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.


Macuquinas d' Oro said...

The springs of virtuous action are fairly complicated for Aristotle. Already by NE II. iv. we know that that agent must take action in full knowledge (eidos) of the particular facts, that he must experience proper (moderate) emotion, that he must identify the proper telos of taking action, that he must deliberate about the best means for affecting this end, that he then must select (prohairoumenos) the best option, and that he must have a firm and unwavering disposition to take that kind of action.

As one or more of these factors is absent or defective in various ways, we get actions that are not virtuous but akousion, or akratic, or commendable but not virtuous, etc.

Right away we should see how misleading it is speak of character producing virtuous action. Character, as a bundle of habits or dispositions to behave justly, courageously, temperately, etc, is clearly one factor in the originating mix, though (non-virtuous) action can also arise without any established habits at all. Character is not necessary to originate action.

The most interesting problem here is to sort out the various ways habit or character contributes to the full decision-action process when it does operate. Ways, not way, for several obvious interactions at different points in the process seem indicated.

Once we understand HOW character operates in the origination of virtuous behaviour, then we can be prepared to be more concerned about any deterministic consequences of the model.

Michael Pakaluk said...

Macquie D.

I don't know why your comment is not showing up on the side bar.

I'm posting this reply to see if mine is lost as well.