Tuesday, March 22, 2005

Labyrinth pt. 3

Philippa Foot - Virtues and Vices (Oxford 2002 (first ed 1978)).

Remember when that blowhard William Bennett was telling us (correctly, actually, but in a fatuous way) that moral character was what counted in a president, and wrote a lot of books with "Virtue" in the title? I don't care a fig about his gambling habit -- what really bugs me about that guy is his basically claiming that Aristotle, for whom virtue is indeed the central ethical concept, was on his side. Aristotle's conception of virtue is based on the "doctrine of the mean" -- that what virtuous people do is (in particular respects) to "avoid excess and defect" in their actions. Courageous people, for example, aren't (essentially, that is) those who overcome their fear -- they're those who act appropriately in the face of danger. They indeed avoid defect (cowardice) by not running away – but they also avoid excess (foolhardiness) by not simply ignoring danger and getting killed for no reason. What counts as "appropriate" varies from case to case (including person to person) and cannot even be captured (exhaustively described), let alone constituted, by rules that can be taught. One learns to act appropriately the way one learns a skill, through practice and experience. One becomes accustomed to one's own capacities, and learns to improvise in new situations rather than following a rule book.

All this is uncontroversial (that is, uncontroversially attributable to Aristotle) and entirely explicit in the Nicomachean Ethics. But for moralists like Bennett, it turns out that "virtue" equals "character" equals "obeying authority" equals "following the rules", where the "rules" have the form of Thou Shalt Not Even Think About It and get their ultimate authority from divine command as quite literally carved in stone. Whatever else may be said about this position, it ain't Aristotle. At best, Aristotle supports teaching rules to children as a kind of moral training wheels, to keep them from vice until they can manage on their own. (On the other hand, at times he also refers obscurely to an "underlying logos" which supposedly grounds virtue somehow, lest it seem arbitrary and subjective. Depending on what this means, this might be used to read Aristotle against himself in support of a deontologist position. Anyway.) There are only two reasons Bennett brings in Aristotle at all: first, the word "virtue"; and second, Bennett wants to come down on the Great Books side of the multiculturalism/canon wars, so he gets to make both points at once by saying "let's go back to Aristotle." This is neat rhetoric -- if you want to teach anything other than The Classics then you're abandoning the teaching of virtue and thus essentially a degenerate and a barbarian -- but if we really did "go back to Aristotle" what Bennett really wants goes right out the window. Actually, I like Great Books just as much as Bennett does; in fact I've actually read some of them. (Okay, that's harsh, but you get the point.)

Philippa Foot is a real moral philosopher and this is a collection of 14 of her essays, the first of which (the title essay) is billed by the blurb as arguing explicitly for an "ethic of virtue." Virtue ethics strikes me as more promising than either of the other two normative-ethical theories, deontology and consequentialism, but no theory will seal the deal until I hear a good account of how it relates to the rest of philosophy (rationality, normativity, agency, etc.). Most of the book seems to be about meta-ethics though -- 8 essays are billed as showing Foot's "growing disenchantment with emotivism and prescriptivism and their account of moral arguments." Depending on what exactly "prescriptivism" means, I would echo that disenchantment as well. Onto the shelf with you!

Another one for the shelf is:

S. Lovibond and S. G. Williams, eds. - Identity, Truth, and Value: Essays for David Wiggins (Blackwell 1996)

Wiggins is a big name in British philosophy who writes on, well, identity, truth, and value. This is a Festschrift with some familiar names (Williamson, McDowell) and 66 pages of replies. Here's an almost random sentence from Harold Noonan's contribution, "Absolute and Relative Identity," concerning the famous "cat on the mat" debate in metaphysics: "But it is only if 'some cat is F' is equivalent to 'something is a cat and is F' and 'every cat is F' is equivalent to 'everything, if it is a cat, is F' that these quantifying expressions must be taken to range over everything which qualifies as a cat." The "crucial point at issue," he says farther on, is "whether 'is a cat', understood as a syntactically simple predicate in which the 'is' is merely the 'is' of predication – a mere fragment of a predicate which expresses no property or relation by itself, applies univocally both to Tibbles [the kitty in question, washing himself in blithe ignorance of the surrounding swarms of quasi-kitties which are almost identical to him] and to (at least one of) the entities present in the situation described which are distinct from Tibbles" [p. 22, emphasis in original]. He concludes, however, that "how this issue might be decided, and even whether there is any fact of the matter to be decided, is, I suggest, wholly unclear." So what he's saying is that it depends on what the meaning of "is" is. How about that? Now it may seem that I am making fun of this (and it is funny), but actually it seems like he ends up in the right place (especially the part about it being wholly unclear what to say). There'll always be an England. Btw, for you (fellow) McDowellheads out there, the McDowell essay here ("Incontinence and Practical Wisdom in Aristotle") is not available in Mind, Value, and Reality.

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