29 August 2006

Is There a Theory of the KALON in Aristotle's Ethics?

As is well known, Aristotle uses a variety of words in the Nicomachean Ethics to refer to a good person: good (agathos); serious of purpose (spoudaios); decent (epieikes); and righteous (dikaios). But, for all that, no one would seriously suggest that there is a theory, say, of moral seriousness in the Ethics. To be sure, for Aristotle any good person has 'serious' and 'decent' aspects. Yet it would be absurd to puff this up into some special thesis in Aristotelian ethics. And if someone did wish to propose that sort of puffed up thesis, we might challenge him to find a passage in the Ethics where spoudaios, or one of the others, couldn't be replaced by agathos without loss (except perhaps in 'connotation' or 'tone').

When reading Gabriel R. Lear's contribution ("Aristotle on Moral Virtue and the Fine") to the recent Blackwell anthology on Aristotle's Ethics, I found myself wondering--in spite of my own past thoughts to the contrary--whether agathon and kalon don't work in much the same way as regards actions, and that it would be a mistake, then, to look for a 'theory of the fine' in Aristotle's Ethics. So in my mind I posed a similar challenge, and it was unclear to me that it could be satisfied: Is there any passage in the Ethics, where Aristotle describes an action as kalon, where one couldn't substitute agathon without loss (except in 'tone')?

In her essay Lear simply supposes that kalon has a special sense of 'beautiful' ("according to Aristotle, not only are virtuous actions kalon--beautiful, fine, noble--but the virtuous agent chooses them for this reason"), and then she explains what she thinks this can mean--by relying heavily on Plato, and on works by Aristotle other than the Ethics. But the case isn't so easy to make out, by working up from texts in the Ethics alone.

Indeed, she concedes that it is 'tempting' to interpret Aristotle's common claim that we do virtuous actions for the sake of the kalon, as meaning simply that we do them because of their goodness:

...there is truth in this assumption. What makes actions fine is also (in part) what makes them worth choosing for their own sakes. That is to say, goodness and fineness in action are in large part constituted by the same property (to anticipate: being well ordered by the human good). For this reason, we can learn a great deal about what Aristotle considers intrinsically valuable in the various virtues by examining his remarks on the specific ways in which they are fine.
"Nevertheless," she says, "according to Aristotle the concept of the kalon is not the same as the concept of the good, the agathon". And yet what text in the Ethics could support this claim? Aristotle never compares these 'concepts' there, and, indeed, as Lear admits on the next page, "Aristotle never explains in the NE what to kalon is"!

Furthermore, even if kalon were a different 'concept', it wouldn't follow that anything important hinged on its use (cp. agathos, spoudaios).

Tomorrow perhaps I'll look at the few NE passages that Lear considers and see if any can meet the challenge I mention above.


Suturn said...

Hi Michael! So what did you find out after reading Lear?