Sunday, May 30, 2010

Emotional skills are not naturally instilled in us

Aristotle next points out that emotional skills are not naturally instilled in us. The reason, he says, is that natural inclinations cannot be trained, whereas emotions can. Aristotle gives the following (amusing) example. Stones like to fall to the earth, and that's something they do naturally. Consequently, I could never train a stone to fall upwards, even if I spent half my life throwing the stone up in the air over and over again. The stone would never develop the habit of flying upwards, for it goes down naturally.

Emotional skills, on the other hand, can be trained, so they must not be natural proclivities in us. This is not to say that emotional skills are contrary to our nature. No, says Aristotle, we are naturally set up to develop these skills. But the point is that we won't develop these skills naturally. Rather, we need to develop them through training, namely by developing the right habits. 

Also, says Aristotle, natural proclivities are first potential and then actual, whereas emotional skills are first actual then potential. The idea here is that natural proclivities are already built-in, and so we can exercise them whenever we want because we already have them. Emotional skills, by contrast, are not built-in. Rather, they need to be developed first. And the only way to develop them is to start doing them: to practice them.

With emotional skills then, we have to start doing them first, and only after doing them for a while can we develop the skill to do them well. For instance, people become good builders by building, and they become good piano players by playing. The same goes for emotional skills: we develop them by practice. They are not built-in in the way that natural proclivities are.

(One might object: some emotions are natural proclivities. Take anger, jealousy, and so on --- surely these are natural responses to certain situations. I suppose, though, that Aristotle could say that although these may appear to us as 'natural responses', they are in fact trained responses; it's just that we have been trained in these ways from a very young age.)

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Developing mental and emotional skills

Aristotle next says that we develop mental skills through instruction. The point, I take it, is that in order to become skilled at processing information, we need to be taught how to do so. Anybody can learn the basic theorems of arithmetic, but that doesn't mean they can work through an arithmetic problem very quickly. It takes someone like me a very long time to work through even basic addition and subtraction, so I am not skilled at arithmetic. But someone could probably teach me how to do that better. That would involve lots of practice of course, but it would still require some sort of instruction. And obviously, developing such mental skills takes experience and time, just like learning any other skill.

As for emotional skills, Aristotle says we develop them by developing habits. A habit is a tendency to act in a certain way rather than another way. For instance, I have developed the habit of never putting my wallet down. It goes in my pocket, or it stays in my hand, and nothing else. At first, this required conscious thought. But after doing this for a period of time, it became a habit, and now I just do it without even thinking about it. That's a habit. Emotional skills are like this, thinks Aristotle. We start our training early, in childhood, but we develop habits to feel certain things (anger, etc.) and hence to act accordingly in certain situations.

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).

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics, Book 2

In the next few posts, I'm going to put down some thoughts on book 2 of Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics. This will be a sort of commentary, though I am no specialist, and so there are bound to be all sorts of things here that specialists could take up. But this is really just an attempt to put some thoughts of my own down and try to understand the text.

Before I dig in to book 2, I should say a little about what Aristotle says in Book 1. There, Aristotle argues that we can develop certain skills that help us live successfully --- i.e., live the best kind of life. (I sometimes call these skills 'life skills', though I'm still looking for a better term.)

Now, older translations use the word 'virtues' for these life skills, and they use the word 'happiness' for living successfully. I do not particularly like these labels. On the one hand, the word 'virtue' (in my mind anyway) seems to bring along with it some sense of morality. But that is not quite right. Aristotle is suggesting something much closer to 'skill' than 'morality'. These skills involve doing things well, in the way that a master calligrapher can make a very precise pen stroke. It is not simply following rules of right and wrong.

On the other hand, the term 'happiness' suggests a state of mind, something like 'contentment' or 'bliss'. One could be 'happy' in that sense and not do anything, e.g., by sitting on a mountain top meditating. But that is not what Aristotle has in mind either. Aristotle is thinking of doing things well. This is about activity, not sitting there contentedly. 

So the point Aristotle is making is this: living successfully involves certain skills. More precisely, by developing and using these skills, we can live a successful life. Or, to put it the other way around, the most successful life is one that is lived by exercising the skills in question.

But what exactly is the nature of these skills? That is the topic of Book 2 in the Nicomachean Ethics.