Saturday, February 21, 2009

Aristotle on Virtue: A Question About Circularity

I have a question about the Nicomachean Ethics that has been driving me nuts. I'm sure there is an obvious answer, but I still seem to be missing it after my third read. How do we determine the good in action?

Here's the issue I am having: The end of action is set by wish (boulesis). The means are decided on through deliberation (prohairesis). And prudence, it seems, is the virtue of deliberating well. The virtuous agent wishes for what is noble (kalos) and correctly deliberates about the best actions to attain the noble. So we have an account of the end of the virtuous agent, the faculty by which he pursues that end (deliberation) and the virtue of that faculty (prudence). We also have the faculty by which he chooses/recognizes the end: wish. But is there a virtue of wishing? In other words, it does not help us to have an account of how one attains the end if we have no account of how the end is to be found. (Of course Aristotle could just say that the noble is the end that the virtuous person chooses and leave it at that. But he does leave it at that in the case of deliberation, which he fills out at length with an account of prudence. So if this were his strategy, some account would be needed for the difference between deliberation and wish.)

Aristotle does say that the end is grasped through virtue (1151a), so I suppose the doctrine of the mean is supposed to give us the end. That is: someone who has reached the mean will also correctly grasp the end. But how do we figure out what the mean is? Aristotle repeatedly tells us that we find the mean through correct reason, and correct reasoning is the virtue of prudence. But this raises a further problem. Since deliberation is about means rather than ends, we cannot deliberate at all without some end in view. And it seems that we cannot deliberate prudently without having grasped the noble. That makes it seem like no one can be prudent—and thus find the mean—without already possessing the correct wish. But if the correct wish is grasped through virtue, this is circular.

Now circularity is not a huge problem for Aristotle, I think. Or, rather, I think it is a problem, but he does not see it that way. For example, his account of praise and blame in Book III.5 uses a similarly circular account. The problem there is this: We shape our character through our actions, and so we become virtuous by choosing and performing virtuous actions. But we can only choose for the good, and our apparent good is dependent on our state (virtuous or not). So while our character is (partly) up to us, since we choose the actions that shape it, our ability to choose the right actions hangs on our character. Aristotle thinks this resolves the problem of blame, but of course Galen Strawson uses a variant of this very argument (though without reference to ends) for the impossibility of moral responsibility. The circularity implies that no one can be ultimately responsible for their actions, and thus that no one can deserve praise or blame except in a very tempered sense.

But if we accept Aristotle's answer to my earlier question as similarly circular, then I cannot see any reason to insist that virtues are a matter of quality rather than degree. That is: for Aristotle, one cannot be kind of prudent, or sort of brave; one either has the virtue or one doesn't. And it seems like it is in response to something like my concern that Aristotle, in VI.13, brings up the thesis of the unity of the virtues. He argues there not that virtues cannot be partial or admit of degrees, but rather than one cannot have one virtue without having the others. The point is roughly the same, however. If we take Aristotle's argument there to be convincing, however, it doesn't seem like he has proven that the virtues are unified. If anything, by analogy to Strawson's reversal of the III.5 argument, he has proven that virtue is impossible. Here is why:

Aristotle's tendency to circularity can be justified by his constant insistence that he is giving a general rather than a universal account, since ethics does not allow of the same level of precision as mathematics. If so, then it makes sense to allow that someone is blameworthy insofar as his control of his character depends on his character: while he cannot be sui generis (which Strawson argues is necessary for moral responsibility), he can be jointly responsible for the creation of his character. And as he adjusts his ends to his virtues (the products of his choices) and his choices to his ends through something like an internal process of reflective equilibrium, his level of responsibility (and his deservingness of praise and blame) increases. Well and good. But this sort of account cannot allow for absolute judgments. It makes no sense to speak of someone being absolutely blameworthy or not at all blameworthy when the condition for blame is itself a matter of degree, as it must be if the circularity account is to work. But then Aristotle's insistence that virtue is an all-or-nothing affair must be inconsistent with his entire project in the Ethics.

I'm sure there is a massive field of Aristotle scholarship on all these issues, and I'll be happy to get to it eventually. But I am wondering if others have thoughts or references they could share.


  1. I don't see the circularity in wishing. For Aristotle, things can be good by nature: you don't need a faculty to judge the appropriateness of the wish for good health, and he suggests we ought to take our guide from 'the undemonstrated statements of people who are experienced or old... for having their eye sharpened by experience, they see rightly.'

    Where deliberation must select among many acts to achieve its end, and can therefore do so prudently or not, wishing has a very narrow field to select from: the noble, the useful, the pleasurable. All the particular acts: running or fighting, eating or abstaining, training or resting, are merely means directed towards one of the very few ends available to us. If the question is "how do I choose between pleasure and nobility?" I think Aristotle attributes the answer to nous, because he suggests that speculative inquiry into the 'ultimate things' is achieved through extra-ethical inquiry into nature and grounded in undemonstrated experience.

  2. Hmm... I'm not sure your first paragraph really solves the problem. Maybe I am missing something. Consider: "someone may say that everyone aims at the apparent good, and does not control how it appears, but, on the contrary, his character controls how the end appears to him. [We reply that] if each person is in some way responsible for his own state [of character], he is also himself in some way responsible for how [the end] appears." (1114b 1, Irwin transl.) Maybe I am making too much of this, but it seems like only someone who already has a good character can know what end is good. The rest of us can only defer to expert judgment. But how do we decide which judge to trust? Certainly not EVERYONE who is old and/or experienced is a good judge (unless we can assume that all people acquire a good character by old age). And in any case, you don't want to hang out with old people, "for there is little pleasure to be found in them, and no one can spend his days with what is painful or not pleasant, since nature appears to avoid above all what is painful and to aim at what is pleasant." (1157b 16)

    More seriously, though: There seems to be no clear way to ensure that one can have access to knowledge of the right end.

    But your second paragraph... so you are saying that the wish is for abstract properties of actions (noble, pleasant, useful), whereas deliberation finds the action to take with that property. E.g., I wish for the noble and then judge, through deliberation, that telling the truth, or standing firm against my enemies, that this is the way to attain the noble? So wish only involves choosing one out of three possibilities, and everything else is done through deliberation.

    Maybe that's right. But now I am a bit more confused. Since nobody can decide to pursue ONLY the noble rather than the useful or the pleasant: after all, you cannot pursue the noble at all in most cases without having some constitutive pursuits for the useful. So would wishing involve having a ranking of its three options, with deliberation coming in to choose according to that ranking?

  3. Ok, I was a bit out of it when I wrote that last comment, because there is a serious problem with the suggestion that "wishing has a very narrow field to select from: the noble, the useful, the pleasurable." That is: if I am understanding right, you are saying that only these abstract properties are the possible objects of a wish.

    That is clearly not what Aristotle has in mind. Take the following:

    "For we do not decide on impossible things--anyone claiming to decide on them would seem a fool; but we do wish for impossible things--for immortality, for instance--as well as possible things. Further, we wish... also for results that are not achievable through our own agency--victory for some actor or athlete, for instance... We wish, for instance, to be healthy; and we wish to be happy" (1111b 20-30)

    Clearly, proper objects of wish include things that would be "ends" or goals in our usual sense, not abstract entities like the noble or the good.

  4. A similar concern occurs with the virtues being known if they lead to Eudaimonia, and demonstrating that one is living Eudaimonia only if they are exhibiting the virtues. The concern is spelled in a wonderful review article by Sobel and Copp reviewing the prospect of virtue ethics.

    Now, I am a proponent of virtue ethics, and one of the moves I make at this point is to introduce elements of moral deliberation as a form of non-inferential knowledge as Ross does. I wonder if such a move helps you here, but also invites some problems with intuitionism.

  5. My comment was too long but it would be my pleasure if you read and maybe even replied on my page, which I just started at


    the specific post is at

    In short I think the thing is that we already understand virtue, if vaguely, and if we attempt to live up to our understanding we'll be able to become that much more virtuous and so much so as we do will we be able to clarify our initially vague conception. To the extent that we are virtuous we can hit upon the right action and act virtuously if we so choose. And we tend to be able to recognize those more virtuous then ourselves, don't we?

  6. This post was a great study tool for my philosophy final exam, thank-you for posting generously.