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Aristotle on virtue and four types of moral character


To: Stuart B.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Aristotle on virtue and four types of moral character
Date: 14th July 2010 13:17

Dear Stuart,

Thank you for your email of 5 July with your two essays for the University of London BA module Ethics: Historical Perspectives in response to the questions,

'Human good turns out to be activity of soul in accordance with excellence' (Nicomachean Ethics, 17, 1098a16-17). Can Aristotle show that excellence includes moral virtue?

Aristotle thinks that virtue depends upon the right relations between the rational and nonrational parts of the soul. How do the possible relations among the two parts of the soul give rise to the four main kinds of moral character?

Excellence and moral virtue

A point which you emphasize here is that Aristotle makes no attempt to prove that 'excellence includes moral virtue'. Rather, 'he stipulates that the moral virtues are those excellences of the activities of the soul that are in accordance with the *telos* (purpose, function) of Man (qua Man) within the *polis*.'

That is a valid point to make and stands as a necessary corrective to readings of Aristotle which see him trying, and inevitably failing, to provide a compelling argument for the identification of his 'arete' with what we understand by 'moral virtue'. Aristotle didn't have our conception of 'moral virtue'.

It is also arguable that, as you say, 'Aristotle's analysis is based on an examination of how his fellow Athenian speakers of Greek, people with whom he is familiar, actually employ the concept of a 'good man'. He is not attempting to provide an *a priori* analysis, or an *ex cathedra* declaration of how we *ought* to employ the label of a 'good man'.'

That is to say, Aristotle sees his aim as providing a philosophical analysis of a term with which Greeks of the time were all familiar, in somewhat the same way as Kant in the opening part of the Grundlegung, offers an analysis of the notion of 'good will' underlying the accepted moral views of his day. In both cases, penetrating insight is offered which illuminates a familiar notion in a philosophical way. However, Kant sees his effort as merely offering a preliminary 'analysis', prior to the main argument which will *prove* that morality rests on the Categorical Imperative (etc. etc.).

There is no parallel development in Aristotle. All he offers is the analysis. So it is tempting to think that he has simply no interest in offering arguments which would persuade the amoralist, or justify a life of moral virtue in the face of sceptical doubt.

But hang on a minute. Could that really be true? Aristotle, Plato's student, had read the Republic, and in the Republic Socrates battles heroically to establish his definition of Justice, using what to modern readers is the very familiar thought experiment of the Ring of Gyges. Why wouldn't you be leading a great life if you had the ability to *appear* just and moral, with all the benefits that that brings, while at the same time engaging in all sorts of nefarious activity protected by your cloak of invisibility?

Aristotle has an answer to this. He *can* (in the words of the question) show that human flourishing is impossible without the full complement of excellences, including the excellences required to function as a good citizen (and not merely 'appear' so in the eyes of others). His answer is not so different from Plato's. Only a man with a 'disordered' (Plato) soul would wish to take advantage of Gyges' Ring.

I think an examiner would conclude that you had missed an opportunity here. There is work to do, in order to fully answer the question. What you offer, as it stands, is a well written essay which shows good knowledge of the text, and which makes a valid point about the question but in so doing overstates the case.

Aristotle's four kinds of moral character

I always dislike this kind of question because on the face of it all you are asked to do is offer an exposition of the text showing that you've read it and understood it. But of course you are expected to do more: the examiner wants you to find problems -- objections to meet, unclarities to resolve -- without indicating where these problems might lie. So it's all up to you.

I think that a valid strategy is one that you have pursued to some extent: you have chosen a particular issue to focus on -- Aristotle's 'solution' to the problem of akrasia -- when you could have chosen a different issue. (For example, you could have chosen the question of whether we would judge that it is really 'better' from a moral standpoint to be 'temperate' rather than 'continent'. Kant would say that there is absolutely no difference so far as the only relevant question is the 'good will'. Either man can have a 'good will', but each presents a different challenge to an observer attempting to discern whether their motivation derives from the good will -- i.e. from the Categorical Imperative -- or not.)

Given that you have chosen to focus on akrasia, you should tell the examiner this. Show that you are aware that there is more than one issue that could be discussed but state that you have chosen to discuss akrasia. (Sorry if this seems to be labouring the point.)

As you have chosen to expand on the akratic theme, my feeling is that you could have said more. This is one point where Aristotle can be put under a lot of pressure. Does his solution ultimately stand up?

I would distinguish between two cases that Aristotle would appear to lump together:

In the first case, you give in to the temptation (e.g.) to drink the glass of wine offered by your glamourous hostess even though you *know* (because your doctor has told you, and you fully respect her judgement) that you must not have any alcohol. (It is easier to see the 'mechanics' of incontinence in a case which we would term 'prudential' rather than specifically 'moral'.)

In the second case, as a trainee Marine on an endurance exercise, you drop out when the stress gets too high (the cold, pain or exhaustion or whatever) even though you *know* that the consequence (failing to pass training) is the opposite of everything that you want, and will lead to a lifetime of regret.

The second case is more amenable to Aristotle's analysis. What is missing here is the very thing that the training is designed to instill: physical resistance to adverse conditions. The training doesn't work for everyone -- it is not designed to. There will always be failures. If there weren't, the training would be judged not tough enough.

The first case is not 'drunk' knowledge, because you can hear the doctor's words in your ears. And yet, at the very moment when the wine glass is proffered, you somehow no longer believe what you know. Can sense be made of that idea in Aristotelian terms?

As it stands, I don't have any real criticisms of the essay, other than that you could maybe have said more about the problem you chose to discuss, and flagged it as such.

All the best,