Sunday, May 23, 2010

Two kinds of life skills

Aristotle opens Book 2 by claiming that the skills which help us live successfully come in two flavors: there are

(a) skills for thinking the right thing, and
(b) skills for doing the right thing.

(Note: older translations use the label 'intellectual' virtues for (a), and 'moral' or 'ethical' virtues for (b), but I think the way I have put it here captures the idea a little more clearly.)

Now, in order to have the skill to think the right thing, and we might call this a mental skill, we obviously need to know the correct facts about the world and our situation. So Aristotle lists (i) having good intuitions, and (ii) scientific knowledge among the mental skills we need for living successfully.

But thinking the right thing also involves being able to make the right judgments at the right time. Now, we make judgments about theories, and we make judgments about what to do, and these are two separate skills. Aristotle says that the ability to make the right judgment about theories is called 'theoretical wisdom', and the ability to make the right judgment about what to do is called 'practical wisdom'. As Aristotle sees it, these two kinds of wisdom are the most important mental skills, because they ultimately guide our thoughts and actions.

Skills for doing the right thing involve just that: having the skill or ability to do the right thing at the right time. However, Aristotle thinks this also involves emotional training. It does not simply amount to doing the right thing, it amounts to feeling the right thing as well. Hence, what we feel and what we do should not be out of whack.

For instance, suppose that you tred on the toe of my sheep, and that gets me super pissed. Still, I recognize that I shouldn't punch you in the forehead, so I decide to forgive you instead. In this case, I feel one thing (anger: I want to punch you in the forehead so badly), but I know that acting on that would be the wrong thing to do, so I end up doing the right thing.

Aristotle thinks that I wouldn't be very skillful at doing the right thing in this case, for having the skill to do the right thing involves not just doing the right thing, but also having the appropriate emotional response. And if punching you in the forehead is not the right thing to do, then feeling that I want to punch you in the forehead is not the right thing to feel either. I need to train my emotions so that I end up feeling an emotion that corresponds exactly to the action that I should do.

In other words, I need to train my emotions to feel the right things at the right times, and then act accordingly. That is what Aristotle thinks is involved with skills for doing the right thing. And since there is emotional training involved here, we might as well call these skills 'emotional skills' (though I mean to imply that we should also act on our (right) emotions, and not simply have the right emotions).

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