Ethics and Effectiveness

I’m sampling a French anthology edited by Gilbert Romeyer Dherbey and Gwenaëlle Aubry, Excellence in Life: On the Nicomachean Ethics and the Eudemian Ethics of Aristotle (2002; my translation throughout). Dherbey’s essay “Ethics and Effectivity in Aristotle” aims to show that Aristotle anticipates Hegel in successfully overcoming the apparent opposition between pure principles and the real world. This makes a nice complement to Robert Pippin’s discernment of strongly Aristotelian notions of actuality and actualization in Hegel’s ethics.

Dherbey begins by noting that some people situate pure ethics outside of all real-world effectiveness, while viewing real-world effectiveness as inevitably involving moral compromise, shortfall, deviation, and corruption. He associates this with “romanticism, from Schiller to Sartre” (p. 1). I think of the “beautiful soul” criticized by Hegel. Aristotle avoids this unfortunate result by emphasizing what Dherbey calls the “weight” of ethics, or “the inscription of the moral act in an exteriority that prolongs it” (ibid). Brandom makes the related point that we do not own or control the full scope of our deeds.

“The one who does nothing cannot act well”, Dherbey quotes from Aristotle’s Politics. Moral excellence is not constituted by intentions alone. Dherbey says that for Aristotle, “the validity of the intention is judged by the act that realizes it, or doesn’t realize it” (p.4, emphasis in original). Pippin develops a similar point in more detail in his remarks on actuality in Hegel.

For Aristotle it is not enough just to have the good will that Peter Abelard took to be the basis of virtue. According to Dherbey, Kant’s affirmation that nothing can be called good, if not a good will, makes intention the very source of the goodness of a good act. I am impressed by Nancy Sherman’s argument that Kant came closer to Aristotle than is commonly thought. But in any case, while Aristotle is far from disregarding the importance of what we might call the agent’s subjectivity, for him the goodness of an act depends on more than this.

Dherbey notes a major cleavage between Aristotle and the Stoics on another related point. For Aristotle, “not acting ‘lightly’ signifies that ‘intentional’ action, in order to be virtuous, must take support from a stable foundation, from a support that is none other than ethos or character…. It is indeed character, more than punctual intention in the modern sense of the term, that governs ethical choice” (p. 5; see also What We Really Want). It was the Stoics who bequeathed to later writers a strong notion of punctual decisions. I find the narrowing of ethics to a focus on punctual acts of decision to have consequences that are quite pernicious.

In closing, Dherbey quotes Hegel’s remark in his History of Philosophy lectures that for Aristotle, “The good in general is not defined as an abstract idea, but in such a way that the moment of realization finds itself essentially in it” (p. 12).

I would add that this is deeply related to Aristotle’s argument against Plato that potentiality at least in part depends on actuality, rather than being a power that simply produces the actual (or being a template that fully anticipates the actual, as Leibniz seems to have held).

Good will does not vindicate an action, but it does provide an additional reason to be forgiving in our evaluation of actions that turn out badly.