06 October 2006

Precis of Meyer on the Voluntary

The puzzle about responsibility of character arises from Aristotle's appearing to hold simultaneously:

1. Whether someone acquires good character depends upon how he is raised.
2. Whether someone acquires good character depends upon himself.
Meyer's general approach is to deny that Aristotle holds 2. Thus she tries to explain away the passages (especially in EE) where Aristotle appears to be asserting it. Thus also she is intent on arguing that, for Aristotle, voluntariness is located principally in the relationship between character and actions that result from character.

And so, too, she denies that, for Aristotle, responsibility for one's character is a necessary condition of responsibility for one's actions. If he held that, but denied 2, then he would need to hold that we are not responsible for our actions.

I say that this is her 'general approach', because at times she adopts a different strategy to resolve the problem, a developmental view of the acquisition of character. On this developmental view, we acquire character in two stages. First, people are given enough of an education in virtue to know what good character is and that they should foster it. Second, through their actions they either solidify the provisional good character they have, or squander it away. I quote an illustrative passage from Meyer below.

You might wonder why she adopts this developmental strategy at all, since it seems at odds with her first strategy and unsupported by any texts. She does so because otherwise she has no way of accounting for those passages, especially NE III.5, where Aristotle undeniably argues for some sort of responsibility for character.

The obvious objection to Meyer's developmental account, is that there seems to be no reason why the distinction she draws should consist of two sharp 'stages'. Why not say that, at every stage of development, a child or young adult has some recognition of what is at stake in action, which increases over time, and that the child or young adult makes his own contribution, through voluntarily choosing to do the actions that he does? --Of course then character is voluntary through-and-through; the result is the standard interpretation.

Another difficulty in Meyer's developmental account is that, although it can account for why virtue is in some sense voluntary (insofar as a young adult through his actions confirms the good character which he received in his upbringing), it cannot explain why vice is voluntary (there's no option of 'failing' to turn out bad, open to a young adult who was raised poorly), nor, I think, can it explain why an action is actually worse (not mitigated) if done out of confirmed vice.

Here's the passage from Meyer (p. 156 in the Kraut collection):
Aristotle is keenly aware, as Plato was before him, that only someone who has been raised in optimal conditions will have correct views about what is fine and shameful...Someone who fails to receive such a correct paideia (early education) has virtually no chance of becoming good...Thus it is a mistake to suppose that Aristotle is attempting to argue in III.5 that, no matter what the circumstances in which a person is raised, he is still responsible for becoming virtuous or vicious.

Aristotle's intended audience in the NE is young people who have been blessed with a correct upbringing, good laws, and competent teachers. He is telling this audience that now it is up to them to complete the process that will make them the sort of people they aspire to be. If they fail, it will be their own fault. Here we can see that the significance Aristotle attaches to his thesis of responsibility for character relates to the ultimate practical question he addresses in the NE. We become good, he insists, not by taking refuge in purely intellectual studies..., but by engaging actively in the practical world, where it is up to us to act in accordance with the standards we have learned form our upbringing.