BMCR 2010.02.15

The Virtue of Aristotle’s Ethics

, The Virtue of Aristotle's Ethics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009. xx, 241. ISBN 9780521761765. $85.00.

[Table of Contents is listed at end of review.]

Paula Gottlieb has written a well-argued study of Aristotle’s ethical theory, focusing on his often maligned doctrine of the mean. She argues that this doctrine is defensible in its own right and important for understanding Aristotle’s ethical thought as a whole. To make her case, she first explains the doctrine and then traces its relevance for a range of Aristotelian topics, such as the nameless virtues, moral motivation, and the practical syllogism. Gottlieb repeatedly seeks to distinguish Aristotelian virtue ethics from modern Kantian or utilitarian theories, and she draws attention to characteristic strengths of Aristotle’s approach. She is careful throughout to situate her own readings in relation to those of other scholars.

Gottlieb argues that Aristotle’s doctrine of the mean has three important features. First, it is a theory of equilibrium, not of moderation. Virtue is not a matter of having too much or too little of some good or bad quality; rather, it is a state or condition of equilibrium, like health, that allows one to respond rightly to situations. Second, virtue is a mean “relative to us.” It must thus account for situation-specific features, including our own qualities, abilities, and circumstances, those of others, indeed any relevant circumstances at all. Yet what counts as relevant in determining the mean “relative to us” is itself variable; the relevant factors in one situation may not be the relevant factors in another. Third, Aristotle’s virtues come in sets of triads, in which each virtue is the mean between two vices, one of excess and one of deficiency. Gottlieb argues further that this triadic structure, despite its apparent initial oddity, reflects an underlying logic grounded in human psychology. Drawing upon a disputed passage from the Eudemian Ethics, she suggests that Aristotle is providing a set of psychological profiles. One type of person has practical wisdom, possesses a correct estimate of his own abilities and worth, and thus takes proper advantage of the right opportunities; a second (the “unscrupulous” person) has the vices of excess, overestimates his abilities and worth, and seeks more than his fair share of goods; while a third (the “unworldly”) has the vices of deficiency, underestimates his own abilities and worth, and seeks less than his fair share of goods. While I see little in the Nicomachean Ethics to suggest that Aristotle is deliberately portraying a trio of human types, Gottlieb’s argument suggests an inner, structural logic to the triadic framework of his theory.

Gottlieb takes pains—at times excessive ones—to point out how her account of the mean informs the various topics she discusses. The book is, however, less a sustained discussion of the role that the doctrine of the mean plays in Aristotle’s theory than a series of explorations into various aspects of his ethics, with that doctrine putting in repeated cameo appearances as a recurring leitmotif. A reader interested only in particular topics could profitably read selected chapters standing alone. I shall focus my attention here on several of Gottlieb’s more interesting chapters.

In Chapter Three (“The Non-remedial Nature of the Virtues”), Gottlieb takes issue with prominent interpretations, especially those of Philippa Foot and Christine Korsgaard, who claim that Aristotle regards the virtues as remedial, intended to correct defects in human nature or the world. These interpretations, she argues, neglect Aristotle’s explicit claim that humans are not naturally vicious; although our emotions require training, this need not entail that they were originally defective or bad. Furthermore, because we are not gods but humans—political creatures who need one another’s company—some virtues, like the nameless social ones, would be desirable even in a perfect world. Even if the gods do not need the virtues, it need not follow that they are remedial for human beings. On this point, Gottlieb seems to me correct. To her arguments, I would add a consideration that she adduces in her later discussion of politics. Because Aristotle considers humans political animals, the virtues must be understood in connection with the ideal of full human flourishing in a just political community where their role is not to counteract vice or crime. In this regard, one might ponder the claim of Aristotle’s greatest Christian interpreter, Aquinas, that politics would have existed even in the Garden of Paradise and even had humans not fallen: “In the state of innocence man could have been a master of men [in the sense of governing and directing free subjects]…. Such a kind of mastership would have existed in the state of innocence between man and man…because man is naturally a social being, and so in the state of innocence he would have led a social life” (ST I, Q. 96, a. 4). One might contrast this with Augustine’s post-lapsarian understanding of political life, which includes a remedial interpretation of the virtues. (Gottlieb, citing the De trinitate, suggests that Augustine, like Aquinas, holds a non-remedial view; but City of God XIX.4 is as powerful a statement of the remedial interpretation as one could wish.)

Gottlieb intriguingly buttresses her non-remedial interpretation of the virtues by suggesting (pp. 66-70) that Aristotle’s famous function argument at Nicomachean Ethics I.7 is intended to reject an important premise from a different function argument, that advanced by Thrasymachus in Republic I. Thrasymachus collapses the distinction—which Aristotle maintains—between performing a function and performing it well. In his (dyadic, not triadic) view, a virtue is simply that which enables something to perform its function at all, as sight enables the eye to see. This might indeed suggest that the virtues merely remedy defects, as sight corrects blindness. Aristotle’s rejection of this version of the function argument, with his claim that virtue is precisely that which allows something to perform its function well, thus reflects his rejection of a merely remedial account of virtue.

Gottlieb tackles another disputed topic in Chapter Five, “Uniting the Virtues,” where she takes up Aristotle’s thesis of the unity of the virtues. This thesis, she argues, requires a proper understanding of Aristotle’s distinction between activity “according to the correct reason” ( kata ton orthon logon) and activity “involving the correct reason” ( meta tou orthou logou). Taking issue with various other scholars, Gottlieb argues that the latter of these, activity “involving the correct reason,” expresses a more demanding ethical standard than does the former, activity that is merely “according to the correct reason.” The enkratic person, she suggests, who overcomes recalcitrant desires in order to bring them in line with reason, is not yet virtuous but nevertheless succeeds in acting “in accordance with the correct reason.” His actions, however, do not yet “involve the correct reason.” Activity “involving” the correct reason must be activity in which the soul’s emotional and rational capacities are fully integrated not only in terms of the actions we take in response to emotions, but also in the way we experience emotions in the first place (so that we feel the correct pleasures and pains in the right way, at the right time, etc.). A failure to feel any of the emotions correctly will infect the workings of reason, just as a failure to reason correctly in any sphere of human activity will bring the emotions out of kilter. In illustration, Gottlieb appeals to her explanation of the mean as a kind of equilibrium, like a wheel, all of whose spokes must be properly aligned in order to spin smoothly. In this way, Aristotle’s thesis of the unity of the virtues supports the common-sense view that the virtuous person leads what we might call a life of integrity.

Gottlieb’s analysis of “Moral Dilemmas” in Chapter Six illustrates her view of Aristotle’s distance from contemporary moral theory. Modern ethical theorists often discuss cases of “dirty hands,” or “tragic dilemmas,” in which an agent faces only bad choices and is compelled to do something wrong in itself, which he would otherwise not choose to do. As a result he feels regret, suffers a stain on his character, or is even permanently marred by the experience. Although Aristotle would recognize situations such as these—for example, he contemplates the possibility of being required to do something shameful by a tyrant in order to save one’s family—Gottlieb suggests that his understanding of voluntary action would prevent his describing them as cases of dirty hands or tragic dilemmas. For Aristotle, the moral agent always confronts the question of what to do in some particular situation, asking himself which, of the available options, he should choose in light of all the circumstances. Even actions that are bad in themselves, without qualification, may be correct in a given situation. If I do them in that situation, I have chosen rightly. Conceivably I may feel some regret about my decision, but if so, it will be regret at the circumstances, not at my own action, and thus will not involve regret about or a perceived stain upon my character. Unfavorable circumstances may make it difficult or even impossible for me to achieve complete happiness through my actions, but again this is a reflection, not upon my character, but upon the nature of human existence. Gottlieb concludes by suggesting that this account of Aristotle offers a more humane vision of moral life than does a modern account of dirty hands. It recognizes the reality of hard choices but praises people for choosing well and spares them the pain of permanent guilt for having done what they ought to have done in difficult circumstances.

In Chapter Ten (“A Polis for Aristotle’s Virtues”), Gottlieb considers how Aristotle’s ethical theory contributes to his vision of politics. She reiterates her claim that the virtues are not remedial, contrasting Hobbes’s contractual view of political society as an artificial creation counteracting our defects with Aristotle’s understanding of it as natural, bringing us to self-sufficiency and enabling us to develop virtue. She also suggests that despite the difficulty of sorting out Aristotle’s comparison of the political and contemplative lives, some of his conclusions—that peace is better than war, leisure than work, and ruling free men than ruling slaves—indicate the importance of the legislator’s educating citizens in the virtues, including the nameless, peaceful social virtues. Finally, she argues that Aristotle’s assessments of different regimes provide a stronger argument for what we call democracy (and Aristotle called “polity”) than is often acknowledged. Though Aristotle sometimes claims that monarchy is best, he also argues for the advantages of rule by the many, whose various good qualities, when pooled together, can collectively produce something like practical wisdom. Gottlieb suggests that this argument dovetails nicely with certain aspects of Aristotle’s ethical theory. In particular, she suggests that Aristotle’s argument for the cumulation of the many’s good qualities in order to approximate practical wisdom draws upon his belief in the unity of the virtues, because whereas vices are diverse (involving both excesses and deficiencies), virtue is unified and coherent, and therefore it is more likely to emerge as the consensus of a collective deliberative procedure. Gottlieb’s point here is reminiscent of James Madison’s comment in Federalist 51: “In the extended republic of the United States, and among the great variety of interests, parties, and sects, which it embraces, a coalition of a majority of the whole society could seldom take place upon any other principles, than those of justice and the general good….”

I consider Aristotle less ambiguous on this score than Gottlieb suggests and would press the case for polity even more strongly. In Politics III.13-17 Aristotle argues that kingship, given a ruler of sufficient wisdom and virtue, would be preferable to rule by the many. (Though he also suggests, in III.15, that because it would be better to have several such rulers than only one, aristocracy is even more desirable than kingship.) But this argument holds only when there really is one ruler or ruling family that is superior to other citizens in wisdom and virtue. Otherwise, it is not only inappropriate but also unjust—because it involves treating equals unequally—to have one person or family always ruling over all the rest, and never being ruled in turn. Aristotle also indicates in III.15 that as political communities increase in size, it becomes less likely that one or a few people will be clearly preeminent in virtue, so that rule by the many increasingly becomes the only plausible option for most peoples. It therefore comes as no surprise when Aristotle argues in Politics IV.8-11 that the best regime achievable for most actual peoples will be polity, which attempts to balance different interests and competing claims to rule. In a world of very large political communities, such as our own, this argument holds with even greater force.

One disappointing chapter is Chapter Four, on “Listing the Virtues.” Here Gottlieb attempts to explain how Aristotle generates his particular list of virtues, and especially why that list does not contain various other qualities we might entertain as possible virtues, such as perseverance, piety, sympathy, or benevolence. Her goal is to show the substantive importance of Aristotle’s doctrine of the mean by demonstrating its role in generating his list of virtues. At this general level, the chapter is at times helpful in considering why Aristotle might or might not include a specific quality within his list. Nevertheless, the individual discussions of possible virtues are for the most part short and perfunctory, rarely extending beyond a couple of paragraphs. Moreover, Gottlieb’s focus seems to vacillate between, on the one hand, why Aristotle himself elects to include (or not) a certain virtue on the list, and, on the other, whether his decision is in fact the right one, that is, whether we can offer good reasons in support of it. Thus it is sometimes unclear whether she is arguing simply that the doctrine of the mean helps explain why Aristotle reaches his own decisions, or that it also helps us to reach the correct decisions about possible virtues ourselves. Gottlieb closes the chapter by suggesting two candidates of her own for Aristotelian virtues: “green” virtues, and tolerance. The suggestion of “green” virtues seems whimsical, if not merely faddish. Surely the qualities desired under this label can be described in terms of more familiar virtues such as justice, temperance, and generosity, especially if we think of justice and generosity towards future generations. We might similarly describe tolerance as some combination of justice and the social virtues, or even—perhaps a better place to look—friendship (in particular civic friendship).

Despite questions such as these, The Virtue of Aristotle’s Ethics is a well-written, clearly argued, and consistently interesting contribution to the literature on Aristotle’s ethics. It sheds useful light on a wide range of important topics, charitably engages the work of other scholars, and capably defends the viability of Aristotle’s ethical theory. Whether they are looking only for discussions of specific topics, or for a fuller defense of the doctrine of the mean, scholars of Aristotle’s ethical and political thought will find Gottlieb’s book worthwhile.

Table of Contents:

1. The General Theme and the Main Argument of the Book
2. Interlocking Themes and Theses
3. Aristotle and Virtue Ethics
4. Philosophical Method and Solving Puzzles
5. Synopsis of Chapters

Part I. Ethical Virtue
Chapter 1: Virtue in the Mean
1.1 A Medical Analogy and Three Aspects of the Doctrine of the Mean
1.2 The First Aspect: Equilibrium Instead of Moderation
1.3 The Second Aspect: The Mean is “Relative to Us”
1.3.1 Particular Virtues and Particular Factors
1.3.2 A New Approach to the Debate about Relativity
1.4 The Third Aspect: Aristotelian Triads
1.5 Reassessing the Doctrine of the Mean

Chapter 2: Nameless Virtues
2.1 The Namelessness of the Nameless Virtues
2.2 The Virtue Concerning Small Honours and the Doctrine of the Mean
2.3 The “Questionable Mean-Dispositions”
2.4 Including the Nameless Virtues
2.5 Taking the Nameless Virtues Seriously

Chapter 3: The Non-remedial Nature of the Virtues
3.1 Corrective Virtues versus the Doctrine of the Mean
3.2 Conditional Value and Nameless Virtues
3.3 Gods and Humans
3.4 The Isles of the Blessed
3.5 The Function Argument
3.6 Rejecting Remedial Views

Chapter 4: Listing the Virtues
4.1 Generating the Virtues on Aristotle’s List
4.2 Candidates for Virtue, Ancient and Modern
4.3 Extending the Virtues
4.4 More Nameless Virtues and the Doctrine of the Mean

Chapter 5: Uniting the Virtues
5.1 Socrates, Aristotle, and the Division of the Soul
5.2 The Distinction between “Involving the Correct Reason” and Being Merely “In Accordance with the Correct Reason”
5.3 Ethical Virtue “Involves the Correct Reason”
5.4 Integrating the Soul
5.5 Responding to the Objections
5.6 Integrity
Chart of Aristotle’s Particular Ethical Virtues

Part II. Ethical Reasoning
Chapter 6: Moral Dilemmas
6.1 The Example of the Tyrant
6.2 Two Types of Dilemmas: A Preliminary Discussion
6.3 Aristotle’s Account of Voluntary Action: Is There a Special Type of Regret?
6.4 The Problem of Mixed Actions
6.5 Mixed Actions and Moral Dilemmas
6.5.1 Regret
6.5.2 The Structure of Aristotelian Decision-making
6.5.3 Factors in the Decision about the Tyrant
6.6 A Tragic Dilemma
6.7 Aristotle’s Humane View and the Doctrine of the Mean

Chapter 7: Fine Motivation
7.1 Aristotle and Plato
7.2 Kantian and Utilitarian Readings
7.3 Taking Aristotle’s Distinctions at Face Value
7.4 The Fine and the Brave
7.5 The Fine and the Good
7.6 Caring for a Friend for the Friend’s Sake

Chapter 8: The Practical Syllogism
8.1 The Problem of Distinguishing Practical Wisdom and Technical Skill
8.2 A Solution Involving Truthfulness and the Doctrine of the Mean, and a New Puzzle
8.3 The Analogy between the Theoretical and Practical Syllogism, and the Importance of the Middle Term
8.3.1 Formulating the Practical Syllogism and the Analogous Middle Term
8.3.2 The Middle Term and the Ethical Agent
8.3.3 The Middle Term, Ethical Virtue, and Deliberation
8.4 From a First-person Point of View
8.5 The Enkratic, the Akratic, and the Learner
8.6 Advantages of Aristotle’s Account

Chapter 9: What the Good Person Has to Know
9.1 The Good Person and the Healthy Person
9.2 The Good Person and the Physician
9.3 The Good Person and Psychology
9.4 The Good Person and Metaphysics
9.5 The Good Person and the Good Student
9.5.1 The Ethically Virtuous Person versus the Person with Practical Wisdom?
9.5.2 A More Sophisticated Two-stage Account
9.5.3 The Good Person versus the Ruler
9.6 Reading the Nicomachean Ethics : The Good Person and the Immoralist
9.7 Aristotelian Knowledge

Chapter 10: A Polis for Aristotle’s Virtues
10.1 The Need for a Polis: A Non-remedial View
10.2 A Political Ranking of Happy Lives, and the Nameless Virtues
10.3 Justice in the Polis
10.4 A Polis for the Aristotelian Virtues
10.5 Democracy and Polity
10.6 Collective Virtue and Practical Wisdom: An Argument from the Unity of Virtue and the Doctrine of the Mean

1. Aristotle’s Ethic of Virtue
2. The Puzzles Revisited
3. Alternative Approaches
4. Foreword to Aristotle

Appendix: Uniting the “Large-scale” Virtues