Friday, July 30, 2010

Individuation is a question of the formal cause

When scholastic philosophers discuss individuation, their basic question is this: which of a thing's constituents make it the individual that it is? This question deserves some comment. As the schoolmen see it, we are looking for what they call the 'formal cause', not the 'efficient cause'.

The efficient cause is the agent that brings the effect in question into being. For instance, when a sculptor makes a statue, the sculptor is the efficient cause here, for the sculptor is the person/agent who effectively brings the statue into being. In short, the efficient cause is the producer of the effect.

The formal cause, on the other hand, is some feature or constituent of the product itself that explains why it is the sort of thing it is. For instance, the formal cause of a statue being a statue is the shape of the statue. Without it's shape, it wouldn't be a statue, so that very shape is the 'formal cause' of the statue being a statue.

When the schoolmen talk about individuation, everybody agrees that the efficient cause of the individual is its producer. But that seems perfectly obvious. If you want to know who produced this particular statue, the answer is the sculptor who actually produced it.

But when it comes to the formal cause, the schoolmen disagree. Again, here they are looking for some feature or constituent (or combination thereof) in the individual itself that explains why it is the individual it is.

More precisely: here we are looking for some set of features or constituents that cannot exist in some other individual. Suppose I ask every member of a group to take a side on capital punishment. Some will be for it, others will be against it, but in this case, taking the 'for' or 'against' side will separate these individuals into distinct groups, for nobody can be 'for' and 'against' capital punishment at the same time.

Taking the 'for' or 'against' side here would be an example of something that is the 'formal cause' of distinction: it's the sort of thing that cannot exist in more than one individual at the same time, and so when individuals take the 'for' or 'against' side of capital punishment, they necessarily get separated into groups. So also when it comes to individuals. The schoolmen are looking for some feature that cannot exist in more than one individual at a time, much like how being 'for' or 'against' capital punishment cannot exist in one and the same individual at the same time.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Getting it right is very difficult

In Chapter 9, Aristotle points out that getting it "just right" is very difficult. Anyone can be angry, or anyone can spend money. But to do this just right, at the right person, at the right time, with the right motive, and so on --- that is not easy at all. So wherever someone does these things skillfully, that should be praised.

Thus, to learn how to get it "just right", we must first train ourselves to avoid the extremes. To do that, we can start avoiding the worst of the two extremes, and this will slowly help to train us and develop the right sorts of habits.

We must also consider our own proclivities, and try to over-correct for them. If I have a penchant for sex, then I should over-correct and avoid sex more than indulge in it. That will help to correct my penchant, and develop a habit for getting it "just right". It's like trying to straighten a curved stick. We bend it the other way even further, in the hopes that this will correct the curve that goes in the opposite direction.

We should especially watch out for pleasure. That is very tempting, and we do not go into with a cool head. So we can best develop moderation by aiming at the opposite extreme.

Nevertheless, we praise the man who deviates from "just the right amount" only a little bit, and we condemn the man who deviates from "just the right amount" a great deal. And indeed, we can err in degrees. If I slap my grandmother, that's much less worse than delivering a spinning air kick. Neither are good, but one is much worse than the other.

Still, it is not easy to determine the precise point where a man becomes culpable. Can I deviate from "just the right amount" only a little bit? A little bit more? A little bit more than that? How far before I am culpable for wrong-doing? This is tricky, and it takes wisdom to know how much is too much, and it takes skill to do just the right amount. 

And with that, we finally reach the end of Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics, book 2.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

The scale of virtue

In Chapter 8, Aristotle discusses how all of these virtues and vices stand on a scale with respect to each other. So to begin, there are three kinds of dispositions: too much, too little, and just right. The "too much" and "too little "are vices, and the "just right" are skills/virtues.

Each of these are relative to each other. The "just right" is the excess of "too little", and the "just right" is too little with respect to the "too much". Further, the two extremes are the most opposed: "too little" is much farther away from "too much" than it is from "just right".

Sometimes, though, the "just right" is slightly closer to the "too little" than the "too much", and sometimes it is closer to the "too much" rather than the "too little". For instance, being courageous involves having a slight tendency to stand up to danger than to run from it. But moderation involves abstaining more often than indulging.

There are two reasons for this. Sometimes, the "just right" is actually more like the "too much" (or "too little"). For instance, being rash is a little bit more like being courageous than it is being cowardly, so the "just right" is closer to the "too much" in that case.

But sometimes, we are drawn to one of the extremes more than the other, in which case, we need to overcompensate a little bit and aim slightly in the other direction. For instance, pleasure is extremely attractive, so to teach us moderation, we want to err on the side of abstinence.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Some examples of virtues

In Chapter 7, Aristotle briefly runs through the various emotional skills that lead to a successful life. He discusses these skills in much more detail later in the Nicomachean Ethics, but here is his brief summary.


Courage involves just the right amount of fear and confidence.

(a) Too little fear makes you rash.
(b) Too much fear makes you a coward.

In short, being courageous involves knowing when to stand your ground, and when to run.

Moderation (Temperance)

Moderation involves just the right amount of indulgence and abstinence.

(a) Too much indulgence makes you self-indulgent.
(b) Too little indulgence makes you austere.

In short, enjoying pleasure with moderation involves knowing when to indulge, and when to abstain.

Financial Liberality

Financial liberality involves just the right amount of giving and taking money.

(a) If you give too much and take too little, you are prodigal. 
(b) If you take too much and give too little, you are mean. 

(Strictly speaking, Aristotle says that financial liberality has to do with small amounts of money. If we are talking about huge amounts of money, then we are talking about magnificence, and this too can have extremes: tastelessness and vulgarity is the excess, and stinginess is the deficiency.)

In short, financial liberty involves knowing when to give, and when to take.


Honor involves just the right amount of pride and humility.

(a) Too much pride is empty vanity.
(b) To little pride is undue humility.

(Like financial liberality, this deals with smaller amounts of pride. For huge amounts, we are talking about ambition, and there too one can have too much or too little.)

In short, honor involves knowing when to be proud of yourself, and when to be humble.


Being good-tempered involves just the right amount of anger.

(a) Too much anger makes you irascible.
(b) Too little anger makes you inirascible.

In short, being good-tempered involves knowing when to be angry, and when to not, and in just the right amount.


Being truthful involves just the right amount of being truthful.

(a) Too much truthfulness makes you boastful.
(b) To little gives you false modesty.

In short, truthfulness involves just the right amount of saying what you did and what you are.


Being witty involves just the right amount of amusement.

(a) Giving too much amusement makes you a buffoon (a jokester).
(b) Giving too little amusement makes you boorish (a bore).

In short, being witty involves knowing when to crack a joke or tell a good story, and knowing when not too.


Being friendly involves just the right amount of general pleasantry.

(a) If you are too friendly too often, you are obsequious (too agreeable) and a flatterer.
(b) If you are not friendly enough, you are quarrelsome and surly (no fun).

In short, friendliness involves knowing when to be agreeable, and when to disagree.


Modesty involves just the right amount of shame and modesty.

(a) Too much shame makes you bashful.
(b) Too little shame makes you shameless.

In short, modesty involves knowing when to be ashamed, and when not to be.

Righteous Indignation

Righteous indignation involves feeling just the right amount of sympathy for the good and bad fortune of your neighbors.

(a) Too much sympathy makes you envious (I want what they have).
(b) Too little makes you spiteful (I don't care what they have).

In short, righteous indignation knows when to feel pleasure or pain for what happens to your neighbors.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Some things are just plain wrong

Aristotle admits, however, that some things have no 'middle ground', and they are just flat out bad and should always be avoided. For instance, spite, envy, adultery, theft, murder, and so on --- these are all bad. There is no "middle ground" to these; one cannot do "just the right amount" of adultery or murder or anything like that.

Similarly, there is no middle ground for the vices, for the vices are already the extremes. Being cowardly, for instance, is having a deficiency of fearlessness. It is, then, silly to think about the "middle ground" with cowardliness. You can't be "just the right amount" of cowardly, because being cowardly is already an extreme.

Likewise, the middle ground (a skill) does not have "just the right amount" or "not enough". Having just the right amount is precisely that: having just the right amount. You can't have "just the right amount of just the right amount". Either you have just the right amount, or you don't.

So: some things are just bad, and for them there is no "just the right amount". Other things (vices) are extremes all ready, so there is no "just the right amount" for them either. Finally, other things (virtues/skills) are "just the right amount" already, so there is no "just the right amount" of them either.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Two vices for every virtue

Since a skill (virtue) involves hitting the middle ground, there are two extremes that it avoids: excess and deficiency. These two extremes are called 'vices', so there are two for every virtue/skill. For instance, being courageous involves knowing when to stand up to the danger, and when to flee. But if I run to face every danger, then I have an excess of fearlessness, and that makes me rash. So rashness is a vice with respect to courage. Similarly, if I run from every sign of danger, then I have too little fearlessness, and that makes me a coward. So being a coward is a vice with respect to courage as well. For every skill, there are two vices: one involving excess (too much), the other involving deficiency (too little).

Sunday, July 4, 2010

The Doctrine of the Mean Again

For anything that comes in degrees, there is too much, too little, and somewhere in the middle. If we consider just the spectrum or range of options itself, we can usually identify the exact middle. For instance, 6 is exactly between 2 and 10. However, if we consider what is the 'middle ground' for us, this may not be the exact middle. For instance, if I need to eat a certain number of apples each day, and 2 is too few and 10 is too many, the right amount may not always be 6 apples. It might be 4.5 on one day, or 7 on another. It really depends on the situation and just how much I might need at that time.

Choosing the middle ground is thus something of an art: knowing how much at a particular point in time. It's not a science, like choosing the exact middle in mathematics.

Crafting the perfect work of art is also like this. The perfect art work is such that we can't take away anything, but nor do we need to add anything. The artist has done just the right things, in just the right places, with just the right materials, and so on. Good artists know this. Too much or too little of something destroys quality work, while doing just the right amount preserves it. This "just the right amount", thinks Aristotle, is the standard by which we judge that a work is good. If I'm in a museum and I say, "too much red", I'm pointing to a fault in the work. But if I say, "that's a nice balance of red and blue", then I'm praising the work. Aristotle thinks this kind of "just the right amount" is what makes the work good.

Skills that help us live successfully are like this too. Good skills aim at just the right amount; not too much, not too little.

All our emotions can be felt in degrees, so we would want to learn to feel them in just the right amount, at just the right time, with just the right motive, and so on. Similarly, actions can be done in degrees as well, so again, we would want to do something to just the right degree, at just the right time, and so on.

The skills that help us live successfully are skills in this sense: when I know how to do just the right amount, at just the right time, with just the right people, with just the right motive, and so on --- then I am skilled at doing that sort of thing correctly. After all, if I do too much of it, or do too little of it, then I have failed. But if I do just the right amount, then I have succeeded. So doing things successfully takes skill. It is something of an art.

Hence, says Aristotle, these skills are aimed at the middle ground. This is Aristotle's famous "doctrine of the mean."