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.