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Confronting Aristotle's Ethics: Ancient and Modern Morality

Confronting Aristotle's Ethics: Ancient and Modern Morality

by Eugene Garver

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What is the good life? Posing this question today would likely elicit very different answers. Some might say that the good life means doing good—improving one’s community and the lives of others. Others might respond that it means doing well—cultivating one’s own abilities in a meaningful way. But for Aristotle these two distinct ideas&


What is the good life? Posing this question today would likely elicit very different answers. Some might say that the good life means doing good—improving one’s community and the lives of others. Others might respond that it means doing well—cultivating one’s own abilities in a meaningful way. But for Aristotle these two distinct ideas—doing good and doing well—were one and the same and could be realized in a single life. In Confronting Aristotle’s Ethics, Eugene Garver examines how we can draw this conclusion from Aristotle's works, while also studying how this conception of the good life relates to contemporary ideas of morality.

The key to Aristotle’s views on ethics, argues Garver, lies in the Metaphysics or, more specifically, in his thoughts on activities, actions, and capacities. For Aristotle, Garver shows, it is only possible to be truly active when acting for the common good, and it is only possible to be truly happy when active to the extent of one’s own powers. But does this mean we should aspire to Aristotle’s impossibly demanding vision of the good life? In a word, no. Garver stresses the enormous gap between life in Aristotle’s time and ours. As a result, this bookwill be a welcome rumination on not only Aristotle, but the relationship between the individual and society in everyday life.

Editorial Reviews

Review of Metaphysics

"Garver's interpretation is original and provocative of a re-examination of Aristotle's system and its significance for contemporary ethical questions."—Mary Veronica Sabelli, Review of Metaphysics

— Mary Veronica Sabelli

Charles Young
“This is a smart, inventive, highly original, and important contribution to our understanding of Aristotle. Eugene Garver has a clear and unified vision of Aristotle’s project in ethics and, in particular, of the importance of Aristotelian politics and metaphysics in this understanding. His is an entirely new and refreshing approach, one that challenges many of the mainstream accounts of Aristotle. Overall, a healthy corrective to the appropriation and co-option of Aristotle by common sense and ordinary language philosophy that began towards the middle of last century.”—Charles Young, Claremont Graduate School

Michael Stocker
Confronting Aristotle’s Ethics is a wonderfully rigorous, systematic study of Aristotle’s ethics, focusing on the difficult relations among dynameis, kineseis, and energeiai. These illuminate the relations between an activity’s external goals/ends (defending the city) and internal goals/ends (acting courageously for the sake of courage and virtue), and go some considerable way to showing that Aristotle’s ethics are political, making sense only in good polities, and also metaphysical, and that the metaphysical, in turn, must be understood in terms of the ethical. Garver powerfully shows what is attractive and what is repellant in Aristotle. A genuine tour de force—one of the most instructive and confronting works on Aristotle that we have.”—Michael Stocker, Syracuse University

Norman Dahl
“Throughout Garver offers fresh perspectives that illuminate Aristotle’s ethics and its application to contemporary life. Even where one might disagree with him, one will benefit from grappling with his ideas. Well worth reading.”—Norman Dahl, University of Minnesota

Review of Metaphysics - Mary Veronica Sabelli
"Garver's interpretation is original and provocative of a re-examination of Aristotle's system and its significance for contemporary ethical questions."
Review of Politics
Confronting Aristotle’s Ethics is an extremely thoughtful and mature account of Aristotle’s ethics that challenges the reader and opens up new ways of thinking about Aristotle. . . . Garver’s main contribution is to deal with questions that are of paramount importance and to try to understand these questions—about doing good and being good—from a comprehensive perspective.”
Philosophy and Rhetoric
“I highly recommend Garver’s book to anyone who wishes to engage in serious inquiry about the facts of antiquity and the condition of modernity. . . . Garver offers an inventive (and sure to be controversial) interpretation of Aristotle’s claim that the theoretical life (bios theôrêtikos) is more active than the life of action (bios politikos).”
International Philosophical Quarterly
Confronting Aristotle’s Ethics takes a fresh look at Aristotle’s ethics. . . . Garver’s work is well worth the time needed to digest it. . . . He goes a long way to showing how Aristotle’s ethics should be understood and why it bears careful study.”

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By Eugene Garver
The University of Chicago Press Copyright © 2006 The University of Chicago
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ISBN: 978-0-226-28398-2

Chapter One What Aristotle's Rhetoric Can Tell Us about the Rationality of Virtue

On any important decision we deliberate together because we do not trust ourselves. (NE III.3.1112b10-11)

Aristotle missed a great opportunity. The Ethics frequently compares ethical virtue to art, but very rarely to the art of rhetoric in particular. He knows that people often confuse rhetoric with ethical virtue, because "rhetoric dresses itself up in the form of politics, as do those who pretend to a knowledge of it, sometimes through lack of education, sometimes through boastfulness and other human causes" (Rh. I.2.1356a27-30; see Poet. 25.1460b13-28, NE IV.7.1127b20-22). Rhetoric and virtue have the same subject-matter-human actions and things that can be otherwise. Both concern questions for which there is no method or settled body of knowledge (NE II.2.1104a7-10, VI.51140a28-30 Rh. I.1.1354a1-3). There are three kinds of rhetoric, deliberative, judicial, and demonstrative, and the most important of the three is deliberative oratory (Rh. I.1. 1354b22-1355a3). In the same way deliberation is also the center of virtue, of living well and living together.

To deliberate well is the most characteristic function of the prudent man; no one deliberates about things that cannot vary nor yet about variable things that are not a means to some end, and that end a good attainable by action. A good deliberator in general is someone who can arrive by calculation at the best of goods attainable by man. (NE VI.7.1141b9-13)

Aristotle's failure to use the Rhetoric to explicate the Ethics is a missed opportunity not only because the Ethics frequently compares virtue and art, and not only because people often confuse rhetoric with virtue and practical wisdom; the Rhetoric looks in detail at some of the most frustratingly brief and crucial claims in the Ethics:

We deliberate about means (pros ta tele, literally things that are related to the end or conduce to the end) and not ends (NE III.3.1112b11-19, III.5.1113b3- 4, VI.12.1144a7-9, 20-21, Rh. I.8.1366a3, 14 -16).

Phronesis (or practical wisdom) is about means, ethical virtue about ends (NE VI.12.1144a8-9, 1144a20, VI.13.1145a4 - 6, X.8.1178a16).

Knowing the highest good gives our deliberations a target to aim at (EE I.2.1214b6 -11).

Virtue is the target which makes our decisions correct (NE VI.12.1144a7-9, EE VIII.3.1249a22-24, cf. Rh. III.1417a17-28).

Virtue and vice respectively preserve and destroy ethical principles (NE VI.12.1144a11-b1, VII.8.1151a15-19, EE II.11.1227b35-36).

The young cannot profit from lectures on ethics-implying that someone else can (NE I.3.1095a6-14, X.1.1172a34-b7, X.9.1179b23-1180a4, EE I.3.1214b28-1215a3).

Virtue apprehends the ultimates in both directions, both the most universal first principle and the particular thing to be done (NE VI.7.1141b14-16, VI.10.1143a28-b6).

It is a sign of the difference between Aristotle's interests and ours that none of these dicta seems to be a crucial or critical thesis for Aristotle in the Ethics. He presents each as uncontroversial, while they are at the center both of modern commentaries on Aristotle and of current discussions of practical reason. Using the Rhetoric to clarify these dicta will show us the relation between rationality and ethics, how to live with thought.

But isn't it perverse to explicate the Ethics by referring to the Rhetoric? The Rhetoric is almost by definition amoral and so can't be a guide to morals. On the contrary: I see that as a strong reason to turn to the Rhetoric. Explicit comparisons to the Rhetoric will let us avoid question-begging assumptions about morality; we can ask what is specifically ethical about the Ethics. It is too easy to assume that virtue, the subject of most of the Ethics, must have to do with ethics.

There is another reason to doubt that rhetoric can shed much light on ethics. The art of rhetoric is not only amoral; it is instrumental. Rhetoric is therefore the last place to look for actions chosen for their own sake, since no one engages in persuasion except to persuade someone. But even in rhetoric we can find goods internal to practices. As I mentioned in the introduction, Aristotle's world is full of energeiai. On this count too, looking at the Rhetoric will help us avoid begging questions by smuggling moral content into the idea of acts that are their own end.

Rhetoric, Although an Instrumental Activity, Has Internal Ends

The function of rhetoric is not to persuade but to see the available means of persuasion in each case. (Rh. I.1.1355b10-12)

Aristotle defines the art of rhetoric by a contrast to competing sophistic theories and practices, which, he says, have no art. Aristotle says that only pisteis-often translated as proofs; the most literal English would be "credibles"-are part of the art of rhetoric (Rh. I.1.1354a13), while the sophists concern themselves with everything but such things. Rhetoric is a rational activity not only because the rhetorician calculates how to persuade an audience but also because the substance of persuasion is reasoning.

Wrongly identifying rhetoric's means and resources, sophists also misidentify the end of rhetoric. How we think about means has consequences for how we think about ends. Sophists aim at persuading, but the true end of the art of rhetoric is "seeing in each case the available means of persuasion" (ta huparchonta pithana): "finding in each case the available means of persuasion" (to endechomenon pithanon) (Rh. I.1.1355b10-12, I.2. 1355b25-27). The difference between persuading and finding the available means of persuasion might seem slight, but it is a distinction that makes all the difference.

The Aristotelian rhetorician has two ends. She wants to win the argument but also aims at the internal and active end-which the sophist does not have-of finding the available means of persuasion. Internal, guiding, ends develop from external, given ones. This, as I will explain, is energeia as the perfection of kinesis. Not everything that tends to achieve the given end of persuading counts as an "available means," which is why it sometimes seems almost irresistible to translate endechomenon as "appropriate means":

Those who have composed Arts of Speech have worked on a small part of the subject; for only pisteis are artistic (other things are supplementary), and these writers say nothing about enthymemes, which is the 'body' of persuasion, while they give most of their attention to matters external to the subject; for verbal attack and pity and anger and such emotions do not relate to fact but are appeals to the juryman. As a result, if all trials were concluded as they are in some present-day states and especially in those well governed, [the handbook writers] would have nothing to say. (Rh. I.1.1354a11-20)

The Ethics displays something similar to this apparent elision between endechomenon as "available" and as "appropriate." There Aristotle moves from conceiving of the mean as something moderate lying between two extremes and the mean as what is appropriate to a situation, the "mean relative to us." Only when the available is defined as what is rational, connected to the enthymeme or rhetorical syllogism, is the inference from endechomenon as available to endechomenon as appropriate licit. Rationality is the middle term that connects the available to the appropriate, and we will find that rationality will also allow the inference for the ethical virtues from what is moderate to what is appropriate.

Aristotle is not naïve in limiting the available means of persuasion to argument. He knows that more people are moved by emotional than by rational appeals and that arrangement, style, and delivery can be more persuasive than evidence (Rh. III.1.1403b36 -1404a8). The limitation to argument must have some other basis than a judgment of what works. What is exciting about the Rhetoric is that these limits come from the demands of art itself, and not from extrinsic moral considerations. That will make the Rhetoric more, not less, useful for the Ethics.

Through an analogy with the art of medicine, he points to the internal end which specifies the faculty and function:

[Rhetoric's] function is not so much to persuade, as to find out in each case the existing means of persuasion. The same holds good in respect to all the other arts. For instance, it is not the function of medicine to restore a patient to health, but only to promote this end as far as possible; for even those whose recovery is impossible may be properly treated. (Rh. I.1.1355b10-14; but see EE II.1.1219a13-16)

If "even those whose recovery is impossible may be properly treated," then rhetoric and healing have values and standards of excellence that are not defined by an external end but that rather are located in the practices themselves. Doctors can succeed at saving the patient and can succeed at exercising this faculty well. With two kinds of success come two kinds of failure. One can either not achieve one's end or one can fail to follow the precepts of one's art. All four combinations of internal and external success and failure are possible.

Since "internal" and "external" are ambiguous, I should note that at this point in my argument, internal ends are internal to practices, and to the art of rhetoric in particular. Whether they are also internal to the practitioner is another question. These particular internal standards of success and failure would not make sense unless one also had an external purpose: doing everything possible to save a patient could not be a value if a saved patient weren't already valued. We can find goods in the doing only when the purpose of the practice is some already valued end. Internal goods do not come from some separate faculty, of morality or conscience, as they do in many ethical theories, and in many readings of Aristotle. These new internal goods do not replace external goods, although they do come to have authority over them, an ethical advance from what is better known to us to what is better known as such.

At least in rhetoric and medicine, these internal goods are artistic standards. Aristotle discusses the limitation to available means explicitly in the Topics:

We shall possess the method [of dialectic] completely when we are in a position similar to that in which we are with regard to rhetoric and medicine and other such faculties; that is to say, when we carry out our purpose with every available means (ek ton endechomenon). For neither will the rhetorician seek to persuade nor the physician to heal by every expedient (ek pantos tropou); but if he omits none of the available means (ton endechomenon) we shall say that he possesses the science sufficiently. (Rh. I.3.101b5)

Within the arts, the elision between "available" and "appropriate" becomes legitimate, because we can draw a distinction between ek ton endechomenon, everything possible or available, and other ways of accomplishing an end:

Of the pisteis, some are inartificial, some artful. I call inartificial those that are not provided by us [i.e., the potential speaker] but are preexisting; for example, witnesses, testimony of slaves taken under torture, contracts, and such like; and artistic whatever can be prepared by method and by us; thus, one must use the former and invent (heurein) the latter. (Rh. I.2.1355b35-39)

Appeals not sanctioned by the art of rhetoric might succeed, but they have nothing rational about them. They are irrational because they are external to the art of rhetoric. Aristotle never promises that a practitioner of the art of rhetoric will be more persuasive, more successful at achieving the external end, than someone who argues through mere experience or even someone who learns from the sophists. Since reasoning is not clearly more effective at achieving the external end, he needs some other way of claiming that rational argument is better than other means of aiming at the same external end. Why not say, "So much the worse for rationality. I am going to choose what works"? How can limiting the means of accomplishing a given end become a new end? The challenge is to understand why this limitation is not arbitrary or moral in some external, adventitious sense. If we succeed, we will have a non-question-begging connection between rationality and goodness.

Aristotle limits the available means to argument and thereby constructs a new, internal end for the art of rhetoric. Here is the first surprising conclusion to draw from the Rhetoric to apply to the Ethics: internal ends emerge out of limiting the available means for achieving a given, external end. All kinds of factors might contribute to good and bad health, but not all of them count as part of the art of healing. I would guess, for example, that the amount of envy in a person's life is strongly and inversely correlated with that person's well-being, but unless someone comes up with an envy-reducing drug, or a medical explanation for the connection between envy and health, it lies outside the meaning of health for most contemporary medicine. I will argue that what I just asserted for rhetoric is true for ethics as well: the internal ends of actions chosen for their own sake emerge out of limitations of the available means for achieving given, external ends. We become better rhetoricians by attending to our means more than our ends. If I can argue for the analogy between rhetoric and virtue, we will become better people by attending to our means more than our ends.

Nothing can be part of the first sentence of the Ethics-"Every craft (techne) and every method (methodos), and likewise every action (praxis) and decision (prohairesis), seems to aim at some good" (I.1.1094a1-2)-without such a pair of ends. Nothing can have a function, an ergon, without these two ends. As I will show, the only way to aim rationally at external ends is through commitment to the internal ends that are properly associated with them. In other words, when we have an internal end, we "aim" at it rationally as we aim to gain mastery of the practice it involves. In that way we do all we can to secure the external end. Practices-using that term as to include everything in the Ethics' first sentence-must have internal ends to be rational.

I will look in more detail at the relation between internal and external ends in chapter 3, but I can elaborate a little here on the thesis that practices must have both internal and external ends. In the practice of a science, we follow rules of inference, experimental methods, etc. These are the internal standards of performance for knowing. If we do everything in accordance with the rules and canons of a science, we achieve the internal end of the practice. When sciences are in good shape, achieving the internal end defined by the canons of scientific method will also achieve the external end of contributing to scientific knowledge. The accuracy in which theoretical knowledge exceeds practical and productive knowledge comes from the unproblematic relation between internal and external end. Only rarely do we distinguish between following the rules and arriving at the truth: Is the computer-generated proof for the four-color problem really a proof ? Is the "life" that medicine can now prolong the life we go to doctors to preserve?

The connection between internal and external ends becomes uncertain when achievement of the external end is influenced by factors that lie beyond the domain of the practice. As a physician, I can achieve the internal end of acting according to the norms of medical practice and yet see my patient die. As an architect, I may design a beautiful, energy-efficient building, which my client then decides not to build because there is now a glut of office buildings. My arguments for evolution are cogent and compelling, but the audience has too big a stake in creationism to give it up.


Excerpted from CONFRONTING ARISTOTLE'S ETHICS by Eugene Garver Copyright © 2006 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author

Eugene Garver is the Regents Professor of Philosophy Emeritus at St. John’s University in Minnesota. He is the author of three previous books, including, most recently, For the Sake of Argument: Practical Reasoning, Character, and the Ethics of Belief, also published by the University of Chicago Press.


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