13 September 2006

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.


Macuquinas d' Oro said...

Forgive me, but I don’t see how this shows that we can apply the Doctrine of the Mean (DM) to right reasons.

For Aristotle the right reason to perform a virtuous act is because it is noble (kalos). To show that the DM applies to right reasons, one is going to have to exhibit a virtuous agent choosing a noble act because he identifies its purpose as lying at a true mean between reasons that are (in some sense)“too little” to amount to the noble and reasons that are ( in the same sense) “too much or too great” to class as noble. It is very hard for me at least to imagine a virtuous agent actually deliberating in this fashion.

The first and immediate challenge is going to be making sense of classifying reasons as excessive or as deficient with respect to what makes a reason the noble. Reasons that are just in some sense excessive or deficient won’t do. The mark of the noble is that it is valuable and choiceworthy for its own sake. Reasons that are “deficient with respect to nobility”, I suppose, could be thought of as any that fail to represent the action as choiceworthy for its sake. The action is seen as merely useful or convenient or instrumentally valuable in some way. OK, but then what about “reasons that are excessive with respect to the standard of being choiceworthy in themselves”? I have no idea what to do with that category.

Second problem: even if you can somehow bifurcate ignoble reasons into those less than and greater the noble, how would you ever organize them into some sort of continuum with respect to distance from the noble? We need some sort of continuum to have a mean. So even if you can construct two classes of the ignoble, you’ve done nothing to exhibit noble reasons as something chosen as a true mean between them. Not every choice of something between extremes is a choice of a mean.

Consider the paradigm case of the brave soldier. The brave soldier fights, let us say, to defend his city from the barbarian invaders. His purpose is noble because he chooses to fight to save his city as something worthwhile in itself. The brave soldier does not fight for ignoble reasons: money, personal fame, family & social pressure, a desire for death. Explain to me please how the brave soldier identifies and chooses the goal of saving his city as some sort of mean amongst these other ignoble reasons for fighting.
Your own example alludes to a brave police man in a violent confrontation with suspects. His actions are brave only if he is acting from a noble reason (protecting the community). He uses violence because it is necessary to control/arrest violent criminal suspects. His actions are not brave at all, however much danger he is in, if he acts from anger or panic or prejudice. Explain to me please how the brave policeman chooses the course of action he follows as a mean among these ignoble reasons.

The virtuous soldier or policeman does, I think, consciously learn to control and moderate his emotions at a level between too much fear & anger, which will prompt all sort of errors, and too little emotion, which makes for fatal carelessness. The DM does apply to this parameter of virtue.

Michael Pakaluk said...

Dear M.d'O.:

I suppose one might try to rank purposes. This is not as absurd as it might sound, and Aristotle in some way attempts it in 3.8, when he distinguishes various conditions that seem like courage but aren't: to stand firm in battle (when--I'll grant you--one is afraid and would want to escape to safety) for the sake of the noble ranks higher than to do so for he sake of the esteem of one's fellow citizens, which ranks higher than doing so because the commanding officer behind you will kill you if you run away. This wouldn't save DM, however, because the proper goal is highest, not intermediate.

But I don't think 'reason' should be understood in that sense. I think it means something like 'proximate goal'. 3.1.111a13-14 gives an example, though not an entirely clear one: if you give someone a drink to help him (a proximate goal), but it turns out that it kills him.

If, as I think, DM is meant to mark out a class of wrong actions that go wrong in a distinctive way, then the key question is: Does it ever happen that how we view the proximate goal of an action goes wrong in that sort of way? And I think that it does--as in the example I gave, where we'd want to speak about a 'lack of proportion' in the action.