Wednesday, June 30, 2010

The good-making character of life skills

At the beginning of Chapter 6, Aristotle claims that these life skills are such that they both (i) make their possessors good, and (ii) make the activities of their possessors good. They firm up, so to speak, their possessors and the work they do.

As an analogy, Aristotle mentions the eye and a horse. When an eye is in excellent working order, it sees very well. So its fine character both makes the eye good, and it makes its vision good. Similarly, an excellent horse performs very well, so its fine character makes that horse good, and it makes it run well (or behave well in battle).

The skills that help us live successfully are like this too. They make a person good, and they make him or her do their work well.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

What type of feature is a life skill?

In Chapter 5, Aristotle explains that the soul has three types of features:

(1) Emotions (anger, envy, joy, etc.).
(2) Capacities (the capacity to be angry, the capacity to be envious, etc.).
(3) Dispositions (tendencies to feel an emotion intensely or not, e.g., to be violently angry rather than barely angry, as when we say "he has an violent disposition").

(Note that in this context, "disposition" is not the technical term that analytic philosophers often use to mean a causal power. "Capacities" are more like powers here. Dispositions are more like tendencies.)

As for the skills that help us live successfully (and the contrary skills that help us live unsuccessfully), which type are they?

Aristotle first explains that they are not emotions. We are not good or bad because we have certain emotions. On the contrary, we are called good or bad because of our emotional skills. E.g., I am not a bad person just because I feel angry. I am a bad person if I don't handle my anger well.

Similarly, we don't choose to have certain emotions. Anger, envy, joy, and the like often arise quite naturally. But skills involve choice, so skills cannot be mere emotions.

For the same reasons, the skills that help us live un/successfully are not capacities either. We are not god or bad because we have the capacity to feel anger, envy, joy, and so on. We are good or bad because of how we handle our emotions.

That leaves option (3): dispositions. The skills that help us live un/successfully are therefore dispositions --- tendencies to feel emotions in particular ways and act accordingly. These skills belong to the genus of "disposition" (tendencies).

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Learning emotional skills requires practice

At the beginning of Chapter 4, Aristotle raises an objection: if we develop our skills by practicing rightly, then aren't we already good at it? Aren't we already doing it right? For instance, if I train my skills to take things in moderation by actually taking things in moderation, then aren't I already doing it right in the first place?

Similarly, isn't this true for any other craft? If I speak according to the proper rules of grammar or play the piano according to the proper rules of music, don't I have the skill to speak with grammatical correctness, and don't I have the skill to play the piano correctly?

In response, Aristotle says that these other crafts are different from the skills that help us live successfully. The reason, he says, is this: the products that come about by these crafts are worthy in and of themselves. In order to "speak well" or "play well", I only need to produce the right thing. It doesn't matter how I do those things. The end result is all that matters. If the end result is right, then I did it right.

The skills that help us live successfully are not like this. Even if the end result is the 'right thing to do', that doesn't mean that I have done them skillfully. Why?

According to Aristotle, you must satisfy certain conditions when you do the right thing if your action is to be done skillfully:

(1) First of all, you need to have the knowledge that "this is how you do it correctly".

(2) Second, you must choose to do it.

(3) Third, your activity must proceed from a "firm and unchangeable character". That is, you must have a solid habit for doing that sort of thing. It can't just be that you choose to do the right thing this one time. You need to have done it so many times that you have developed a serious habit of doing that sort of thing. And then, your habit is so deeply instilled, as it were, that it is of a "firm and unchangeable character".

Without all three of these conditions, thinks Aristotle, doing the right thing doesn't count as skillful activity. Only when you meet all three conditions is your activity skillful.

The crucial bit is (3). That's the one that can only be developed through time and training. Without training, you can't develop a firm habit, and without a firm habit, you aren't acting skillfully.

For this reason, Aristotle claims that you become skillful by practicing the activity. Doing just things is what makes you just, for by doing just things over and over, you develop the habit that makes your activities just. Before you have that habit, you just happen to do the right thing out of chance, or even under instruction as part of a practice routine. But you don't have the habit yet, so you are not just. You only become just once you've practiced enough to develop the habit of being just.

(Of course, it is very difficult to see why the crafts wouldn't be like this too. It seems to me that all this stuff would apply just as well to say, sculpting, or building, or fixing cars, or whatever.)

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Pleasure and pain

In chapter 3, Aristotle argues that doing things well or poorly involves pleasure and pain, and the pleasure or pain that is associated with any given activity is a sign of how developed one's skills are.

For instance, if I stand up to a danger and delight in that, I am courageous, but if I stand up to that danger and it pains me to do so, then I am a coward. The idea here seems to be this: when you delight in doing the right thing, you have developed your skills fairly well, but if it still pains you to do the right thing, then you need to keep working at it. 

This is a subtle point. Aristotle is not saying that we should decide which activities are good and which are bad based on whether they bring pleasure or pain. Now, sex (for instance) is always pleasurable, while doing the right thing often involves pain. Aristotle openly admits that we often do the wrong thing precisely because it is pleasurable, and we don't do the right thing because it might be painful.

But that doesn't mean (according to Aristotle) that we should always indulge in sex, or always avoid doing the right thing. On the contrary, thinks Aristotle, we should avoid excesses and do the right thing, even if it is not as pleasurable as indulging.

But Aristotle's point, I think, is that when we have developed our skills well enough, it will, in the end, bring us pleasure to exercise those skills correctly. Conversely, if our skills are underdeveloped, it may be painful to exercise them correctly. So the enjoyment we get from exercising our skills correctly is a sign of how developed they are. When we delight in the proper exercise of our skills, we know that our skills are reaching a high degree of development.

This is why I said earlier that developing skills to do the right thing involves emotional training. Doing the right thing is not simply doing the right thing but feeling something different. No, as Aristotle sees it, we need to bring our emotional responses in line with the right thing to do. So we should delight in the right thing to do, not feel conflicted about it.

Aristotle also makes the point that training from childhood is important, for otherwise, he seems to think, we would always just indulge in the pleasurable (like sex) and avoid the painful (like abstaining). We need, he says, to be trained from a very young age to delight in doing the right thing.

So, says Aristotle, pleasure and pain accompany all activities, but we need to be careful about following or avoiding the pleasurable or painful. It is easy to pursue the pleasurable, but this may be wrong. On the other hand, once we have developed our skills sufficiently, doing the right thing becomes pleasurable indeed.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

This is about training, it is not about a rule

Aristotle's point here --- that choosing the middle ground is best --- is not intended as a moral rule. Rather, it is intended as a training principle. That is, it is not that you are 'good' if you choose the middle and 'bad' if you choose too much or too little. Aristotle is saying something quite different. He is saying that when you train your emotional skills, you need to aim (roughly) for the middle as you practice. If you always do too much in your training, or if you always do too little, you aren't habituating the middle ground. So this is about training, not a rule.

Also, Aristotle points out that the practice arena is alway the same, irrespective of whether you practice in the right way or the wrong way. For instance, if I were learning to play the piano, I would sit in a practice room and practice every day. However, I could still be practicing in the wrong ways there. So simply jumping into the practice arena and practicing is not enough to guarantee that I will develop my skills correctly. It takes the right kind of practice.

Generally, Aristotle believes that what makes you 'good' or 'bad' is not following a rule. You are 'good' or 'bad' if you more or less consistently do the right thing. You can slip up every once in a while, especially while you are training. But slip ups don't make you 'bad'. Excellent piano players can make mistakes once in a while. What makes you 'bad' is consistently doing the wrong thing. By Aristotle's reckoning, you are judged to be good or bad in accordance with how you live your whole life, not in accordance with how you enacted this or that particular thing.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

The doctrine of the mean

Aristotle next points out that skills are destroyed by excess or deficiency. As analogies, Aristotle cites nutrition and strength. Take nutrition. Too much food and wine is bad for you, but so is too little. You need just the right amount. Doctors tell us it's helpful for our hearts if we have a glass of wine each day, but of course no wine will give you no benefits, and too much wine may kill you.

Now take strength. Too much exercise destroys your strength, and too little doesn't give you enough strength. (Over zealous body-builders can become so bulky that they can only move in very awkward ways, whereas wraith-like weaklings can barely lift a finger.)

This is how it is for the emotional skills that lead to a successful life. Consider, says Aristotle, courage. If we jump right into every sign of danger, we're rash. If we run like screaming rabbits from every sign of danger, we're cowards. But when we take the middle ground --- i.e., when we stand up to the dangers we should stand up to and flee from the dangers we should flee from (and let's pretend that this does not involve any circular reasoning) --- that's courage.

Similarly, consider moderation (or 'temperance', as some translations put it). We can over-indulge in pleasures, but we can also abstain totally. As Aristotle sees it, the middle ground is best. Running headlong (or perhaps handlong) into every pleasure is hedonist, and running from every pleasure is austerity. Taking your pleasures with moderation is the best way to go.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Ethics is not an exact science

The theory of conduct (i.e., doing the right thing) is not an exact science. The reason, says Aristotle, is that every theory needs to be as exact as its subject matter. In the realm of conduct though, there are no exact rules. Consequently, a theory of conduct cannot have any exact rules either.

As an analogy, Aristotle points to matters of health. There are no exact rules for making a sick person healthy. Sometimes it's good to do an organ transplant, but sometimes it is not. It really depends on the circumstances. And since circumstances can be infinitely variable, there simply cannot be any solid, steady rules about making sick people healthy. A good doctor is not one who always assigned the textbook prescribed medication. On the contrary, a good doctor is one who knows when and where to do certain things, and when and where to not do such things.

The same goes for a theory of conduct. Sometimes it's good to do X, but sometimes it's good to do Y. It really depends on the circumstances. So when it comes to matters of conduct, we need to pay attention to the circumstances.

Still, Aristotle says we can do something to help us understand good conduct, and that's what he tries to do in the rest of the Nicomachean Ethics.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Ethics is about conduct, not mere knowledge

Aristotle begins chapter 2 by claiming that ethics is different from other branches of philosophy because ethics is a practical discipline rather than a theoretical discipline. That is, it is concerned with doing the right thing, not just knowing the right thing. After all, one could know the right thing to do, but sit on a mountain top and do nothing, but then Aristotle would think that you aren't really living successfully.

So, says Aristotle, we need to look into our conduct: we have to ask how we are to live skillfully so as to live successfully. For as we have seen, the quality of our practice (i.e., the things we do day-in and day-out from a very young age) determines the quality of our skills.

Aristotle then brings up a principle: "to act in conformity with the right principle". This should be read like so: "be able to do the right thing at the right time, and know why you did such and thing and why it was the right thing to do at that time." Theo point here is this: doing the right thing does involve knowledge: it involves knowing what the right thing to do actually is, and knowing why it is the right thing to do. Doing the right thing, for Aristotle, is a reasoned course of action. We truly succeed at doing the right thing only when we have good reasons for doing so.

Hence, knowledge is involved here, even though ethics is a practical science. But of course, ethics also involves doing things, so it is ultimately a practical science, albeit a reasonable one.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Practice can lead to good or bad performers

However, Aristotle is aware that practice can lead to good or bad performers. For instance, if I practice playing the piano every day, I could still turn out to be a very good piano player, or I could turn out to be a very bad piano player. Similarly, even if I try to build something out of wood every day, I could turn out to be a great builder or a horrible builder. Which way it turns out depends on the quality of my practice routine. Good practice leads to good performance skills, bad practice leads to bad performance skills.

If this were not so, says Aristotle, we would not need any instruction. If I could be a good piano player just by sitting down and banging my fingers on the keys every day, then I would never need a piano teacher. But obviously, that sort of practice will not make me a maestro. I need a good teacher to guide my practice in the right ways.

The same goes for emotional skills. Take courage. According to Aristotle, being courageous means facing danger when it's appropriate, and fleeing when the danger is too great. Suppose, then, that I were training to be a ninja, and suppose that everyday my master put me in a ring with a sparring partner. Then suppose that every time the adjudicator yells "fight!", my master yells out, "run away!".

Would I develop any courage with that kind of training? Not unless my master were teaching me to run to another, even better sparring match. But assuming that my master were not doing that, he or she would really just be teaching me cowardice, not courage.

On the other hand, if my master always had me run headlong into my opponent's house --- and by 'house', I mean round house (a kind of spinning kick) --- would I be developing courage? Aristotle thinks not. On the contrary, I would be developing rashness, i.e., the kind of crazy fearlessness that would lead me to take on anything anytime, even if my opponent were a giant tank, or perhaps a stationary brick wall.

So, thinks Aristotle, we need good training and good practice. Otherwise we won't develop our skills correctly. And this is why, Aristotle explains, our childhood training is very important. Or, as Aristotle puts it, our upbringing makes all the difference.