30 September 2006

"In Control", or "Sovereign"?

Aristotle has so far told us the following about human agency:

  1. Its precondition is that some things not be necessitated, in the sense that they stand open to being in either of opposing states.
  2. Yet some things, among those that are not necessitated, furthermore operate as an arche or 'originating cause' in that domain. This presumably means not merely that they are indifferent, so to speak, to being made to take on either of opposing states, but, more strongly, that they themselves operate, and make other things to be such-and-so, by their being active in either of opposing ways, as the case may be. (Otherwise, why should they be set apart as 'originating causes'?)
  3. Human beings are the only true originating causes among things not necessitated, and this is to be traced to their rational powers (cp. Met. IX.2.). That we are so distinctive is indicated in language by our saying, not that a human being is 'a cause which originates motion' (a)rxh\ kinh/sewj) but rather that he is 'a cause which originates actions (a)rxh\ pra/cewn)'.
Now let us consider how Meyer deals with this material. I comment on that paragraph that I had earlier quoted:
Aristotle regularly indicates that actions that "originate" in the agent are "up to him to do or not to do"... . It is important not to misinterpret this expression as attributing to agents a kind of "freedom to do otherwise".
This is puzzling. On one ordinary meaning of "freedom to do otherwise", this is precisely what Aristotle does attribute to human agents, viz. a power to operate in either of opposing ways, as the case may be, in the absence of determination. Considered as a first approach to Aristotle's view, the phrase seems serviceable: if one were to compare the two assertions, "Aristotle attributes to human beings a freedom to do otherwise" and "Aristotle denies that human beings have a freedom to do otherwise", the former, surely, is closer to the truth.

So why is it 'important' that we do not 'misinterpret' Aristotle in this way? What reasons does Meyer give in support of her correction? (Note that Meyer does not say, as would be justifiable, that "it would be hasty to take the phrase 'up to him', all by itself, as meaning that...", or "we should not take Aristotle to mean everything that we might mean by the word 'freedom'".)
To be sure, Aristotle thinks that our actions, like much of what happens in the world, are contingent rather than necessary: they "admit of being otherwise"... . Their contingent status, however, is not a result of their being "up to us to do or not to do." On the contrary, Aristotle takes the former to be a precondition of the latter.
Ignoratio elenchi, apparently--it's not part of the view that "human beings have a freedom to do otherwise" that human beings are the cause of contingency in the world. Reject that absurd view, and you do nothing to touch the view that is at stake.
It is because such occurrences (a) admit of being otherwise, and (b) can come about "through us", that (c) they are "up to us to do or not to do"... .
This is clearly not Aristotle's meaning, because (a) through (c) would hold of any contingent thing insofar as it was a link in a causal sequence, including those that are not 'originating causes', and yet Aristotle reserves the phrase "up to us" for rational, originating causes.
Rather than attributing freedom to agents, the "up to us" locution used by Aristotle implies causal responsibility. Such agents are in control (kurios) of their actions... ; they are responsible (aitioi) for them: "A person is responsible [aitios] for those things that are up to him to do or not to do, and if he is responsible [aitios] for them, then they are up to him"... .
For my part, I'm baffled by the phrase, "causal responsibility". What is that supposed to mean in contrast?

And then there is apparently an appeal to authority: Meyer writes as though the Greek words must take the sense she gives them, when they could easily be meant to have a fuller sense, and on the "freedom" interpretation they would have that sense. Why doesn't kurios mean, in these contexts, "sovereign"-- a human being is "sovereign over whether he will carry out his action or not"? Why doesn't aitios carry the sense: "the action is to be traced back (solely) to him"? Aristotle's mere use of these words certainly does not exclude the "freedom" view.

And even if we grant that these words have the sense she stipulates, that still doesn't decide the question: Meyer still hasn't given any reasons why "a freedom to do otherwise" is a misinterpretation.

29 September 2006

Onay Atinlay, Onay Oneymay

The resolution is unfortunately too coarse to make out the words, but I'm told this is the ATM machine at the Vatican, with instructions in Latin only.

Now, how would one render "ATM" in Latin?

Thanks to "papabear", I found an image one can read:

Freedom to Do Otherwise

Do you know why, when he wants to characterize the domain of human action, Aristotle describes it as "that the originating causes (ai9 a)rxai/) of which are capable of being otherwise"? Do you understand what he means in saying that the originating causes are capable of being otherwise? Here is the relevant passage from NE (1139a6-8):

kai\ u(pokei/sqw du&o ta_ lo&gon e1xonta, e4n me\n w|{ qewrou~men ta_ toiau~ta tw~n o1ntwn o3swn ai9 a)rxai\ mh_ e0nde/xontai a1llwj e1xein, e4n de\ w|{ ta_ e0ndexo&mena:

And let us set down that the parts of the soul that have reason are two in number: one being that by which we study those sorts of existents, the originating causes of which do not admit of being other than they are, and one being that by which we study things that do so admit.
(Presume for the second: both the originating causes, and the things caused, admit of being otherwise than they are.)

I ask because, it seems to me, the position that Aristotle takes on 'freedom' (or 'freedom of the will') is to be located principally here. The EE, indeed, is clear about linking an action's being 'up to us' with a human being's being an arche which is capable of being otherwise.

w3st' ei1per e0sti\n e1nia tw~n o1ntwn e0ndexo&mena e0nanti/wj e1xein, a)na&gkh kai\ ta_j a)rxa_j au)tw~n ei]nai toiau&taj. e0k ga_r tw~n e0c a)na&gkhj a)nagkai=on to_ sumbai=non e0sti/, ta_ de/ ge e0nteu~qen e0nde/xetai gene/sqai ta)nanti/a, kai\ o4 e0f' au(toi=j e0sti toi=j a)nqrw&poij, polla_ tw~n toiou&twn, kai\ a)rxai\ tw~n toiou&twn ei0si\n au)toi/. w3ste o3swn pra&cewn o( a1nqrwpo&j e0stin a)rxh_ kai\ ku&rioj, fanero_n o3ti e0nde/xetai kai\ gi/nesqai kai\ mh&, kai\ o3ti e0f' au(tw|~ tau~t' e0sti gi/nesqai kai\ mh&, w{n ge ku&rio&j e0sti tou~ ei]nai kai\ tou~ mh_ ei]nai. o3sa d' e0f' au(tw|~ e0sti poiei=n h2 mh_ poiei=n, ai1tioj tou&twn au)to_j e0sti/n: kai\ o3swn ai1tioj, e0f' au(tw|~.

The upshot: if in fact some existing things admit of being in either of opposing conditions, then any originating causes of these must be like that as well--since what is a consequence of things that are by necessity is also necessary (yet things that simply follow later admit of becoming either of two opposites). Now what is up to us human beings accounts for many things of that sort, and we ourselves are the originating causes of those sorts of things. The upshot: as regards those 'actions' of which a human being is the originating cause and determining cause, it is clear that they admit of coming into existence or not, and that it is up to him, whether these come into existence or not--as he determines whether they are to exist or not. But whatever is up to him, whether he do it or not, he himself is responsible for these; and whatever he is responsible for, it is up to him .
(By the way, this is the passage that immediately precedes the one that Meyer translates in her essay.)

(Also by the way-- and a concession I am forced to make!--the abbreviation of the NE VI = CB II passage above, e4n de\ w|{ ta_ e0ndexo&mena, is more understandable on the hypothesis that the argument of the EE passage is being presupposed.)

Now I will say something more about this in subsequent posts. But I also wish to criticize what Meyer writes along these lines. As you can see, she brusquely dismisses the view that Aristotle accepts some notion of 'freedom' (that would be to 'misinterpret' him), and I am wondering what her grounds are.

It will help to have her remarks before us. The passage in her essay is interlaced with lists of putatively supporting texts. I leave these out but will refer to them when they are relevant. It appears a long paragraph in the book, but Meyer's actual remarks are relatively brief:
Aristotle regularly indicates that actions that "originate" in the agent are "up to him to do or not to do"... . It is important not to misinterpret this expression as attributing to agents a kind of "freedom to do otherwise". To be sure, Aristotle thinks that our actions, like much of what happens in the world, are contingent rather than necessary: they "admit of being otherwise"... . Their contingent status, however, is not a result of their being "up to us to do or not to do." On the contrary, Aristotle takes the former to be a precondition of the latter. It is because such occurrences (a) admit of being otherwise, and (b) can come about "through us", that (c) they are "up to us to do or not to do"... . Rather than attributing freedom to agents, the "up to us" locution used by Aristotle implies causal responsibility. Such agents are in control (kurios) of their actions... ; they are responsible (aitioi) for them: "A person is responsible [aitios] for those things that are up to him to do or not to do, and if he is responsible [aitios] for them, then they are up to him"... .

28 September 2006

Distinctively Human Agency

"Nature, Mr. Allnut, is what we are put in this world to rise above."

The tendency, it seems, of Meyer's interpretation of Aristotle on human action is to assimilate human agency to the operations of natural things generally. That is why, I believe, she wishes to locate what is important about human agency in the 'causal relation' by which an action is 'produced' by a state of character. In that way she can construe it as simply another instance where a sort of effect reliably follows from a disposition to produce that effect.

As I said in my previous post, the words that are omitted from her translation of EE 1223a9-18 go against this interpretation. The omitted words draw a contrast between human agency and what happens as a result of necessity, chance or nature; they therefore suggest that human agency is a distinct kind of cause. The omitted words also claim that states of character are themselves voluntary: but this implies that human agency is prior to states of character and not captured fully by the bond between such states and the actions they produce.

Consider this claim: Human agency is of a piece with the sort of causation one typically finds in nature. Let us call this 'naturalism'.

Almost the first thing one would want to say about Aristotle, in connection with the voluntary, is that he is not a naturalist in this sense. He standardly lists human agency (especially techne) as a cause of the origin of things that is distinct from necessity, chance, and nature. A claim like that is the centerpiece of his treatment of agency in the Nicomachean Ethics: "The sorts of causes seem to be: nature, necessity, and chance--but in addition to these mind and the entire realm of human agency", (ai)ti/ai ga\r dokou=sin ei)=nai fu/sij kai\ a)na/gkh kai\ tu/xh, e)/ti de\ nou=j kai\ pa=n to\ di' a)nqrw/pou. 1112a32-4).

In the Eudemian Ethics, this view takes the form of emphasizing that only human beings are capable of action (praxis) or 'conduct'.

a)nqrwpi/nhj ga\r yuxh=j ta\ ei)rhme/na mo/ria i)/dia: dio\ ou)d' ai( a)retai\ ai( tou= qreptikou= kai\ au)chtikou= a)nqrw/pou: dei= ga\r, ei) h(=| a)/nqrwpoj, logismo\n e)nei=nai kai\] a)rxh\n kai\ pra=cin,

The aforementioned parts are distinctive of the human soul. That is why excellences of the parts of the soul that control nutrition and growth are not distinctively human. For if [a soul is considered] qua human, there must be present within it a rational faculty, a ruling principle, and conduct (1219b39-40).

ei)si\ dh\ pa=sai me\n ai( ou)si/ai kata\ fu/sin tine\j a)rxai/, dio\ kai\ e(ka/sth polla\ du/natai toiau=ta genna=n, oi(=on a)/nqrwpoj a)nqrw/pouj kai\ zw=|on o)\n o(/lwj zw=|a kai\ futo\n futa/. pro\j de\ tou/toij o(/ g' a)/nqrwpoj kai\ pra/cew/n tinw/n e)stin a)rxh\ mo/non w=n zw/|wn: tw=n ga\r a)/llwn ou)qe\n ei)/poimen a)\n pra/ttein.

In nature any substance is a first principle of sorts. That is why, in fact, each substance can generate many instances of the same sort, e.g. a human being generates human beings; and, generally, an animal animals; and a plant plants. But, in addition to these cases, a human being, alone among animals, is also an origin of certain actions: we would not say that any of the other animals ‘acts’.

This almost certainly explains the force of praktikh/ in the NE function argument:

a)foriste/on a)/ra th/n te qreptikh\n kai\ th\n au)chtikh\n zwh/n. e(pome/nh de\ ai)sqhtikh/ tij a)\n ei)/h, fai/netai de\ kai\ au)th\ koinh\ kai\ i(/ppw| kai\ boi\+ kai\ panti\ zw/|w|. lei/petai dh\ praktikh/ tij tou= lo/gon e)/xontoj:

(The distinction there is not, as is commonly supposed, practical in contrast to theoretical, but rather action in contrast to the sorts of movements that non-human animals originate.)

This surely also explains why the phrase "origin of actions",
a)rxh\ pra/cewn, is important in the EE passage that Meyer translates.

So doesn't the correctness of Meyer's interpretation really boil down to this?: Does Aristotle consider that human beings are capable of action (praxis, 'conduct') before they acquire character? If so, then human agency is not located (even 'principally' or 'especially' so) in the connection between character and conduct. And it would not be true that, as Meyer claims, "The causal relation he finds essential to praiseworthiness and blameworthiness, which is what he seeks to capture in his account of voluntariness, is the one in which character produces actions".

And his view on this point--is it not?-- is that we do act before we have character: we acquire character only through acting; our acting is a consequence of our nature, not of our second nature.

27 September 2006

Voluntary Everywhere if Anywhere

I've been wondering if the words that Meyer omits in her translation of EE 1223a9-18 don't actually undermine her interpretation of that passage. I may say something more about that later. Today I'll only touch upon that and will instead give my view on the questions I had raised earlier.

Here is the text again. For your convenience, I'll put in blue those texts disputed in the apparatus (in bold too those doubly disputed):

[1] e)pei\ d' h(/ te a)reth\ kai\ h( kaki/a kai\ ta\ a)p' au)tw=n e)/rga ta\ me\n e)paineta\ ta\ de\ yekta/ [2] ye/getai ga\r kai\ e)painei=tai ou) dia\ ta\ e)c a)na/gkhj h)\ tu/xhj h)\ fu/sewj u(pa/rxonta, a)ll' o(/swn au)toi\ ai)/tioi e)sme/n: o(/swn ga\r a)/lloj ai)/tioj, e)kei=noj kai\ to\n yo/gon kai\ to\n e)/painon e)/xei), [3] dh=lon o(/ti kai\ h( a)reth\ kai\ h( kaki/a peri\ tau=t' e)stin w(=n au)to\j ai)/tioj kai\ a)rxh\ pra/cewn. lhpte/on a)/ra poi/wn au)to\j ai)/tioj kai\ a)rxh\ pra/cewn. pa/ntej me\n dh\ o(mologou=men, o(/sa me\n e(kou/sia kai\ kata\ proai/resin th\n e(ka/stou, e)kei=non ai)/tion ei)=nai, o(/sa d' a)kou/sia, ou)k au)to\n ai)/tion. pa/nta d' o(/sa proelo/menoj, kai\ e(kw\n dh=lon o(/ti. dh=lon toi/nun o(/ti kai\ h( a)reth\ kai\ h( kaki/a tw=n e(kousi/wn a)\n ei)/hsan.
The OCT apparatus reads:
dia/ secl. Fritzsche
kai\ a)rxh\ pra/cewn secl. Dodds
kai\ ... a)kou/sia, om. PC e)kei=non] e)kei/nwn Fritzsche
Now what about those questions I had raised about this passage (see the earlier post)?

The question I raised about gar is perhaps easiest to answer. I asked how, since [2] was a gar clause and therefore presumably supported [1], we were meant to infer [3] directly from [1]?

The answer (I think) is that sometimes Aristotle uses gar to identify a presupposition which he thinks is implicit in a practice. If we understand [2] in that way it would be saying, in effect: "It is presupposed (in our practices of thus assigning praise and blame) that a person gets praise and blame only for those things for which he is himself responsible". But then this presupposition, once identified, may of course be used now to infer [3].

I then asked about the translation of ta\ a)p' au)tw=n e)/rga , which Meyer renders as 'their products', and peri\ tau=ta, which Meyer (associating pra/cewn with w(=n throughout) renders as 'concerns those actions'. I wondered if the first was an undertranslation and the second perhaps an overtranslation. I also asked about the significance of the last sentence: "virtue and vice would be in the class of voluntary things".

These two questions, I believe, are interrelated.

If we view the passage in light of that last sentence (as I think correct), then the passage appears to be doing two things. First, as is clear, it is intent on establishing the following series of biconditionals:
X is a suitable object of praise and blame
we are responsible for X
X is voluntary
But, second, as is less clear, the passage seems to be operating on the assumption that everything surrounding virtue and vice has to fall in these three classes, if anything surrounding them is to do so. That would seem to be why we have the variation: virtue and vice (h( a)reth\ kai\ h( kaki/a); acts which we do as a result of having these (ta\ a)p' au)tw=n e)/rga); and acts of the sort that contribute to our acquiring these, or which are the basis for or domain in which we acquire these (peri\ tau=ta). The EE author wants to cover all bases: what comes before virtue and vice, what comes after, and the states of character themselves--with the suggestion that if, in any area, one were to find the operation solely of "necessity, chance, or nature", then none of the above predicates would apply. And he reaches last, and as the conclusion, the claim that virtue and vice are themselves voluntary, because this is presumably the most difficult to see and to defend (and compare NE III.5). (This interpretation is aided if we accept Dodds' suggestion, since then poi/wn au)to\j ai)/tioj, standing on its own, evidently leaves open the possibility of our being responsible for things other than actions--although this is not indeed excluded by the text even as it stands.)

For 'actions which we do as a result' of having a virtue or vice, compare, e.g. a)f' h{j eu} to_ e9autou~ e1rgon a)podw&sei ktl. in NE II.6:
Dei= de\ mh_ mo&non ou3twj ei0pei=n, o3ti e3cij, a)lla_ kai\ poi/a tij. r(hte/on ou}n o3ti pa~sa a)reth&, ou{ a2n h|} a)reth&, au)to& te eu} e1xon a)potelei= kai\ to_ e1rgon au)tou~ eu} a)podi/dwsin, oi[on h( tou~ o)fqalmou~ a)reth_ to&n te o)fqalmo_n spoudai=on poiei= kai\ to_ e1rgon au)tou~: th|~ ga_r tou~ o)fqalmou~ a)reth|~ eu} o(rw~men. o(moi/wj h( tou~ i3ppou a)reth_ i3ppon te spoudai=on poiei= kai\ a)gaqo_n dramei=n kai\ e0negkei=n to_n e0piba&thn kai\ mei=nai tou_j polemi/ouj. ei0 dh_ tou~t' e0pi\ pa&ntwn ou3twj e1xei, kai\ h( tou~ a)nqrw&pou a)reth_ ei1h a2n h( e3cij a)f' h{j a)gaqo_j a1nqrwpoj gi/netai kai\ a)f' h{j eu} to_ e9autou~ e1rgon a)podw&sei.
For 'acts which are the basis for or domain in which' we acquire and exercise a virtue or vice, compare, e.g. throughout NE II.7 (but many other instances are available):
peri\ me\n ou}n fo&bouj kai\ qa&rrh a)ndrei/a meso&thj: ...peri\ h(dona_j de\ kai\ lu&pajou)
pa&saj, ...meso&thj me\n swfrosu&nh,...peri\ de\ do&sin xrhma&twn kai\ lh~yin meso&thj me\n e0leuqerio&thj
In the discussion in which she quotes the EE passage, Meyer writes:
...even though Aristotle repeatedly claims that virtue is praiseworthy and vice blameworthy, he never explains this by saying that we are responsible for these states of character
But isn't this contradicted by the very EE passage that Meyer cites? The passage asserts that states of character fall in the class of voluntary things, and that the voluntary is coextensive with what we are responsible for, and that our being responsible for something makes intelligible our application of praise and blame. Again, Meyer says:
...Aristotle thinks character is praiseworthy in virtue of the actions it causes, not because of anything about the process by which it comes into being. Thus the causal relation he finds essential to praiseworthiness and blameworthiness, which is what he seeks to capture in his account of voluntariness, is the one in which character produces actions. The actions that Aristotle is concerned to classify as voluntary are those produced by character.
This is perhaps possible as an interpretation of the EE passage, but it would seem artificial to restrict the concern of that passage solely to the relationship between character and actions 'produced' by it.

25 September 2006

The Glory of Philadelphia

A special alert for readers of Dissoi Blogoi...

Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)
Symphony No. 5 in C minor, Op. 67
I. Allegro con brio
II. Andante con moto
III. Allegro—
IV. Allegro
Christoph Eschenbach, conductor
Recorded September 24, 2005

Download the free MP3 file here from the Philadelphia Orchestra's new online music store--a limited time promotion.

Aristotle on the Voluntary

I'm moving on to discuss Susan Sauvé Meyer, "Aristotle on the Voluntary." Today I'll simply raise some questions about a passage in the Eudemian Ethics.

Meyer begins her essay by claiming that Aristotle wishes to discuss voluntariness for two reasons, which are of unequal importance to him. The less important reason, she says, is that legislators need to be clear about which actions are voluntary and which are not: "legal sanctions are aimed at influencing behavior", Meyer comments, "and hence they are pointless if they are directed at actions that are not voluntary."

(Aside: Is this true? E.g. legislation imposing 'strict liability' is "directed at actions that are not voluntary"--or, rather, it is directed at voluntary actions qua not voluntary--and yet it seems to have a point.)

The more important reason is that "voluntariness is a necessary condition of praiseworthiness and blameworthiness".

(Aside: Is this really a distinct reason? Aren't legislative rewards and punishments, in Aristotle's eyes, simply a structured and public means of assigning praise and blame? And aren't praise and blame simply private forms of rewarding and punishing?)

In any case, Meyer supports these comments by citing a passage from EE (1223a9-18), which is my object of concern today. Here is the translation she provides (pp. 137-8):

[1] Since virtue and vice and their products are praiseworthy and blameworthy, ([2] for one is blamed and praised ... because of those things for which we are ourselves responsible) [3] it is clear that virtue and vice concern those actions for which one is oneself responsible [aitios] and the origin [archē]. So we must identify the sorts of actions for which a person is himself responsible and the origin. Now we all agree that he is responsible for his voluntary actions...and that he is not responsible for his involuntary ones.
I have inserted numbers for some of the claims. Meyer comments on this passage: "These [sic] and other passages indicate that Aristotlle investigates voluntariness because he is interested in the causal conditions of praise and blame. It is important to understand just what kind of causal relation Aristotle takes voluntariness to be. A voluntary action, he assumes, is one whose origin (archē) is in the agent" (138).

Here is the Greek, with corresponding insertions:
[1] e)pei\ d' h(/ te a)reth\ kai\ h( kaki/a kai\ ta\ a)p' au)tw=n e)/rga ta\ me\n e)paineta\ ta\ de\ yekta/ [2] ye/getai ga\r kai\ e)painei=tai ou) dia\ ta\ e)c a)na/gkhj h)\ tu/xhj h)\ fu/sewj u(pa/rxonta, a)ll' o(/swn au)toi\ ai)/tioi e)sme/n: o(/swn ga\r a)/lloj ai)/tioj, e)kei=noj kai\ to\n yo/gon kai\ to\n e)/painon e)/xei), [3] dh=lon o(/ti kai\ h( a)reth\ kai\ h( kaki/a peri\ tau=t' e)stin w(=n au)to\j ai)/tioj kai\ a)rxh\ pra/cewn. lhpte/on a)/ra poi/wn au)to\j ai)/tioj kai\ a)rxh\ pra/cewn. pa/ntej me\n dh\ o(mologou=men, o(/sa me\n e(kou/sia kai\ kata\ proai/resin th\n e(ka/stou, e)kei=non ai)/tion ei)=nai, o(/sa d' a)kou/sia, ou)k au)to\n ai)/tion. pa/nta d' o(/sa proelo/menoj, kai\ e(kw\n dh=lon o(/ti. dh=lon toi/nun o(/ti kai\ h( a)reth\ kai\ h( kaki/a tw=n e(kousi/wn a)\n ei)/hsan.
About the translation: Clearly there is sloppiness in the use of ellipses. Also, dia/ gets carried over, perhaps inappropriatedly, to o(/swn au)toi\ ai)/tioi e)sme/n. But, more importantly, I wonder if 'their products' isn't an undertranslation (for ta\ a)p' au)tw=n e)/rga), and 'those actions' isn't an overtranslation (of tau=ta).

About the argument: Claim [2], since it is a gar clause, presumably supports [1]. But then we are presumably meant to infer [3] directly from [1], yet it's certainly not 'clear' how that should follow. I grant that [3] is clearly true, but it is so on its own; and, if we needed [2] in support of [1], wouldn't we need it even more so in support of [3]?

About the passage: I generally subscribe to the view that Aristotle should be read backwards. Thus I would take the last line of this passage (left out in the translation) to be illuminating what comes before: "virtue and vice fall within the class of voluntary things". Yet, if so, doesn't the passage have a rather different upshot from what Meyer suggests? --since it would be advancing (or perhaps only adumbrating) an argument about the voluntariness of states, not of actions.

23 September 2006

Adultery for Gain (Part II)

As I said, I don't know that the case involved adultery, but it easily might have. Here is our resolution of it. Comments welcome, of course: we constitute no magisterium in such things. Although these cases are meant for cultivating good judgment, they are intended, too, to be discussed.

(If you missed the post with the case, it's here.)

Recall, the point of this case here is to show that it's not fanciful to suppose that someone commits adultery for the sake of gain. (But perhaps you never thought that it was?)
Suggested Answer

The second possibility—that Johnson should do nothing—is excluded, on the grounds that his primary duty as an internal auditor is the protection of the assets of the bank, and that, however he came upon information that might impugn the objectivity of the senior loan officer in relation to a borrower, the intimate nature of that relationship requires that there be a review of whether the bank’s loan policy was adhered to in this case.

The fourth option—that Johnson approach the loan officer directly—is also excluded, on the grounds that the embarrassment and extreme emotions that such an encounter would likely arouse would make any reasonable outcome very problematic if not impossible.

This is apparently one of those cases in which an internal auditor is effectively required to act in such a way that he has to be prepared to lose his job. To the extent that he believes in the credibility of the rumors about a relationship between the president and this same officer, he should go to the chairman of the board (option 2). Otherwise, he should approach the bank president about the problem (option 1). He might even combine these options by first meeting with the chairman, telling him of his plan to tell the bank president, but also sharing with the chairman his concerns that his job might be threatened.


The profession of accounting is inherently altruistic, in the sense that an accountant, as a professional, has to be prepared to sacrifice in some circumstances his or her livelihood, for the sake of the interests of those who rely, directly or indirectly, on his or her work as an accountant.In this case, since Johnson is employed by a bank, he has to be prepared to sacrifice his job, for the sake of protecting the assets of the bank and its clients.

Johnson probably did go ‘over the top’ when he decided to hide out in the parking lot and observe his colleague’s inappropriate behavior. At the same time, he did this simply to confirm what he already had reason to suspect very strongly. In any case, there is no ‘exclusionary rule’ that would apply to what he saw. Even if he gained this information in a dubious way, once he knows about the senior loan officer’s conflict of interest, he is obliged to act effectively on this information.

In Real Life

In the actual case on which this scenario is based, the head of internal auditing decided to do nothing.

A few months later, the borrower/developer defaulted on his loans and sought to renegotiate. An independent forensic accountant was brought in to review the circumstances and discovered that the borrower had an insatiable appetite for investing in exchange-traded options with less than a week to expiration. Over the course of the two previous years, he had lost more than 10 million dollars in doing so, most of which came from the loan advances made by the bank’s senior loan officer in question. Since he had squandered so much money in this way, his development projects suffered from a near complete failure of quality control. This led ultimately to a bank foreclosure and millions in additional loans being outlaid, in order to bring the construction projects up to acceptable level of quality.

The borrower/developer had deliberately seduced the senior loan officer, precisely to obtain further loans from the bank. He had made an assessment from earlier meetings with her that she bordered on being an alcoholic, and that, if he could ply her with enough alcohol, he could easily seduce her—which he succeeded in doing and then exploiting to his benefit.

The loan officer lost her job, and the borrower/developer was prosecuted criminally. As for the head of internal audit--he lived for months in fear that his knowledge of the compromised relationship would be discovered. Eventually this was discovered, and as a consequence he lost his job; moreover, he spent an interminable amount of time in the months that followed giving depositions and testifying in court.

(c) Mark Cheffers and Michael Pakaluk
Forthcoming in Understanding Accounting Ethics, second edition (spring 2007)

22 September 2006

What the Doctrine of the Mean Means to Me

Where I stand (at least) on the Doctrine of the Mean:

1. Aristotle intends it as a 'mark of the moral' (in the literal sense of mos). When a person's going astray in action or emotion is the sort of thing that could fall under a virtue or vice of character, then this going astray amounts to a lack of rational control in excecution or response, which can be meaningfully characterized as too much or too little in some dimension. Other ways of going astray are not like this--and we attribute them to ignorance of some sort (some kinds of which indicate the absence of a virtue of intellect).

2. We need to say 'could fall under a virtue or vice of character', because it is necessary to draw a token/type distinction. Any tokens of going astray can be meaningfully characterized as too much or too little in some dimension, yet it would not follow that persons typically do, or even could, develop a habit of going astray in those types of ways. E.g. to fear a mouse on one occasion is to go astray by excess; not to fear an armed adversary on the battlefield is to go astray by defect; but you won't find anyone (excluding cases of mental illness) who has the habit of fearing-a-mouse-and-not-fearing-an-armed-adversary. And persons whose behavior is erratic, sometimes excessive and sometimes defective, would, on Aristotle's terms, not have a virtue, but also not have any vice. (Persons develop habits of acting toward an excess or defect, only if circumstances or human nature is such that they are inclined to go in that way.)

3. We need to say 'can be meaningfully characterized', because the DOM would not be the view that any quantitative construction of an action or a parameter of action is meaningful. E.g. Hursthouse supposes that to say that an emotion is excessive as regards the parameter, 'towards whom', is to say that you count of the kinds of objects as regards which one feels that emotion, and that one errs by excess if these kinds are greater in number than some supposedly ideal number. This is a ridiculous idea, and meaningless too (because, as Hursthouse points out, we can arbitrarily make those kinds greater or lesser in number, depending upon how we describe them--e.g. does someone who fears mice fear 1 sort of thing only, or 38, because there are 38 species of mice?). But that sort of problem counts for nothing against the DOM. What Hursthouse would need to show is that there is no such meaningful characterization.

4. The 'mean' itself is, I take it, not specified by the extremes, or even by the rule 'find the intermediate', but rather by some antecedent notion of rational propriety (to prepon, to kalon). E.g. it is rationally appropriate for an adult male to fear a heavily armed adversary more than he fears a mouse (because the one poses more of a threat than the other). It is rationally appropriate (because fair) to distribute the proceeds of a business to one's business partners rather than to one's friends. It is rationally appropriate (because fair) for the soldier who has so far not undertaken any dangerous mission (whereas his comrades have) not to avoid serving on one of the next such missions. (And he may try to avoid doing so either out of cowardice, or injustice, or --we may grant--erratic behavior, i.e. because he is neither good nor bad.) Etc.

21 September 2006

Adultery for the Sake of Gain

Not ancient philosophy, but fun. Here's the case (based on an actual case). Tomorrow I'll post a resolution and how it turned out in real life.

I'm not aware that it involves adultery, but it easily could.

(Btw, I won't neglect posting something later on the Doctrine of the Mean. The fun does not exclude the serious--far from it.)

The Case
Ralph Johnson is a CPA who is the head of internal audit of a mid-sized bank with about $500 million in loans. One evening he just happens to walk into a bar on the outskirts of town at 10 pm to meet someone, and, as he walks in—the bar is very crowded—a face catches his eye, and it is the face of a female senior loan officer his bank, Nancy Draper. He sees that she is having a fairly intimate drink with a major borrower, one of the largest developers in town.

Johnson freezes; he moves out of eyesight and is not quite sure what to do. The more he looks on at the scene, the more it seems obvious that this is not an ‘extended business meeting.’ He decides to go out to the parking lot, because he knows what Draper’s car looks like. His plan is to learn more by observing what happens next. Draper’s car is parked in a poorly lit back section of the parking lot. Johnson therefore moves his car into position among the shadows, where he can have a good view.

Not 15 minutes later, Draper and the major borrower come out, and, walking to her car, before they put the key in the door, they act in such a way that there can be no doubt at all as to the intimate relationship that exists between them. Johnson stays and observes until Draper drives off.

The Difficulty
The next day Johnson sees Draper at work and is not sure what to do. Draper’s relationship with the major borrower/developer is a serious violation of bank policy. However, Johnson is very concerned because he has heard rumors that Draper also has been intimate with the bank President—and Draper reports to the bank President. As head of internal audit, Johnson has the authority to initiate a review of the loan relationship, but this would look suspicious and strange. He could of course contrive to review “certain lending relationships that the bank has”—which would just ‘happen’ to include this particular loan relationship, picked ‘accidentally’ for extensive review. However, that path is effectively closed to him, since a fairly comprehensive review of that sort was just completed, and for him to initiate a new review at this time would be regarded as inappropriate and perhaps even as a kind of harassment.

What should Johnson do? What follows are various possible courses of action. Are there any that should be excluded? Of those that are permissible, which is best? How would you rank them?

One possibility: Johnson should make an appointment with the bank President. He should explain what he has seen, and he should recommend that the bank undertake a serious, objective review of its lending relationship with that borrower/developer—to be carried out by Internal Audit, or by whatever independent means the President decides (such as an outside consultant; another loan officer; or the president himself). Johnson recognizes that by taking this action he might precipitate his own dismissal, since the President might conclude that his observations of Draper constituted ‘spying’ and were completely inappropriate. Also, if the President still had affection for Draper, he might be more willing to believe that Johnson was the problem than that Draper acted badly.

Second possibility: Johnson should do nothing, on the grounds that he really should not have ‘observed’ the loan offer in the way that he did, and that his doing so has, arguably, created in his own mind a certain level of bias, and even paranoia, that has compromised any objectivity he might have had, to be in a position to deal with this issue as head of internal audit.

Third possibility: Johnson should go to the Chairman of the Board and explain the problem. Because the Chairman and the bank President have been good friends in the past, Draper regards this as a risky course—he might need to explain why he is going over the head of the President.

Fourth possibility: Johnson should deal with this directly and personally. He should approach the senior loan officer directly and say something like: “At the ____ Bar last night, I saw what seemed to be a serious violation of company policy, as regards your relationship with one of the bank’s major borrowers. As Head of Internal Audit, I must insist that you either break off this relationship, or resign from your position at the bank, or both.”

(c) Mark Cheffers and Michael Pakaluk
Understanding Accounting Ethics, second edition (forthcoming Spring 2007)

20 September 2006

The Primary Injustice of Adultery

I'll post just a few comments on adultery (moicheia) and the mean, to reply provisionally to Lesley Brown and some points made by commentators.

In my view, V.2.1130a24-28 indicates that, for Aristotle, the wrongness of moicheia is potentially complex.

e)/ti ei) o(\ me\n tou= kerdai/nein e(/neka moixeu/ei kai\ proslamba/nwn, o(\ de\ prostiqei\j kai\ zhmiou/menoj di' e)piqumi/an, ou(=toj me\n a)ko/lastoj do/ceien a)\n ei)=nai ma=llon h)\ pleone/kthj, e)kei=noj d' a)/dikoj, a)ko/lastoj d' ou)/:
Again, suppose two men to commit adultery, one for profit, and gaining by the act, the other from desire, and having to pay, and so losing by it: then the latter would be deemed to be a profligate rather than a man who takes more than his due, while the former would be deemed unjust, but not profligate.
For Aristotle, I think, adultery involves the commission of an injustice, which a person may or may not have been motivated to commit out of the vice of self-indulgence or akolasia. (See also his inclusion of moicheia in the list of injustices at V.2.1131a6.)

Lesley Brown's helpful remarks are a reminder of how Aristotle would likely have explained its injustice. Whereas I, at least, would want to say that adultery is the violation of a contract (or covenant), so that the primary wrong is always an injury to one's spouse, Aristotle--in accordance not simply with ancient Greek culture--would likely have held that adultery is a wrong only because it wrongs a man to whom some woman 'belongs'. For a man to commit adultery with another man's wife is not unlike robbing that man of his property; and, if the adulterer is married, the wrong would not consist in some offense against his own wife. Similarly, for a man to 'debauch' a free woman is for him to injure a man to whom she now 'belongs' (her father or brother) or to whom she will 'belong' (her future husband).

If the wrongness of adultery is primarily a matter of injustice (however we characterize the principal injustice), then whether it is violative of a mean reduces to the question of whether injustice is violative of a mean--which Aristotle asserts, although he is aware that the mean operates differently in the case of justice, as compared with other virtues of character.

But more on this tomorrow. And perhaps I'll share with you also a fascinating, true, and very clear example of 'adultery for the sake of monetary gain' which I came upon when collecting case studies in accounting ethics.

On the Difficulty of Understanding Papyri

There seemed to be an elementary confusion in Patricia Curd's review of a recent book by Gábor Betegh on the Derveni papyrus (DP).

Here are two views:

(i) True belief leads to right conduct. Someone who understands the true doctrine of the cosmos as a consequence acts properly.

(ii) Right conduct leads to true belief. Someone who purifies himself by right conduct as a consequence will be able to grasp the true doctrine of the cosmos.
Which does the author of DP endorse? I haven't read the book, but from the review--if we accept Betegh's interpretation--one would guess (ii):

Betegh suggests that the Derveni author sees a link between cosmology and eschatology. Proper understanding leads to proper conduct. The lines of column 5 point to this:

Overcome by fault and by pleasure as well, they neither learn, nor believe. Disbelief and lack of understanding [?are the same thing]. For if they neither understand, nor do they learn, [it is not possible that they believe] even when they see . . .

Betegh explicates,

Moral betterment is a precondition both for piety and gain in knowledge about the divine. This assertion . . . can be taken as an intellectualised interpretation of the need for purification before initiation . . . as one gains knowledge about the divine, that is, as one understands the way the divinity governs the world, and hence takes up the correct cognitive attitude towards it, one naturally, by the same gesture, assumes faith in it as well. Piety and comprehension of the nature and functioning of the god are two aspects of the same state of mind.
Yet Curd goes on to speak as if what DP teaches is (i):
This view of the relation between understanding and religious piety is not peculiar to the Derveni author. It is present in Xenophanes, and in Heraclitus. ... In Xenophanes and Heraclitus, incomplete understanding of the nature of the gods and the cosmos leads to impious acts (or useless ones, especially in the case of Xenophanes). In Heraclitus, sound thinking is the greatest virtue (DK 22 B112), and he criticizes conventional religious practices insofar as those practices are based on wrongful understanding (B5, B14, and B15) [my emphasis]
I find it curious that Betegh devotes so little space to Empedocles. (There is a short discussion on pp. 370-372, at the very end of the last chapter.) In Empedocles we find exactly the sorts of connections that Betegh needs for his interpretation of the Derveni author's intentions. The new Strasbourg Empedocles material refutes the traditional view that Empedocles wrote a physical poem and a religious poem that have little to do with one another. [Curd at this point refers to her own excellent work on this topic, including a paper published in the BACAP Proceedings.] For Empedocles, genuine knowledge of cosmology is necessary for proper religious belief: knowledge is the key to understanding the Divine and living correctly through all the returns of one's daimon. [my emphasis]
A small point, perhaps. Yet someone who was wanting to be convinced that DP was philosophically interesting might wish for this at least to be made clear.

The next step, I suppose, would be to explain how the DP author might have thought that an upright life makes someone especially fit to grasp the deep truth, that Zeus castrated his father, swallowed his father's severed phallus, and then committed incest with his mother.

BACAP at Brown: Pierre-Marie Morel

The Departments of Philosophy and Classics
Brown University
The Boston Area Colloquium in Ancient Philosophy


Pierre-Marie Morel
University of Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne

Commentator: David Konstan
Brown University

Method and Evidence (enargeia): the Epicurean prolepsis

Thursday, October 5, 2006
7:30 PM

Gerard House, Room 119
Philosophy Department
54 College Street

“Preconceptions in Epicurus”
Friday, October 6, 10-12 pm

Seminar Room
Classics Department
48 College Street

19 September 2006

Adultery = Moicheia ?

It's true that sometimes I lose sight of the fact that moicheia and 'adultery' do not quite amount to the same thing.

Relevant to the question of how moicheia, for Aristotle, violates the doctrine of the mean, are the following remarks which Lesley Brown has kindly sent. I post with her permission:

Adultery is used - understandably - to translate Aristotle’s moicheia. But we should note the following.

1. Aristotle says the very name implies badness; i.e. it names, in effect, ( a subset of) illicit sex. That is the sole and simple reason why (for Aristotle) it does not admit of a mean. Compare Rhetoric 1174a1ff; if you wish to justify/excuse your conduct, you deny that your intercourse constitued moicheia. (Likewise you may admit you hit someone, but not that it was hubris, same passage.)

2. Moicheia is typically committed by seducing a free woman, usually but not necessarily a married woman. (See Dover, Greek Popular Morality p 209; D.MacDowell, The Law in Classical Athens, p114)

3. The moichos/adulterer offends against the free woman’s husband/head of her oikos. Being inconsiderate to one’s wife is not what makes it bad. The moichos may not be married, and for a married man to have sex with a prostitute or slave is not moicheia.

18 September 2006

What Does Boston Have To Do With Regensburg?

Largely lost in the uproar following Benedict XVI's address at Regensburg was the bold thesis that the Pope was advancing, namely, that Christianity is inherently Hellenic, as shown in its identification of the divine with reason. You may read his arguments in the official Vatican translation.

It has not generally been observed that the Boston Area Colloquium in Ancient Philosophy may claim a special timeliness here. As you know, Raphael Woolf's BACAP lecture last week was concerned with the 'misology passage' in the Phaedo. And yet Benedict, in his address given only two days before, had concluded his discussion by a reference to that same passage. Indeed, in some ways, that passage, in his interpretation of it, expresses his central concern and point:

A reason which is deaf to the divine and which relegates religion into the realm of subcultures is incapable of entering into the dialogue of cultures. At the same time, as I have attempted to show, modern scientific reason with its intrinsically Platonic element bears within itself a question which points beyond itself and beyond the possibilities of its methodology. Modern scientific reason quite simply has to accept the rational structure of matter and the correspondence between our spirit and the prevailing rational structures of nature as a given, on which its methodology has to be based.
Yet the question why this has to be so is a real question, and one which has to be remanded by the natural sciences to other modes and planes of thought -- to philosophy and theology. For philosophy and, albeit in a different way, for theology, listening to the great experiences and insights of the religious traditions of humanity, and those of the Christian faith in particular, is a source of knowledge, and to ignore it would be an unacceptable restriction of our listening and responding.

Here I am reminded of something Socrates said to Phaedo. In their earlier conversations, many false philosophical opinions had been raised, and so Socrates says: "It would be easily understandable if someone became so annoyed at all these false notions that for the rest of his life he despised and mocked all talk about being -- but in this way he would be deprived of the truth of existence and would suffer a great loss."

The West has long been endangered by this aversion to the questions which underlie its rationality, and can only suffer great harm thereby. The courage to engage the whole breadth of reason, and not the denial of its grandeur -- this is the program with which a theology grounded in biblical faith enters into the debates of our time.

"Not to act reasonably (with logos) is contrary to the nature of God," said Manuel II, according to his Christian understanding of God, in response to his Persian interlocutor. It is to this great logos, to this breadth of reason, that we invite our partners in the dialogue of cultures. To rediscover it constantly is the great task of the university.

Adultery a Counterexample to the Mean?

"So you've gone to excess again, have you?" --That's not the rebuke that a spouse is likely to hear, after he or she has just confessed to an adulterous liaison. But then, does adultery violate some kind of 'mean' or 'intermediate'? Did Aristotle think so?

Presumably if it does violate a mean, it does so with respect to the 'object parameter' ('with whom' one has sex). But (as Hursthouse pointed out) adultery is not a matter of getting the number wrong: imagine a man who stops having sex with his wife when he begins having sex with his mistress. He still does something wrong--commits adultery. And a difference in which object (the wrong person) seems a difference in quality or kind, not degree, which the Doctrine of the Mean requires.

Nor can one say that the problem is in how much pleasure one takes in adulterous sex, as Giles Pearson points out in his paper:

On Aristotle’s account of temperance, a self-indulgent person may be motivated by bodily pleasure to commit adultery (see e.g. NE 5.2.1130a24-27). So imagine an agent who is motivated in this way, but who also lacks the motivation to pursue something he should take pleasure in, e.g. healthy food (see NE 3.11.1119a16-18). It could be said (following Hursthouse) that this agent takes pleasure in the right number of objects, but the wrong objects. Curzer would reply that this case does not require us to give up the quantitative dimension to Aristotle’s doctrine of the mean, since we could say that this agent takes pleasure in adultery ‘too much’ and takes pleasure in healthy food ‘too little’. But Aristotle would not accept such a story for adultery, since he refuses to talk about this in quantitative terms. He claims that adultery does not admit of a mean; that its very name implies that it itself is bad, not the excess or deficiency of it; and that it is not possible ever to be right with regard to it - one must always be wrong (NE 2.6.1107a8-17). But Curzer’s strategy seems committed to the reverse of this: some agents, on his view, take pleasure in adultery ‘too much’ (those who are prone to commit it at all), and some agents take pleasure in it ‘the right amount’ (those who are not prone to commit it at all). Aristotle, I submit, would disagree.
If one wants to suggest (along the lines of a previous post of mine) that adultery can violate the mean insofar as someone "in committing adultery shows an excessive fondness for the pleasures of sex", Pearson has this reply ready:
It might be argued that though adultery is not something we can take too much or too little pleasure in, quantitative talk is still always possible because we can view adultery as derivative of something else that it is sensible to characterise quantitatively. It has been suggested to me that the adulterer might be characterised quantitatively as too ready to do illegal things or too inconsiderate towards his wife or too prone to seek sexual activity. My response is as follows. The suggestions, it seems to me, fall into two categories. Either they are meant to be activities in which the appropriate amount is actually zero (as, presumably, with doing illegal things, or being inconsiderate towards one’s wife). Or they are meant to be activities that can be sought too much or too little (as, presumably, with seeking sexual activity). But, with the former, quantitative talk is no more appropriate than it was with adultery: claiming that the adulterer is ‘too ready’ to be inconsiderate to his wife implies that one can be just ready enough to be inconsiderate to one’s wife; which, as with “the Nazis killed ‘too many’ Jews”, is a misleading implicature, if one thinks that one should not be inconsiderate at all. Whereas, with the latter, because the thing proposed (e.g. sexual activity) is not inherently bad, there is no reason to think that our original bad activity will be adequately characterised by the newly proposed excess. Why, for example, should we think that adultery is adequately characterised in terms of an excessive desire for sexual activity? Why shouldn’t some people want to take pleasure in sexual activity to just the right amount (i.e. desire to have sex just as often as is appropriate), but to do so with women other than their wives (e.g. want to have sex with a mistress instead of their wife)? The adulterer need not be overly obsessed with sex, he simply needs to want to have sex with a woman he should not. If so, adultery will not reduce to an excessive desire for sexual activity.
I had complained that Hursthouse's 'fearless phobic' example was contrived--I meant not merely that it was not the sort of thing we would practically speaking be concerned about, but also that any psychologically healthy person who feared the squeak of a mouse would eo ipso fear hand-to-hand combat, and anyone who did not fear the latter would not fear the former. That sort of case, I thought, does not correspond to 'the human'.

But, as Pearson pointed out, the adultery case does not suffer from these problems. So do we find here a better, and clearer, counterexample to the doctrine of the mean?

16 September 2006

Truth and Immortality

If you've followed the last two posts, you may have wondered what TV (the thesis that truth is valuable) has to do with the Phaedo. Socrates defends the immortality of the soul in the Phaedo, not some claim about the value of truth.

Note that it's because he's defending immortality that his partisanship on behalf of that thesis looks like something less than a disinterested love of truth--after all, he's going to die that day, and he's staked his life (he claims) on a way of life that makes sense only if the soul is immortal (that's what 'philosophy is the practice of death' amounts to). And so he would have a strong interest in the truth of his soul's immorality.

And yet, I think, for Socrates the immorality of the soul, and the inherent value of knowing the truth, are part of one and the same outlook. He tells us, does he not, that the thesis of the immortality of the soul, and that of the existence of the Forms, stand or fall together. He takes himself, then, in defending the immortality of the soul, to be defending a complex picture of the world: the soul as having an orientation toward an eternal destiny in union with the Forms. Now, for Plato, it's just this complex picture that makes it such that there is truth (in any solid sense--the alternative he thinks is Heracliteanism) and that that truth is worth knowing just for the sake of knowing it.

The upshot: although it may look as though Socrates' partisanship toward the thesis of the soul's immortality is 'self-interested' merely, in fact for him this has a significance that goes far beyond narrow self-interest. His rallying to its defense is bound up, if not the very same thing as, his love of truth.

Thus, my question stands. Socrates is passionately committed to a view according to which knowing the truth has great value. He thinks that truth would have little or no value on alternative views. How, then, and in what way, does that sort of passionate commitment fall short of 'love of truth for its own sake'? Or: tell us what this ideal of 'love of truth for its own sake' is, which Socrates does not share, and which is admirable and appealing?

And one begins to think that the difference between Socrates and this attitude of 'loving the truth wherever one finds it, come what may' is not a difference in commitment to truth.

Love of Truth (as Loveable)

A very valuable observation in Woolf's paper, I thought, was the suggestion that we are right to be especially devoted to some truths--I mean not merely truths that we regard as profound or elegant (such as a fundamental theory of the physical universe) but also, and especially, claims that are set apart from others because, if true, they serve as the basis on which anything is true at all.

For Plato, the theory of the Forms is like this. Thus (Woolf suggested) in both the Phaedo and the Parmenides it has the status, it seems, of a truth that is almost beyond calling into question. If this truth were jettisoned--Plato apparently believes--the game would be up, of looking for truth at all. We can't and shouldn't be disinterested and detached inquirers as regards a thesis that makes disinterested and detached inquiry possible.

(By the way, would it follow that there are some falsehoods that are beyond taking seriously, that we really can't and shouldn't be open to, except perhaps in a merely procedural way?)

But now consider a truth that one regards as providing the basis, not for the possiblity of there being truth at all, but rather for the value of truth, as something that it makes sense to love for its own sake. Suppose there were a truth which was such that it explained why it was admirable to love the truth in that way. Call this TV (for 'truth has value'). Presumably we should be especially committed to this truth as well. But my question rather is this: Why shouldn't we describe someone's commitment to TV as a commitment to 'truth for its own sake'? What would be lacking in that attitude? How could it ever fall short of a supposed ideal of love of truth for its own sake?

You see the point. Consider again the distinction that was drawn in the previous post, between two different attitudes toward truth:

  • Concern for the truth because what you take to be true is something that you regard as important and valuable--i.e. love for some particular truth. You indeed love it for itself, and not for what comes of it, but what you love is some particular doctrine or claim (theory, picture, vision).
  • Concern for truth wherever you may find it, whatever it happens to be, and come what may, because you simply love truth, generally, for its own sake.
Woolf was claiming that Socrates shows the first attitude but the second hardly at all. Yet suppose the particular truth that you love is TV? Then how does that attitude differ from the second? How could someone love the truth for its own sake any more, or any better, than someone who loves the truth that truth is loveable for its own sake?

Here's another way of putting the difficulty. At the beginning of his paper, Woolf states his thesis:
I want to suggest that there are at least two ways in which the dialogue proposes that truth may be valued: (1) for its practical utility, or (2) because its content expresses a state of affairs that we value. Position (1) belongs to Simmias, while (2) more closely resembles a position that can be attributed to Socrates. What I want to argue is that, as set out, neither of these models recognises a third possibility, namely truth for its own sake as a goal. Rather obviously, this is the case with a position like that of Simmias. But the point is applicable to Socrates’ outlook as well. For he acknowledges, in effect, that he will fight to defend the thesis of the soul’s immortality not out of a love of truth for its own sake but because of the value he places on the state of affairs that would obtain if the thesis were true. The truth is as it may be; and it may not coincide with the outcomes we are most invested in. In battling to make these two elements coincide, Socrates invites us to wonder where his deepest allegiance lies.
Consider the highlighted sentence, and especially the phrase in bold. Now consider TV and (we may suppose) Socrates' devotion to, or love for, TV. Since TV is the view that truth is valuable for its own sake, we may substitute 'truth's being valuable for its own sake' for 'the state of affairs that would obtain if TV were true', (and substitute also 'love for' for 'places value on') and rewrite the highlighted sentence as:
For he acknowledges, in effect, that he will fight to defend the thesis of the soul’s immortality not out of a love of truth [as valuable] for its own sake, but out of a love of truth's being valuable for its own sake.
And then it's not clear at all what sort of devotion to truth is being sought for here which is lacking in Socrates. Is there a difference between love of truth as valuable for its own sake, and love of truth's being valuable for its own sake? Or, if there is a difference, why is the second better?

15 September 2006

Woolf on Misology and Truth

Raphael Woolf gave a paper last night in the BACAP series, "Misology and Truth". It took its start from the famous misology passage of the Phaedo(89d-90d), where Socrates counsels his interlocutors not to despair of discovering the truth through reasoning--although fairly quickly Woolf turned from exegesis to a consideration of the nature of Socrates's devotion to truth.

I found this fascinating and have been thinking about it since. I will give you my interpretation of the paper: you will need to wait for it in the Proceedings to judge for yourself.

To me it seemed that Woolf wished to distinguish the following:

  1. Concern for the truth because the truth is leads to something, or is useful for attaining something else that you want. (Woolf thought that Simmias is in some ways meant to exhibit this.)
  2. Concern for the truth because what you take to be true is something you regard as important and valuable-- love for some particular truth. You indeed love it for itself, and not for what comes of it, but what you love is some doctrine or claim (theory, picture, vision).
  3. Concern for truth wherever you may find it, whatever it happens to be, and come what may.
It seemed to me that he wished to say the following: Socrates is sometimes said to be someone who 'follows the argument wherever it leads' (which suggests 3.), but in the Phaedo, at least, his attitude is that of 2. Socrates wants it very much to be the case that the soul is immortal and the Forms exist, and he defends this view with a kind of partisanship. Admittedly he recognizes that he couldn't be confident that this was the truth, if he believed it out of mere partisanship or some kind of wishful thinking. Thus he allows (in a manner suggestive of 3.) that his arguments have to meet canons of rational criticism--they have to be arguments that would be found acceptable by someone who was evaluating them without caring how they turned out. But this is nod to method and disinterested objectivity a relatively minor note in Socrates' philosophical personality. His primary attitude is that of 2.

Yet Woolf added that, although we might be tempted to think that this sets Socrates apart from philosophers and resarchers today, who say perhaps that they are committed to the truth come what may, in fact 2. and 3. tend to be fairly closely related: most people pursue the truth generally, because they take some particular view of what is true, according to which truth is especially appealing or interesting.
One might, though, argue that being motivated by, say, the nobility or challenge of one’s field is quite different from being partial about specific outcomes of the enquiries that these features motivate us to undertake. An astronomer, for example, may find the celestial universe fascinating without favouring one view of it over another, except in the innocuous sense of favouring whichever accords with the best evidence. Here there seems no tension between having, in the familiar sense, a keen interest in one’s topic of enquiry and pursuing enquiry in a disinterested fashion.

Yet this is to some extent an illusion. Astronomy would quickly lose its appeal if it were discovered that we had been suffering from a mass hallucination and the extra-terrestrial universe were nothing more than a piece of cardboard with tinsel decoration. The astronomer is partial to outcomes that confirm his view of the celestial universe as an object worthy of enquiry. For this is no more than to say that the (apparent) depth and complexity of the universe is presumably a motivating factor in the undertaking of astronomical enquiry in the first place. So, with a different example, interpreters of Plato will typically perceive his ideas and arguments to have a certain richness that makes them worth interpreting. Generalising, it seems that we humans want and need things to engage and absorb us. We are biased in favour of the world being a place of interest, and the bias is a healthy and necessary one. Thus fields of enquiry entice us with the challenges they present, the richness of the worlds they offer, and the prospect of discovery commensurate with the challenge. We tend, thankfully, to be biased as to outcome. The astronomer who does not prefer making great discoveries to trivial ones is an object to puzzle at not admire. But this bias brings, in every walk of life, the danger of reading more into our data than is strictly justified.

One wonders whether 3. can stand on its own at all. Suppose that we came to think that there are no laws of nature--and thus no deep or beautiful laws. It was an illusion that we thought the universe was like that. (Or: suppose things begin departing from laws with enough irregularity that we cannot affirm any general laws at all.) All truths, then, are on a par; all are accidental and neither signify nor intimate anything else. The truth that there are three leaves on the floor next to my ficus tree is one such truth; that .342 inches of rain fell on Park Street in DesMoines is another; etc. Now, if such were the case, why would it be admirable to want to know the truth? Why would truth be valuable? Why should anyone want to know it for its own sake?

Morgan Socrates

If the soul of Socrates did not, after all, escape the cycle of reincarnation, perhaps today we might be most likely to encounter it as incarnated in the body, not of a philosophy professor, but of a financial adviser--for, if Jonathan Clements in the Wednesday's Wall Street Journal is correct ("Touchy-Feely Finances"), such a person is more likely than a philospher to be found asking properly Socratic questions.

It seems that financial advisers are nowadays engaged in protreptic, recommending such things as the following:

Sit down with, say, your spouse and ask, "What's important about money to you?" If your spouse responds that money is important because it buys freedom, you would ask, "What's important about freedom to you?" If your spouse says this freedom would provide more time for leisure activities, you would ask, "What's important about having more leisure time to you?" And so it goes on for maybe seven or 10 questions.
(Really? What could those other 10 questions be?)

One financial adviser who takes this approach says that "The first few words that frequently come out of people's mouths are words like 'freedom' and 'security' and 'not having to worry about the bills"....
But as the questioning progresses, 'there are a lot of different responses. People start to talk about God or fulfillment or their purpose.' While the aim is to get through the conversation in one sitting, you may stall out and need to try again later. Even if you never finish, you will likely find the exercise prompts some soul searching--and you will have a better idea for why you're stuffing those dollars into your 401(k).
The unexamined life is not worth living, indeed. And isn't "soul searching" another name for "philosophy"?

What's Interesting About the Doctrine of the Mean

I've been wanting to say why I think Aristotle's Doctrine of the Mean is interesting and even profound. Being aware that this is a blog, I'll be brief.

I can perhaps best make my points through a contrast. There's a passage in NE 3.1, not about the mean, which helps to explain what Aristotle means by the 'parameters' of action. This is where he gives examples of various ways an act can be contravoluntary through ignorance of a particular. In the Ross translation:

Perhaps it is just as well, therefore, to determine their nature and number. A man may be ignorant, then, of who he is, what he is doing, what or whom he is acting on, and sometimes also what (e.g. what instrument) he is doing it with, and to what end (e.g. he may think his act will conduce to some one's safety), and how he is doing it (e.g. whether gently or violently). Now of all of these no one could be ignorant unless he were mad, and evidently also he could not be ignorant of the agent; for how could he not know himself? But of what he is doing a man might be ignorant, as for instance people say 'it slipped out of their mouths as they were speaking', or 'they did not know it was a secret', as Aeschylus said of the mysteries, or a man might say he 'let it go off when he merely wanted to show its working', as the man did with the catapult. Again, one might think one's son was an enemy, as Merope did, or that a pointed spear had a button on it, or that a stone was pumicestone; or one might give a man a draught to save him, and really kill him; or one might want to touch a man, as people do in sparring, and really wound him. The ignorance may relate, then, to any of these things, i.e. of the circumstances of the action, and the man who was ignorant of any of these is thought to have acted involuntarily, and especially if he was ignorant on the most important points; and these are thought to be the circumstances of the action and its end. Further, the doing of an act that is called involuntary in virtue of ignorance of this sort must be painful and involve repentance.
Now, briefly, three points about this.

1. There is another class of ways in which we can go wrong as regards these parameters, which we wouldn't confuse with errors in particular fact, and the reason why we wouldn't confuse them, is that other class somehow is a matter of being off by 'too much' or 'too little'. E.g. The exchange, "There was no button on his sabre.--Did he let his anger get the best of him again?" makes little sense, but "He seemed to get up abruptly just now and slam the door as he left.--Did he let his anger get the best of him again?" does make sense. That is: the doctrine of the mean can be used as a marker of this way of going wrong. Roughly, we can go wrong through failure to control a material process which we should have been able to control.

2. Among errors in that other class, we correctly connect together errors in different parameters, whereas we don't do so with errors in particular fact. We take his getting up abruptly, his slamming the door, his speaking in a loud voice--as all expressions or indications of the same thing. (This is odd: Why should a raised voice and a slammed door have much in common? Cp. why should an agitated dog both jump about more often and bark more frequently?)

3. More than this, when we connect errors in this way, we often take them all to be expressions or indications that go in the same direction, that are off in the same way. We don't regard a raised voice as 'too little modulation of pitch' but rather too high a pitch. We describe slamming the door as too much force, not too little modulation of its closing.

Something is very interesting about all this. It has to do, roughly, with how rational control is 'corrupted' in a certain way, when it in some sense could have been exercised. And this is the sort of thing, I believe, Aristotle aims to get at with his Doctrine of the Mean. It's not a criterion of right and wrong, but a marker of a certain way of our going astray.

13 September 2006

"Final Performance Report" EH grant 20453-84

On the still developing BACAP web site one may now read the original 1987 NEH report on the Colloquium, with comments, many of them now historic, some of them prescient, from official observers and visitors. Together they constitute a remarkable tribute to John Cleary and his efforts. I give some excerpts:

All in all, BACAP has made an enormous difference to the area, making it a center for research in ancient Greek philosophy despite the deplorable fact that numerous excellent area schools have no tenured member publishing and specializing in ancient philosophy. (This is true of Brandeis, BU, Clark, Harvard, and the MIT Philosophy Department.) That BACAP could have this success despite such conditions is a tribute to its value; and it will, one hopes, help to remedy the situation over time--just as, in our case, it has led to our having two tenured specialists rather than one.
Martha Nussbaum
David Benedict Professor of Philosophy and Classics
Brown University

I found the colleagues and graduate students who attended my presentations to be of very considerable ability. The questions helped me considerably in reconsidering the rough edges of my own ideas. I would like to think that the communal interplay was also stimulating for the other participants. The entire situation reminded me of colloquia at the Sorbonne, in which I participated in 1981, and which are attended by all the specialists on Greek philosophy in the Paris area. We don't do enough of this sort of thing in the USA. You are to be congratulated for developing such a program. The Boston area is a natural location for such a gathering.
Stanley Rosen
Evan Pugh Professor of Philosophy
The Pennsylvania State University

As I have come to participate in other aspects of the Colloquium ... my appreciation of the role of the Colloquium now plays in the larger project of U.S. and Canadian scholarship in ancient philosophy has been tremendously enhanced. What happens in the live sessions at Boston pales, in a way, by comparison to the national and international impact the Colloquium is beginning to make. By engaging as many as twenty scholars as speakers and commentators in any one year, you assure for the program a diversity of interests and styles that counteracts the perennial dangers of cliquishness and faddishness. Even though I may quarrel with your choice of this or that speaker or commentator, the scouting you undertake for talent and for fresh approaches is very impressive indeed.
Alexander Mourelatos
Professor, Director, Joint Classics-Philosophy Graduate Program in Ancient Philosophy
University of Texas at Austin

To Lynne Cheney:
Entirely spontaneous praise for one of your sponsored projects: the Boston Area Colloquium on Classical Philosophy. I have had no personal association but I have been seeing the announcements of their lecture series year after year, and it looks like the best thing of its kind in the U.S.
Gregory Vlastos

Excess and Deficiency in Reasons

I've been considering the Doctrine of the Mean in Aristotle's ethics, chiefly in connection with a recent essay by Rosalind Hursthouse.

Today I wish to ask: Can the doctrine be coherently applied to the parameter of 'reasons'? Can we go wrong in action by too much or too little with respect to the 'reason' for the action?

Hursthouse is dismissive of this also, but I think mistakenly so. She writes, "the very idea that the concept of 'for the right aim or reason' could be captured by specifying it as a mean between too many or too few aims or reasons ha[s] only to be stated to be seen as absurd".

This perhaps puts the doctrine in a misleading way. We don't need to say that we 'capture' (figure out?, define?) the mean in terms of extremes. Also, Aristotle does not refer to this parameter as the 'reason' (logos) for the action but rather as 'that for the sake of which' (hou heneka) the action is done, viz. its proximate goal (see 3.1.1111a13-15 for a definite example of how the parameter works). Thus what is at issue, rather, is this:

Does it happen sometimes that, when an action goes wrong, and its going wrong is ascribable to some defect in character, then its doing so consists in the goal of the action's being (somehow) too much or too little?
And I think that the answer to this question is pretty clearly 'yes', and that it is interesting to observe this.

What sorts of wrong actions would display this sort of error? Return to the person who fears too much in fearing mice. Let us presume that this is a defect in character (it is an expression of some kind of cowardice) and not a psychological disorder (a phobia). Suppose we find this person putting out in each room of his home a couple of traps on each wall, one mechanical and the other glue. He also puts down trails of rodent poison along the baseboards. He borrows several cats from a friend. He additionally installs several electronic devices that are designed to repel mice by emitting an ultrasonic noise. Finally, he digs a trench around his house and installs, at great expense, an electric border, to keep mice from infiltrating from without.

How do we characterize what is wrong with this? "He's acting disproportionately." Not so--his actions are completely proportionate to his goal, if his goal is that there be no possibility whatsoever that a mouse is living in his home. He has done exactly what is reasonable, exactly what an expert would advise, if he wishes to attain that extreme degree of confidence in a mouse-free home. It is not the means he chooses that is extreme but rather his goal. His excessive fear of mice now manifests itself in his setting too high ('too much') a standard for getting rid of mice.

We needn't contrive unusual cases. This kind of fault occurs all the time in action. A white police officer is making an arrest on a suspected drug dealer in a poor, hispanic neighborhood. The suspect makes a motion which could be interpreted as his reaching for the inside pocket of his coat. The police officer pulls his gun and shoots him dead. Later on upon inquiry, the action seems precipitous and ill-considered. What was the officer's mistake? The officer's action--shooting to kill--would be reasonable if his life really were in danger. But we might think that the officer has either overestimated the risk to himself, or ranked the worth of his own life as higher than that of the suspect. If he does so out of culpable fear or presumption, then --it's not strange to say--what's wrong with his action is something excessive in his goal, in how he assessed what he had to preserve and save.

It can work the other way as well, for instance, someone does something reckless, and we regard this as 'incongruous'--that is, we think that that is not the way that someone would act, who properly valued his life or assessed the risks. That this person did so (when we can ascribe this to some failing in character, say, reckless overconfidence) suggest an underestimation on his part as regards some goal.

Such an analysis (it is Aristotle's, I think) implies an interesting position in action theory, according to which an action, properly described, consists of the-thing-done-together-with-the-proximate-goal for which it is done. And it seems plausible to say (as I think Aristotle does) that a defect of character can show itself in some systematic bias or distortion as regards such goals.

You may by now be wondering: What is the point of all this? Why is Pakaluk so intent on showing that Aristotle's view is plausible? Is he some kind of Averroist, who must show Aristotle right at all costs?

Well, no. I think there is something deep and profound about the Doctrine of the Mean. That's why I want to argue that it should be taken seriously, that it should not be dismissed as 'whacky'. Although it is difficult to do so, I'll try to explain why in a later post.