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Tradition and Reason in the History of Ethics

  • T. H. Irwin (a1)

Students of the history of ethics sometimes find themselves tempted by moderate or extreme versions of an approach that might roughly be called ‘historicist’. This temptation may result from the difficulties of approaching historical texts from a ‘narrowly philosophical’ point of view. We may begin, for instance, by wanting to know what Aristotle has to say about ‘the problems of ethics’, so that we can compare his views with those of (say) Aquinas, Hume, Kant, Sidgwick, and Rawls, and then decide what is true or false in each theorist's position. But this narrowly philosophical attitude soon runs into difficulties, and writers on the history of ethics often warn us against it.

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1 Notre Dame: Notre Dame University Press, 1988. Further references are given in the text in parentheses.

2 References constitute a major puzzle about this book. Sometimes very precise references and acknowledgements are given; sometimes no reference at all is given. No discernible principle seems to determine the presence or absence of references.

3 By ‘strong enough’, I mean that the conception is full and definite enough to determine one view about practical reason and justice and to exclude others. Acceptance of the Principle of Non-Contradiction provides a partial conception of rationality, but not a strong enough conception to support one conception of justice against another (p. 4).

4 On social embodiment, cf. also pp. 389f.

5 MacIntyre mentions these opponents (p.392). He does not discuss them at lengh in his main discussion of Greek political theory (chs.3–5). See below, Section VI.

6 The book badly needs, but unfortunately lacks, an index of topics.

7 Some of his discussion of truth, facts, and correspondence is relevant here; pp. 356ff. See also his discussion of Aquinas, pp. 169–71.

8 MacIntyre adds that competing traditions share some standards; he mentions a shared acceptance of logic (p. 351). But he insists that “that upon which they agree is insufficient to resolve those disagreements [viz., about first principles]” (p. 351).

9 Perhaps MacIntyre believes that these facts about the rationality of traditions are indeed independent of any particular tradition, and that they give us some basis for choosing between traditions, but believes nonetheless that they are insufficient to vindicate one (or even a few) of the conflicting conceptions of rationality and justice against others. This question does not allow an easy answer, but I do not think MacIntyre's arguments settle the question.

10 Aristotle's conception of inquiry as a progress from what is known ‘to us’ to what is known ‘by nature’ implies that the proper terminus of inquiry is fixed by external reality itself (signaled in ‘by nature’), not by its relation to our inquiry.

11 I therefore forgo any discussion of Hutcheson, Hume, and the Scottish tradition. Some aspects of MacIntyre's treatment of this tradition are helpfully discussed by Julia Annas (in a review forthcoming in Philosophy and Public Affairs), who also raises further important questions about MacIntyre's whole conception of a tradition.

12 MacIntyre exaggerates the extent to which the distinction is clear in Homer. He says: “by ‘more excellent’ we do not mean ‘victorious’; ‘more excellent, but defeated’ is not a contradiction, as Hector recognized when, having affirmed his own preeminence as a warrior, he nonetheless foresees his own defeat (Iliad VI, 440–465)” (pp. 27–28). The example of Hector does not seem to me to support the distinction MacIntyre draws between being superior and being victorious. Admittedly, Hector does not expect to be victorious over everyone – he thinks he will lose to Achilles. He does not claim that he has more aretê than everyone else; he recognizes that he is inferior in aretê to Achilles. An example of even more radical dependence of aretê on external circumstances is provided by the remark that Zeus takes away the half of a man's aretê on the day he becomes a slave (Odyssey 17.320–23)

13 MacIntyre might usefully have mentioned some of the poems of Theognis (despite the disputed date of the corpus as a whole). In saying that “those who used to be kakoi are now agathoi (57–58) because people of nonaristocratic birth can now expect to achieve wealth or political office, Theognis vividly displays the dissolution of some Homeric assumptions – for he finds himself constrained to call agathoi people whom he clearly detests.

14 See Republic 358e–359b, Politics 1280a25–b23 (perhaps not discussing exactly the same position), Diogenes Laertius x 150–51.

15 The exact type of equality implied in demands for isonomia is a matter for dispute. For discussion, see Vlastos, Gregory, “Isonomia politikê,” in Platonic Studies, 2nd ed. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1981), ch. 8.

16 Thucydides vi 38–39. Since Thucydides makes Athenagoras appear foolish and short-sighted, and indeed (in Thucydides's jaundiced view) a typical democratic leader, it is suitable that he should be provided with some typical democratic sentiments.

17 Eg., Ethica Nicomachea 1129a32–bl.

18 I think this claim about Rawls rests partly on a misunderstanding that I will not discuss further.

19 Two fairly random examples: Ross, W.D., The Right and the Good (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1930), pp. 26f. (who rather exaggerates the role of merit in justice), and Griffin, James, Well-Being (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1986), ch. 12. In my remarks, I fail to distinguish steadily between merit and desert; since MacIntyre does not seem to distinguish them either, I hope no confusion results from the over-simplification.

20 MacIntyre adds a point about the translation of pleonexia (which I have rendered here by ‘overreaching’), objecting to Hobbes's explanation of it as ‘a desire of more than their share’ (p. 111). MacIntyre thinks the sort of acquisitiveness discussed inPol. i 9 (he cites 1257b41) is an example of pleonexia, even though it involves simply trying to get more than you previously had, not getting more than someone else has. He takes the failure of translators to notice that Aristotle condemns acquisitiveness as pleonexia to be a sign of their inability to recognize that he does not think acquisitiveness in itself is good and necessary.

I do not see that MacIntyre has proved his case. Sometimes there is room for doubt about whether pleonektein implies simply having more than (or getting the better of) someone else, or also implies having more than one ought to in relation to someone else. (See, e.g., E. M. Cope, Aristotle's Rhetoric (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1877), vol. 1, p. 67, vol. 2, p. 170, and Introduction to Aristotle's Rhetoric (London: Macmillan, 1867), p. 273.) But as far as I can see, it always implies comparison and competition with someone else (not simply with oneself). Though Aristotle rejects the acquisitiveness discussed in Pol. i 9, he does not call it pleonexia; MacIntyre gives no reason, and I cannot see any reason, for believing that Aristotle intends i 9 as a discussion of pleonexia. MacIntyre cites no example of pleonexia with the sense he attributes to it. On this point, then, I think Hobbes's linguistic and historical judgment is sound, as far as concerns Aristotle at least.

21 En 1129a17–19.

22 En 1132a2–6.

23 Pol 1280a11–25.

24 Pol 1280a25–40.

25 Pol 1281a1–8.

26 Prolonged training and experience is more necessary in the moral than in the scientific case; see EN 1142a10–20. But something analogous is needed in the scientific case too, to avoid apaideusia.

27 Aristotle summarizes some of these reasons in EN ix 4.

28 This argument actually raises another issue about translation. MacIntyre remarks that Aristotle uses prohairesis in a ‘semitechnical’ way; ‘semi-’ indicates the fact that the term is not Aristotle's invention, but belongs to ordinary Greek. If Aristotle's readers would think he was imposing unintuitively restrictive conditions on prohairesis, that suggests that a relatively ordinary English term such as ‘choice’ or ‘decision’ might not do too badly inconveying the impression that Aristotle's term might make on his original readers or hearers.

29 Aristotle says only epithumôn men prattei, prohairoumenos d'ou. But ‘act on’ is justified by the parallel with the continent person, who anapalin prohairoumenos men <prattei>, epithumôón d'ou. Since continent people clearly have disordered appetites, Aristotle's point must be that they do not have an appetite for the action they actually do; hence, he will intend the corresponding point for incontinents.

30 EN 1148a4–11, 1152a15–17.

31 EN 1150b29–31.

32 MacIntyre remarks that Aristotle does not use the expression ‘the practical syllogism’ (p. 129). It is not clear that this fact is significant; for though he does not use the phrase in the singular, he does speak of ‘practical syllogisms’ (hoi sullogismoi tôn praktôn, 1144a31–2), and evidently thinks of practical reasoning as having premises and conclusions (1143b2, 1147a27), and hence as having some of the structure of a syllogism.

33 I believe 1147a27–8 is inconsistent with the view that the conclusion is the action. The aorist participle sumperanthen implies that the conclusion has been drawn before the action. On this question, see further Charles, David, Aristotle's Philosophy of Action (London: Duckworth, 1984), pp. 117–24, esp. p. 119n.

34 EN 1150b19–28.

35 Hume may imply that incontinent preferences are not contrary to reason (Treatise ii 3.3), but it would be a considerable exaggeration to identify his view with the dominant modern view.

36 See 1113b3–5, 1142b18–20. For different views about the nature of boulêsis, see Anscombe, G.E.M., “Thought and action in Aristotle,” in Collected Papers (Oxford: Blackwell, 1981), vol.1, pp. 6677; Charles, Aristotle's Philosophy of Action, 151–55. Though Charles and Anscombe disagree on some important issues, neither agrees with MacIntyre's claim that only the virtuous person can have a boulêsis.

37 EN 1152a16–17.

38 EN 1146a3–4, 1148b2–9.

39 I doubt if it is exclusively modern. It is also (as I remarked above in commenting on the Greek tradition) a plausible account of how Epicurean individuals see the problem of justice.

40 See Rawls, John, A Theory of Justice (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1971), p. 251: “It is a mistake, I believe, to emphasize the place of generality and universality in Kant's ethics.… It is impossible to construct a moral theory on so slender a basis, and therefore to limit the discussion of Kant's doctrine to these notions is to reduce it to triviality”.

41 See Rawls, Theory of Justice, p. 25S. The Kantian aspects of Rawls have been discussed often enough for MacIntyre's silence about them to be surprising.

42 I have benefited from comments by Nicholas Sturgeon, several contributors to this volume, and especially Eric Snider. I am grateful to Alasdair MacIntyre for his helpful comments on a draft of this paper. His comments allowed me to correct some misunderstandings of his position, but he should certainly not be taken to agree with the account of his views that I offer here.

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