09 October 2006

Meyer on the Voluntary--One Last Loose Thread

One more loose thread.

I asked in an earlier post whether you were aware of another significant passage in NE that conflicts with Meyer's thesis--a passage which, I said, she does not note or discuss even in her book (at least, it is not in the Index locorum, and I have not found it otherwise).

I have in mind Aristotle's discussion of the comparative voluntariness of cowardice and self-indulgence, and their corresponding actions in NE III.11. His language (dia/, e0qisqh~nai), and that fact that he takes care to distinguish states of character from corresponding actions, can leave little doubt that he thinks that we are responsible for our vices, because we are responsible for the actions through which we acquire them. Since reproach is a form of blame (cf. e0poneidisto&teron), the passage also contradicts Meyer's assertion that "... even though Aristotle repeatedly claims that virtue is praiseworthy and vice blameworthy, he never explains this by saying that we are responsible for these states of character" (Kraut volume, p. 139).

But one revealing aspect of the passage: Aristotle is happy to contemplate claims of degrees of responsibility. This suggests, as we might have thought anyway, that his discussion in III.5 was of the "ideal type" variety, and that he would allow that, in some strange circumstances (perhaps including being raised in a "den of theives"), an individual's responsibility for his character would be considerably mitigated.

(Ekousi/w de\ ma~llon e1oiken h( a)kolasi/a th~j deili/aj. h4 me\n ga_r di' h(donh&n, h4 de\ dia_ lu&phn, w{n to_ me\n ai9reto&n, to_ de\ feukto&n: kai\ h( me\n lu&ph e0ci/sthsi kai\ fqei/rei th_n tou~ e1xontoj fu&sin, h( de\ h(donh_ ou)de\n toiou~to poiei=. ma~llon dh_ e9kou&sion. dio_ kai\ e0poneidisto&teron: kai\ ga_r e0qisqh~nai r(a~on pro_j au)ta&: polla_ ga_r e0n tw~ bi/w ta_ toiau~ta, kai\ oi9 e0qismoi\ a)ki/ndunoi, e0pi\ de\ tw~n foberw~n a)na/palin. do&ceie d' a2n ou)x o(moi/wj e9kou&sion h( deili/a ei]nai toi=j kaq' e3kaston: au)th_ me\n ga_r a1lupoj, tau~ta de\ dia_ lu&phn e0ci/sthsin, w3ste kai\ ta_ o3pla r(iptei=n kai\ ta}lla a)sxhmonei=n: dio_ kai\ dokei= bi/aia ei]nai. tw~ d' a)kola&stw a)na&palin ta_ me\n kaq' e3kasta e9kou&sia (e0piqumou~nti ga_r kai\ o)regome/nw), to_ d' o3lon h{tton: ou)qei\j ga_r e0piqumei= a)ko&lastoj ei]nai.

Self-indulgence seems to be more voluntary than cowardice. For the former is caused by pleasure, the latter by pain, and pleasure is a thing we choose, pain a thing we avoid. Also pain makes us beside ourselves: it destroys the sufferer's nature; whereas pleasure has no such effect. Therefore self-indulgence is the more voluntary vice. And consequently it is the more reprehensible; since moreover it is easier to train oneself to resist the temptations of pleasure, because these occur frequently in life, and to practice resistance to them involves no danger, whereas the reverse is the case with the objects of fear.

On the other hand, the possession of a cowardly character would seem to be more voluntary than particular manifestations of cowardice: for cowardliness in itself is not painful, but particular accesses of cowardice are so painful as to make a man beside himself, and cause him to throw away his arms or otherwise behave in an unseemly manner; so that cowardly actions actually seem to be done under compulsion. But with the self-indulgent on the contrary the particular acts are voluntary, for they are done with desire and appetite, but the character in general is less so, since no one desires to be a self-indulgent (III.12.1119a20-33, Rackham, with changes.)

Note that in this passage dia/ apparently refers to the general character of the actions through which we acquire the vices (dia/= "are the result of"), rather than give the motive for a particular action (dia/= "for the sake of"), since it is not the case that the motive for a cowardly action is "pain" (although admittedly it involves escape from pain).


Macuquinas d' Oro said...

As far as I know, Aristotle never troubles to define HEKOUSION as it applies to virtue. The accounts at NE III. i and V. viii and are about actions, not dispositions. Aristotle does warn us at one point that our dispositions are not hekousion in the same way as our actions, but the discussion that follows there ( 1114 b30 )is not very helpful.

Perhaps this is not a serious problem. One thing to keep in mind is that there can be no akousion virtues ( though acts of course can be akousion ). Every arete must be hekousion, but apparently not to the same extent. May we say, then, that a disposition or virtue is hekousion to the extent that (1) the actions that formed were all or for the most performed in full knowledge of their nature and consequences, and (2) the actions that formed it were all or mostly in our power and not compelled, and (3) the actions that formed it were all or mostly not performed by mistake or accident or in error some other way. ( These conditions closely parallel the conditions for hekousion action. See esp NE V. viii )

This account of a hekousion as applied to virtue does nicely support the claim at NE III.xii that akolasia is more ekousion than deilia. The comparison turns on (2): many of the acts forming our cowardice were driven by fear, hence to some extent compelled, whereas the character-building indulgences of the akolastic can hardly be described as compelled.

So far so good, but then we come to the claim that possessing the vice of deilia is more hekousion than particular acts of cowardice. I don’t quite see how to make this comparison work given our previous account of a hekousion as applied to virtue.

The point that Aristotle seems to want to make here is that simply being a coward in ordinary life, and knowing that you are such, is not as painful as the experience of some act of cowardice. This is a difficult comparison to understand, and we can agree or disagree with it, but it does not seem to be one properly described as cowardice being more hekousion than a cowardly act. We can of course add yet another condition to already portmanteau concept of hekousion, to the effect that something is hekousion to the extent that we don’t feel pain or distress in doing or experiencing it, but what is the point?