians', starting with Nietzsche. In the absence of God or an unmoved mover we have to discover our own virtues, as artist-authors of our own being.

There are, however, contemporary moral philosophers like John McDowell, who have learned one very important lesson from Aristotle, that the 'logical space of reasons' is different from the 'logical space of causes'. Within a broadly naturalist outlook, there is room for a non-reductionist view of human values and virtues, as comprising the logical scaffolding of our human world.

I hadn't intended to write so widely about this topic: all credit to you for prompting these reflections. I do agree with you that where we want to be is in some sense in a 'middle ground' where underlying (or, overarching?) metaphysical theory allows from for a generously empirical view of ethics, and a system which exhibits 'practical simplicity and flexibility'.

All the best,