Transcript: 46 - Dominic Scott on Aristotle's Ethics

Peter chats with Dominic Scott of the University of Virginia, and talks about Aristotle's audience, method and conclusions in the Nicomachean Ethics.
Podcast series

Note: this transcription was produced by automatic voice recognition software. It has been corrected by hand, but may still contain errors. We are very grateful to Tim Wittenborg for his production of the automated transcripts and for the efforts of a team of volunteer listeners who corrected the texts.

Perhaps we can start by discussing the audience Aristotle has in mind when he writes the Nicomachean Ethics, which is the text we'll be talking about. What sort of person does he have in mind as an ideal audience member or maybe a reader? And what does he think he can assume about his audience, would you say? 

This issue, it's interesting, is quite controversial because when people talk about ethics in ancient philosophy, they often start with very famous exchanges between Socrates and people like Thrasymachus or Callicles, who were demanding to know why anyone should be just. They were speaking from outside ethics, if you like, sometimes called the immoralist. So there's a challenge which Plato is clearly trying to meet. When you get to Aristotle, things seem to be very different. So to answer your question, one of the qualifications for being a member of the audience is that you already think you should be moral. To put it in other terms, you are, as he puts it, you have to be well brought up. So you already have a sense that the virtues of justice and temperance are choice worthy for themselves. They're something noble. So he actually seems to be excluding anyone who doesn't already have that kind of upbringing. 

Does that mean that he actually wouldn't even have anything to say to Callicles or Thrasymachus, or would he just have to produce some other kind of considerations that don't appear in the ethics? 

I think that what we have in the ethics is certainly not geared toward Callicles or Thrasymachus. But if Aristotle was required for some reason to say something to them, he certainly would have something to say, and we can speculate about what that would be by extrapolating from his ethics. For instance, to give you a specific example, there's one point in the discussion of friendship when he says, I think one reason for being virtuous is that you will thereby have a greater chance to develop friendships. If you're unvirtuous, untrustworthy, you won't have any friends. Now that's something you could address directly to Thrasymachus or Callicles, indeed. That's exactly what Socrates says to Callicles in Gorgias. So you could take what Aristotle says in the Nicomachean Ethics and repackage it so that it would be suitable for an immoralist like Callicles. 

I suppose this question about his intended audience actually raises another question, which is, as it were, what are the other Aristotelian texts we're supposed to have read before the ethics? So if I'm supposed to be moral or think morality is important when I walk in to hear these lectures on the ethics, am I also supposed to have read some other things that Aristotle wrote or some other lectures that he's given? 

Again, this is a matter of some controversy. There's quite a well-known and, I would say, initially plausible reading, which sees the ethics as part of a big Aristotelian system. So if you read the function argument of the Nicomachean Ethics, you hear about human beings having some natural or characteristic activity. What he in Greek uses is an Ergon that the human good is a matter of fulfilling this function. Now that sounds as if it is continuous with the ideas you have, say, in physics, especially in the two of the physics, about any organism, any living thing having a final cause, which could be construed as some activity, it's kind of geared up to do. And when it's performing this specific kind of activity, then it's flourishing. So you could say that the Nicomachean Ethics is like a continuation of the theory of nature you have in physics. Some people say Aristotle's theory of the human good is like a theory of human flourishing, almost a biological approach to ethics. And in turn, you could base the physics on his metaphysics. And there are, certainly, points in the Nicomachean Ethics where he refers to his other writings as a point. He refers to his epistemological writing in the posterior analytics. However, I'm not so sure that the Nicomachean Ethics is meant to be read as sort of volume six of the Aristotelian Corpus. I didn't mention this before, but there's another qualification on who his audience is. It's not just these people who must be well brought up, they must also be experienced. He excludes the young from turning up to his lectures. That's slightly shocking for us because most of us who teach Aristotle tend to teach it to 20 or 21-year-olds. 


Oops, definitely. But we have to earn our money in some way. [laughter] Aristotle, I think, is talking to an audience who are relatively mature, who are interested in entering politics, and who will eventually be involved in legislation. Because he's talking in this very practical way. I think that he deliberately resists getting drawn into elaborate philosophical cross-references. At one point, this is in Book 1, Chapter 7, he says, well, imagine the difference between a carpenter and a geometer. Both of them talk about right angles, but in different ways. The carpenter so that he can make something or do something. The geometer talks about right angles for the sake of knowledge, to discover the truth. So the geometer has an interest in being as precise and exact as possible. But the carpenter needn't be as precise or exact as the geometer. There's no point. It would actually slow him down and stop him from doing his job. Aristotle makes that analogy because he wants to say, so too in the case of ethics, our job is practical. We're eventually going to try and make our lives better or make the lives of our citizens better. And yes, we need to talk about human nature and human psychology as part of that. But we don't need to go to the same level of depth or into the same level of detail as you would if you were writing a work on psychology or a work on metaphysics. 

Actually, it's sort of like the answer you gave me about responding to Callicles and Thrasymachus. Maybe the idea is, well, if you pushed him on the theoretical underpinnings of his ethics, he would have something to say. He could refer you to physics. He could say, look, I've got this teleological conception of nature. Everything has got a final cause, blah, blah, blah. But he doesn't need to, in this case, because it's not really the purpose that is at stake in the ethics. Is that right? 

Yes, that's right. But I think we should also bear in mind that what Aristotle in the ethics might have thought didn't need too much argument. For instance, he doesn't argue very hard for the claim that human beings have a natural function that we might question. So a modern Aristotelian couldn't take that for granted because nowadays, in the light of Darwin's natural selection, views about human beings having a natural function or an essence are deeply controversial. So I think in Aristotle's time, perhaps, he felt he could get away with being rather quick about certain claims about human nature whereas now anyone wanting to revive Aristotelian philosophy would have to work a lot harder so that they would have good reason, even good practical reason, to refer in their ethics to metaphysics. 

And in fact, this is exactly what they do right? People in this so-called virtue-ethics tradition, this kind of neo-Aristotelian ethical tradition, try to come up with either some more elaborate metaphysical story or often a non-metaphysical story which would produce a basis for broadly Aristotelian ethics. 

Yes, and I think it's quite legitimate in modern Aristotelian ethics to do that. I just think the slight mistake people make is assuming that Aristotle himself was doing that, i.e. presenting his ethics as not just continuous with his physics but relying on it and requiring the reader of the ethics to go back to the metaphysics. I think there are points he says, look, you could look into this matter in more detail with more precision but it would be surplus to our requirements to do so. 

Well, I guess there is another Aristotelian work though that's definitely relevant for the ethics which is not something you've read or heard already but something you're going to do next, namely Aristotle's politics. And I haven't covered that text yet in the podcast but you already mentioned that there are signs in the ethics itself that this is aimed at an audience of would-be politicians. And in fact, he mentions at the beginning of the ethics that what you're about to read in the ethics itself is some kind of contribution to political philosophy. Can you help us kind of make sense of that? What is political about the Nicomachean Ethics

One point to start with, it's not often made, but Aristotle, as far as we know, does not call the Nicomachean Ethics ethics. The title we have maybe by him but it may equally be a late editor. Within the work itself, he does not refer to it as a work of ethics. He refers to it always as a work of politics, which is quite striking. And as you've just pointed out, one explanation for that is right at the beginning. He says that he is talking to a group of people who are interested in the betterment of their citizens. This is in Book 1, Chapter 2. He says “It’s great to use a conception of human good to improve your own life but to do it for an entire city or a state is much nobler.” And it seems as if the point of the work is to give us some kind of definition of the human good or eudaimonia or happiness so that we can take that conception and use it to mould the lives of our citizens. So in that sense, the work is political. And at the end of the work, the very last chapter, he returns to this idea that someone who is interested in improving the lives of their citizens needs to have read the ethics. At the end of the work, in the very last chapter, he says “Well now, we've talked about human happiness and associated topics. Are we finished?” And he says “No, we have as our goal not knowledge but action.” And he starts talking about how you actually make people better citizens, better human beings. And you need education. And in order to have education, he thinks you need legislation. You actually have to have laws setting out what the educational programme should be. So in order to study legislation, we have to launch into another work. And in the very last chapter of the ethics, in fact, the very last paragraph, he tells us what the next project would be. And it sounds a bit like a list of contents of the politics. In other words, what we have in the Nicomachean Ethics may be volume one of a two-volume work, whose second volume is what we call the politics. But the point is that the volume one is telling us in outline and some detail what the human good is. Volume two is getting down to the details of how you go about realizing that. What is the best kind of constitution to promote human virtue? Or what kind of education you should have. And you definitely get that in the last two books of the politics. That's to say an account of education. 

Right. I guess this obviously invites us though to look for more specific cases in the ethics where Aristotle has some particular political end or context in mind. And one that strikes me might be his discussion of the voluntary end of responsibility. Because one of the things he says in that discussion is that you might be interested in responsibility for the purposes of legislation or in courts because you might want to lay down the conditions under which somebody could be held responsible for doing something. Would you say that that's a case where in the ethics he actually is specifically thinking of some kind of political or legislative function of the discussion? 

Yes, I think so. He does indeed say, just as he's about to discuss the voluntaristic court, that this will be very useful for legislators thinking about punishment, and I think, also rewards. But in general, the sense in which the Nicomachean Ethics is political is that the politician needs to have an outline of human happiness. Human happiness involves activity in accordance with virtue. So to give more detail to the outline of human happiness, we have to know more about virtue. And it turns out that the virtuous person acts voluntarily, so we have to know more about virtue. Just as the virtuous person experiences pleasure on the whole when they act virtuously, so we must know more about pleasure. And indeed, when Aristotle talks about pleasure, he says this will be something useful for political science because pleasure is such an important part of human life. 

And in that case, the whole question of the voluntary end of responsibility would kind of connect both to what you might think of as narrowly ethical questions about virtue and also to the more political context. 


Maybe that just proves your point, which I guess is that you can't really pry the two things apart because anything that you could say about private virtue, as it were, the ethical situation of one person at a time, will have knock-on consequences for political questions. 

Exactly. And that's what I've really been saying, that Aristotle has, I suppose, what nowadays we might call a paternalist concept of political philosophy, that the political leader really is how to, I would say, impose, perhaps, develop a very specific conception of virtue within the citizens of the state. I should add one qualification. We've been talking about the Nicomachean Ethics. There's another Aristotelian work called the Eudemian Ethics, and some controversy about when that was written. A fairly standard line that it was an earlier work and less mature work than the Nicomachean Ethics, though people disputed that. But when you look at the Eudemian Ethics, I think it's right to say that is not packaged as a work of political science. So I want to stress that Aristotle could have written a lot of the Nicomachean Ethics and packaged it as a work about individual morality or ethics. And perhaps that's why we have the Eudemian Ethics. So that a lot of the topics, or perhaps almost all the topics of the Nicomachean Ethics, could be read as a contribution to one's individual life, as a developing eudaimonia in one's individual life. But then imagine he took the Eudemian Ethics and then repackaged it and rethought it now as part one of a grand political treaty. 

And he, as you were saying, puts education really at the center of this project. And the reason for this is that he thinks that ethical virtue is a matter of habituation, so that if I somehow set up my city in such a way that people will be raised to be habituated, preferring and enjoying the right kinds of activities, then they'll become virtuous. 

Yes. The material on education, which comes beginning in book two and again at this last chapter of the whole work, really brings out this political dimension of the work. 

But something that I guess is maybe a little bit puzzling about that is that on the one hand, he talks about habituation quite a bit, and that sounds kind of plausible. So it sounds right that virtue might be a matter of habitually choosing and preferring the right things. But he just told us in the function argument, in book one, that virtue is a matter of using reason correctly. And I guess at first blush one might think that there was a problem there because I might have the habit of brushing my teeth after I eat every meal, but that's not a use of reason. I mean, maybe I could reason about that. Like I might think, oh, it's better for me to do that. I'll avoid tooth decay. But I might have just been raised to do it and might be doing it completely thoughtlessly whereas Aristotle seems to think that if it's going to count as a virtuous action, it has to involve my using rationality. So can you help motivate that? I mean, is that really plausible? 

There's a problem about this word habituation that, at least to me initially, it sounds like unreflective habit forming, like brushing your teeth. Now in Greek, the word is “ethismos” which is linked to the word ethos of character. So it's about whatever process it is that forms your character. And I think that when Aristotle talks about habituation, he's not thinking of a process that will just produce these knee-jerk habits. For instance, he says, if you continually perform the actions that a virtuous person would perform, for instance, standing fast against danger is what the courageous person does. So imagine that you are perhaps initially forced or made by legislators, all your parents, to stand up to dangers. You keep doing that, even if it goes against the grain initially. And what happens over time? Well, his point is not really that you will just, as a knee-jerk reaction, stand up to dangers. Something more interesting happens. He thinks you actually come to see the intrinsic value of such actions-fighting for a good cause, standing up to danger, and even facing death. By continually pushing yourself and putting yourself in the face of danger. He doesn't explain how this happens, but he thinks you will come to have some intellectual insight into the intrinsic worth of those actions. Same with giving your money to people in need. Initially, if you do it as a child or a teenager, you may feel it going against the grain, you'll feel conflicted and you're being forced to do it. But over time, you will start to value doing that for its own sake, and you will even start to take pleasure in it. So the results of habituation are actually intellectual. You come to appreciate something you didn't see before. It's like with artistic or aesthetic appreciation by continually exposing yourself to beauty. You might come to appreciate something you didn't before. So in that sense, I think habituation achieves something intellectual rather than merely what we would call habitual. 

Well, that question about intellectual achievement really takes me to the last thing I wanted to ask you, which is about what happens in the last book of the Nicomachean Ethics. This is one of the big, most debated issues about the ethics because there he rather suddenly I would say, tells us that the best life is the life of theoretical contemplation, and it's certainly clear that that is a use of reason, and there would maybe in continuity with what's gone before if what you're saying is right that even practical virtue involves some kind of intellectual achievement. But a lot of people have seen tension or even a rupture between, as it were, the first nine books of the ethics, which seem to be all about practical virtue, and then this bit at the end where suddenly we're told to go off and basically do philosophy. Do you see a big tension there, or do you think that it's more something that he's been preparing the way for the whole time? 

I think you're right. He has been preparing the way for it, but I have to admit when you read the opening of Book 10, Chapter 7, it can sound a bit of a shock. He seems to be saying that eudaimonia just is the activity of contemplation. And you think, well, if that's the case, why in a book devoted to eudaimonia has he spent so much time, all those nine books, talking about aspects of a practical life? That doesn't seem to make sense. So I think that you have to sort of trace back and reread the work quite carefully. One thing is to note in the function argument, at the end of it he says, I haven't got the text in front of me so I may be misquoting, but he says something like the human good will be activity in accordance with virtue, or if there are several virtues, in accordance with the best and the most perfect, or complete. We're not quite sure how to translate the Greek word there. Now that's in Book 1, Chapter 7. So he seems to be saying, eudaimonia is an activity in accordance with the best thing in us. In Book 6, Chapter 7, he talks about contemplation and the virtue of what he calls wisdom, or Sophia, which is the virtue not of practical insight or understanding, which is Phronesis, but the virtue of someone who understands facts about the cosmos, perhaps mathematics and so on. And he does seem to talk of that as something superior to practical wisdom. He certainly says the objects of this scientific wisdom are the noblest objects in the cosmos. So we've already got a hint, at the very least, that contemplative wisdom is something superior to merely human wisdom, which is practical reason or Phronesis. So you put that together with the claim in Book 1, Chapter 7, that eudaimonia is an activity in accordance with the best virtue in us, and you get the conclusion that seems to follow in Book 10, that eudaimonia is contemplative activity. However, there's a qualification here. What he actually says in (Book) 10, Chapter 7, is perfect eudaimonia is contemplative activity. And my own take, and I have to signal this is controversial, is that what he actually does in Book 10 is to say there are two kinds of eudaimonia. There's the perfect kind and the secondary kind. The perfect kind is the kind that gods enjoy, which is the activity of theoretical contemplation. And the secondary kind is distinctively anthropic or human. It involves practical reason. It involves the emotions, which are bound up with our bodily nature. To have an emotion like anger actually involves getting heated or something, literally. So there's a cluster of virtues which are the best thing in our human nature. And living according to that is human eudaimonia or secondary eudaimonia. And living in accordance with contemplation is living the life of the gods. That's the highest, most perfect kind of eudaimonia. So I think that there's nothing inconsistent with what he says at the end. He has been preparing the way, at least if you reread it, in the way I'm suggesting. And ultimately, he thinks we should enjoy both kinds of eudaimonia. Though there is a problem if one kind of eudaimonia is superior to the other, why not devote all your energies to that and neglect the human kind of eudaimonia and neglect human virtues such as generosity and courage? But I think he's trying to resist that conclusion and say we should celebrate all aspects of our nature, both divine and human, and live a life of both kinds of eudaimonia. 


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