PHL100Y1 Lecture Notes - Truth-Bearer, Memory Stick, Habituation

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16 Nov 2012
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NE 2: The Doctrine of the Mean
Aristotle concluded his discussion of human goodness in 1.13 by claiming that it
is “a certain kind of activity of the soul in accordance wit virtue [excellence]”
(1102a 7-8)
o The rational part of the souls has its own distinctive „intellectual‟ virtues,
o Whereas the non-rational part of the soul “does seem to partake of reason”
and is able to be guided by it
o When it is so guided there are the moral virtues
o Latter that are the concern of Book 2
We can summarize Aristotle‟s main results regarding the moral virtues in a few
related theses:
o (M1) moral virtue is a state of character acquired by habituation
Corollary: Moral virtues are neither natural nor contrary to nature
o (M2) Virtuous action springs from a “firm and unchangeable character” in
the right way
o (M3) Moral virtues is a relative mean between excess and deficiency in
emotions and actions
Corollary: Moral virtue is determined objectively by a rational
principle, such as someone with practical wisdom would determine
it
o Each calls for further explanation and comment
We can make (M1) and its corollary plausible by considering an analogy with
what goes on in learning a language
o There are three states:
(a) Having the ability to speak a language (i.e. the power to learn
one) without yet being able to speak it
(b) Knowing a language but not at the moment speaking it
(c) Speaking a language, that is, uttering sentences in the language
o Human beings are generally have (a), the ability to learn to speak a
language, though we are not born speaking any particular language-in
Aristotle‟s terms, a given language (such as English) is neither natural to
us nor contrary to nature.
o Aristotle‟s great insight is to see that learning how to be virtuous is like
learning a language a move from (a) to (c) to (b).
o Just as we become proficient at speaking some language by practicing the
speaking of it, so too we become proficient at moral action by „practicing‟
it,
By habituating ourselves to act in the linguistically/morally correct
ways
Actions are therefore not the primary bearers of moral evaluation-people are
o Aristotle maintains in (M2), virtuous action strictly speaking is the
manifestation of a fixed and settled disposition within the agent which is
triggered in appropriate circumstances, namely when the agent (a) has
knowledge, and thereby (b) chooses the act (c) for its own sake [2.4 1105a
30-b1]
o The performance of the action should be accompanied by the proper
emotions with whatever pleasures and pains may be associated [2.3].
o We‟ll learn more about all these conditions as we work through Aristotle
(especially in Book 3)
o For now the moral to draw is that Aristotle is a kind of moral situationist:
in order to be right a given action has to accord the situation in
which it is performed
The “doctrine of the mean” given in (m3) is the centre of Aristotle‟s account of
moral virtue [2.6-9]
o There are at least three unfamiliar notions that need to be clarified:
Excess and deficiency
The relative mean
The role of practical wisdom
o Virtue of character since it is this that is concerned with feelings and
actions
o In these we find excess, deficiency and the mean
o To have them at the right time, about the right things, towards the right
people, for the right end, in the right way, is the mean and best
o This is the business of virtue
o There is an excess, deficiency and mean in actions
o Virtue is concerned with feelings and actions in which excess and
deficiency constitute misses of the mark, while the mean is praised and on
target, both of which are characteristics of virtue
We can range the responses to a situation along a continuum
o One end fear and anxiety
o Other overconfidence
o Actions towards one end is cowardly, towards the other is rash or reckless
o Courage however is hitting the mean between these extremes, both in
terms of the action performed and how the agent feels about it
o But this „mean‟ is relative to us
What we would and should do as compared to someone who is
ideally well-informed and well-behaved morally
The ideal “man of practical wisdom”
Our actions have to be proportionate to our circumstances and our
character
How do we determine this?
Like how we learn a language, we seek out the ideal
morality [2.6 1106b 36-1107a 2]:
Virtue, then, is a state involving rational choice, consisting
in a mean relative to us and determined by reason-the
reason, that is, by reference to which the practically wise
person would determine it. It is a mean between two vices,
one of excess, the other of deficiency
It‟s important to see that Aristotle really does mean this to
be a practical guide to action. For our interest in the good is
not merely theoretical; it is “in order to become good
people-otherwise there is no point to it” [2.2]