August 12th 2017

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Articles from this issue:

COVER STORY The lessons for euthanasia are there for the learning

EDITORIAL Shorten's agenda will cripple Australia

CANBERRA OBSERVED Candidates must polish their paperwork skills

FOREIGN AFFAIRS EU v Poland: disquiet on the eastern front

EUTHANASIA How safe will Victoria's 'locked tin' be?

ASIA-PACIFIC AFFAIRS Pacific likely to focus for Taiwan's Iron Lady

PHILOSOPHY Aristotle and the virtues as products of reason

FEDERAL POLITICS Backbench marriage push angers Coalition colleagues

MUSIC Time and times: Melody is moments gathered for an instant

CINEMA Dunkirk: When survival is victory

BOOK REVIEW Just socialism by another name?

BOOK REVIEW The rightness of goading the left


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Aristotle and the virtues as products of reason

by Brian Coman

News Weekly, August 12, 2017

For over four hundred years now, Aristotle has received bad press. This is despite the fact that Aristotelian philosophy has been a prominent part of Western history right from the time of Aristotle himself. Scholastic philosophy (based on Aristotle, via Aquinas and others) was deemed by The Oxford History of Western Philosophy (OUP, 2000) as constituting one of the four main modern strands or schools of philosophy even as late as the 1950s, the other three being Marxism, existentialism and empiricism.

"The sleep of morality produces monsters"
(apologies to Goya).

So, why has it received so much negative comment? For starters, Aristotle is a very boring read. What have come down to us are only his lecture notes, not his fully explicated dialogues as in the case of Plato. And lecture notes do not often make riveting reading! Another reason for his unpopularity has to do with the excesses of some of the late medieval Schoolmen whose highly attenuated arguments gave Aristotle a bad name.

Without doubt, though, the main reason for the early negativity was the Reformation. The early reformers, anxious to distance themselves from ‘Papists’, denounced the Schoolmen and, by association, Aristotle.

Here, for instance, are a few short excerpts from Lord Macaulay’s famous Essay on Francis Bacon: “In the fifth century Christianity had conquered Paganism, and Paganism had infected Christianity. The Church was now victorious and corrupt. The rites of the Pantheon had passed into her worship, the subtleties of the Academy into her creed. In an evil day, though with great pomp and solemnity – we quote the language of Bacon – was the ill-starred alliance stricken between the old philosophy and the new faith. …

“At length the time arrived [the Reformation] when the barren philosophy … was destined to fall. … Driven from its ancient haunts, it had taken sanctuary in that Church which it had persecuted. … The alliance between the Schools and the Vatican had for ages been so close that those who threw off the dominion of the Vatican could not continue to recognise the authority of the Schools. …

“They [Platonists and Aristotelians] promised what was impracticable; they despised what was practicable; they filled the world with long words and long beards; and they left it as wicked and as ignorant as they found it.”

This rather summary dismissal of medieval Christendom overlooks such things as the founding of the great universities and the many charitable organisations and hospitals that sprung up at that time.

The modern dislike of Aristotle has almost nothing to do with perceived religious affiliations. Rather, it is thought that Aristotelian philosophy deals in quaint, “occult” or non-existent properties in things, and is, therefore, unscientific. We are told that there are no such things as Aristotelian “essences” or “substances” – a misunderstanding that arises, in large part, because of our tendency to conflate his terms with things like “atoms” or “molecules” rather than thinking in abstract terms as Aristotle intended.

Moreover, Aristotle’s insistence on the importance of teleology or purpose in nature has been strenuously put down since the time of Darwin. It is widely assumed that such an approach is no more than an archaism – something left over from the medieval age. We easily suppose that modern life needs an equally modern philosophical outlook.

The problem is that there is not just one “modern” philosophy, but a large number of philosophical outlooks which are anything but compatible with each other and which, in any case, seem poorly fitted to our needs. Furthermore, if one looks closely at the objections raised against traditional metaphysics, they are not as solid and convincing as one might have expected.

The person to read here is David Oderberg, an Australian-born philosopher now working at the University of Reading in the UK. In his book, Real Essentialism, he deals with the objections raised by people like Locke and Hume, Wittgenstein, Popper and W.V.O. Quine and he sees them off the premises, speaking both literally and figuratively. Oderberg also expertly demonstrates the ability of Aristotelian metaphysics to adapt to modern concepts in science.

But perhaps it is in the area of moral philosophy that one sees a more obvious resurgence of interest in Aristotle. Arising from Aristotle’s treatment of the phenomenon of change comes his idea of actuality and potentiality – the possibility of any given entity to more fully express its “beingness” by realising more and more of its inherent potential. From this arises the notion of a telos – a purpose or an end towards which all living things strive.

In the case of humans, Aristotle insists that the proper purpose or end which we strive to achieve is eudaimonia – often translated as “happiness”, but including also the notion of wellbeing, physical, mental and spiritual. And the way in which we can achieve this end is by the practice of the virtues. This approach to moral philosophy is called “virtue ethics”.

The word practice here is important. We cannot, contra Rousseau and others, obtain our proper end purely in the state of nature where we are ruled by the passions, because we are rational animals. We need to train ourselves to rise above our mere animal natures to achieve our full potential or telos. The virtues are those habits or ways of living that allow us to achieve this goal.

Now, initially, we might find that the practice of the virtues is a chore, something we do reluctantly perhaps. After a time though, it becomes a perfectly natural habit.

The present-day philosopher, Alasdair MacIntyre (After Virtue), likens the whole thing to a child being taught how to play chess. Initially, the child might need to be offered some reward for playing the game and learning the rules. These rewards are external to the game. After a time, though, the child will come to love the game purely for what it is – an intellectual challenge and a skill. Other rewards will not be needed and the child will not even entertain the idea of cheating for this would immediately destroy the challenge and the real satisfaction of playing a good game. In short, the game is valued for itself, not for any external rewards. Such a good or value is an intrinsic good.

As MacIntyre points out, there is an important difference between “internal” and “external” goods: “It is characteristic of what I have called external goods that when achieved they are always some individual’s property and possession. Moreover, characteristically they are such that the more someone has of them, the less there is for other people. This is sometimes necessarily the case, as with power and fame, and sometimes the case by reason of contingent circumstance, as with money.

“External goods are therefore characteristically objects of competition in which there must be losers as well as winners. Internal goods are indeed the outcome of competition to excel, but it is characteristic of them that their achievement is a good for the whole community who participate in the practice.”

But there is a problem with the general schema as outlined by Aristotle. The virtues that he suggests are not necessarily those that we might elect today. Christian humility would hardly count as a virtue for Aristotle or the Greek tradition in general. Some of Aristotle’s virtues will remain – things like justice, prudence and courage, but others are problematical. Go back to Homer, for instance, and think of how he praises Odysseus for his cunning – his “me-tis” in outwitting the Cyclops. We would not regard cunning as a virtue today, but they did in ancient Greece. I daresay that Aristotle would not have looked kindly on the Sermon on the Mount had he been around at the time.

Nonetheless, Aristotle’s general schema has a lot going for it. As MacIntyre points out, all of the Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment attempts to erect a new and wholly secular moral philosophy have failed utterly. How many readers have read John Rawls’ Theory of Justice? And you reckon that Aristotle is boring and incomprehensible! Or take the utilitarians – what you regard as a common good is not necessarily the same as what I might regard as a common good. This is why, today, we have such interminable arguments over issues like euthanasia and abortion. There appears to be no common ground anywhere.

MacIntyre would argue that this is because the old virtue-based order has been destroyed and we now have a number of competing and wholly incommensurable moral standpoints – Kantian, utilitarian, rights-based, and so on. When people argue from entirely different first principles, as MacIntyre correctly points out, emotivism (here used as a philosophical term) often takes the place of rational analysis. And, as he says, “emotivism entails the obliteration of any genuine distinction between manipulative and non-manipulative social relations”.

This is the key to understanding the modern impasse that we find in the area of moral philosophy.

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