Re: Striving for Eudaimonia

From: Russell Blackford (
Date: Mon Aug 27 2001 - 05:50:40 MDT

Anders said:

>This is of course why aristotelian and aristotelian-based views immediately
>with the "PC mindset" as Greg described - they are unashamedly
>(there is a goal that everybody wants), and suggest that the philosopher is
>active social force for this good. The cultural relativism today, while
>with the correct realisation that other cultures were not necessarily wrong
>inferior to our own (and strengthened by what Brin calls the meme of
>our own culture's desire for and acceptance of the new and different),
>developed into a position where no narrative is allowed to have superiority
>another (in that case the proper response is to deconstruct it, which is
said to
>put it back in its proper place somehow) and universalist claims got a very

Okay, interesting. My initial reply to Waldemar was a bit flip, but had a
serious point: that a lot of modern philosophical ideas have classical
pedigrees, which may be useful information for some debates.

There are different forms of Aristotelianism. I am concerned that
Aristotelian moral reasoning is not usually applied in our society merely by
analogy. Rather, it is applied quite directly in ways that suggest that the
ends of being "human" are unchanging and any efforts that will change our
nature are morally wrong. E.g. look at the Catholic Church's attitude to
such a seemingly small transhumanist step as employing contraception. This
attitude is supposedly backed up by Aristotelian ethical reasoning.

Aristotle's view is surprisingly difficult to describe in detail, but I'll
try. Once you get a handle on it, it is also surprisingly commonsensical.
Aristotle is more concerned to give some structure to our moral thinking
than to develop bold new principles to reconstruct it, as the utilitarians
attempted, for example.

He begins by suggesting that "goods" correspond to the ends or goals of
inquiries, activities and so on, e.g. the end of the "good" of "medical art"
is health. Some ends conduce to wider ends, e.g. trades aiming at making
equipment for horses conduce to riding, and so on. Master ends are to be
preferred to subordinate ends. To avoid an infinite regress, something must
be the highest end. Aristotle said that it is generally agreed that highest
end is happiness (eudaemonia), but the question then is: what is happiness?

Aristotle said that, if a *function* could be found for human beings as
such, this might clarify the nature of human happiness. He said that the
uniquely human function is "leading an active life of the element that has a
rational principle". He held that this entailed leading a life of "virtuous
activity of the soul".

Since the life of activity in accordance with virtue is happiness, Aristotle
then needed an account of virtue. Since virtue is a feature of the soul, he
also needed an account of the soul.

Aristotle says that the soul has irrational and rational elements. The
irrational includes the purely "vegetative" element that causes nutrition
and growth (which is not distinctively human), but also the element of
desire. This can share in the rational principle insofar as desire is ruled
by reason. He said that some virtues are moral while some are intellectual,
and this reflects the distinctively human elements of the soul and their

Aristotle then explains what the virtues are. They are not passions such as
anger, fear, joy etc.; nor are they faculties such as the capacity to feel
anger. Virtues are states of character, i.e. the things by which we stand
well or badly with reference to passions, such as standing badly with
respect to anger if we feel it too violently or too weakly. The virtue of a
man is the state of character (essentially dispostions). At this point
Aristotle uses the Golden Mean idea: virtue consists in having neither
excess nor defect of the relevant passion but a correct amount which is the
mean relative to us and determined by a rational principle, namely by that
principle which would be adopted by a man of practical wisdom. This doesn't
mean moderation in everything but an *appropriate measure* in respect to
such things as feelings of fear and confidence, regard to pleasures and
pains, regard to money, regard to honour and dishonour, to anger, to truth,
to being pleasant etc.

Aristotle goes through these in detail:

*courage is a mean against excessive fearlessness or rashness, or cowardice;

*temperance is the mean against self-indulgence or "insensibility";

*liberality is the mean against prodigality or meanness;

*then there's "magnificence" with large sums of money, against
tastelessness/vulgarity or niggardliness (the meaning of which you all

*"proper pride" is the mean against empty vanity or undue humility;

*there is a mean with no name against being ambitious or unambitious;

*good temper is a mean against irascibility and "inirascibility";

*truthfulness is a mean against boastfulness or false modesty;

*being "ready-witted" is a mean against buffoonery or boorishness;

*friendliness is a mean against obsequiousness or flattery, or being
quarrelsome or surly (or divisive, perhaps, Lee).

The difficulty with all this is that, although it is pretty commonsensical,
and seems more attractive to me than grand normative theories such as
utilitarianism or philosophical egalitarianism, it is also potentially very
conservative. It tends to leave things as they were - we already *know* what
the virtues are, but merely needed some analysis of the structure of our
knowledge. Aristotelianism corresponds, more than other formal ethical
systems, with commonsense ethics. As Anders suggests, however, this gives it
little chance of taking into account dispositions that might seem different
in other cultures or changed circumstances. Of course, we can apply
Aristotelian thinking to our own circumstances, but it is hard to see how we
can get out of it values different from those we put in. It just doesn't
work that way, tending to structure our ideas of what is good rather than
encouraging us to re-examine them.

Transhumanism, by contrast, does not invoke common sense, or practical
reason, in the normal way (though its means of inquiry may well be
*continuous* with common sense methods of inquiry, as I explained of
scientific inquiry in an earlier post). To apply the Aristotelian concepts
of human functioning, eudaemonia, virtue (as disposition) and so on in a
transhumanist context may be quite a challenge. I cannot immediately see how
to do it, though there are aspects that seem more attractive than the rival
theories, particularly the emphasis on rationality and happiness.

I suppose we might need to begin a few steps back with the function of
leading an active life in accordance with reason, and what this might now
involve. Certainly, the particular virtues (and vices) that Aristotle
identified don't take us very far, and I don't think they were meant to,
since Aristotle was not a thinker who was oriented to moral reform.

Back to you. See if there's anything you can do with this analysis of the
theory and its possible problems.


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