04 September 2006

Simply Whacky

Rosalind Hursthouse has a curious contribution in the Blackwell anthology entitled, "The Central Doctrine of the Mean".

(By the way, if you've figured out that I'm reading through that anthology to 'check out the competition'--congratulations on your savvy!)

To catch you up if you don't know... Hursthouse a few years back authored a justly admired essay, "A False Doctrine of the Mean" (1980-1 PAS), arguing in effect that Aristotle's doctrine of the mean is misguided and incoherent, because rarely can quantitative dimensions of 'more and less' be applied in a meaningful way in giving an account of the moral character of an action. (e.g. Does a married man who commits adultery go astray by having sex with more women than he should? Is that what's wrong with his action?) She argued similarly that it was implausible to take moral failings to line up neatly into excesses and deficiencies.

Howard Curzer wrote a very nice reply (Ancient Phil 1996), methodically distinguishing Hursthouse's various criticisms and responding to each. I think that a fair reader of Curzer's piece would have to conclude that he at least makes the dispute appear to be a close one--that it's not so easy to dismiss Aristotle's doctrine as 'false'.

One might have anticipated that Hursthouse, writing now, would include a convincing reply to Curzer in her essay. And yet she side-steps this task, by an interesting move. She declares her lack of interest in the project of figuring out how the Doctrine of the Mean is "true, or at least plausible." In her view, the Doctrine is so "whacky", so clearly and obviously false, that there is no point in engaging in debate with interpreters such as Curzer. So she devotes her article to identifying two other views of Aristotle, which Hurtshouse thinks are correct. (She describes what she is doing as uncovering the two true views contained in "the central doctrine of the mean", but in reality what she does is change the subject--she discusses two views merely found in the neighborhood of Aristotle's appeal to that Doctrine.)

This raises all kinds of interesting questions. For instance, in an anthology reader on Aristotle's ethics, intended in part for beginning students, is it wise to include an essay on the Doctrine of the Mean written by someone who has absolutely no sympathy with it? ("[T]here is no truth in it whatsoever", Hursthouse writes, p. 100.)

I'll give the crucial passage in her essay, where she side-steps Curzer. The passage admits of a fairly obvious (and to my mind devastating) objection. (Yes, this passage too.) Can you see what it is? I'll tell you in a subsequent post.

Claiming that (under a certain interpretation) the doctrine is true, or at least plausible, is, for Urmson and Curzer, obviously important. Most of us who work on Aristotle's ethics do so in the belief that he is one of the greatest moral philosophers of all time and that (almost) everything he says about ethics is either true or worth taking very seriously indeed. So we are reluctant to attribute implausible views to him, that that was why I was so puzzled, in the earlier article, by the prevalence in the ethical works of the implausible (in my view) talk about excess and deficiency, and Aristotle's commitment to the mysterious mathematical symmetry of there being precisely two, opposed, vices corresponding to each virtue (Hursthouse 1980-81: 59-60). But that was before I became aware of the use of the doctrine of the mean as a general explanatory principle in Aristotle's predecessors and in his other works. This casts it in an entirely different light.

If we regard it as peculiar to the ethical works, we are bound to take it seriously, to work on the assumption that there must be something right about it, just as we assume that there must be something right about the idea that we have a final end, or that megalopsuchia is a virtue. (Of course, we may try our hardest and still fail to find anything, but we remain open to the possibility that someone else will do better.) But if it is not peculiar to the ethical works, the principle of charity does not apply to it in the same way. We do not work on the assumption that there must always be something right in what Aristotle says in his 'scientific' works, and we assess the doctrine of the mean as it appears there on its own merits.

When we do, it stands revealed as, to be blunt, simply whacky, emphatically not a principle 'worthy of his genius' (in contrast, say, to his hylomorphism) but a bit of completely misguided science-cum-metaphysics that appears to have been generally accepted in his day. Thereby we lose any reason to try to find something right about it in the ethical works, for its presence there, notwithstanding its implausibility, is no longer puzzling.
I wonder: Is there much in Aristotle, or in any major philosopher, that is truly "completely misguided"-- that has nothing right about it? I'm suspicious of any interpreter or historian of philosophy who makes such a statement (even for Aristotelian natural science). Don't the endoxa need to be saved?

I also wonder whether someone who comes to think that a thesis is "completely misguided" does not eo ipso disqualify himself from commenting on it, especially for the purposes of a 'Guide'. (You may be a perfectly wonderful philosopher, and your arriving at your new view may have constituted a bit of philosophical progress for you, but to interpret N. as regards X. is something that, alas, you are no longer in a position to do. The interpretation of N. on X. must now be left to those benighted philosophers who still think there is something plausible and interesting about it.)

But my main objection hinges on Hursthouse's newly discovered grounds for giving up on the project of finding anything plausible in the Doctrine of the Mean, viz. that the Doctrine is not peculiar to the ethical works.

I'll explain this objection in my next post.


papabear said...

mysterious mathematical symmetry

If I correctly understand her use of the word "symmetry," Aristotle denies that there is such a symmetry--the mean may be closer to one extreme than the other.

Michael Pakaluk said...


By "symmetry" Hursthouse means only that each virtue has exactly one vice of excess and a corresponding vice of defect.


papabear said...

Does Ms. Hursthouse concede that our emotions can be at variance with our reason?

Ben Miller said...


I think that you give Curzer a little too much credit. While his article is a valiant attempt to make Aristotle's Doctrine of the Mean look plausible, I think it's pretty clear that it does nothing of the sort.For instance he claims that one can be too fearful of an object that one should not be afraid of. e.g. the mouse on the battlefield. This should straightforwardly fall under wrong object of fear not "too much." What would "too little" in such a case be? Negative  fear of mice?? Curzer's remarks about right reason being in a mean are also implausible. He argues that one can have too many reasons, too few reasons, and the correct number of reasons for something. This, it seems to me, is simply wrong reasons twisted around. For why explain that a person has too many reasons, when this can simply be subsumed under having the wrong reasons? And the same goes for too few reasons. Here I think Curzer, in order to be charitable to Aristotle's Doctrine of the Mean, has failed to be charitable to Aristotle's insightful list of the ways in which an agent can go wrong by claiming that Aristotle's distinctions are somewhat interchangeable and not distinct after all.

I think there are more problems with Curzer's essay, but on the point you make about it being curious that Hursthouse does not directly respond to Curzer, I agree. This is somewhat odd.

However, I disagree with your statement that one who thinks a thesis is completely misguided is not longer fit to take up study of that thesis. I think your implicit definition of misguided is somewhat uncharitable to Hursthouse. You say that one who believes a thesis is misguided should now leave the study of it to those who think there is something plausible and interesting about it. If we accept the idea that one must think a thesis is plausible in order to study it, well then most philosophers are in serious trouble. There is also really no reason to think that one must think a thesis plausible in order to be interested in it. And this is my second point on the matter. Nowhere does Hursthouse claim that she is uninterested in Aristotle's Doctrine of the Mean. She thinks it is flat out wrong, yes. But it seems you are claiming that if one finds a thesis wrong, one therefore does not find it interesting by default. This is simply untrue. Hursthouse clearly does find the Doctrine of the Mean interesting--at least interesting to devote her time to it in the form of writing articles on it!

Looking forward to your next post on the topic. Thanks for the discussion! 

Posted by Ben Miller

Michael Pakaluk said...

Dear Ben,

Thanks for your comments.

I'm not sure what it would be to hold that a doctrine has no truth in it whatsoever, that it is whacky, that it is pseudoscience, but that it is nonetheless 'interesting'--other than as a bit of pathology one wants to explain. But then one is no longer interpreting.

And if a doctrine is interesting, then there is something interesting about it. What of interest does Hursthouse find in the Doctrine of the Mean?

In fact she changes the subject. She writes her essay about 'five parameters of action' and the idea that someone might be 'naturally fitted to receive the virtues' --and somewhat misleadingly calls these ideas 'the central doctrine of the mean'.