01 March 2005

Aristotle and Immoralism

Eventually I'll post something on the 'Glassen Objection' to Aristotle's Function Argument, raised by P. Glassen in a 1957 article in Phil Quarterly. This is the objection that the Function Argument fails because the question it seems to answer ('What is a good human being?') is not the question it is meant to answer ('What is good for a human being?').

It's puzzling that some scholars are very much exercised by the objection--Bostock seems to count it as the most serious flaw in the Ethics--but others seem not bothered by it at all.

But here my concern is with the related question of immoralism: Suppose Aristotle thought it clear, or obvious, that the performance of a virtuous action was in the interests of the agent. Then of course he would regard it as clear that it is good for a person to be good (and to carry out actions characteristic of a good person). So if we could explain why Aristotle was untroubled by immoralism, then we could explain how he, at least, might wish to respond to the Glassen Objection.

Why might Aristotle have thought it clear that a virtuous action is good for the agent?

Here's a way in which it might have seemed so to him--from looking at Thrasymachus' arguments in a certain way.

Thrasymachus makes the simple point that in any exchange in which justice comes into play--say, a simple commercial transaction--then each person, if he acts justly, comes away with fewer goods than he would have had, if he had acted unjustly. So it looks as though justice makes a person less well off.--It is 'the other person's good', not one's own.--Acting justly, then, has to be like an amputation or noxious medicine: it's something we could want only for its effects.

The argument, which is very simple, is something like this:

1. Each person wants more goods for himself rather than fewer.
2. A person who acts justly comes away with fewer goods rather than more.
3. Thus, no one wants to act justly.

But "one man's modus ponens is another man's modus tollens":

Suppose Aristotle took it as obvious that people can want to act justly; and he continued to hold to 1. ; then he would conclude that a person who acts justly comes away with more goods rather than fewer--and yet not with more material (commutable) goods--thus there must be a more valuable good, of another sort, which he gets from acting justly--presumably the 'equality' which his action produces, a good that is kalon. (Aristotle asserts these things at various places in the Ethics: e.g. 1163b9; 1169a27-29.)

Of course, someone might say that precisely what is at issue is whether anyone wants to be just-- that that's just the point of the Ring of Gyges story, for instance. Yet perhaps there is progress: "A person can want to act justly" seems obvious whereas "We have reason to act justly"does not.


joe said...

But people won't transact with those who have a reputation for taking an unjust share, making it logical to act justly for maximization of material goods in the long run. If Aristotle was assuming that people would want to exist as part of a community--where reputation and behavior over time are important considerations--then it would follow that a person has reason to act justly. Wandering vagabonds would naturally not have the same reason to act justly.