The Reading Room
In The Reading Room with Aristotle
In several previous columns, I have talked about why we might continue to find value in Plato. But all the reasons why it’s worth taking seriously some of Plato’s insights apply as well to his pupil Aristotle. Aristotle came to Plato’s Academy when he was 18, and studied there for 20 years. Obviously over that long a time period, their relationship evolved from master and pupil to something more like colleagues. They agreed on some matters, but sharply disagreed on others, and there are methodological differences as well, so after Plato’s death the Academy was run by more orthodox Platonists, while Aristotle would later found his own school, the Lyceum.
Aristotle was not a native Athenian; he came from Stagira, in northern Greece. In between his leaving Plato’s Academy and his return to Athens to found the Lyceum, he served as tutor to the Macedonian King Philip’s son Alexander, later known as Alexander the Great, who eventually amassed an empire stretching as far south as Egypt and as far east as India. Philosophy professors to this day are pleased when their students are successful in their endeavors.
One of Aristotle’s insights that contemporary readers might find valuable is his development of a context-sensitive ethical theory. Many people find strict rule-based ethics to be unworkable, because it seems as though counterexamples are easy to find. For example, “always tell the truth” would present a problem if, say, you’re an undercover investigator, or harboring Jews fleeing Nazi persecution. But it’s true that if people were generally dishonest, it would be very difficult to forge personal and commercial relationships where trust and reputation matter. If you’re thinking “ok, so that means that honesty is in general a good thing, but there are times when justice requires deception,” Aristotle would agree. But of course the next question you should ask is, how do we know when those occasions are?
Aristotle’s answer is that we learn how to navigate these situations the same way we get better at any other activity: we learn from experience. For Aristotle, ethics cannot be precise in the same way mathematics is, because situations vary in their details, and the participants vary in their capacities. What is “the correct speed” when taking a highway exit ramp? There isn’t just one answer there: it depends on the specific grade of curve, what kind of vehicle you’re in, the weather and road conditions. But, one way to differentiate novice from experienced drivers is that the latter know what to do.
Similarly, Aristotle argues that we are constantly learning from experience and improving in terms of our ethical character. More precisely, we can learn from experience, but we have to make a point of doing so. The application of reason to our experiences is how we develop wisdom. This makes ethics developmental, rather than an on-off switch. We can become better people just as we become better at an instrument or at a sport or at cooking. The people who are really excellent at an instrument, or a sport, or in the kitchen, are the sort of people who are constantly practicing and learning. This is the model for ethical self-development too: when we encounter a situation, we can choose a course of action informed by what we think a virtuous person’s response would be. Striving to act the way a virtuous person would act, and forming habits of thought and action based on that, is how we become virtuous ourselves.
There is an inescapable context-sensitivity to this model, and this is a feature not a bug. It’s not the same as “I do what I feel like doing.” What Aristotle calls virtues are dispositions to act in certain ways in response to particular situations. For example, courage is a virtue. But what would count as “acting courageously” for a 10-year-old and a 30-year-old might be different. Aristotle understands courage as overcoming a justifiable fear for the sake of some noble end. Jumping onto the railroad tracks to rescue a stuck toddler would be courageous; doing so to pick up a nickel would be reckless and foolish. But we wouldn’t have the same expectations of a child as we would an adult, just as we wouldn’t have the same expectations of people of different abilities. Jumping into the ocean to rescue a drowning person would be courageous, but we would not call cowardly someone who didn’t do this because they can’t swim.
Rather than think of context-sensitivity as some kind of relativism, think instead of a sliding fee scale for membership dues, or age groupings for youth athletics. Susan will pay more for her APA membership than Bob if Susan is a full professor at a major university and Bob is an adjunct at a community college. We do not say that the “under 9s” in the town soccer league are terrible players even though it’s true they would lose every time to a college team. Similarly, we do not expect 75-year-old accountants to participate in commando raids in a war zone. But we do expect Bob to pay his APA dues. We do expect the 8-year-olds to practice their skills. And the 75-year-old accountant can display courage in other contexts, for example by telling a co-worker not to engage in harassing behavior, or whistle-blowing if he discovers corrupt activity.
The Aristotelian model of ethical self-development allows for an objective right and wrong while also factoring in the reality of human pluralism. It gives us a way to learn from friends and role models while developing characteristics that genuinely make us better people. The cliché we use for excellence in our various hobbies and crafts is applicable here as well: Practice makes perfect!