Aristotle Answers: Commentary

This page offers a commentary on the excerpt from Aristotle.


In the first chapter, Aristotle tries to establish that morality is not a natural instinct but a skill acquired through habit. The question of whether being good or evil is innate or acquired has occupied the thoughts of not just philosophers and religious leaders, but sociologists, legislators and the judiciary. Consider Adolf Hitler, or the 9-year old killers of 3-year old Jamie Bolger in Britain in the early 1990s. Were these people born evil, or did they learn to be bad, or – and it may not amount to the same thing – did they fail to learn to be good? Answers to such questions are always pressing because they inform how we treat those who wrong us – should we punish them or try to re-educate them?

On Aristotle’s view, goodness and badness are learned – we acquire our moral character through repeated experience; that is to say, habit. Assuming that habits can be un-learned, this holds out the promise of character reform, a central tenet of liberal thought in the philosophy of law.

To the untrained eye, Aristotle’s arguments in Chapter 1 could look rather thin; he seems to do little more than offer a few unconnected observations rather than pursue the sort of sustained and rigorous argument common in modern discursive texts, or indeed, which was the hallmark of his teachers and predecessors, Plato and Socrates. However, Aristotle’s method here is an example of the general method found throughout his writings, and much of both his value as a source and his credibility as an authority stem from it.

To see how his method works, notice that the varied arguments of Chapter 1 cover a broad range of concerns. One argument is etymological or linguistic (the word ‘ethics’ is a variant of the word ‘habit’); another is ontological or metaphysical (something that exists by nature cannot be trained or made to act contrary to its nature); a third argument comes from anthropology (the things we have to learn before we can do them, we learn by doing them. To give a different example from Aristotle’s own, one learns to drive a car by driving it, just as one learns to speak a foreign language by speaking it); a fourth point is sociological (legislators train people to be law-abiding through habit); and yet a fifth point comes from psychology (states of character arise out of like activities).

In other words, Aristotle tries to use the disparate knowledge of different disciplines to support his claim. Whether one happens to be a lawyer or politician, a linguist, sociologist, psychologist or philosopher, one can find something in Aristotle’s argument to agree with; appealing to a broad audience in this way not only ensures popular appeal but also provides a compelling treatment: after all, if so many different disciplines seem to support the point you are making, that kind of coherence is in itself an argument in your favor.

In the second chapter of Book II, Aristotle introduces the idea that moral character is produced by sound moral judgements, which are those that lie on a mean between excess and deficiency: an idea that has famously been labelled Aristotle’s ‘doctrine of the mean’. If we construe the doctrine of the mean as a universal statement, on the lines of ‘All virtuous actions lie on a mean between excess and deficiency’, there are two possible grounds of justification for it: either it is an inductive generalistion or a semantic tautology [truth by definition]).

Looking at the examples given, it seems that the doctrine is a generalisation based on observations: too much exercise strains the body, too little leads to atrophy and so on. Aristotle says that we must use the evidence of sensible things to throw light on the nature of insensible ones. Thus, it seems likely from this passage that Aristotle himself conceived of the justification for the doctrine of the mean as an inductive generalistation supported by empirical evidence.

However, as many commentators have pointed out, it looks as if what counts as ‘the mean’ is simply whatever is the right amount in each case. An inductive generalisation like this would really need a common standard of measurement across cases to determine whether the right amount really lay exactly equidistant from the boundaries of excess and deficiency. It doesn’t take much reflection to realise such a project is inconceivable. How could one begin to measure how far from the boundaries of excess or deficiency the right amount of exercise is for a single individual, let alone establish a general rule? Is there even a fixed point for the mean, the excess or the deficiency. If the case of exercise is hard to conceive, it’s doubtful whether it even makes sense when one starts to consider something like courage or temperance.

Despite what Aristotle himself says about evidence, examples are better construed as analogies that give a conceptual fix on what “virtuous” means. We call something virtuous when it is neither excessive nor deficient, and if this is so, then the doctrine of the mean amounts to a semantic tautology rather than an inductive generalistion.

Notice that the end of Chapter 1 and the beginning of Chapter 2 smuggle in a connection between forming a habit and forming one’s character. Aristotle makes much of the analogy between a skill like building and ‘being skilled at morality’, but he also wants to maintain that there is a difference between them. It is not enough that one simply does the right thing – such is enough to be law-abiding, but not virtuous. Hence, in Chapter 3 Aristotle says one must also feel the right way. Herein lies the difference between a skill and a virtue – a builder is a skilled builder regardless of whether he enjoys his work or not; all that matters is that his buildings are well-constructed, but a person is not moral simply because he does good acts; those acts must be accompanied by the right attitude or feeling.

The right and wrong kinds of attitude or feeling are then identified as pleasure and pain, respectively. A number of justifications are given for this. First, people can be discouraged from doing bad things by means of punishments, which are, by their nature, painful. Second, it is while seeking pleasure and pain that people do good and bad things, though not necessarily, Aristotle says, as they ought. Third, people tend to make choices either because they seek something noble, advantageous or pleasurable, or they wish to avoid their opposites, the base, the injurious and the painful. The noble and advantageous are accompanied with pleasure, and their opposites with pain. So it seems, Aristotle says, that all objects of choice – including moral ones – are accompanied by pleasure and pain. Fourth, pleasure and pain have accompanied us all since birth; hence, they must have a significant influence on our actions. Fifth, taking pleasure when we ought and being pained when we ought may no doubt be difficult when it is, one assumes, contrary to our natural instinct or to wrongly learned habits. However, Aristotle affirms, some things increase their value through being difficult, and virtue is undoubtedly one such thing.

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