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.


Macuquinas d' Oro said...

May I ask a basic question here?

NE II. vi is quick to acknowledge ( 1107a 9 ff. ) that there are emotions and actions that do not involve observing any mean. Base emotions such as envy and Schadenfreude; inherently bad actions such as adultery, theft and murder.
Why are these examples thought to be a problem for the Doctrine of the Mean (DM)? What are we assuming the DM claims? Are we assuming that the DM claims that every vicious act must be an act of excess or deficiency with respect to some virtuous mean?

I’ve never read the DM that way. I think the DM in NE II proposes that for any virtue of character there exist at least one way of going wrong that involves excessive or deficient behaviour along some continuum of possible choices. There are of course other ways to go wrong morally besides overdoing or underdoing. Wrong people, wrong reason, wrong occasion—the familiar list repeated many times in the NE. Nothing I read in the NE tries to collapse all moral error or vice into a violation of a mean. Hitting a mean in some or other respects is a necessary condition of virtue, not the whole game.

Adultery in Aristotle’s terms seems intuitively a wrong-person error. As was pointed out, it isn’t a question of desiring too much of anything. It is a matter of desire relations with the wrong woman. The DM does not apply.

Michael Pakaluk said...

Dear M.d'O.:

I think lines 20-22 in the passage you refer to are naturally taken to suggest that, for Aristotle, these 'inherently bad actions' are so because they are violative of a mean, being excesses or deficiencies already.

I for one am wanting to take DM in a strong sense as an essential mark of an action that goes wrong with respect to some virtue of character. (That is how I understand its inclusion in Aristotle's apparent definition of a virtue of character in II.6.) So, on this approach, every action that is wrongful, as being contrary to a virtue of character, would somehow be violative of a mean.

I'm not sure if we should say that its wrongness 'consists' in that, but I would want to say that its wrongness should admit of being described in that way.

But perhaps it is mistaken to want to interpret DM in that strong sense.


Macuquinas d' Oro said...

Dear Michael,

Thank you for the reply. The importance of the topic tempts me to venture a few more remarks.

I take it you agree that with the logical point that
(1) every excellence of character essentially involves the observance of a mean
does not commit us to
(2) every vice of character essentially involves the violation of a mean.

NE II clearly asserts (1), but the symmetrical claim about vice, (2), seems to me neither textually grounded in the NE nor an extension of (1) that Aristotle was attracted to. Aristotle keeps reminding us that we can go wrong in so many ways. Our anger, for example, besides being pitched at an appropriate intensity can fail to target the right people at the right time in the right circumstance in the right manner for the right reason ( 1106b20 et al ). Aristotle never attempts to show us how any of these other modalities of error can be construed as violations of some mean. Surely if Aristotle had thought of some clever way of representing these errors as violations of a mean, he could have not restrained himself from displaying this tour de force of analysis. Can you imagine Aristotle not telling us, for example, if he thought acting from ignoble reasons ultimately could be explicated as violating some mean?

I think NE II in particular shows that Aristotle accepts from the beginning that the landscape of vice is just too complex to model with the single paradigm of a violating some mean.