Aristotle On Virtue Theory


Samuel Zinaich, Jr., Ph.D.

Purdue University Calumet

Copyright 2008




            One of the most significant items in Aristotle’s virtue theory is his account of the human good. In fact, his account of virtue is inextricably tied to his account of the human good. Therefore, it is important that I give a clear account of this doctrine, and so I will turn to this discussion.


An Account of the Human Good


Goods and Ends


One might expect Aristotle’s account of the human Good to begin first with a description of the Good and then a defense of its existence. Oddly enough, he does not do this at all. Instead, he articulates the following point: every craft, every line of inquiry, every action and every decision seems to seek some good. In fact, his language is so tentative that one comes away not knowing whether he believes this. Nevertheless, Aristotle’s hesitation lasts only momentarily, and he proceeds to generate several conclusions from this seemingly tenuous point.

            Although each craft, inquiry, action and decision seeks its own good, Aristotle adds that not every end is the same. He makes two points. Aristotle points out that some of these ends are activities and others are products. For example, the end of a craft is a product. In addition to this, the action of horsemanship is not a product; instead, it is an activity, i.e., the activity of riding a horse. Next, Aristotle adds that whenever there are ends apart from the actions, the products are by nature better than the activities. Although I am not sure why this is true, this is what he says. The end of the activity of bridle making is a bridle. On Aristotle’s view, the bridle is by nature better than the activity of bridle making. Unfortunately, he does not make clear what he means, and instead he moves on to make another similar point.

            With these points in mind, Aristotle draws our attention back to the items he mentioned early. The number of actions, crafts, and sciences indicates that there are many ends as well. His point appears to be that for any action, craft, or science you choose, there is an end or a goal associated with it. So, as Aristotle makes clear, “health is the end of medicine, a boat of boat building, victory of generalship, and wealth of household management.”[1]

            Although Aristotle’s point is almost tautological in nature, he apparently wants to make a deeper point. The ends just mentioned stand in a particular relationship to one another, viz., the goals pursued by a specific action, a specific craft or a specific science are sometimes subordinate to the goals of a different specific action, and so on. In fact, it does not matter if the superior goal is a product or an activity. In other words, if there is a specific craft that is superior to another craft, the former superiority is not lessened even if its goal is a product or activity. Fortunately, Aristotle does not leave us without example. He contrasts the activity of bridle making with the activity of horsemanship and the activity of generalship: “bridle making and every other science producing equipment for horses are subordinate to horsemanship, while this and every action in warfare are, in turn, subordinate to generalship.”[2] If I understand Aristotle properly, then what he means is that activity of bridle making is subordinate to the activity of horsemanship because the former makes it possible to perform the other. There is also another point to draw out. The products of bridle making are also subordinate to the activity of horsemanship. This is true even though he argued earlier that the product is always superior to the activity.

            As I understand Aristotle, there is enough information to introduce the concept of the best Good. He does this with the following argument[3]:


[1. If there is not a good that is achievable by action that we wish for itself and that we wish for other things, then there are no important philosophical problems at stake.]


2. However, there is an important philosophical problem at stake because without a good that is achievable by action that we wish for itself and that we wish for other things, then there will be an unacceptable infinite regress of goods and ends, and desire will prove to be empty and futile.




3. There is a good that is achievable by action that we wish for itself and that we wish for other things, which we the call the Good or the best Good.


            The important premise for Aristotle appears to be premise 2.[4] Aristotle argues that without a best Good, i.e., a good that we wish for itself, we will be caught in an unacceptable metaphysical problem that will also have serious psychological consequences as well. Of the former point, I understand in the following way. An infinite regress is metaphysically problematic because it involves the trend or shift toward a lower or less perfect state.[5] Perhaps an analogy is needed. Consider what a serious illness does to a body. A life-threatening disease regresses the body to a less than acceptable state of health, a state that most people would want to avoid. Although Aristotle’s point is primarily logical, he immediately adds that if we are truly faced with an infinite regress about goods and ends “desire will prove to be empty and futile.” What does this mean? Here Aristotle is referring to his concept of rational desire (boulesis). According to Aristotle, rational desire is for an object believed to be good.[6] What is at stake here is that, without a best Good, a person who has a rational desire for a best Good will be sadly denied and met by a flat refusal of what they wish to be true.

            Next, Aristotle provides an additional detail that calls attention to the importance of his last point. Although he initially talks about the logical and psychological problems associated without the existence of a best Good, he now ties it to something unexpected. It gives us a way of determining the best way of life.[7] Of course, such a point appears to be important. Unfortunately, instead of discussing the best good, Aristotle connects it to his discussion earlier, viz., that there are a number of activities associated with actions, crafts, and sciences that stand in a hierarchy relations. In fact, Aristotle points out quite clearly that the existence of the best Good is closely connected or “proper to the most controlling science—the highest ruling science.”[8] Although, up to this point, Aristotle has mentioned merely one or two examples of activities that are superior to others, he not only mentions that there is a highest ruling science, but he also identifies that ruling science which is political science.

            The identification of the highest ruling science as political science is typically startling to most people. The reason is pretty obvious. The twentieth century has jaded the average individual’s opinion about politics and especially politicians. Nevertheless, the role of the politician and political science plays an important function in his discussion of virtue and the Good. Aristotle connects both topics in this way. The best Good is the proper subject of political science because political science is concerned about a number of topics. Not only does it set down which sciences ought to be studied in the city, it also dictates what the different classes in society should study.[9] Presumably, knowledge of the best Good increases our ability to do this. Besides these reasons, Aristotle adds that the best Good is the proper subject because the political science, in virtue of its superior position, uses all the sciences, especially those sciences concerned with action, in order to create laws for the city as well. Like the point earlier, knowledge of the best Good (or what he now calls the human Good) will gives us knowledge of how to organize our political system.[10]


The Four Lives


After discussing a number of topics incidental to his major topic, Aristotle returns to his study of the Good. Although we have been told a number of things about the Good, Aristotle has not specifically discussed the Good. This topic, he makes clear, is intimately related to the concept of happiness (eudaimonia).[11] In fact, what he says is this: Aristotle equates the human Good with the notion of happiness. Moreover, he adds that the Good, which is identical to happiness, is attained from the kind of life someone lives. What is the significance of this point? It means that attaining the Good is not just an intellectual enterprise. It is intimately related to how we live or act.

In order make clear what he means, Aristotle adds that (in his day) there were many different lives that people associate with happiness. The most favored are these: the life of gratification, the life of political activity, and the life of study.[12] The life of gratification associates the Good and happiness with pleasure. However, Aristotle rules out this account because it is more suitable for animals than humans.[13] The second life is also ruled out. On this viewpoint, the Good and happiness are linked to honor. This will not work either because the Good, at least from Aristotle’s intuitions, is something that someone acquires and possesses himself whereas being the recipient of honor depends too much on the contributions of other people.[14] Instead of honor, Aristotle considers the alternative position that the end of political life is virtue. Nevertheless, this will not work either because, according to Aristotle, it may be possible for someone to be virtuous and, at the same time, either be asleep or to be in some sort of inactive state.[15]

The third most favored state is the life of study. However, what is odd is that Aristotle suspends this discussion until Book X of the Nicomachean Ethics. Although it is the best life, at this point, Aristotle says nothing about the life of study, nor does he even make clear what study means.[16] Instead, he abruptly moves on to the last interpretation of happiness.

The last account of the good is the moneymaker’s life. There are two points. First, although many people link money to happiness, it is not considered one of the favored ways of life because it is forced on to us. Additionally, it is not the Good because money is useful and it is chosen because it leads to other ends we might seek.[17]


The Characteristics of Human Happiness


            So far our understanding of Aristotle’s account of the human Good depends upon the awareness that despite the fact that there are many different ends that are chosen, not all ends are complete. As the last discussion illustrated, the majority of lives chosen to pursue happiness end up relying on elements that are circumstantial to the achievement of happiness. Unfortunately, the goal of this discussion is to discover a life that is complete, and (although he merely mentions this) it is thought that the best good, viz., the life of study, satisfies the requirement for completeness. But why is this so? The answer really is found in Aristotle’s own intuitions about happiness. More than anything else, it is something complete and self-sufficient. I will begin with the former claim.

            Happiness appears to be complete for the following reason: it is always chosen for itself and never because of something else. This point is illustrated in the following way. There are many things in life that hold out the prospect of the attainment of happiness, e.g., honor, pleasure, understanding, and the virtues. Nevertheless, although each one might be selected even if there were no further expected result, each one is ultimately decided on for the sake of happiness.[18]

            Aristotle also contends that happiness is self-sufficient (autarkes). Although this sounds more like a definition, Aristotle’s point is different. Happiness makes a person self-sufficient. But what exactly does this come to? Apparently to this. Aristotle makes clear that it is not what makes someone self-sufficient living an isolated life, which is what the term initially indicates. Instead, it is what makes a person self-sufficient living in a community, a community that includes grand parents, parents, wives, and children. To this line of reasoning, Aristotle also adds, “Anyhow, we regard something as self-sufficient when all by itself it makes a life choiceworthy and lacking nothing.”[19] Although such a statement is of no little importance, Aristotle does not elaborate what he means. Instead, the discussion proceeds to the human function. But why is this so? Perhaps, the reason is that, at least to him, it was utterly obvious. Unfortunately, it is not clear what he means, and, as Irwin points out, the problem is compounded by the adjective Aristotle uses in the phrase “makes life choiceworthy,” i.e., the adjective haireton, which Irwin translates “choiceworthy.”[20] Nevertheless, given the importance of this discussion, an explanation is needed.

            Thus, what does it mean to say that self-sufficiency makes life choiceworthy and lacking nothing? The most obvious answer to this question is this: sufficiency in oneself makes life desirable and lacking nothing. Again, although this is reminiscent of the attitude located among rugged individualists, Aristotle’s self-sufficiency is different. It is a self-sufficiency that one finds within a community, a community interconnected by family relationships, a community where one’s basic needs are satisfied, a community whose members are united together in their pursuit of the Good. Thus, it needs no great play of imagination to see the consequence of this (quasi-utopian) existence: an individual, who is fortunate to have such a life, eventually becomes perfectly aware of the happiness and desirability of his life.


The Human Function


After Aristotle finishes discussing the two characteristics of human happiness, he is ready to finish his preliminary account of the human Good, an account that he also describes as merely a sketch.[21] I will now turn to that explanation.

Aristotle begins his search of the human Good by consulting his intuitions. He comments that perhaps we can discover what the human Good is if we first understand the function of humans. He advances this intuition with the following comment. The good of a flautist and the good of every craftsman seems to depend on it function. Thus, if this is true, then this may also be true if humans have a function as well.[22]

But the question still remains: do humans have a unique function? Aristotle answers this question in two different ways. He proceeds by arguing that humans have a function, and then he turns to an account of that function.

So, then, why do humans have a function? Aristotle gives us two reasons. His first reason appeals again to the crafts. Aristotle argues that it would seem odd to say that the carpenter and the leather worker have functions but humans do not. But why is that odd? The reason is that if we say that humans do not have a function, then we must argue that humans are by nature idle.[23] But certainly such a position contradicts what we know about humans. In fact, humans are quite active: they are carpenters and leather workers, and so forth. Hence, humans have a function.

Aristotle’s second reason relies on his understanding of the human body. Again, he seems to argue that it would be odd to insist that every part of the human body has a function, but that a human does not have a function, one that is exists separately from all the parts.[24] But why is this true? Aristotle does not really say. Nevertheless, maybe Aristotle has something like this in mind. The parts of a bicycle all have a function in terms of the role they play in a well-formed bicycle, functions that are different than the function of a completed bicycle. Of course, one can only make this point when all the parts are in the right order for someone to ride the bicycle. That is, a pile of disconnected bicycle parts (or even arranged in a way reminiscent of a Picasso work of art) will not give rise to the function of bicycle, even if all the parts that are necessary for a bicycle are present. Therefore, would it not seem odd to argue that every part of bicycle has a function (especially when placed in the right order), but the bicycle itself does not have a function? Yes, it would. Therefore, in the same way, it is odd, and perhaps, even illogical to say, that every part of the human body has a function (every part in the right working relationship), but a human does not have function, one that is exists separately from all the parts.

With these comments behind him, Aristotle turns to argue for the function:


[1. The human function is either the life of nutrition and growth, the life of sense perception, or some sort of life action of the part of the soul that has reason.]


2. It is not the life of nutrition and growth because this is shared with the plants.


3. It is not the life of sense perception because this is shared with animals.




4. The human function is some sort of life action of the part of the soul that has reason.[25]


            A couple of comments about this line of argument are in order. First, the strength of this argument rests squarely on premise 1. Unfortunately, this premise may also be its weakest link because Aristotle assumes that these three disjuncts are mutually exhaustive. Although one might object that Aristotle did not take into account that humans have no function, this will not work because he already argued for the existence of a function. Nevertheless, there might be a viable alternative that is at least logically possible. For example, the function of a human may be determined supernaturally. That is, the function of a human may be to serve God. If this is logically possible (and it certainly is), then Aristotle’s argument is unsound. Second, it is important to note why the first two disjuncts are ruled out. He argues that neither one can be correct because they are shared with other plants and animals. Humans share (koina), or have in common, the characteristic of growth and nutrition, and humans have sense perception in common with animals. Hence, neither one can be the human function because Aristotle needs a characteristic that makes humans unique.

Next Aristotle connects the Good to the human function. His argument, in short, is that the function of an object is the same in kind as the function of an object that is excellent. For example, using Aristotle’s own example, the function of a harpist is the same in kind as being an excellent harpist. But just what does this mean? It means that if something can qualify as an example of something excellent, its excellence is not something over and above its function. On the contrary, its excellence will be tied directly to its function and what he calls the superior development of the function. The implication, then, for humans is that the Good, i.e., the human Good (or the best Good), turns out to be living a life of not just reasoning but a life of reasoning well.[26]


Virtues of Thought


The last section ended with a discussion the human function and the human Good. The human function is to reason and the human Good is to reason well. As Aristotle argues, this is what makes the human species different and unique from any other non-human animal. If this is true, then Aristotle owes us an account of what this reason is like and the different ways it is possible to reason. Fortunately, Aristotle does not disappoint us. Indeed, prior to his final explanation of the human Good, Aristotle spends considerable time on this topic. If the truth be told, his elucidation still rivals any version expounded today. I will now turn to his theory.


Two Parts of the Soul


            There are two parts of the soul and, therefore, there are two corresponding virtues of the soul: virtues of thought and virtues of character.[27] Of course, ultimately, what we are after is an account of the virtue of character. Having said that, Aristotle’s understanding of the virtue of character derives part of its significance from his understanding of the virtues of thought. Thus, it stands to reason that any discussion about the virtue of character must begin with his discussion of the virtues of thought.

            In order to make clear the distinction between the two virtues of the soul just mentioned, Aristotle revisits his theory about the soul (psuchē). Again the soul has two parts, one that has reason (logon) and one that has the nonrational (alogon) part.[28] The part with reason is itself broken down further. It also has two parts, which are distinguished by their functions: one part is dedicated to the study of things whose principles (archai) do not admit change. The other is dedicated to the study of things whose principles admit change.[29] The former Aristotle designates the scientific part (epistamonikon); the latter he calls the rational calculating part (logistikon).[30] I will now turn to Aristotle’s discussion of each part.


The Scientific Part


            As I just mentioned, the scientific part studies those things that do not admit change. Although he does not tell us what those things are called,[31] Aristotle provides us with additional characteristics of those things that do not admit change: there are the features that these principles possess themselves, and there is the relationship between these principles and persons.

            The objects revealed by the scientific part exist by necessity (anagkas).[32] Additionally, if this is true, then Aristotle argues that these objects must also be everlasting (aidion).[33] Finally, if these objects are everlasting, then they are also uncreated (agenata) and indestructible (aftharta).[34]

Although these additional thoughts are interesting, it is not clear what he means by the term necessity. Literally, what the text says is that what is known scientifically is by necessity. This implies that the scientific part reveals necessary truths, an idea reminiscent of the contemporary discussion of modal concepts. In fact, Irwin describes them as such. However, does Aristotle have in mind the same notion as contemporary scholars? Does he have in mind the idea of a truth that is true in all possible worlds? Probably not. If not, then what does Aristotle have in mind? It is not clear exactly what he means. Additionally, the problem is compounded by the preposition in the phrase, eks anagkas. The preposition, eks, which is normally interpreted as ‘by’, has several meanings depending upon the context. Together, the puzzle is tangled as a hank of yarn that runs into knots continually.

What shall we make of this problem then? Here is my gloss. Literally, the noun (anagkas) refers to something that is constrained or something that is forced. The preposition (eks) here refers to the cause of something. Together they mean this: the scientific part reveals something whose cause is constrained or forced. But certainly we are not talking about something, which has been constrained by something else; on the contrary, Aristotle adds that these things are eternal. So what he must mean is that what is known scientifically must be self-constrained, i.e., something whose cause is internal to itself or something that exists but has no external cause. Of course, once we understand this point, it makes sense to say that these objects are everlasting, uncreated, and indestructible.

The other aspect is the relationship that these objects have with persons. The question is how these things are known. Aristotle states clearly that what is scientifically knowable is learnable (mathaton). But still the question remains: how are they learnable? He points out that learning is through induction or deduction. In the issue at hand, these things are discovered by induction.


The Rational Calculating Part


            The rational calculating part has two parts as well. There is a part that is dedicated to the production of things (poiaton), and there is a part that is dedicated to what is achieved in action (prakton). Although both are taxonomically related, Aristotle remarks that both are different.[35] I will discuss the former first.

            The production of things is concerned primarily with the creation of crafts (techne). Although this is reasonable, Aristotle raises a puzzling issue. He states that “action is not production, and production is not action.”[36] But why not? Are they not essentially the same? Apparently not. Here’s the reason. Although I am not entirely clear on this point, what Aristotle apparently wants us to understand is that production and action are different because the states that are necessary for each are different. Unfortunately, this is all we have to go on. It is not until he discusses action that we come to understand the difference. I will now turn to Aristotle’s discussion of action.

            To discuss action, Aristotle introduces the notion of practical wisdom (phronesis). In general, practical wisdom (or as some scholars translate as prudence[37]) roughly refers to the ability to govern and discipline oneself by the use of reason. According to Aristotle, the connection between practical wisdom and action is that practical wisdom discovers the right actions to be done: “It seems proper to a practically wise person to be able to deliberate finely about things that are good and beneficial for himself . . . about what sorts of things promote living well in general.”[38]

            With this point in mind, Aristotle turns to distinguish practical wisdom from science (episteme) and production (and the creation of crafts). His argument that practical wisdom is not a science goes something like this:


[1. If practical wisdom is a science, then it is possible to deliberate about things that cannot be otherwise and exist by necessity.]


2. However, it is not possible to deliberate about things that cannot be otherwise and exist by necessity.




3. Practical wisdom is not a science.


            Although line 1 is not specifically in the text, it represents an important presupposition needed to make Aristotle’s argument valid. What reason is there for believing it is true? The main reason why it is true is that it is a conceptual truth. This means that the consequent of line 1 follows from Aristotle’s understanding of what practical wisdom means and what science studies. Again, what science studies are “things that cannot be otherwise” or things that exist “by necessity.” Additionally, practical wisdom essentially involves deliberation (bouleusis). So, if it is true that practical wisdom is science, then it must be possible to deliberate about the very same things that science studies.

            Line 2 is actually the important premise in this argument, and it is specifically mentioned in the text.[39] Unfortunately, I smell a device. But why is there a misgiving? My suspicion is born of the fact that deliberation is essentially a careful discussion about the truth-value of a claim. Why is it not possible to deliberate about things that exist by necessity? Unfortunately, this raises a question that may be too hard to explain here. Fortunately, this much may be said. The issue revolves around Aristotle’s use of deliberation. He uses it in a very different way that contemporary individuals understand the term. According to Aristotle, to deliberate (partly) means to carefully discuss what will promote or support an end. But now it needs no great play of imagination to see Aristotle’s point. What promotes or supports a thing that cannot be otherwise? The answer is nothing! Thus, if we accept Aristotle’s notion of deliberation (and maybe there are good reasons to accept it), line 2 appears to be true, and his argument is sound.

            The second argument is that practical wisdom is not production or craft knowledge:


4. If practical wisdom is production, then practical wisdom has its end in something other than itself.


5. However, practical wisdom does not have its end in something other than itself.




6. Practical wisdom is not production.




7. Practical wisdom is not craft knowledge.


            This argument is similar to the last argument. For example, although line 4 is not in the text, it is needed, nevertheless, to elucidate Aristotle’s presupposition. Like line 2, it also appears to be a conceptual truth because the consequent follows largely from the antecedent. Thus, as long as we accept the definition of production, then the consequent follows, and we can assume for the moment it is true.

            Again, like the argument before it, the line that denies the consequent of the conditional statement is the important premise. In this case, line 5 is the focus. What reasons, if any, do we have to believe it is true? If it is true, the answer has to do with the nature of practical wisdom and production. Here’s what I mean. Initially, what Aristotle says is that production has its end in something other than itself. But what does that mean? I will attempt only a brief answer. The basic idea is this: To understand production we must understand two fundamental things: the process of production and the artifact produced at the end of the process of production. Thus, Aristotle presupposes these two things when he writes that production has its end, i.e., the artifact, in something other than itself, i.e., the movement or process of making the artifact.

            With this point mind, Aristotle makes his point in line 5. Unlike production, practical wisdom does not have its end in something other than itself. But why is that so? And what point does Aristotle want to make? Again, no simple answer will make this clear, but it will have to do for now. Here’s a passage that may help:


[T]he remaining possibility, then, is that practical wisdom is a state grasping the truth, involving reason, concerned with action about things that are good or bad for a human being. For production has its end in something other than itself, but action does not, since its end is acting well itself.[40]


Here’s what I think Aristotle is saying. Like production, we can distinguish two fundamental things in practical wisdom: the process of coming to act well and the action produced at the end of the process. But now here’s the crucial difference. Whereas production produces an artifact at the end of the process, one that is separate from the process of the production and the producer, practical wisdom does something different. The process of practical wisdom that takes place within the actor produces a practically wise action within the same person. So, in other words, the end of practical wisdom, i.e., an action, is not separate from the process of coming to act well and the action of the actor. Therefore, line 6 and 7 are true.

Although this has puzzled some scholars, I think it makes perfect sense. Thus, the second argument is also sound.


Practical Wisdom and Virtue of Character


            Before I turn to the important discussion of how a virtue of character is brought about, there is one more question to explore: What, if any, is the relationship between practical wisdom and the virtue of character? Aristotle’s answer is straight from the shoulder: “we cannot be fully good without practical wisdom, or practically wise without virtue of character.”[41] His answer then demonstrates the importance of practical wisdom.

            Aristotle’s reason for this view is equally interesting. Why can we not be fully good without practical wisdom? The basic reason is this. To be fully good, according to Aristotle, or as he puts sometimes, to be called “good without qualification” means to possess all the virtues, i.e., to possess all of the virtues discussed roughly from 1115a 5 to 1138b 11. Now here’s the crucial part and it turns upon what virtue is. According to Aristotle, virtue is a state involving correct reason.[42] But why is that relevant? Here’s why: “And it is practical wisdom that is the correct reason in this area.”[43] So, the reason why we cannot be fully good without practical wisdom is that without the efficient cause of practical wisdom the state of virtue will not arise.[44]


Virtue of Character


            The last section was dedicated to understanding Aristotle’s virtue of thought. Although his discussion involves three different kinds of wisdoms, we focused primarily on his understanding of practical wisdom. The reason is that his account of how a virtue of character is created partly turns on his understanding of practical wisdom. Although this point gets us pretty close to his viewpoint of character development, there are other aspects of character development that have not be discussed. For example, we still have the topics of what role habituation plays in the formation of character development, the role of pleasure and pain, and his definition of virtue. I will now turn to those topics.


How a Virtue of Character is Acquired


            Aristotle is unambiguous about how a virtue of character is created: “Virtue of character results from habit.”[45] The notion of habituation in Aristotle’s view of character development is critical. There are (at least) two points to underscore. First, habituation is needed because, as Aristotle makes clear, “none of the virtues of character arises in us naturally.” Thus, without the training that comes with habituation, the virtues will not develop.

            The second point concerns what habituation brings about. The habituation of actions produces states (heksis) including the states associated with virtue. At issue here, then, is what Aristotle means by the notion of state and why they are important. The basic issue is this: states or heksis are psychological states that are produced by similar repetitive actions. In fact, Aristotle adds that different psychological states correspond to different types of habituation. Therefore, with this in mind, Aristotle underscores why proper habituation is crucial and when it should begin:


[T]hat is why we must perform the right activities, since difference in these imply corresponding differences in states. It is not unimportant, then, to acquire one sort of habit or another, right from our youth. On the contrary, it is very important, indeed all-important.”[46]


Although he does not say now why it is important, he raises this issue again in a later part of the Nicomachean Ethics where he discusses the possibility of attaining virtue. It is precisely here why proper habituation is, as Aristotle puts it, “indeed all-important.” But for now, I will turn to the topic of habituation.




            Earlier the importance of practical wisdom was clarified: virtue is state involving correct reason, and practical wisdom is that correct reason. But now the question is this: how do we come to acquire the state of practical wisdom? The answer is through habituation. Although the answer is simple, habituation is a complex and difficult topic to grasp. Simple or not, it is the question we are to investigate.

I will begin by discussing the nature of habituation in more detail, and then I will introduce a crucial distinction that is needed to appreciate how habituation works. As Aristotle pointed out earlier, habituation aims to produce states (hexis). There are states associated with scientific knowledge, productive knowledge, and practical wisdom. Since the context aims to understand the states associated with practical wisdom, I will focus solely on the latter topic.

The states associated with practical wisdom aim to establish a proper moral vision of the world.[47] A proper moral vision produces the right kind of actions and it also produces the right kind of feelings. Of course, as Aristotle has indicated, correct habituation must begin at an earlier age so that the right moral vision will develop. Later, as we will see, Aristotle makes clear that a moral vision will develop with or without proper habituation, and sometimes with disastrous effects.

So far, it may be tempting to think that habituation is just a simple story of practicing the right kind of rules. This is part of it. The complete story is much more complex, and, unfortunately, too complex for this study. However, I will mention one of the most important items.

The item to mention involves the following distinction, viz., the excessive (huperboles) and the deficiency (endeias). Although habituation aims at the creation of states, there is always the threat of the states being ruined by too much (excessive) or too little (deficient) habituation. Aristotle explains this by making an analogy to strength and health. He points out that too much exercise ruins the body strength, and likewise, too little exercise will have the same effect. Similarily, too much eating or too little will ruin ones health. Thus, as Aristotle makes clear, it becomes important to find the proportionate amount because that amount will increase and preserve ones strength or health.[48]

Aristotle explains that the same is true of the moral virtues. For example, in order to become temperate or to become brave, an individual must be habituated in the right way, i.e., he must practice the right sort of actions to become temperate and brave. If he does not hit the proportionate amount, so to speak, he may become a coward or rash. Similarly, if he indulges in every pleasure, he may become intemperate; or, if he abstains from every pleasure, he will become a boor. Thus, both may be ruined by the wrong sort of habituation, but as Aristotle makes clear, “preserved by the mean.”[49] The term ‘mean’ will be discussed momentarily; until then, we must turn to the role pleasure and pain play in habituation.


The Importance of Pleasure and Pain


            It goes without saying that pleasure and pain has momentous importance in everyone’s life. Aristotle was all too well aware of this point. In fact, he argues that you can tell a lot about a person’s character by looking at what role pleasure and pain plays in their life:


But we must take someone’s pleasure or pain following on his actions to be a sign of his state. For if someone who abstains from bodily pleasures enjoys the abstinence itself, he is temperate; if he is grieved by it, he is intemperate. Again, if he stands firm against terrifying situations and enjoys it, or at least does not find it painful, he is brave; if he finds it painful, he is cowardly.[50]


            Thus, as Aristotle indicates, any discussion about the virtue of character must concern itself with the problematic aspect of pleasure and pain. The basic reason is that when we analyze why an individual performs a bad action, it is nearly always a story about an inappropriate pleasure. Or, if someone abstains from a good action, it is always related to the pain it will cause.

Again, Aristotle makes clear that this problem does not emerge when a person becomes an adult. On the contrary, he remarks that “pleasure grows up with all of us from infancy on.” Thus, Aristotle makes clear that instruction about the proper role of pleasure and pain must begin right from early youth in order to “make us find enjoyment or pain in the right things; for this is the correct education.”[51]

After he makes these remarks about education, he turns to make clear how virtue is related to pleasure and pain. Aristotle runs the following argument:


1. Virtues are concerned with actions and feelings.


2. Every feeling and every action implies pleasure or pain.




3. Virtue is about pleasures or pains.


            Although there is nothing ambiguous about this argument and we are left with no misapprehensions about its soundness, it is still worth asking ourselves why both premises are true. The reason is that lines 1 and 2 make controversial claims. For example, line 1 claims that not only actions are morally relevant, but also feelings are morally relevant. The upshot is that sometimes we may be praised or blamed for the way we feel. Line 2 is even more controversial. It claims that there is a logical relationship between what one feels and the pleasure or pain associated with the feeling. Likewise, it claims the same for actions. Is that true? Maybe it is, but it seems that if there is any sort of relationship between actions and feelings and pleasure or pain, it is causal not logical. Let’s turn to Aristotle’s arguments.

            First, because it is obvious that virtues are concerned about actions, I will ignore that part of the claim, and instead, focus on why virtues are concerned with feelings. What reasons are there to argue that virtues are concerned about feelings? It is a puzzling assertion because it says that we are, in some sense, morally responsible for the way we feel, i.e., Aristotle appears to commit himself to the position that the way we merely feel about an issue may be morally right or wrong. The implication is something akin to the controversial (but intuitive) remark attributed to Jesus of Nazareth who accused several members of a Jewish sect called the Pharisees of committing adultery not because they were actually promiscuous, but because they merely lusted for women who were not their spouses. Let’s see if this is what he really means.

            The first thing that must be addressed concerns what Aristotle means that the virtues are concerned with feelings. Ordinarily, to be concerned with something means to show some sort of interest in it. Thus, in our case, to talk about the virtues is to show an interest in the role feelings play. This certainly captures part of what Aristotle means. But he has something more in mind. Aristotle wants to argue that the virtues are in an important way connected with the feelings.[52] So, whatever that connection is, whether it is causal or logical, they are in a relationship together such that virtue is not possible without the feelings being involved in some way. Unfortunately, even if they are connected, this does not prove they are morally relevant.

            Fortunately, Aristotle does not leave us in the dark. His answer makes a familiar distinction. First, as he points out, we are not praised or blamed insofar as we have feelings. For example, we do not praise or blame someone for simply being angry or frightened. On the contrary—and here is Aristotle’s other distinction—we praise or blame a person who is angry or frightened in a particular way.[53] But what does this mean? Does this really tell us why the feelings are morally relevant? Not really. Again, Aristotle provides an answer. He points out that there are times when “we are well or badly off in relation to feeling.” For example, Aristotle writes: “If . . . our feeling is too intense or slack, we are badly off in relations to anger, but if it is the intermediate, we are well off.”[54] So the answer to why our feelings are morally relevant is related to whether our feelings are too extreme or too idle, and as a result, our feelings have missed the intermediate point. Although, Aristotle’s answer still does not tell us why excessive or deficient feelings are morally relevant, and he has not told us why the intermediate feeling if the morally right feeling, we are not left without any reasons.

            One reason why they may be morally relevant may be explained in this way. On the Belle Isle Bridge in Detroit, Michigan, Martell Welch beat Deletha Word for accidentally denting his car with her car. As the account goes, when she dented his car at a remote parking lot, he became so enraged that out of fear for her life she drove off. Unfortunately, Welch caused her to stop on the bridge by crashing in to her car. After that, he took a pipe he found and he systematically smashed out all the windows and lights of her car. After that, he proceeded to strip and beat her. As some of the witnesses explained—and there were 40 bystanders whom did not offer her any help—Welch beat her until, in a last attempt to free herself from her attacker, she jumped off the bridge into the water below and drowned. When she jumped off the bridge, Welch walked over to the side of the bridge and said, “Good for that bitch.”

            I relate this sad and true story to illustrate Aristotle intuitions about the role of feelings. My intuitions tell me—and any decent individual I talk to—that Welch acted viciously. If pressed for a reason why, the story would involve how his extreme feelings of anger lead him to contribute to the murder of an innocent individual. Unfortunately, while this example shows the importance of the role of feelings in a case of violence, it does not adequately prove that feelings all by themselves are morally relevant. We need a clear case where merely feeling too much or too little contracts moral culpability. Is such a case forthcoming? Maybe something like this will help.

            There is a point I left out about the Welch/Word case. When Welch completely subdued Word and her naked body lay limp and bleeding, he lifted Word over his head and—in an unbelievable act of arrogance—turned to the watching crowd, and shouted, “Who wants a piece of this?” What happened next defies all sense of common decency. Instead of rushing to free Word from her eminent demise, the crowd cheered, “We do!” The point, in short, is this. The reaction of the individuals in the crowd—and more specifically, the feelings of pleasure they received from watching Welch destroy another human being—stands opposed to the moral intuitions of most people, and does so very strongly. Their reaction was vicious, and their reaction deserves condemnation. Thus, line 1 is true.

            Like line 1, premise 2 makes a controversial claim. It states that every feeling and every action implies pleasure or pain. What does this mean? Initially it seems ambiguous. Does Aristotle mean, e.g., that the concept of pain is included in the concept of anger? Or does it mean something like Bob Solomon’s notion of a strategy? In other words, does he mean that in the normal course of affairs, anger follows after and produces the feeling of pain? I think a case can be made for the latter, and here’s why.

            Again, like line 1, the translation of the verb in line 2 is misleading. The premise should read something like this: Every feeling and every action seeks its own pleasure and pain.[55] If this is true, then what is the significance for the content of line 2? In brief, the point about feelings is this. Although it is conceptually possible to isolate a feeling and discuss its nature apart from its connection with pleasure and pain, in the actual world a feeling is always connected to pleasure or pain. The story is complicated (and perhaps one only David Hume can explain), but a simply account can be put in these terms. At certain times, feelings are activated by the prospect of some sort of impending event. If the event is interpreted as threatening or painful, a feeling will be generated in response to the event. The feeling itself, and in this case, the feeling of fear will follow its own strategy to avoid the threatening event. To do so, however, it must employ other feelings (sometimes described as desires) whose function it is to produce pleasure or pain. With these intermediate events in place, it is possible for the agent to react in some way.

            The point about actions follows on the heal of this story. As the premise states, every action seeks it own pleasure and pain. As the story ended above, the feelings and desires of an individual are designed, in some sense, to produce an outcome, viz., an action. But, as I understand Aristotle, the story does not stop there. Although, the agent will be motivated partly by his desires and feelings, there is also a feeling associated with the performance of the action. In simplistic terms, there will be a sense of pleasure or pain after the performance of the action. In fact, as Aristotle remarked earlier, we can get a sense of the moral maturity of an individual depending upon whether he experiences pleasure or pain: “But we must take someone’s pleasure or pain following on his actions to be a sign of his state.”[56]

            Before I move on to discuss what virtue is, there is one qualifying point to make. As we shall see later in the discussion concerning the possibility of attaining virtue, Aristotle is optimistic, to a certain extent, about the possibility of young people becoming good and virtuous. One important reason why this is true is that children can be molded to feel the proper feelings when they perform an action. Aristotle adds that if a child is not molded in the right way, he will grow up finding pleasure and pain in all the wrong things. Thus, correct education including corrective treatments that employ pleasure and pain are required to instruct the young person in the way of virtue. Unfortunately, there is also an unhappy part about this story. Although Aristotle does not discuss this in any kind of acceptable detail, (as we shall see momentarily) he makes clear that there are individuals, who if they ignore their early training or if they never receive the proper training, will not be able to become virtuous. With this in mind, as we shall see, Aristotle still has more hopes for the former individual rather than the latter individual.


The Definition of Virtue


            The last section discussed in some detail about why the virtues are concerned with pleasure and pains. As I argued, since both premises are true and the argument is valid, the argument is sound and therefore, the conclusion is worthy of belief. But now we must raise one of the most important topics discussed in the Nicomachean Ethics: What is virtue? Here is what Aristotle says:


[V]irtue, then, is a state that decides, consisting in a mean, the mean relative to us, which is defined by reference to reason, that is to say, to the reason by reference to which the practically wise person would define it. It is a mean between two vices, one of excess and one of deficiency.[57]


            There are two basic points that must be underscored. First, Aristotle tells us two things about virtue, its classification and its nature. First, he locates virtue within a class, which has several subordinate species. The class in question is what he calls states or heksis. The question of what a state is leads us to the nature of virtue. In general, what the term ‘state’ refers to is a complex psychological mind-set that enables an individual to accomplish some sort of activity. There are at least three different species of states, which Aristotle has already been briefly discussed. There are the states of science, production, and the practical. Our discussion, of course, is only concerned about the practical.

            The second point discusses why the practical is different from the other species of states. Initially, one might think that the difference between the practical and the other two is Aristotle’s reference to the mean or middle (mesotes). But that would be an erroneous impression. The reason is that both the scientific and the productive involve means as well.[58] So, if there is a difference, then it has to do the specific content the mean is concerned with. But what could be that content? The answer is this: the content is concerned with the moral character of an individual. So, as the argument in the last section points out, the mean in question here will be directed at the feelings and actions of an individual. The reason is that feelings and action “admit of excess, deficiency, and an intermediate condition.”[59] Thus, like the productive and the scientific, the practical involves a mean. But, unlike the productive and the scientific, the mean of the practical concerns itself with the moral character of an individual.

            There is one final point to make before I turn to Aristotle’s discussion about the mean. Although virtue is directed at the normative status of feelings and action, not every feeling or action admits of the mean.[60] What Aristotle means is that there are some feelings and actions that are by nature base: “for instance, spite, shamelessness, envy [among feelings], and adultery, theft, murder, among actions.”[61] So, as Aristotle explains—and perhaps with tongue-in-cheek—these feelings or actions can never be correct: “We cannot do them well or not well—by committing adultery, for instance, with the right woman at the right time in the right way.”[62]


The Mean


            There are a number of words in the ancient Greek dedicated to the notion of the mean or the middle. In general the concepts are arranged around the notions of space or time. For example, the meaning of mesogaios points to the middle or inland space of a country or to the heart of the country. Mesodme refers to the bays or compartments between the pillars that support a roof. Additionally, mesolabes refers to a column being supported in the middle. Moreover, mesopages conveys how a soldier drove his spear in up to the middle, and although mesos basic meaning is middle, it is used to signify the middle of a shield. In other places, mesos stands for the judge between two opponents in an athletic context. Finally, mesopotamios refers to a land between two rivers. On the other hand, mesembria and mesembrinos both refer to the mid-day or noon. Additionally, mesonuktios denotes the middle of the night or midnight. Moreover, mesouranema means mid-heaven or mid-air, and finally, mesoo is used to indicate the midsummer.

            The word of choice for Aristotle’s discussion of the mean is mesos. To illustrate his use of the term for virtue, he also begins by talking about the conventional usage of the term. He uses an arithmetical example: “If, for instance, ten are many and two are few, we take six as the intermediate in the object, since it exceeds [two] and is exceeded [by ten] by equal amount, [four]. This is what is intermediate by numerical proportion.”[63]

            With this meaning in mind, Aristotle begins to modify its significance. Although there are means that are the same for all people, e.g., like the means in mathematics, there are other means that are relative to each person. For example, Aristotle points out that an athletic trainer, who instructs students in gymnastics, running or wrestling, will be concerned to avoid giving to each of his students too much food or too little. In fact, he will be concerned to give to each one the right amount—the amount between too much and too little. But this is not all. A good training knows that the right amount of food will vary from student to student. Here’s another way of putting the same point. An athletic trainer knows that each one of his students needs caloric intake; In addition to this, he also knows that the amount of calories will vary from individual to individual. Although Aristotle does not specifically say why, he hints that the mean varies depending upon the physical needs of the students:


For if ten pounds [of food], for instance, are a lot for someone to eat, and two pounds a little, it does not follow that the trainer will prescribe six, since this might also be either a little or a lot for the person who is to take it—for Milo [the athlete] a little, but for the beginner in gymnastics a lot; and the same is true for running and wrestling.[64]


            With this example in mind, Aristotle moves on to consider other crafts. In the same manner, an individual who makes crafts must also aim at the mean when he makes a product: “This, indeed, is why people regularly comment on well-made products that nothing could be added or subtracted; they assume that excess or deficiency ruins a good [result], whereas the mean preserves it.”[65]

            Finally, Aristotle draws the analogy for this discussion. As the athletic trainer and every craftsmen aim at the mean, so likewise there is an intermediate condition to aim at in ethics. Again the reason is that many actions and feelings “admit of excess, deficiency, and an intermediate conditions.”[66] Thus a large part of ethics focuses on finding the mean for our feelings and actions: “But having these feelings at the right times, about the right things, toward the right people, for the right end, and in the right way, is the intermediate and best condition, and this is proper to virtue. Similarly, actions also admit of excess, deficiency, and an intermediate condition.”[67]

            Before I move on to discuss whether virtue is attainable, I will make some remarks about Aristotle’s analogy. In many ways, there is a subtlety about Aristotle’s analogy. It seems to prove conclusively that there is mean associated with feelings and actions and because of that mean, feelings and actions derive their normative status by having this characteristic. I have some doubts about the analogy, and what is even more interesting is the way Aristotle qualifies his own position.

No doubt, as many people understand, analogical reasoning is tricky business.[68] In general, this form of inductive reasoning proceeds in this way: Let’s suppose for the moment that there are two objects, O1 and O2. Next we observe that both objects possess certain properties in common {P1, P2, and P3}. Finally, we observe that O1 not only has these properties but one more: {P1, P2, P3, and P4}. Since we see that O1 has these properties, and since we know that O2 has the other the first three properties in common with O1, we infer that O2 has P4. Here’s what the argument might look like:


1. O1 has properties {P1, P2, P3, and P4}.


2. O2 has properties {P1, P2, and P3}.




3. Probably, O2 should have property {P4}.


There are several other issues to take into consideration when using analogical induction. This is to make sure that the conclusion (Line 3) is worthy of belief. First, in order to soundly infer that there is an analogy between two things, we must first be able to argue that there are a number of analogous similarities between O1 and O2. Thus, the probability (or epistemic value) of the conclusion will go up as the number of analogous similarities goes up as well. The same is true the other way. The probability (or epistemic value) of the conclusion will go down as the number of analogous similarities goes down as well.

Furthermore, it is crucial in analogical induction to make sure that the analogous similarities are relevant. Although this point is complicated, I will simplify it in this way. Suppose for the moment that O1 is a set of radial tires that were driven under specific set of condition and lasted 50,000 miles. Now suppose that it is time to buy a new set of tires. The new set of tires, represented as O2, possesses all the same properties that that the original set of tires possesses, i.e., it is same radial tire and it is made by the same company, and so forth. Next, since both sets of tires possess very similar properties (and the new set will be driven under similar conditions), and since the first set of tires lasted 50,000 miles, we infer that the next set should also last the same amount of time. Now let’s suppose that instead of appealing to the properties the tires possess, we appeal to these analogous similarities. Suppose we reason that since both sets of tires were sold to us by the same salesperson and both sets of tires have white walls, we conclude that the second set of tires should last 50,000 miles. What would say about this type of reasoning? I am afraid that our purchaser will be taught many sore and scalding lessons about the irrelevance of these features.

Although there are other points to consider, I will only consider one more. It is essential to consider whether or not there are relevant disanalogies between the objects being compared. For example, suppose our tire buyer purchases radials for his car but instead of driving them under same conditions as he first set, he will be driving them on a more rugged terrain. If he reasons that his new set will last as long as his first set, the probability and the value of his conclusion will be very low. Again, like the first point mentioned earlier, it stands to reason that if the relevant disanalogies go up, the probability of the conclusion will go down. Likewise, as they go down, the probability and value of the conclusion will go up.

            The question, then, is this: will Aristotle’s analogy hold up under critical scrutiny? It will only if his argument will satisfy the criteria just mentioned. Here’s what I take to be Aristotle’s argument:


1. “In everything continuous and divisible we can take more, less, and equal, and each of them either in the object itself or relative to us. And the equal is some intermediate between excess and deficiency.”[69]


2. “If, for instance, ten are many and two are few, we take six as intermediate in the object, since it exceeds [two] and is exceeded [by ten] by an equal amount, [four]. This is what is intermediate by numerical proportion.”[70]


3. Every scientific expert (whether an athletic trainer or a craftsman) avoids excess and deficiency and seeks and chooses what is intermediate. Additionally, unlike numerical proportion, the intermediate in craft knowledge is relative to us.


4. Most actions and feelings admit of excess and deficiency.




5. Those actions and feelings, which admit of excess and deficiency, also have an intermediate condition relative to us.


            Again, although there is a certain plausibility to this argument, the following critical remarks will show that its appeal is superficial, and as a result, the conclusion has rather low epistemic value. The main problem of this argument is the significant disanalogy between the objects being compared, i.e., between the excess and deficiency associated with actions and feelings, and the excess and deficiency associated with numerical proportion and scientific experts. Here’s why. Let me begin by saying that I agree with Aristotle that most actions and feelings admit of excess and deficiency. That’s not the problem. The problem emerges when we try to compare the excess and deficiency of actions and feelings with the excess and deficiency mentioned in lines 2 and 3. Let me put the problem this way.

First of all, in what sense can numbers be considered excessive or deficient? The problem is surely perplexing. But even if we suppose that numbers can admit such states, there is still a difficulty. The excessive and deficiency mentioned in line 4 are psychological states. What kind of states are excessive or deficient numbers? I don’t know—my wits faint. Unfortunately, that is a significant disanalogy.

            Next, when we compare lines 3 and 4, the same question comes into view. Aristotle elaborates line 3 by commenting how people often evaluate well-made products: “This, indeed, is why people regularly comment on well-made products that nothing could be added or subtracted; they assume that excess or deficiency ruins a good [result], whereas the mean preserves it.” But even if people make such comments, what does it really mean to say that a craftsman focuses on the mean of his craft and seeks to avoid the excessive or deficient? Again, I am left in a mood of perplexity. Additionally, even if it makes sense to attribute such states to a craftsman, we are still utterly at sea because the states mentioned in lines 3 and 4 are completely different. The unhappy situation is that we have another major disanalogy.

            There are two more issues to address. The first one concerns whether there really is a mean associated with the excess and deficiency of our actions and feelings. The other problem is this: even if we assume that our actions and feelings admit a mean, what are the prospects of finding that mean?

            Aristotle does not address the first difficulty head on. Rather, he focuses on the second problem. I do think that he was aware of the first problem. The reason is that he struggles to pin down how we are to discover the mean. In fact, after he sees just how difficult this discussion really is, he writes the following:


That is why it is also hard work to be excellent. For in each case it is hard work to find the intermediate; for instance, not everyone, but only one who knows, finds the midpoint in a circle. So also getting angry, or giving and spending money, is easy and everyone can do it; but doing it to the right person, in the right amount, at the right time, for the right end, and in the right way is no longer easy, nor can everyone do it. Hence doing these things well is rare, praiseworthy, and fine.[71]


            But now the question is this: why is it so hard to isolate the mean for our actions and feelings? Although the story is complicated, I will briefly summarize it in this way. Aristotle begins by stating an obvious fact about the characteristics of an emotion: the extremes of an emotion, i.e., the excessive and the deficient, are conditions of the soul that are more contrary (enantia) to another than to the intermediate. With this in mind, Aristotle states the first problem: “sometimes one extreme—rashness or wastefulness, for instance—appears somewhat like the intermediate state, bravery or generosity.” Thus, there are times when there is an epistemic problem of knowing just where the mean lies.

Unfortunately, there is another problem. Aristotle states plainly that in some cases, the deficiency is more opposed to the intermediate: “For instance, cowardice, the deficiency, not rashness, the excess, is more opposed to bravery. . . .” In this second case, although this is not an epistemic problem by nature, it will lead to an epistemic problem. The reason is that unless we understand that there are cases in which the deficiency is more opposed to the mean than the opposite extreme, we will not know where the mean lies.

            So, now, we have two problems with locating the mean: one appears to be a purely epistemic puzzle and the other has to do with the nature of the opposing states themselves. But why do we have these difficulties? We certainly need an answer to both. The happy situation is that Aristotle provides an answer; the trouble is that it is not clear whether is he addressing both problems. Here’s why. Immediately after Aristotle presents these issues, he writes: “This (touto) happens for two reasons.” Now, under normal conditions, this would not present a predicament. We would just connect the reason that immediately follows the question. But our case is slightly different. We have two topics followed by two reasons. So we would expect Aristotle to be specific about which reason addresses which topic. But Aristotle introduces the reasons by writing that this happens for two reasons. This is problematic because it implies that he is only giving reasons for the second problem and ignoring the first problem. Unfortunately, we need reasons for both. Although we are presented with a grammatical problem, perhaps the reasons themselves will clear up the problem the syntax aggravates.

            Again, we have two issues to deal with: 1. Sometimes one extreme appears somewhat like the intermediate state. And 2. In some cases the deficiency, in others the excess, is more opposed to the intermediate condition. Here’s Aristotle’s response. The reason that “this” happens is derived from the object itself: “Since sometimes one extreme is closer and more similar to the intermediate condition, we oppose the contrary extreme, more than this closer one, to the intermediate condition.”[72] Aristotle gives us a clarifying example: “Since rashness, for instance, seems to be closer and more similar to bravery, and cowardice less similar, we oppose cowardice, more than rashness, to bravery; for what is further from the intermediate condition seems to be more contrary to it.”

            But now the question is this: What is the focus of this reason? Does it address the first or second issue? Although I am not certain, my guess is that it is the second concern. The reason is that Aristotle attempts to explain why, in some cases the deficiency, in others the excess, is by nature more opposed to the intermediate condition. As he points out, there are extremes that are closer to the intermediate state than the deficiency. For example, it appears to be a basic fact that rashness is closer to bravery than cowardice. Thus, although we know that rashness is an extreme, we oppose cowardice more than rashness because of its proximity to bravery.

            I described the first problem as basically an epistemic problem. No doubt this is why he writes the “other reason is derived from ourselves.” Aristotle’s point is this. Although he doesn’t make clear why, Aristotle explains that there are times when an individual may have a natural tendency to one extreme more than to the other. When this happens, we will be psychologically inclined to oppose the one extreme and accept the other. Aristotle gives us an example: “Since, for instance, we have more of a natural tendency to pleasure, we drift more easily toward intemperance than toward orderliness.”

            Although Aristotle has given us reasons for why it is difficult to find the mean, are we in a better position to avoid the pit falls associated with finding the mean? It’s hard to say. First, while Aristotle offers us reasons why the mean is difficult to locate, the text does not offer us any general antidote to avoid the problems. Second, even though his explanation is helpful, it is limited in its scope—that is to say, Aristotle only offers us one or two examples to illustrate his point. For example, while he points out that rashness is by nature closer to bravery than cowardice, he does not talk about the same point with reference to the eight other virtues. Thus, for these reasons and others not mentioned, the goal of locating the mean is far more remote than we had supposed it to be.


The Possibility of Attaining Virtue


Of individuals who commit acts that are forbidden by public law or who fail to do those acts that are required by public law, Aristotle writes: “Legislators . . . should impose corrective treatments and penalties on anyone who disobeys or lacks the right nature, and completely expel an incurable.”[73] Two comments about this quotation are in order.

            The first one concerns the context. The quotation above is taken from the very last section of the Nicomachean Ethics. In this section Aristotle attempts to weave together three concepts: ethics, moral education, and politics. He has discussed all three but he has said very little about how each one is related to the other. Fortunately, he does not leave us in the dark. To sum up, the crucial point is this. Moral education requires legislation. I will elaborate why Aristotle thinks this claim is true.

            As Aristotle argues, a proper education of the young prepares them to live a certain kind of life in the community. The life he advocates and the one that the community is organized to support is primarily one of contemplation or reflection.[74] Thus, the life that our young people are guided towards is one devoted to the study and contemplation. It is the best life but it requires certain external elements. For example, it requires leisure time[75] and moderate external goods: a health body, food, and other services provided.[76] These elements are found in the support system of the community. In addition to these elements, certain kinds of laws are needed. That is, laws are needed in order to insure that the young are being raised in a manner that aims at the best life.[77]

But this is not the only reason why we need laws. As Aristotle makes clear, these individuals “must continue the same practices and be habituated to them when they become men.”[78] In other words, Aristotle indicates that laws are needed for people who might be tempted to act contrary to the best life. For some these laws are merely prescriptions to follow. For others, the laws become the basis for corrective treatments and for punishments. Still for others, the laws become the basis upon which the community expels its unrepentant criminal elements.

The second comment concerns the meaning of the quotation. As I understand it, Aristotle highlights two different types of individuals. For these individuals the prescriptive elements of the law are not enough. They also need further motivational reasons. Aristotle’s point can be put as follows.

            First, there are the individuals in the community who “disobey” the laws. He also adds the phrase “or lacks the right nature.” I do not think that he intends us to understand that these are two different types of persons. Instead, as I understand the context, the latter phrase is merely a clarification of the source of the aberrant action. That is, there are individuals who disobey the laws and they disobey the laws because they lack the right nature. Having said this, these individuals appear to be different in some respects than the second group of people he isolates.

            Certainly, the incurables he recommends for expulsion also lack the right nature. That is, these are individuals, who, for whatever reasons were not habituated or educated properly. This means that, like the first group of individuals, there is something lacking in their training. However, unlike the first group, the second group is in a worse state. This fact is illustrated by the meaning of the Greek (tous aniatous), which is translated the incurables. In other words, the latter individuals do not have the ability to change and, as a consequence of their nature, are unmotivated by the threats of the law. To these individuals, Aristotle recommends that they should be completely expelled.

            Such a position is both interesting and intriguing. According to Aristotle, then, there are two different types of individuals who have trouble following the laws of the community. First, there are those that disobey but can be persuaded to do otherwise. Second, there are those who disobey but cannot be persuaded to do otherwise. To the first group, Aristotle recommends punishment or corrective treatment. To the other, he recommends permanent expulsion. Let me add that, although Aristotle’s readers may find his descriptions of these individuals and his recommendations for these individuals intuitive, he delves much deeper into the moral psychological of both groups in passages early in the Nicomachean Ethics. These passages reveal why some individuals can be reformed and why others cannot. I will now turn to that discussion.

            Aristotle isolates two different types of individuals who have difficulty following the laws of the city. The first type can respond to corrective treatment; the second type cannot. Aristotle makes clear that the reason why one can respond and the other cannot is a story about their respective character development. In fact, he spends several pages in the Nicomachean Ethics discussing the development of both groups. The first group of individuals he designates as incontinent and the second group he labels intemperate.[79] I will discuss the incontinent individual first.




            Given the goal we have of understanding Aristotle’s notion of incontinence, we can elucidate his view by means of several questions: What is incontinence? What is an incontinent individual like? How does a person become incontinent? And what are the prospects of reform for an incontinent person?

            Incontinence is taken from the Greek word (akratas). Literally, it means without command over oneself. Specifically, it points to an individual who lacks control or mastery over one or more of his desires. The desires that Aristotle has in mind primarily point to the desires for appetites that concern only bodily appetites (epithumia).[80] In addition to this, it does not concern every bodily appetite,[81] but primarily those appetites concerned with taste and touch, e.g., eating, drinking and sex.[82]

According to Aristotle, individuals who are incontinent are “like a city that votes for all the right decrees and has good laws, but do not apply them.”[83] A couple of comments about this description are in order. First, although an incontinent individual lacks control over his bodily appetites, his reason, nevertheless, exhorts him correctly and towards what is best; that said, his desires for his appetites conflict and struggle with his reason. In the end, the incontinent’s desires for his appetites prevail. So the incontinent individual has all the right knowledge in order to do the right thing, but he does not apply his knowledge.

Second, Aristotle attempts to describe how this occurs in more detail.[84] His underlying approach is this. According to Aristotle, the performance of an action requires minimally the combination of a universal and particular belief. In addition to this, Aristotle thought there was a necessary connection between judgment and action. For example, in cases where the two beliefs result in a purely theoretical belief, the conclusion must be believed or affirmed. In cases where the two beliefs result in productive belief, the requirement “to act at once on what has been concluded.”[85] He illustrates the latter view with the following example: “If, e.g., (a) everything sweet must be tasted, and (b) this, someone particular thing, is sweet, it is necessary (d) for someone who is able and unhindered also to act on this at the same time.”[86]

            But what exactly does this come to for the incontinent? Apparently to this. In the case of an incontinent, he has the correct beliefs but his appetite is contrary to those beliefs. Let me illustrate his point.[87] Suppose that a person has the universal belief that (a) everything sweet must not be tasted. In addition to this, suppose, as Aristotle suggests, that he has a second set of beliefs (b), which is a combination of a universal belief and a particular belief: (b1) everything sweet is pleasant, and (b2) this is sweet. Aristotle remarks that (c), which is deduced from (a) and (b2), will tell the individual that this sweet thing must not be tasted. However, he adds that since the individual’s appetite is active on (b1) presumably instead of (a), it leads him to ignore (c) and, instead, his appetite leads him on to taste. Here’s a representation of what Aristotle means. The first example shows that the appetite is active on (a) with the expected correct conclusion:


*(a) Everything sweet must not be tasted. (Universal Negative)

(b1) Everything sweet is pleasant. (Universal Affirmative)

(b2) This particular thing is sweet. (Factual Claim)




(c) This particular sweet thing must not be tasted.


            In this example, the individual, who has contrary principles, i.e., (a) and (b1), ignores (b1) and acts only on (a). Thus, when his senses reveal a particular piece of candy (b2), he draws the proper conclusion that (c) this sweet thing must not be tasted. Unfortunately, here’s what happens instead:


(a) Everything sweet must not be tasted. (Universal Negative)

*(b1) Everything sweet is pleasant. (Universal Affirmative)

(b2) This is sweet. (Factual Claim)




(c’) I will taste this sweet thing, even though I know that this is the right conclusion: (c) This sweet thing must not be tasted.


            As the astute reader will no doubt understand, the individual in this second example possesses the same universal claims; unfortunately, his appetite is not attached to the right universal claim. As a direct consequence of this problem, when the senses of the individual reveals a particular piece of candy, the individual in question draws the wrong conclusion even though he knows that he should have done otherwise, i.e., he ignores (c).

Again, Aristotle’s discussion of incontinence revolves around the notion of appetites and, not just that, but appetites attached to the universal claims, which should not have appetites attached to them. Still, there is, nevertheless, a puzzling point: Where did (b1) come from? Unfortunately, Aristotle says nothing, and that leaves us seemingly with an unbridgeable gap. Fortunately, there is a way of solving this puzzle, a way that fits well with his comments later about the possibilities of reform for the incontinent.

The problem of the incontinent is that he has two sets of beliefs that are contrary to one another. Here’s the issue. The incontinent above has two contrary universal beliefs: (a) everything sweet must not be tasted (or no sweet thing is a thing that must be tasted), and (b1) everything sweet is pleasant. But why does the incontinent have two contrary universal beliefs? The answer is why incontinence is a really a possibility. The incontinent has two contrary beliefs because he has been habituated in ways that produced those two contrary beliefs. In fact, that is why Aristotle is so adamant about the right sort of habituation for young people. He points out that without the proper sort of habituation the wrong sort of heksis, which corresponds to the habituation, will be produced. Once this happens, even if the young child receives proper habituation later, the permanent heksis that correspond to different habituations will exist together in an uneasy relationship in the mind of the incontinent.

The third question is directed at why the appetite in question gets attached to (b1) instead of (c). The fundamental line of thought, in brief, is as follows. First, as we shall see in the section on intemperance, the problem is not because of the wrong kind of habituation as it is for the intemperate person. As Aristotle points out, the origins of habituation are preserved in the incontinent person. If it not a problem with habituation, then what is it? According to Aristotle, it is a problem with their education. This detail leads Aristotle to point out that the incontinent person lacks practical wisdom (phronimos).[88] His reason can be made clear in this way.

Aristotle defines practical wisdom as a habit of the mind (heksin)[89] that grasps the truth concerning action about what is good or bad for a human being.[90] Minimally, a practically wise person is one who knows what is good or bad for humans and one who is convinced that he must act on what he knows to be good and avoid what is bad. Of the incontinent person, Aristotle makes two points. First, he writes: “Moreover, someone is not practically wise simply by knowing; he must also act on his knowledge. But the incontinent person does not.”[91] Second, he adds, “Further, the incontinent person is not in the condition of someone who knows and is attending [to his knowledge, as he would have to be if he had intelligence], but in the condition of one asleep or drunk.”[92] So, although the incontinent person has the perquisite knowledge to do the right thing, his appetites, like a drug or alcohol, prevent him from exercising that knowledge.[93] As a result, the incontinent appears to lack the conviction that he must act on what he knows to be good or avoid what is bad.[94]

            If Aristotle is right about the incontinent, then what prospects does he have for the reform of the incontinent? Aristotle argues that the incontinent person is curable (eeatos).[95] His principle line of reasoning, in brief, is as follows. The incontinent is the sort of person who pursues excessive bodily pleasures that conflict with correct reason.[96] He modifies this point with three additional details. First, even though the incontinent pursues excessive bodily pleasures, the incontinent notices that he is incontinent.[97] That is, he is self-conscious that he is ignoring line (c) and why. Second, when the incontinent pursues an action inconsistent with correct reason, he is not persuaded that the action is the best action.[98] That is, he knows that line (c) is really what he should do. Finally, Aristotle points out that when an incontinent pursues excessive bodily pleasures, the incontinent is prone to regret.[99] That is, because of his moral education, he is reminded that what he is doing is inconsistent with what he knows is right. All of these points lead Aristotle to conclude, “Hence, the incontinent person is easily persuaded out of it.”[100]

Before I move on to discuss Aristotle’s view of intemperance, I will make one more comment about the incontinent individual. As I pointed out, Aristotle points out that the incontinent is curable.[101] As far as I can tell, this means that the incontinent can recover from his state of mind. But recover to what? Minimally, I am sure that Aristotle means to continence. However, does he think that further reform is possible? That is, does he think that the continent can further reform to a state of virtue? If this is possible in Aristotle’s mind, the continent individual must first become temperate because temperance is a perquisite of virtue. Having said that, it is not so clear that the recovered continent can become temperate, and as a consequence, virtuous. The reason Aristotle gives indicates the important difference between the states of temperance and continence.

I mentioned this only briefly earlier, but the continent individual still has problems with the struggle between his desires for his appetites and his reason. Granted, although the continent individual consistently chooses the side of correct reason, he is still plagued with contrary universal principles, principles gained from contrary habituations. Nevertheless, he is different from the virtuous person because the virtuous person does not have the same kind of struggle. The virtuous person’s desires listen to and agree with his reason. That’s all fine and well. But does it not seem reasonable to assume that such a move is psychologically possible. One would think so, but Aristotle seems to be skeptical in some respects. He argues that the right kind of habituation can make someone decent but not automatically virtuous because in order to be temperate one must practice temperance. This, as Aristotle points out, takes leisure time and external supplies, which, later in life, are difficult to come by.[102]




            I will now move to discuss intemperance, and I will expound it in the same way as I discussed continence.

            Intemperance is translated from the Greek word (akolasia). Literally it means licentiousness, undisciplined, or unbridled. Specifically, it points to an individual who disregards the moral incorrectness of certain desires. The desires that Aristotle has in mind are the same as the incontinent, viz., the desires for appetites that concern primarily bodily appetites.[103] Likewise, intemperance does not concern every bodily appetite, but only those appetites concerned with taste and touch.[104]

Although the intemperate individual disregards the moral incorrectness of certain desires, what is an intemperate individual like? Aristotle draws our attention to four points. The first point brings to light the scope of the intemperate’s appetites. The second point illustrates the importance the intemperate individual attaches to his appetites. The third point typifies the relationship between the intemperate’s appetites and pain. The last point brings to light the kind of psychological stance the intemperate individual has toward his appetites. I will now consider these four points in turn.

Aristotle’s description of the scope of the intemperate’s appetites is clear-cut. He writes: “The intemperate person, then, has an appetite for all pleasant things, or rather for the pleasantest of them.”[105] Likewise, his second point does not leave much to the imagination: “his appetite leads him to choose these at the cost of every thing else.”[106] Because of the importance that the intemperate places on satisfying his appetites, Aristotle writes: “he also feels pain both when he fails to get something and when he has an appetite for it, since appetite is associated with pain.”[107]

Aristotle illustrates his last point by comparing the psychological stance of the incontinent and the intemperate individual. His point, in short, is that when the incontinent person chooses to pursue his appetite, he experiences regret because he knows that he is choosing something that he should not choose. The intemperate also chooses the same bodily sources of pleasure, but there is an important difference. The intemperate person pursues bodily sources of pleasure because he thinks it is the right thing to do.[108]

            Since I have (albeit briefly) described what an intemperate individual is like, I am now in a position to consider how intemperance occurs. Despite Aristotle’s lucidity about the intemperate person in general, he does not discuss this point directly. Instead, what he says is scattered throughout the text of the Nicomachean Ethics in bits and pieces. Notwithstanding this problem, it is the question I will try to explore.

            There are two different scenarios that Aristotle discusses about the fall of an individual into intemperance. The first scenario (and the view, which Aristotle clearly teaches) describes an individual who is intemperate because he never received the right kind of habituation and education. The second scenario (and the one that I am not so clear on) appears to involve a person who has received proper training, and yet, slips into the state of intemperance. I will discuss the former first.

            Aristotle alludes to the first scenario when he stresses the importance of educating the young. Two points should be noticed. First, he argues that if a child is not habituated properly, his desire for what is pleasant will become insatiable, and he will seek the satisfaction of his appetites anywhere. Eventually, he argues, the repeated exercise of this child satisfying his appetites, i.e., the habituation he goes through, will actually expel rational calculation.[109] Of course, this does not mean that the intemperate person cannot reason. It merely means he will not reason in the right way, viz., from the right universal principles.

Second, taken in the light of his first point, Aristotle writes: “It is not unimportant, then, to acquire one sort of habit or another, right from our youth; rather, it is very important, indeed all-important.”[110] This is so because the state of mind an adult comes to have covaries with the habituation they receive when they are young: “Hence we must display the right activities, since differences in these imply corresponding differences in the states.”[111] Aristotle further stresses this point because he believes that whatever state of mind you eventually acquire, it is nearly, if not impossible, to change. This point is underscored by the word translated as state, viz., heksis, which literally means permanent state of mind.

            The second scenario is more complicated. It is also a view that I am not quite sure Aristotle maintains. The view that I am referring to can be summarized as follows. It is possible for someone who has been habituation and educated properly, and therefore, even virtuous, to slip into intemperance. I think that attributing this view to Aristotle is plausible because there appears to be evidence for this view in the Nicomachean Ethics and it just seems to be psychologically possible.

            Perhaps the main reason that Aristotle maintains the second view rests upon his warnings for the virtuous individual. He argues that each individual must take steps to maintain this state of mind. Otherwise, without this kind of personal vigilance, it is entirely possible that our feelings will overcome our correct reasoning. But what exactly does this come to? Apparently, to this. Not only is it possible for someone to slip into continence or even incontinence, but it also seems equally plausible for someone to slip all the way into intemperance.

            Consider the following passage:


[F]or virtue preserves the origin, while vice corrupts it; and in action the end we act for is the origin, as the assumptions are the origins in mathematics. Reason does not teach the origins either in mathematics or in actions; [with actions] it is virtue, either natural or habituated, that teaches correct belief about the origin.[112]


What I think he means is that, in ethics, proper habituation (or what Aristotle calls the practice of virtuous actions) provides us with an origin, that is, with a conception of the end or good to be pursued in ethics. In the light of this origin, we strive to aim our actions at the origins in the same sense as one strives to aim his arrow at the center of the target. However, as the scenario goes, if we begin to neglect ourselves and to practice vicious or base actions, eventually we will re-habituate ourselves and, as a consequence, corrupt our conception of the end or good to be pursued in ethics. With the corruption of the proper origin, we will aim at a different end and ultimately we may find ourselves in a state of intemperance.

            Having said that, Aristotle seems to undermine my description of the second scenario:


[T]he sort of person [with this virtue] is temperate, and the contrary sort intemperate. But there is also someone who because of his feelings abandons himself contrary to correct reason. They overcome him far enough so that his actions do not express correct reason, but not so far as to make him the sort of person to be persuaded that it is right to pursue such pleasures without restraint. This is the incontinent person. He is better than the intemperate person, and is not unconditionally bad, since the best thing, the origin, is preserved in him.[113]


Again, as one reads this passage, Aristotle rehearses his basic reason for why people slip from a better state to a worse state. The slip is caused (in some sense) when someone follows the direction of his feelings that are contrary to correct reason. However, it is the next point that is interesting. He appears to be arguing that although it is possible for a virtuous person or a continent person to slip into incontinence, it is not possible for an incontinent to slide into a state of intemperance. The reason is that even though an incontinent person’s actions do not express correct reason, the origin, i.e., the correct conception of the end or good for ethics, is preserved in him.

            Such a view creates (at least) two puzzles. First, this passage seems to contradict his warnings for the virtuous individual to be vigilant in her practice of virtue. That is, why should we be vigilant if there is no danger of becoming vicious or base? Second, this passage also seems to contradict the passage where he argues that vicious actions can corrupt the origin. That is, if it is really true that the origin is preserved in the incontinent, then it doesn’t seem to matter what our incontinent friend will do. The origin will be preserved.

Normally, the way to smooth over these two problems is to take a closer look at the Greek. Literally, the Greek says, “For the Best, i.e., the origin, is preserved.”[114] The Greek does not contain the prepositional phrase, “in him.” Having said this, because the verb is in the middle voice, the prepositional phrase, “in him,” is needed to bring out the unique sense of the verb.[115] Understandably, this triggers the view that the incontinent can never get away from the habituation he received when he was a child; it will always be with him.

Although such a view may sound plausible, it should not be understood in this way. Instead, what I suggest is that the origin is preserved in him as long as we understand the importance attached to the role each individual has for the responsibility to preserve it. But now the solution to the puzzles should be apparent. Because the preservation of the origin rests upon the shoulders of the individual, each individual has the responsibility to be personally vigilant in her own efforts to remain virtuous, continent, or even (oddly enough) incontinent. In addition to this, because the responsibility of the preservation is ours, we must avoid practicing vicious actions because such actions will corrupt the origin.

Aristotle argues that reform is possible for the incontinent. What are the prospects of reform for an intemperate person? Aristotle argues that reform is not possible for the intemperate person. In fact, he argues that the intemperate is incurable.[116] I will now attempt to make clear why he argues this way.

            There is one essential reason why the intemperate individual is incurable. When an individual becomes intemperate, he enters into a state that does not allow him to escape. In other words, the intemperate individual is essentially trapped. Aristotle puts it this way: once an individual acquires the character of intemperance, “he is no longer free not to have it.” Of course, this raises issues of moral accountability. How can someone in such a state be held accountable for his actions? Having said this Aristotle not only blames the individual for being in a state of intemperance but he also blames the individual for his actions while in an intemperate state. I will discuss the former view first.

            Even though Aristotle argues that an intemperate individual is no longer free not be intemperate, he blames the individual for being intemperate. He does this by making an analogy to health and disease. Some people, Aristotle remarks, voluntarily make themselves sick by not listening to the medical expert. Once they are sick and the disease takes over, they are no longer free not to be sick.[117] The same applies to the intemperate: “[S]imilarly, then, the person who is [now] unjust or intemperate was originally free not to acquire this character, so that he has it willingly, though once he has acquired the character, he is no longer free not to have it [now].”[118]

Aristotle also adds:


[B]ut presumably his character makes him inattentive. Still, he is himself responsible for having this character, by living carelessly, and similarly for being unjust by cheating, or being intemperate by passing his time in drinking and the like; for each type of activity produces the corresponding character.[119]


            Aristotle argues that although an intemperate person is not free to choose not be intemperate, he is still, nevertheless, accountable for his actions. According to Aristotle, this can only be true if he can reconcile the state of intemperance with his view of voluntary actions. This is, in fact, what he attempts to do. The basic line of thought, in brief, goes something like this.

            To illustrate why the actions of an intemperate individual are voluntary, he makes a comparison to the state of cowardice. The state of cowardice, he points out, “seems to be more voluntary than particular cowardly actions.”[120] This is so because the state itself involves no pain. But he adds that when a coward is confronted with his fears, the pain he experiences causes him to “actually throw away [his] weapons and do all the other disgraceful actions.” He concludes that his actions are forced and, hence, involuntary.

            Immediately, he adds: “[F]or the intemperate person the reverse is true. The particular actions are the result of his appetite and desire, and so they are voluntary; but the whole condition is less voluntary [than the actions], since no one has an appetite to be intemperate.”[121]

The key to understanding this passage rests on the emphasis he places on the origin of the action. This is important because, for Aristotle, the origin of the action (partially) determines whether it is voluntary or not. Aristotle clearly focuses our attention on the individual making the decision to act. As the passage indicates, the origin of the action is in the agent himself. This focus is crucial because for Aristotle a voluntary action has its origin in the agent himself. So, unlike the coward, the intemperate person is accountable for his actions because he is the source of the origin of the action.

            Now it is tempting to turn the discussion to talk about whether or not the state of intemperance is consistent with voluntary actions; however, for the purposes of this discussion I will assume it is and move on to attack Aristotle’s view that intemperate individuals are incurable.

            The picture Aristotle paints of the intemperate individual appears to make it impossible for reform. As a consequence, then, it is also impossible for the intemperate individual to ever become continent or virtuous. Because of this conclusion, Aristotle recommends that the intemperate criminal should be completely expelled from the community.

In this last section, I want to argue that although intemperance makes it unlikely that an individual can reform, it is not impossible. The underlying strategy, then, is this. I will attempt to isolate an important element of intemperance that makes it reasonable to believe that an intemperate individual is incurable. Next, in the light of this point, I will attempt to show that it is possible for the intemperate individual to become, at least, incontinent. If I can accomplish this, then I have shown that some reform is possible even if is only to incontinence and even if it is unlikely that the intemperate can ever become virtuous.

            Now what is the aspect that appears to make it impossible for an intemperate person to reform? At one point Aristotle points out that the intemperate individual is incurable because “he is bound to have no regrets” and “someone without regrets is incurable.”[122] But is this really the reason why the intemperate is incurable? It does not seem so because we can still ask why this individual has no regrets. At least to me, if we can answer this question, then we have gotten to the heart of the matter.

So, what is it about the intemperate individual that makes him impervious to regret? The answer to this is simple: it is the state of mind or heksis of intemperance. Despite the clarity of this answer, there is still an obscurity associated with it. What I mean is this. As Aristotle argues, the state of intemperance originates from improper habituation and improper education. This point is clear; unfortunately, what is still not clear concerns what it is about the improper habituation and improper education that makes Aristotle think that it impossible for an individual to pursue a different life, i.e., a life that aims at the proper end and good for human life.

Ultimately, although Aristotle does not discuss this point directly, what I suggest is that it is the constant self-deception during habituation that makes it reasonable to believe that it is impossible for the intemperate individual to actualize himself in a different way. This means that the habituation of an intemperate individual involves the systematic distortion of himself and his own experience, and so, as a result, the intemperate individual does not know what values or goals would be truly meaningful for himself.

            But now the following question must be considered. Does this state make it impossible for intemperate individual to change or does this mean that he is in a difficult psychological position? Although I may be overly optimistic about this, I think that once we understand that self-deception is one of the factors, there is the possibility for an intemperate individual to change and to eventually pursue the proper goals for life. This is so because self-deception is something that can be isolated and confronted. So, whether the self-deception comes in the form of selective perception, or magnification, or even overgeneralization, this illogical and counterproductive thinking can be corrected and replaced with rational and productive thinking. Ultimately, if my optimism is correct, once the intemperate individual becomes, in a sense, reacquainted with the proper goals for life, this opens up the possibility of regret as he begins to see that his current life has dramatically missed the mark of a life more suitable for human flourishing.

            In the last section I attacked Aristotle’s view of intemperance by exposing a weakness in his idea that intemperate persons are incurable. I believe that my observation goes some way towards undermining his argument. It leads us to focus the issue by noting this: the fact that intemperate individuals go through a long period of self-deception gives us a reason to think that there is a basis for reform. Unfortunately, my argument is not wholly immune to criticism, though none of the criticisms are completely conclusive. I will now turn toward those challenges.

The first challenge to my view is as follows. The ground of my attack rests on isolating self-deception as an important element of Aristotle’s view of intemperance. However, as someone might correctly point out, Aristotle does not discuss self-deception. If this is true, then it seems suspicious to attack a view that we are not even sure that he holds. This is an important challenge, but it can be seen to be unsatisfactory. The reason is this.

            Even if Aristotle does not directly discuss self-deception as an element of intemperance, there are several passages in the Nicomachean Ethics that seem to imply that self-deception is an element of intemperance. Again, as Aristotle teaches, intemperance is a state that is created by the individual. He points out that this individual chooses to follow his feelings even though they are contrary to correct reason.[123] Eventually, he adds, the intemperate person not only pursues his appetites without restraint, he actually believes that what he is doing is right.[124] As I understand this story, becoming an intemperate individual suggests the adoption of the following stratagem: you must consciously ignore not only your own feelings of guilt associated with the excessive pleasures but you must also consciously ignore the opinions of anyone else who may express the same warnings. Self-deception seems to be an effective way to ignore our own guilt and the opinions of other people.

The second challenge is this. This argument may work for someone who was continent and who eventually slipped into intemperance. But how can it work for someone who was raised to be intemperate? Or put in a different way: how can someone who has deceived himself so long come to understand that he has been deceived? My response is that reform for these latter individuals may be too difficult but not impossible. However, my point about the reform for intemperate person is not that all can reform but that some can.

            This raises an additional ambiguity in Aristotle that I pointed out earlier. What I mean is that, from my own reading of the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle does not clearly articulate the manner of just how an individual becomes intemperate. There seem to be two scenarios. First, a person may become intemperate after being continent because of his choices to follow the wrong feelings at the expense of correct reason. It is these individuals that I believe have the best chance of reform. Second, a person may be raised in such a way that he is intemperate from an early age. This latter scenario rests upon Aristotle’s understanding of young people and the untoward consequences of neglecting a correct education. In my mind, these individuals also have a chance to reform but it will be much more difficult to convince them that there is a better life for them.

Aristotle’s Metaphysic Basis of Virtue Theory


To understand Aristotle’s metaphysics, we must discuss his viewpoint of particulars and universals.[125] I will begin with the former. Aristotle’s theory of particulars can be understood by positioning it between two different and competing metaphysical theories: the bundle theory and the substratum theory. I will begin with the bundle theory.




The bundle theory attempts to defend a descriptive account of concrete particulars (e.g., concrete humans, dogs, cats, trees). According to the bundle theory, then, particular objects are made up of particular properties. In addition, there is no underlying substratum that the properties depend upon. On the contrary, in the bundle theory, particular objects are just clusters or “bundles” of its own properties. Michael J. Loux describes the bundle theory in the following way: “Bundle theorists are, we might say, ultraessentialists: every attribute associated with a concrete object is essential to it.”[126] This means that the properties an object possesses are constituted exclusively in themselves.

Like the bundle theory, the substratum theory also attempts to give an account of what particular objects are like. It differs from the former point of view, however, in this respect. Although this view defends the existence of properties, the properties depend upon the existence of a substratum (or substructure), which exists independently of the properties it possesses. In contrast to the former theory, Loux calls this the antiessentialist theory. On this model, “nothing is essential to the literal bearers of attributes.”[127] This description means that no matter what property of an object can be picked out, it will always be extrinsic to the substratum and, therefore, always incidental or accidental to the substratum.

In contrast to both of these theories is the Aristotelian theory. Against the bundle theorist, the Aristotelian argues that not every property that an object possesses is essential. Against the substratum theory, an Aristotelian argues that not every property is accidental. So, for the Aristotelian, although particulars possess properties, some of these properties are essential to the object and some are incidental to it.

Against both views, the Aristotelians argue that the particulars are basic or irreducibly fundamental entities.[128] This means that if anything counts as a living being, it is an entity that cannot be reduced to more basic entities or components. This theory is contrary to the substratum theory because particulars are reducible to something more basic than its properties, viz., the substratum. It is also contrary to the bundle theory for basically the same reason. Particulars, according to the bundle theory, are, in a sense, built out of the properties from which an object is constituted. However, contrary to the bundle theory, the Aristotelians argue that none of the properties that are attributable to a particular object make sense from outside of the framework of the material particulars that they are supposed to generate.[129]




Along with particulars, Aristotle’s metaphysics contains universals. Universals are described as repeatable entities. This means that “numerically one and the same universal can be wholly and completely exhibited or . . . exemplified by several different spatially discontinuous particulars.”[130] There are three different types of universals: properties, relations, and kinds.

Properties are considered one-place or monadic universals. This means that they “are universals that particulars exemplify individually or one by one.”[131] For example, imagine for a minute, a brown, soft-body football. The soft-body, football possesses several different properties. It possesses a color, a shape, a texture, and even a smell. On this view, each property is a universal. And not only that, imagine that there are two brown, soft-body footballs sitting side by side on a table. Although both objects take up different spots on the table, they both share the same properties of being brown, of being a certain shape, and so forth. Thus, both possess the same universal property of brownness because a universal can be exemplified by several different particulars at the same time.

Relations are considered polyadic or many-place universals. Examples of relations include being a mile apart, being next to, or being the parent of, and so forth. On this view, the individuals in a relation exemplify that universal relation. While the examples demonstrate two-place examples, there are other relations that have more than two individuals.

Kinds are also universals. As Loux point out, kinds refer to things that belong to species and genera. A species is an idea that represents a thing, which is subordinate to a more general idea or genus. A species applies to only individual things. The genus is an idea that refers to several different things, or species, and which differ in some respect. Here’s an example. The account of a chair is typically (and roughly) explained as a piece of furniture with seat and a back, made for one person to sit on. The account of a chair, i.e., the phrase that explains what a chair is, contains two items: the genus and the difference. For example, the account makes reference to the fact that a chair is a piece of furniture. This is the genus because it indicates that a chair is an object that is used to ready a room for occupancy. Additionally, in the account of chair, we find what makes a piece of furniture a chair. There are two points. First, the account describes what all chairs have in common, viz., a seat and a back made for one person. For example, within an area that is occupied by humans, we may find a number of chairs. There may be chairs around the dinner table, chairs at computers stations, and chairs in the living room to watch TV. Although the appearance of these chairs may vary, i.e., some may be wooden and other covered in fabric, some may have legs and others may not have any legs, if it has a back and seat, and it is made for one person, it is a chair.

The second point is this: the description of what makes a piece of furniture a chair also tells us, at the same time, how it is different from other pieces of furniture. For example, in an area occupied by humans, it is natural to expect to see different pieces of furniture. In addition to chairs, there may be sofas, tables, entertainment centers present in living areas. While all the examples just mentioned are examples of furniture, it should be noticed that they all possess characteristics that make them different from one another. Of course, whereas the difference between a chair and table is obvious, the difference between a chair and a sofa may not be so apparent. Doesn’t a sofa have a seat and back? And isn’t a sofa made for people to sit on? Surely. But the crucial difference between the two items is the fact that a sofa is made for at least two people whereas a chair is made for at least one and at most one person.

Although there are artificial objects that qualify as kinds, the focus of Aristotle’s discussion concerns living beings—plants, animals, and humans. As I point out earlier, particular things found in the world have different types of properties, some are essential and others are accidental. The essential properties of, say, an organic being, mark it out as a kind of thing. Thus, while there may be many different looking humans—Caucasians, Africans, Asians, and so forth—each individual human possesses an essential property that makes it a human being and not a dog, geranium, or an oak tree. Again, for Aristotle, that property is the possession of rationality. For animals, it is sense perception, and for plants it is growth and nutrition.[132] The notion of an essential property leads us to Aristotle’s concept of essences.




Associated with the concept of kind is the notion of essence.[133] As I understand Aristotle, and as Loux makes clear, kinds furnish the essences of concrete particulars. Loux has an interesting metaphorical way of understanding this concept:


The kinds under which concrete objects fall are ontological ‘cookie cutters.’ They go around the universe, so to speak, partitioning it into the discrete particulars that are their instances. They cut the world up into individual human beings, individual dogs, individual oak trees, and the like.”[134]


Individual human beings, dogs, plants, etc., then, in Aristotle’s view, are furnished with essences (the moderns often refer to them as substantial forms), and it is by means of these essences that concrete particulars are characterized.[135]

We come now to an important question. If it is true that a concrete particular is characterized by its essence, what can we learn about a concrete particular from its essence? There are, at least, two things. First, as Loux points out, the essence provides us “with principles for identifying, distinguishing, and counting objects.”[136] Such principles are made possible by the essential properties associated with the essence. That is, if something qualifies as a dog, then it will (minimally) have a snout and non-retractile claws. To this, I also add that the essence provides us with how things actually behave and grow.[137] This means that when we understand the essence, we also understand how it functions.

But the essence of a concrete particular also unexpectedly provides something else. In addition to the illumination of various descriptive aspects of the particular object mentioned just now, the essence also provides a normative standard for evaluating the behavior of the concrete object. To sum up, the crucial point is this: the essence tells us not merely how a particular thing acts and develops, it also provides us a normative element, i.e., it tells us how a particular object should act or should develop.[138] Of course, a qualifying point is necessary. Again, as I understand Aristotle, we cannot learn how an object should act or should develop just by looking at its essence. The reason is that contained within the essence is the recipe, so to speak, of how an object will grow. Furthermore, it will grow into whatever it is supposed to be, regardless of whether it is properly trained according to its normative element. Thus, within the group of each kind, whether we are talking about human beings, dogs, or trees, there will exist various examples of individuals that can be placed on a continuum, i.e., a scale that reflects which object is closer to or further from what it should become. If this is true, then how do we know what the scale is for each different kind? The answer lies in understanding the Good of each kind, so I will now turn to that discussion.

Again, as I discussed earlier, Aristotle’s account of the Good is contained in the Nicomachean Ethics. The breadth and the depth of the topics he discusses in the document are astounding; unfortunately, after reading his work, if one is not careful, one may come away with a feeling that this work is disconnected from his views in the Metaphysics. Nothing could be further from the truth. Nevertheless, this is the question we are to explore now.

Aristotle begins this discussion with his commitment to the existence of the Good. He argues that whatever the Good truly is, most people believe that it is happiness. And yet although there is agreement about what the Good is, the issue of how to understand happiness is another matter. As I pointed out earlier, some argue that it is pleasure; others argue that is tied to virtue or honor. Still others argue that it can be found in study (or reflection) or in the making of money. Again, Aristotle rules out all but study.

Next he connects the Good to the human function. His argument, in short, is that the function of an object is the same in kind as the function of an object that is excellent. The implication, then, for humans is that the Good turns out to be living a life of not just reasoning but a life of reasoning well.

But now the question is this: How do the virtues fit into all this discussion? DesJardins pointed out earlier that the notion of virtue is tied to the conception of the Good. That certainly is correct. In fact, as he points out, the virtues are those character traits that promote the attainment of the good life, i.e., a life that reflects or exhibits the Good. But how are we supposed to understand this point? Unfortunately, the exact narrative of this point is too complicated and too long for this essay. Nevertheless, this much can be said about it. Like the Good, virtue is connected closely to our function. Indeed, as Aristotle makes clear, virtue makes a human being good by making him perform his function well.[139] But why? The reason is that when virtue is added to one’s function (in terms of teaching and habituation), it contributes to the individual’s ability to reflect the Good, or reason well. Let me make this point a little clearer.

According to Aristotle, when an individual is trained according to the standard that the Good provides, he will be taught at least two different ways of reason. (Again, a human will grow to reason, but without the proper training, i.e., without the virtues added to a natural ability to reason, a human being will not learn how to reason well in Aristotle’s sense.) First, it causes a human being to find the “mean” or the middle of an action, if it admits one. That is, it causes him to find the middle ground between the excessive aspects of an action and the deficient aspects of an action.[140] Second, it causes him to keep the right relationship between his feelings and his reason.[141] The relationship spoken of here is one metaphorically related to that of a master and slave. Reason is master and one’s feelings are to be trained to listen to and agree with reason. Thus, adding virtue to one’s function causes a human being to attain the Good and as a result become a good or virtuous person.

Although it may not be apparent, we are now in a position to connect Aristotle’s metaphysical outlook to his virtue theory. The underlying line of thought, in brief, is as follows. As I discussed earlier, according to Aristotle, every living substance, whether plant, animal, or human, has an essence, which has been, in a sense, brought about by a universal kind. This essence does a number of things for us. Minimally, it provides us with a way of identifying, distinguishing, and counting objects.

The most important concept is the following. The essence determines (or contains within it) the function of the object. But what exactly does this mean? Apparently, it leads to these two conclusions. First, associated with the function of an object is its distinctive natural goal or telos. By understanding the telos of a substance, we understand how it actually acts. For example, in the case of plants, the function is growth and nutrition. In the case of animals, the function is sense perception. And the same reasoning applies equally to humans. The function of a human is to live a life of reason and study. Second, by understanding the distinctive natural telos of a substance, we are provided a standard for evaluating its activity and development. This statement means that the function also acts as the basis for our understanding of the Good for each substance because the Good of each is tied to its function.


The Human Good: Aristotle’s Final Analysis


Pleasure is not the Human Good


            Before Aristotle finishes his discussion of the Good, his attention is drawn back to the notion of pleasure and why it is not the Good. But the question is this: Why must we talk about pleasure again? Didn’t Aristotle make clear that it is not the Good? And didn’t he spend a lot of time making a case for the proper role of pleasure in our lives? So why isn’t Aristotle perfectly comfortable with what he has written so far? I think the answer is this: pleasure is no small problem. In fact, at the beginning of Chapter X in the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle relates his concern. There are several issues and two of which stand out. First, introducing the right kind of pleasure and pain is a notable feature of character development beginning in our youth and extending throughout our lives.[142] The other issue is that, in his day like our own, there is still so much confusion surrounding the notion of pleasure. That is, there are those who argue that pleasure is the Good, and there are those who argue that there is no room at all for pleasure in our lives.[143] As Aristotle clearly appreciates, he cannot make a transparent case for his position without clearing up the controversy that pleasure engenders. In what follows, I will summarize why pleasure is not the human Good, and then what role pleasure should have in our lives.

            Aristotle’s argument can be reconstructed in this way:


1. If pleasure is the Good, then every pleasure is complete without qualification.


2. If every pleasure is complete without qualification, then every pleasure is choiceworthy in its own right.


3. However, not every pleasure is choiceworthy in its own right.




4. Pleasure is not the Good.


            Let’s begin with the first two premises. Both are clearly true. But why? The truth-value of both premises turns upon the meaning of its terms. Here’s what I mean. According to Aristotle, whatever we take the Good to be, it is by nature something that is always chosen because of itself, and never because it leads to some thing else.[144] So, if pleasure is the Good, then pleasure is by nature something that is always chosen because of itself, and never because it leads to something else. The second premise is understood in the same way. If something is complete without qualification, then it is by nature something excellent, and it is in virtue of its excellence that it derives its choiceworthiness. But, again, as Aristotle makes clear, although there are many things that are excellent and, as a result, chosen in virtue of those properties, there is a crucial difference between why we choose these things and the Good. The former are chosen because of the benefits it may bring. However, the Good is chosen for itself and never for its benefits.[145] Thus, as the premise makes clear, if every pleasure is complete without qualification, then it is chosen solely for itself, and never for its benefits.

            The third premise is by far the most controversial. The question, then, is this: Why isn’t every pleasure choiceworthy in its own right? The answer is that some pleasures are not choiceworthy in their own right. If this is so, what does Aristotle have in mind? He gives us three examples to illustrate his point, but I will only discuss the first two. The first example concerns the different aims pursued in two different kinds of relationship: “The difference between a friend and a flatterer seems to indicate that pleasure is not good. . . .”[146] But why is this true? Aristotle remarks: “For in dealings with us the friend seems to aim at what is good, but the flatterer at pleasure. . . .”[147] So, Aristotle’s example points to an example of a pleasure that is not choiceworthy in its own right because it is an example of a pleasure used to manipulate another’s perception of what is true. As a result, we praise the former and blame the other.

            The second example is reminiscent of John Stuart Mill’s characterization of the role low pleasures play in the mind of a cultivated individual: “And no one would choose to live with a child’s [level of] thought for his whole life, taking as much pleasure as possible in what pleases children, or to enjoy himself while doing some utterly shameful action, even if he would never suffer pain for it.”[148] Thus, the morally mature individual is one who sees the crucial difference between the pleasures available to him. He knows that the pleasures of a child are not choiceworthy in their own right because they are wholly indifferent to what is good and fine.

            So, if pleasure is not the Good, then what kind of thing is pleasure? Aristotle’s answer to this question is a remarkably acute dissection into the nature of pleasure. Although his discussion deserves a longer treatment, I will only briefly summarize his position.

            The nature of pleasure—and thus its proper role—is tied to the function of our perceptual capacities. Pleasure completes the activity of our perceptual faculties. But how? And what does this mean? Here’s my take on Aristotle’s discussion.[149] According to Aristotle, whenever we talk about the function of our perceptual capacities, there are three items to mention. There is the capacity itself, the object of the capacity, and the relationship the capacity and object have. So, if we apply this example to the auditory faculty, then we will discuss the capacity of hearing, the objects of our hearing, viz., the various noises, and the relationship that our capacity can have with those noises. Here’s a simple example. I live in a small community near a church. On Sunday mornings, if I am awake, and my windows are open or I am outside, I can hear the church bell ringing around 9:00 AM. Thus, my ability to hear the bell ringing is a story about my capacity of hearing and how well the capacity is working. But that’s not all. It is story about how sharp the noise the bell is making, and a story about the geographical and environmental conditions I am in that contributes to my ability to hear the bell.

            With these three conditions in place, Aristotle can speak of the good of our perceptual capacities. Since a thing’s good is tied to its function, then a perceptual capacity will function well when the perceptual capacity is in good working condition, the object is the best object of the capacity, and the capacity is in the best relationship to the object. But now the question is this: What is the relationship between our perceptual faculties functioning well and the role of pleasure? Aristotle’s answer is pretty simple: Pleasure completes the activity of the perceptual capacity. This is a noteworthy claim to make, but what does this mean and why does he think this is true?

This is what I take him to mean. There are two points to underscore. First, as Aristotle makes clear, he does not want to imply that pleasure completes the perceptual capacity in the same way as the psychological state completes perceptual capacity. To make such a point would place pleasure in a role that it does not have. Instead, it completes the activity “as a sort of consequent end, like the bloom on youths.”[150] And so, pleasure is analogous to the vigor a youth displays when he is strong and healthy. The vigor the youth displays is not the cause of the health, but is a result of the health. Likewise, pleasure is not the cause of the perceptual capacity but is instead a result of the capacity working well.

Here’s Aristotle’s second point. The pleasure that is proper, in a sense, to each perceptual capacity or activity increases the activity. What he means is that when our capacities are functioning well, the pleasure heightens the activity, and not only that, it contributes to the improvement of the capacity or our participation in the activity: “For the proper pleasure increases the activity; for we judge each thing better and more exactly when our activity involves pleasure.”[151] Aristotle illustrates his point in this way: “If, for instance, we enjoy doing geometry, we become better geometers, and understand each question better; and similarly lovers of music, building, and so on improve at their proper function when they enjoy it.”[152]

So, having spelled out part of Aristotle’s position on pleasure, we are now in a good position to move to the last discussion: Aristotle view of happiness and the Good.


Happiness and the Good


            As the reader will no doubt remember, Aristotle briefly mentions what he takes the Good to be when he lists the various competing notions of the Good. For example, as in our own day, it was commonly thought that the Good could be the life of gratification, political activity, study, or the life of moneymaking. Aristotle immediately rules out gratification, political activity, and moneymaking.[153] But, strangely enough, he says virtually nothing about study. Of course, he talks about what the characteristics the Good has, e.g., the Good is complete and self-sufficient. But that’s about it. It is not until the very last chapter of the Nicomachean Ethics that he returns to the topic of study. Again, what he says about study is what we expect him to say. Having said that, there is a surprising twist at the end, and a twist that leaves us with a puzzle.

            Of the Good, Aristotle writes: “Hence complete happiness will be its activity in accord with its proper virtue; and we have said that this activity is the activity of study.”[154] There are two points to bring up. First, what does he mean by study? And, why is study associated with the Good or complete happiness?

The first question is important to discuss because of what the word ‘study’ conjures up in the minds of individuals who are unfamiliar—and maybe a little thin blooded—with Aristotle’s works. To some, it conjures up an ivory tower scholar who is as useless to society as he is uncharitable to his students. Fortunately, this is not at all what Aristotle has in mind. Here’s what he means.

The Greek word translated as study in the text above is the adjective theoretike. Literally, it refers to the fondness of contemplating something. Unfortunately, this still smacks of the kind of inert existence so often associated with the life of study. What is important to note is the verb that stands behind this adjective, viz., theoreo. What theoreo means is to look at something, to view something, or to observe something. Again, what may not be apparent is the voice, tense, and mood of this verb, which is active, present, and indicative. The significance of this point is that to look at something is not a passive state. In fact, it just the opposite: to look at something is to speak of the subject actively involved in what he is looking at. In fact, there is a sense of wonderment implied by this verb, a sense so often associated with the ancient Greek mind.

Now the question is this: What do we study? Again, Aristotle supplies the answer in Book VI of the Nicomachean Ethics: “we study beings whose principles do not admit of being otherwise than they are [and] we study beings whose principle admit of being otherwise.”[155] The beings we study that do not change are grasped by that part of our mind dedicated to scientific knowledge. They are the universals of physics, metaphysics, and mathematics. The other Aristotle calls the calculative. It is broken down to the productive arts and the practical, which includes morality and political science. Once more, although studying is associated with the scientific and calculative, we study each one in a different way. For example, while we deliberate about productive matters or about ethical matters, there is no deliberation associated with what is by nature necessary. The reason, as I spelled out earlier, turns on the meaning of deliberation. According to Aristotle, to deliberate (partly) means to carefully discuss what will promote or support an end. Although, it is perfectly reasonable to think that we deliberate about things that do not change, it is nevertheless a mistaken outlook because, in Aristotelian science, we begin with what is known to be true, viz., we begin with our knowledge of the universals. There is, of course, demonstration (or deductive inference) in science. This means we begin from the universals and then proceed to a conclusion. But deliberation concerns itself with the perceptions of the particulars and the ends achievable in production, e.g., ship building, and in morality. Unlike the universals in science, these ends are not known ahead of time. Instead, we must calculate and inquire about them.

Our final question is this: why is study associated with the Good or complete happiness? The answer, of course, turns on Aristotle’s understanding of the psychology of humans. He argues that there are two parts of the human soul or psyche. There is that part that has reason or logos, and there is the other part that is nonrational or alogos. Humans share the nonrational with animals and plants because it is dedicated to sense perception, growth, and nutrition. These are capacities unresponsive to reason and work automatically. However, humans have a part specifically not shared by animals. They have a part of their soul dedicated to theoretical study. It is our function, and when virtue is added to study, i.e., when it is used in the right way, it is the human Good.

Although we are left with the impression that study is the part and parcel of happiness, Aristotle undermines this impression in the following quotation: “The life in accord with the kind of virtue [i.e., the kind concerned with action] is [happiness] in a secondary way, because the activities in accord with this virtue are human.”[156] What is Aristotle saying? He appears to be saying that living a certain way is also part of happiness. But what way is that? Aristotle answer is simple: it is the life of the practically wise person. So, happiness is achievable by living a virtuous life. Although this sounds plausible, it raises a tantalizing puzzle for our understanding of the Good and Happiness. But why is this problematic? There is a difficultly because there does not appear to be a way to reconcile both parts together. In fact, both views seem to be mutually exclusive on a logical level and on a practical level. Here are some reasons why I think this is true.

Logically speaking, the question is whether we can maintain both views at the same time. For example, is it logically possible to claim at the same time that happiness is attained by study and by living a virtuous life? If it is not, then it must be necessarily true that if study leads to happiness, then living a virtuous life cannot, or visa versa. Although this may not be conclusive, here’s a stab at an answer. It seems at cross-logical purposes to say that the Good can be attained by a method that merely studies universals and a method that emphases living a life in accordance with virtue. The problem is this: on the one hand, Aristotle appears to be claiming that happiness can be attained by two necessary conditions, correct deliberation and acting, which are jointly sufficient; on the other hand, Aristotle argues that a completely different condition, viz., study, is by itself both necessary and sufficient to attain the Good.

But why is this a problem? The answer is that he appears to be saying something analogous to this. Suppose a scholar, with unalloyed satisfaction, attempts to defend the view that a morally right action can be attained in two ways. Our scholar argues that the first, and primary way, goes something like this: X is a morally right action just in case X tends to promote happiness;[157] The secondary way is this: X is a morally right action just in case X treats humanity always at the same time as an end and never simply as a means.[158]

Although, to the untrained eye, there may be a certain plausibility to this view, our scholar has overlooked a specific problem. He has failed to notice that both views are mutually exclusive. This means that if the primary way is true, then the secondary way is false. Additionally, if the secondary way is true, then the primary way must be false. The reason is that each statement specifies a logical equivalence about what we take to be a morally right act and what characteristics that act possesses. This is what I take Aristotle to be doing, and his view is mistaken for the very same reason.

The practical problem follows on the heals of the logical problem. From a practical point of view, Aristotle position leads to the outlook that a person can attain happiness by either cultivating his intellect or develop a virtue of character through habituation. That is problematic for (at least) two reasons. First, it is pretty obvious that the former is easier to attain than the latter. Second, if we really are offered both choices, why would anyone choose the latter? Here’s what I mean. The first one, although not easy to attain, offers a pretty straightforward way to attain the Good. We develop our theoretical understanding of the world around us. Being virtuous does not appear to be necessary condition. The other one holds out a life of constant denial of one’s own desires, and a life of dedicated to the unutterably wearisome development of the virtues of character. Again, why would anyone choose the latter over the former?




            The purpose of this chapter is to offer an account of Aristotle’s view of virtue. This is important for three reasons. First, it is important to make clear what Aristotle thinks about virtue including how it is attained, and who can and cannot attain it. Unfortunately, there is an awful lot of confusion surrounding Aristotle’s views on virtue. Second, it is important to note how virtue is inextricably tied together with his metaphysical views. As I understand this point, Aristotle view of virtue stands or falls upon the metaphysical machinery he sets up. Finally, having a clear understanding of Aristotle’s virtue will contribute to a better understanding of the early and later moderns who attempt to define their own positions concerning virtue. Truly, Aristotle’s views are a mine in which all his successors must dig.



[1] Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, 2nd Ed., trans. and ed. Terence Irwin (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing Co., Inc., 1999), 1094a 8-9.


[2] Ibid., 1094a 11-13.


[3] The following argument is my interpretation of Aristotle’s text at 1094a 18-23.


[4] Premise 1 is enthymatic, and I added it to make Aristotle’s argument valid.


[5] See Aristotle’s point in the Metaphysics about his argument for the first mover.


[6] Terrence Irwin, 323.


[7] Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, 1094a 23-24.


[8] Ibid., 1094a 28-29.


[9] Ibid., 1094a 30-1094b 1.


[10] Aristotle ends this paragraph with a discussion of the relationship between the good of the city and the human good. He points out something puzzling. Initially, he says that the good of the city is the same as the human good; however, in a paradoxical fashion, Aristotle adds the following: “the good of the city is apparently a greater and more complete good to acquire and preserve” (Ibid., 1094b 8-10). Although this paradox can be solved, it is beyond my purposes to do so. Instead, I will direct the readers attention to Fred D. Miller, Jr.’s illuminating discussion concerning this point in his book .


[11] Terrance Irwin translates eudaimonia as happiness. W. D. Ross argues that happiness is not an accurate translation because of the tendency to associate with this term certain psychological states that were not a part of the Greek understanding of this term. He suggests the term well being. Although Ross is basically correct, I will follow Irwin because the meaning of the term ‘well being’ does not appear to have a better place in our current and conventional understanding of the term. See Sir David Ross, Aristotle (London: Methuen & Co. Ltd., 1971), 190.


[12] Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, 1095a 16-17.


[13] Ibid., 1095b 20-21.


[14] Ibid., 1095b 25-27.


[15] Ibid., 1095b32-1096a1.


[16] Ibid., 1096a 5-6.


[17] Ibid., 1096a 7-9.


[18] Ibid., 1097a 38-1097b 5.


[19] Ibid., 1097b 14-16.


[20] Irwin, Nicomachean Ethics, 319.


[21] Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, 1098a 22.


[22] Ibid., 1097b 24-29.


[23] Ibid., 1097b 30-32.


[24] Ibid., 1097b 32-34.


[25] Ibid., 1097b 35-1098a 4.


[26] Ibid., 1098a 9-21.


[27] Ibid., 1138b 35-1139a 1.


[28] Ibid., 1139a 5-6.


[29] Ibid., 1139a 7-10.


[30] Ibid., 1139a 13-14.


[31] We will see later that Aristotle calls the things that do not admit change universals.


[32] Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, 1139b 23-24.


[33] Ibid., 1139a 24; Aidion also means eternal.


[34] Ibid., 1139a 24-26.


[35] Ibid., 1140a 2.


[36] Ibid., II40a 5-6.


[37] This is the way that Terence Irwin translates phronesis.


[38] Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, 1140a 26-30.


[39] Ibid., 1140a 31-32.


[40] Ibid., 1140b 5-8.


[41] Ibid., 1144b 32-33.


[42] Ibid., 1144b 28. Just prior to this statement, Aristotle writes that virtue is not merely the state in accord with the correct reason. The preposition Aristotle uses in the prepositional phrase is kata, which, when applied to the state of virtue, merely indicates a logical consistency between the state of virtue and correct reason (ton orthon logon). Although Aristotle does not want to deny this, he wants to say something different. So, in the following sentence, Aristotle modifies the meaning of correct reason by changing the preposition from kata to meta. The state of virtue is not merely in accord with correct reason. Correct reason is the efficient cause of the state of virtue.


[43] Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, 1144b 29.


[44] The second part of the statement, viz., that we cannot be practically wise without virtue of character, is tautological so I will ignore it.


[45] Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, 1103a 17-18.


[46] Ibid., 1103b 23-25.


[47] By ‘moral vision’ I mean a way of seeing the world from a moral point of view. This should not be taken to imply that it is the right moral vision, only that it is a way of seeing world for better or for worse. On this view, then, Adolf Hitler and Mother Teresa had moral visions of the world, albeit radically different moral visions.


[48] Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, 1104a 13-19.


[49] Ibid., 1104a 20-27.


[50] Ibid., 1104b 5-10.


[51] Ibid., 1104b 10-14.


[52] I am taking my point from the Greek. It specifically states peri patha. The noun in the prepositional phrase (patha) is in the accusative. When this is the case, the preposition (peri) specifically means “connected with.” Additionally, when the noun is in the genitive, then the preposition specifically means “about or concerned.”


[53] Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, 1105b 30-1106a 2.


[54] Ibid., 1105b 27-29.


[55] The verb in question is hepetai. It means to follow after or to follow in company with. What’s important here is that it is in the middle voice, which means that the action described in the verb is performed with special reference to the subject. More specifically, in this case, we have the subjects acting for itself in the sense that each feeling and action has a strategy it follows when it is activated. It will seek its own pain or pleasure.


[56] Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, 1104b 5-6. Italics are mine.


[57] Ibid., 1107a 1-4.


[58] Ibid., 1106b 9-16.


[59] Ibid., 1106b 18-19.


[60] Ibid., 1107a 10.


[61] Ibid., 1107a 10-13.


[62] Ibid., 1107a 15-18.


[63] Ibid., 1106a 34-1106b 1.


[64] Ibid., 1106b 2-5.


[65] Ibid., 1106b 11-13.


[66] Ibid., 1106b 18-19.


[67] Ibid., 1106b 21-24.


[68] The following discussion relies heavily on Elliot Cohen’s book, Making Value Judgments (Malabar, FL: Krieger Publishing Co., Inc., 1985), 60-64.


[69] Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, 1106a 27-29.


[70] Ibid., 1106a 35-1106b 1.


[71] Ibid., 1109a 25-30. In the next section, we will see just how rare these people really are!


[72] Ibid., 1109a 8-10.


[73] Ibid., 1180a 9-10.


[74] Ibid., 1177a 16-19. Aristotle also adds another element, which he describes as part of happiness but secondary to study. See 1178a10-25.


[75] Ibid., 1177b 5-25.


[76] Ibid., 1178b 34-1179a 10.


[77] Ibid., 1179b 34-35.


[78] Ibid., 1180a 1-3.


[79] It is important to note here that even though from Aristotle’s perspective all criminals are incontinent or intemperate, we should not interpret him as implying that all incontinent and intemperate individuals are criminals.


[80] Aristotle’s discussion of incontinence primarily focuses on appetites. He also discusses a version of incontinence with reference to emotions as well (thumos).


[81] For example, Aristotle does not include pleasures associate with sight including colors, shapes, painting, etc. See Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, 1118a 4-5.


[82] Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, 1118a 30-35. Aristotle also adds that individuals can also be incontinent about wealth, gain, honor, and emotion (Ibid., 1147b 30). He also adds that not all touching is at issue as long as it is proper touching, e.g., the rubbing and warming in the gymnasia (Ibid., 1118b 5-6). Cf. Sir David Ross, Aristotle (London: Methuen & Co. Ltd., 1971), 224-5.


[83] Ibid., 1152a 20-1. Jonathan Lear also discusses what incontinent individuals are like in his book: Aristotle: The Desire to Understand (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988). He points out a strong and weak version of incontinence. The weak version he attributes to Aristotle: “that in which a man decides that a certain course of action would be best for him, and then acts against his own judgement” (175). The strong version, which he points out is not Aristotle’s position (177) and which is the focus of his discussion, contains three conditions: “(a) an agent performs an action intentionally, (b) the agent believes that an alternative action is open to him, and (c) the agent judges that all things considered it would be better to do the alternative action rather than the one he performs” (176). As we shall see, this is an unfortunate mistake because the Aristotle clearly articulates the strong version. Cf. Ross, Aristotle, 222.


[84] As most commentators point out, Aristotle’s examples show how incontinence actually occurs; however, his example does not show how incontinence is possible. This point also applies to his views on intemperance. Nevertheless, in my critical remarks, although I do not explain how incontinence is possible, I attempt to show how intemperance is possible. I submit that the same reasons that make intemperance possible are the same reasons that make incontinence possible as well. I will discuss this point shortly.


[85] Ibid., 1147a 25-28.


[86] Ibid., 1147a 29-31. Cf. Lear, Aristotle: The Desire to Understand, 179-80 and Ross, Aristotle, 223.


[87] Ibid., 1147a 31-1147b 4.


[88] Ibid., 1152a 10.


[89] Heksin is often translated state. When connected to the habituation of the body, heksin means a habit of the body.

[90] Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, 1140b 4-6.


[91] Ibid., 1152a 8-9.


[92] Ibid., 1152a 14-15.


[93] As I understand this point, the incontinent’s appetites prevent him from attending to the productive claim that one must act on what one knows to be good and avoid what is bad. Perhaps, if we follow Aristotle’s analogy, the incontinent’s appetites will introduce an element of apathy toward doing the right thing which is often associated with drug use or alcohol intoxication. But such a model states only half the issue because there is often strong passions associated with drug and alcohol abuse with the same results. Cf. Lear, Aristotle: The Desire to Understand, 181 and Ross, Aristotle, 223.


[94] In another place, Aristotle writes: “But there is also someone who because of his feelings abandons himself contrary to correct reason. They overcome him far enough so that his actions do not express correct reason, but not so far as to make him the sort of person to be persuaded that it is right to pursue such pleasures without restraint” (Ibid., 1151a 20-25).


[95] Ibid., 1150b 32.


[96] Ibid., 1151a 11-12.


[97] Ibid., 1150b 35.


[98] Ibid., 1151a 14.


[99] Ibid., 1150b 30-31. Lear also adds an additional point. He writes that, according to Aristotle at 1145b 30-1, the incontinent individual is surprised when she gives into her desires (Aristotle: The Desire to Understand, 179). He attributes to Aristotle the view that “all incontinent acts involve a certain degree of ignorance of how one will act” (Ibid.). However, Lear is mistaken on two accounts. First, the passage at 1145b 30-1 is not about the incontinent’s attitude toward her individual actions. On the contrary, the surprise Aristotle speaks of is the surprise one feels when they learn that they have become incontinent. In other words, the individual experiences this surprise because they never thought it could happen to them. Second, as I just pointed out, Aristotle clearly teaches that the incontinent knows he is incontinent (1150b 35). See Ross’s discussion of this point as well (Aristotle, 224).


[100] Ibid., 1151a 14.


[101] Ibid., 1150b 30-35 and 1152a 30-35.


[102] Ibid., 1178a 25-1178b 10.


[103] Ibid., 1117b 25-1118a 25.


[104] Ibid., 1118b 25-35.


[105] Ibid., 1119a 1-2.


[106] Ibid., 1119a 3-4.


[107] Ibid., 1119a 3-5.


[108] Ibid., 1152a 5-10 and 1151a 10-15.


[109] Ibid., 1119b 7-10.


[110] Ibid., 1104a 24-25.


[111] Ibid., 1104a 22-23.


[112] Ibid., 1151a 15-20.


[113] Ibid., 1151a 20-25.


[114] This is my own translation.


[115] The middle voice shows that the subject is acting directly or indirectly upon himself. In addition to this, it denotes a more vigorous participation on the part of the subject (Herbert Weir Smyth, Greek Grammar [Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1984], 392-3). The upshot for this passage is that the incontinent person preserves the origins that are actually a part of his mind.


[116] Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, 1150a 20-23 and 1150b 30-35.


[117] Ibid., 1114a 15-20.


[118] Ibid., 1114a 20-23.


[119] Ibid., 1114a 4-9.


[120] Ibid., 1119a 25-35.


[121] Ibid., 1119a 29-35.


[122] Ibid., 1150a 20-22.


[123] Ibid.


[124] Ibid., 1151a 20-25 and 1152a 5-9.


[125] Aristotle. Metaphysics. In The Complete Works of Aristotle. 2 vols. Ed. by Jonathan Barnes (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1984), 1039b20-27.


[126] Michael J. Loux, Metaphysics: A Contemporary Introduction (New York and London: Routledge, 2002): 127. The following discussion relies heavily on Loux’ excellent book.


[127] Ibid., 128.


[128] Ibid., 124; cf. Aristotle, Metaphysics, 1031a 28-1032a 11.


[129] Loux, 124.


[130] Ibid., 23.


[131] Ibid.


[132] For an excellent discussion of Aristotelian substances, see Loux’ book, 123-138.


[133] Loux, 126; cf. Aristotle, Metaphysics, 1029b 15-1030b 14.


[134] Ibid.,, 130.


[135] Aristotle, Metaphysics, 1036a 7-8.


[136] Loux, 2002: p. 130; cf. Aristotle, Metaphysics, 1029b 11-16.


[137] Aristotle, Metaphysics, 983a 30-31 and 1013a 22.


[138] Ibid., 983a 30-31 and 1013a 22.


[139] Ibid., 1098a16-17.


[140] Ibid., 1106b17-1107a9.


[141] Ibid., 1139a22-26.


[142] Ibid., 1172a 20-26.


[143] Ibid., 1172a 27-29.


[144] Ibid., 1097a 37-1097b 2.


[145] Ibid., 1097a 35-37.


[146] Ibid., 1173b 33-34.


[147] Ibid., 1173b 34-36.


[148] Ibid., 1174a 3-6.


[149] Ibid., 1174b 15-20.


[150] Ibid., 1174b 33-35.


[151] Ibid., 1175a 31-33.


[152] Ibid., 1175a 33-35.


[153] Ibid., 1095b 13-1096a 11.


[154] Ibid., 1177a 17-18.


[155] Ibid., 1139a 8-10.


[156] Ibid., 1178a 9-11.


[157] John Stuart Mill, Utilitarianism, 2nd Ed. (Indianapolis and Cambridge: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc., 2001), 7. Original work published in 1861.


[158] Immanuel Kant, Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals, 3rd Ed. (Indianapolis and Cambridge: Hackett Publishing Company), 36. Original work published in 1785.


Exorcising the Ghosts from Ghost Hunters


Samuel Zinaich, Jr., Ph.D.

Purdue University Calumet

Copyright 2008


            In this essay, I will analyze the approach used by the members of The Atlantic Paranormal Society (hereafter TAPS) dramatically portrayed in the popular television show Ghost Hunters. I will proceed by giving a general description of their methods. Next, because the members of TAPS believe their methods are scientific, I will then try to show what methods they use that may be considered scientific. After that, I will set out my arguments against their approach by showing that, although the members of TAPS have attempted to scientize their investigations, their approach falls short of a crucial element needed to be judged truly scientific. Finally, I will consider two objections to my critical remarks about their methods.

            Before I begin my analysis, I would like to make some amiable remarks. Although, my family and I don’t watch too much television—most of what’s on is so absurd and ridiculous, one of the shows we like to watch is Ghost Hunters. It is enjoyable for many reasons. The first reason is that, like most people, we enjoy shows that spotlight hauntings and scary—occult—situations. In fact, we’re big fans of the science fiction and especially science fiction films. Second, we also enjoy watching the show because of the personalities of the members of TAPS. There is a refreshing sense of professional integrity among the members of TAPS. A corollary to the last point is the fact that TAPS does not charge for any of the investigations they perform. Finally, unlike many of the other television shows that draw attention to (alleged) hauntings, the members of TAPS (especially the founding members, Jay Hawes and Grant Wilson) typically maintain a sense of skepticism about the claims they investigate. That said, there are times when the main members of TAPS declare that a structure is haunted.[1] With this in mind, I will now move on to my exorcism.

            From what I have gathered from the television show and the TAPS website, there has emerged a theory (or system of beliefs) about the phenomena of hauntings.[2] There are several points to underscore about the theory. First, there are two kinds of hauntings: active hauntings and residual hauntings. Because the show rarely explores residual hauntings, I will not discuss it at all except to briefly illustrate it. According to the theory, a residual haunting is the aftereffect of the presence of a spirit that remains behind, and the aftereffect repeats itself analogously to a video set on continuous playback.

            Active hauntings point to the existence of a spirit, and according to the theory, spirits can manifest themselves in a variety of ways. First, they can manifest themselves visually in terms of vaporous partial or full body apparitions, orbs of lights, and as small (opaque) beings called shadow people. Next, they can manifest themselves in terms of voices and other kinds of noises. Thirdly, they can manifest themselves in terms of smells. The odors are often described as obnoxious and even sometimes pleasant. After that, spirits can, on certain occasions, manifest in physical ways. For example, they can move objects, touch people, create cold spots, generate thermal images, and create electro-magnetic fields.

            The theory of hauntings also maintains a difference between the kinds of spirits in active hauntings. There are intelligent hauntings, poltergeist phenomena, and demonic activity. Intelligent hauntings point to spirits who are aware of their surroundings. Although they are limited in what they can do, they are not confined to one spot—they can move around freely. Additionally, these spirits typically manifest themselves between the hours of 11 PM and 4 AM. Poltergeists are regarded as noisy spirits. The manifestation of poltergeists typically begins with knocks and bangs, and, as the theory maintains, the manifestations may turn intense and on rare occasions the poltergeist will cause furniture to slide across the room and shake beds. According to the TAPS website, the poltergeist is typically a female spirit in her teen years. On rare occasions, demons are responsible for hauntings. Demons are considered to be inhuman spirits. Demons manifest themselves through abnoxious smells, e.g., rotting flesh or sulfuric acid. They are also known to let loose growls, and they make contact by pushing, shoving, hitting, and even scratching.

            The question of what means are available to document hauntings is an interesting aspect of the theory of hauntings and the TAPS investigations. Unlike many groups that investigate hauntings, the TAPS utilize various devises to perform an investigation. This is important to note because TAPS rarely employs the help of (suspicious) individuals who consider themselves mediums or psychics. Rather, TAPS attitude seems committed to the value of documentation. For example, there appears to be five devises used for investigation. First, in order to document visual manifestations and to document some of the physical ways spirits may manipulate the environment, TAPS uses live video feeds and cameras. In order to document noices and electronic voice phenomena, TAPS members make use of tape recorders. Thirdly, to measure cold spots that spirits create, TAPS uses handheld thermometers to measure the ambient temperature of the rooms in structures. Fourth, a thermal imagining devise is used to detect thermal images. And finally, TAPS attempts to document electro-magnetic fields created by spirits by using electro-magnetic detecting devises.[3]

            The question now to discuss is whether the methods TAPS employs constitutes a scientific approach to the investigation of a haunting. Although what makes an approach like TAPS scientific or not is too complicated to fully explore in this paper, I will focus on the crucial role that observation plays in the role of a theory that is considered scientific. Here I will follow Gilbert Harman’s discussion of the role of observation in science.[4]

            According to Harman, observation plays a crucial role in science. There are a number of features to underscore. I will (briefly) summarize these points and then apply it to the discussion of TAPS.

Before I unfold Harman’s point of view, I will make some preliminary remarks in order to clarify my own understanding of Harman’s position. Let’s assume the existence of some sort of event,[5] and that this event is describable in terms of several features which make up the event.[6] I am not using the term ‘event’ in any deep or technical sense. I mean to use it in the most familiar sense of the term. Thus, at least for the purposes of this paper, when I use the term ‘event’ I am merely referring to the common experience of having a dinner with your friends or family, walking a dog, watching a movie, and so forth. Again, just for the purposes of this paper, I want to make a qualifying remark, viz., that during the event—whatever affair or occurrence we are talking about—that at least one of the features that make up the event is observable and identifiable by an individual who is part of the event or who is watching the event take place.[7] One final assumption is necessary. A theory is describable as a system of beliefs. The beliefs or concepts constitute the theory itself, and the concepts of the theory are used to explain the occurrence of our observations when they are activated by an event. [8]

The first detail is this: According to Harman, there are no pure observations.[9] Thus, all observations are always theory laden. This means that we observe the feature of an event because of some theory we hold.[10] In particular, Harman adds that forming an observation (or a belief) is possible because we are actually employing the concepts that make up the theory.[11] Perhaps this will illustrate what he means. My son around the age of two observed a Pomeranian dog one day which was loose in our yard. Up to this point, his only experience with dogs was primarily with our two black Labradors. In my conversations with him about the dogs, he could correctly identify both of our Labradors as dogs. When he saw a stray Pomeranian dog, he turned and said to me, “Daddy, what is that thing in our yard?” I responded to him by stating simply that it was a dog. His response was a look of puzzlement—one not entirely unjustified. After our conversation, I thought about his question, and I realized that because his theory of what dogs are was too narrow, i.e., there were not enough concepts in his theory, he was unable to identify that creature according to its species. Harman explains his point in this way:


To recognize a child as a child is to employ, consciously or unconsciously, a concept that is defined by its place in a framework of the stages of human life. Similarly burning is an empty concept apart from its theoretical connections to the concepts of heat, destruction, smoke, and fire.[12]


So, according to Harman, if an individual understands some of the relevant concepts that make up a theory, then by means of at least one of the concepts of a the theory, our individual is able to identify at least one of the features of an event. This leads us to another point to underscore. An observation that is made about one of the features of an event may be used to confirm or disconfirm a theory that is being used.[13] Although Harman does not discuss what he means by the notion of ‘confirmation’, I do not think he implies that the observation confirms the truth of the theory. First, there is nothing in the text to support such a view—Harman never uses it in this way. Second, the publically available meaning of confirmation points to something different as well. Confirmation typically means to strengthen or to the removal of doubts. Essentially what this means is that if an individual observes a feature of some event, and the feature is consistent with the theory, then the observation of the event strengthens the theory or it removes doubts about the theory in question.[14]

That said, Harman quickly adds a qualifying point. The opposite is also true, viz., if an individual observes a feature of an event and it is inconsistent with the theory, then the observation disconfirms the theory.[15] Harman correctly remarks that before we conclude that an observation of an event disconfirms a theory, we must first decide whether the observation must instead be rejected. I would also add that we should not take Harman to mean that one inconsistent observation will completely undermine a theory. Certaintly, an inconsistent observation (under our understanding of confirmation) raises doubts about the theory. But I imagine that it would take more than one inconsistent observation to completely disconfirm a theory. Thus, it stands to reason that the strength of a theory includes the ability to confirm and disconfirm what features of an event count as confirmation and what features may or may not confirm a theory.[16]

            But now the question is this: how does this apply to the methods TAPS employs? In the simplest terms, TAPS methods and approach stem from a theory that minimally explains the observations that take place in the alleged hauntings they investigate. For example, let me describe a typical investigation of the members of TAPS. After receiving permission to investigate a house or some sort of structure, an assessment of the kinds of activity in the house is gathered, then according to the concepts of the theory of haunting, the appropriate kind of equipment is placed in the rooms of the house. For example, if a room is allegedly a hot spot for physical movement, e.g., chairs moving, etc., cameras and live video feeds are used. If a room is allegedly known for unexplainable noises, then recording devises are placed in the room, and so forth. When the equipment is set up, then the occupants of the house are normally required to leave and no one but a few select members of TAPS is allowed to be in the house.

Again, as the show sometimes demonstrates, let us suppose that a member observes a sound that sounds like a voice. On the occasion that a voice phenomena is picked up by the recording devise and the voice is clear enough to understand,[17] then the voice confirms their theory, and in fact this is correct.[18] As the show occasionally indicates, voices, which are not detectable by the normal hearing range of a human being, counts as confirmation of the theory of hauntings. To their credit, there is usually a (minimal) attempt to substantiate the confirming instance by eliminating a non-supernatural explanation. Additionally, on the occasion that other noises are detected by the recording devices, e.g., a loud bang, the investigation team attempts to find a reasonable natural explanation for the bang. When a natural explanation cannot be found, then, on their view, the noise counts as confirmation of the theory. I think this is also correct. Moreover, when an object is moved and detected by a live video feed, barring the obvious staging of the event by unknown individual, the event confirms the theory of haunting. When an electromagnetic field is detected, and when there is no obvious natural source for the field, e.g., when there are no electric junction boxes, this also counts as confirmation of the theory. Finally, cold spots and thermal images are also treated in the same way.

            The next point Harman discusses is more difficult to articulate, but that said, it points to the problematic aspect of the methods and approach of TAPS. Observation also plays another role in science, and he adds that it is a role that is a distinguishing aspect of a scientific theory.[19] In short his point is this: in science it is necessary to make assumptions about the facts you are trying to explain in order to make clear the occurrence of the observations that support a scientific theory.[20] Why is this important? Harman discusses two reasons. First, Harman adds that this is evidence for the theory to the extent that the theory can explain the existence of the features of the event better than competing theories can.[21] This is important because the observations of an individual are highly influenced by the psychological states of the individual, we have to rule out psychological states that are not relevant. Here’s what he says:


But, if his having made that observation could have been equally well explained by his psychological set alone, without the need for any assumptions about the features, then the observation would not have been evidence for the existence of [the fact to be explained] and therefore would not have been evidence for the theory.[22]


Harman underscores this point again by drawing out the critical role psychological state plays in science: “His making the observation supports the theory only because, in order to explain his making the observation, it is reasonable to assume something about the world over and above the assumptions made about the observer’s psychology.”[23]

            Harman’s second point is very subtle, and related to the first reason: “[T]he observation of an event can provide observation evidence for or against a scientific theory in the sense that the truth of that observation can be relevant to a reasonable explanation of why that observation was made.”[24] Here’s what I think he means. Although a theory tells us what is and is not relevant about the features of an event, it is only until we can support the truth of our observations (again by ruling out other competing theories and especially ruling out our tendency to rely too heavily on the reliability of our own psychological states) that we can confirm the truth of the theory we employ.[25]

            What is the implication for this second point for the theory of hauntings? As Harman indicates above, in order to confirm the truth of our observations, it is necessary to make assumptions about the facts we are trying to explain in order to make clear why our observations are not explainable by another theory or by our own psychological states. So, in this case, what are the assumptions that we need to make about spirits to explain objectively our observations? Although this is never discussed by the members of TAPS, I have come up with a list of four assumptions for active haunting that I have gathered from the show and website: 1. Spirits are a concentration of power. 2. They are conscious and possess intentions. 3. Spirits are disembodied, and, 4. Spirits can draw upon the physical sources of energy in the environment in order to manifest themselves. For example, in order for a spirit to manifest itself, i.e., to reflect light in order to be seen, to create sound waves in order to be heard, to create detectable smells, or to move physical objects, it must draw energy from known physical elements of our universe. As the show sometimes indicates, when a spirit intends to make itself known, it may drain the power of batteries (often the batteries of the cameras being used by investigation team), it may use the surrounding molecules of the environment, which the theory indicates is responsible for cold spots and is answerable for unexplainable thermal images and unexplainable electromagnetic fields.

            Although more discussion is needed, I will now (briefly) draw out the problematic aspects of the theory of hauntings used by TAPS. The first, and perhaps the most knotty aspect of the theory of hauntings, is the first assumption. The power of spirits, i.e., what they are essentially, is never discussed or if it is, the topic is glossed over very fast without much intellectual  discussion. But why is this problematic? The answer is that before we can explain why we make the observations we do during an (alleged) haunting, we need to know what spirits are. Unfortunately, as far as I know, no one knows the fundamental make up of spirits! And this leads me to my second criticism. Without knowing the elementary composition of spirits, the fourth assumption is radically undermined, i.e., we cannot know how it is possible for a spirit to draw upon the physical sources of energy contained within our environment.[26]

            Before I end this discussion, three objections to my view should be considered. First, someone might object that my discussion does not rule out the existence of spirits. I agree because my point is slightly different. I just want to show that the approach and the methods used by the members of TAPS, contrary to their own assessment and the assessment of others, is not a truly scientific approach. That said, without knowing what spirits are, I see no reason to believe in them. For example, when I hear or someone tells me that they saw a spirit or had some sort of supernatural experience, I take my queue from David Hume and reason in this way: Either they are attempting to deceive me, they have been deceived by someone else or there really are spirits.[27] Since spirits cannot be scientifically demonstrated to exist—and since I have never seen such activity—they must be attempting to deceive me or they have been deceived by someone else.

            The next objection is this: Although the causal chain from the assumptions of what spirits are to the observations of spirits is broken, the probability of the supernatural explanation is extremely high, and therefore reasonable to believe, because baring the staging of the events showcased on Ghost Hunters, a chair cannot move itself without some sort of supernatural intervention. Likewise, a voice detected by an electronic recording voice devise (i.e., a voice not measurable by the normal hearing range available to humans) or detectable audibly (and recorded) by an investigator with no obvious natural source, what other explanation is reasonable except a supernatural explanation? The point is this: if a supernatural explanation clarifies the abnormal occurrence in a haunting, then the abnormal occurrence would not occur without the supernatural event occurring first.

            I take this to be an interesting objection to my view because, like Harman’s own view, it turns on a version of what is called “Inference to the Best Explanation.” Although this idea is initially credited to C. S. Peirce, Harman is credited mainly as the scholar who has attempted to explain what it means and to explain its uses.[28] In rough terms, the rule of Inference to the Best Explanation states that if we have evidence E, and, say two competing hypotheses about E, viz., H and H’, we should infer the truth of H if it is a  better explanation of the E than H’.[29] Here’s what I take to be the structure of Harman’s rule:


1. If H explains E, then the assumptions about the feature of E explain the occurrence of the observation that one makes about the features of E. (The Observation Test)


2. H explains E better than any alternative H that satisfies the Observation Test. (The Competing Hypothesis Test)




3. H is the best explanation of E.


            I mention this issue because the second objection, as I mentioned earlier, employs a rule very similar to Harman’s rule. That said, there is an important difference between the two. Whereas Harman employs The Observation Test, the objection above employs what I call the Counterfactual Test. Here’s an outline of the rule:


1. If H explains E, then E would not occur without H occurring first. (The Counterfactual Test)[30]


2. H explains E better than any alternative H that satisfies the Counterfactual Test. (The Competing Hypothesis Test)




3. H is the best explanation of E.


            In the simplest terms, the objection argues—as do the members of TAPS on different occasions—that it is perfectly reasonable to believe that on certain occasions, the existence of a spirit is the best explanation of, say a chair moving, because the existence of a spirit explains the chair moving better than any alternative explanation that satisfies the Counterfactual Test. That is, since there isn’t a better explanation, the chair would not have moved without the presence of a spirit moving it.

            I have three responses to this objection. First, the Counterfactual Test is not satisfied because, as I argued earlier, without knowing what spirits are and how they can manipulate the environment, we cannot know whether the chair would not move without the presence of a spirit to move it. Second, even if we assume for the sake of argument that the Counterfactual Test is satisfied, there are many reasons to believe that the Competing Hypothesis Test is not satisfied. First, if we assume for the moment that the members of TAPS are honest people, their methods are often less than thorough. Two problems are worth noting. I have noticed that, on a number of separate occasions, the members of TAPS fail to thoroughly investigate an event that they declare to be a haunting or they fail to take seriously the importance of trying to reproduce the event they eventually declare to be a legitimate haunting.

One example of the first problem is illustrated in the episode where a light house in St. Augustine, FL, was investigated. Live camera feeds, focused on the internal circular stairwell and ceiling of the lighthouse, appeared to capture the presence of some sort of apparition on the stairs far above the members of TAPS. Several times, the apparition looked as if it had it hands on the railings as it looked down at the TAPS crew. The team went up to the very top of the lighthouse, but didn’t find anything. But here’s a simple point they failed to do: the members of TAPS did not dust for finger prints where they saw the apparition looking over the railing. In fact, there was no attempt to collect any kind of physical evidence to rule out the possible of an individual staging the event. There are other examples like this, but they are too numerous to mention.

            The second problem is just as serious as the first problem. That said, on several different occasions, the members of TAPS attempt to reproduce an event they are investigating in order to make sure the event is better explained in just natural terms. For example, when the occupant of a house complains about loud knockings or other kinds of noises, there is usually an attempt to see if there are loose pipes underneath the floor. On several episodes, the members of TAPS ruled out suspicious noises by locating loose pipes that shake when fluid passes through them. While such a skeptical attitude is commendable, the investigations are hardly consistent. For example, on one occasion, when a short image was detected by the thermal imaging device—roughly an image thought to be four feet tall—there was no attempt to reproduce the event.  Although there was an attempt to rule out the presence of some sort of animal, the members of TAPS did not think that there was any sort of natural explanation available.

            My last response to the objection points to whether the Counterfactual Test is an acceptable rule to use in alleged haunting investigations. Although it may be useful in certain contexts—even contexts like the one under consideration—it does not show that supernatural claims are empirically testable in the relevant sense under question. Let me briefly summarize my point. On the one hand, the Counterfactual Text can be used to point to features of a haunting that can explain things that can be observed. On the other hand, the Counterfactual Text cannot do the following: it cannot explain why the observations made during a haunting are the result of the causal interaction between the properties of a spirit and our sense perceptions. It is the second issue that has to hold if supernatural claims are to be tested in all the ways scientific claims can be tested.

            The final objection to my view is this. Harman argues, and I think appropriately, that in science it is necessary to develop a set of assumptions about the features of an event in order to explain the occurrence of the observations an individual makes about one or more of the features that make up the event. As he insists, this is the distinguishing aspect of a scientific theory. Unfortunately, as the objection goes, if this is true, then most of what we take to be (legitimate) science will not count as science per se. The reason is that, as it was related to me, it is not untypical for a scientist to begin an empirical research project without any assumptions about the features of an event that is the focus of the project. Again, as it was communicated to me, it is often the case that a scientist will begin an empirical research project without knowing what it is that they want to discover.[31] I have responses to both points.

            First, the latter point is just plainly false. I should think it very unlikely that scientists begin an empirical research project without knowing what they want to discover. On the contrary, an empirical research project always begins with a hypothesis that states what the scientist will attempt to prove. Second, the former point will not succeed either. The reason is that a legitimate scientific research project will not begin until a set of assumptions is developed about the features of an event that is the focus of the research project.

            In the end, I want to draw out four conclusions. First, without any reasonable discussion of the first and fourth assumptions discussed earlier, the observations TAPS team members make cannot be taken as evidence for the truth of the theory of hauntings. Thus, TAPS’ methods fail the test of a legitimate scientific approach to hauntings. Second, even though I have tried to be charitable to the members of TAPS by listing some of the assumptions associated with spirits—a discussion I believe is entirely missing from their literature—it would seem that we need only make assumptions about the psychology of the people who are making observations about the existence of spirits and hauntings. Again, if I am right about this second point, this also points to the mistake of calling their methods scientific. The explanatory chain from what spirits are to the observations that are made is broken. Fourthly, the Counterfactual Method typically employed by paranormal investigators cannot give them the empirical evidence they do desperately desire. Finally, this paper points to what is needed for a scientific approach to hauntings, a discussion largely missing in the popular account of hauntings, and, I dare say, a discussion that will never emerge.


[1] While I appreciate professional integrity the member of TAPS and their (albeit limited) skepticism, my intuitions tell me that the members are not prepared to reject their own theory in the light of defeating evidence.


[2] The show has investigated open areas and forests as well. For the purpose of my discussion, I will focus simply on the investigations that show case structures.


[3] As far as I know, the members of TAPS do not have any devises to document obnoxious or pleasant smells except for their own antidotal evidence.


[4] Gilbert Harman, “Ethics and Observations,” in Geoffrey Sayre-McCord (ed.), Essays on Moral Realism (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1988), 119-124. This essay was originally published as chapter 1 of Gilbert Harman, The Nature of Morality (New York: Oxford University Press), 3-10.


[5] Event = {e}.


[6] Event {e} = features {f1, f2, . . . , fn}.


[7] S observes feature {f2} of event {e}.


[8] Theory T = concepts {c1, c2, . . . cn}.


[9] Harman, “Ethics and Observation,” 120.


[10] If S observes a feature {f2} of an event {e}, then S hold some sort of theory T.


[11] If S has an observation (or belief) about a feature {f2} of an event {e}, then S understands some of the relevant concepts, say, {c2}, of theory T.


[12] Harman, “Ethics and Observation,” 121.


[13] Ibid.

[14] If S observes a feature {f2} of an event {e}, and feature {f2} is consistent with theory T, then the observation of {f2} confirms theory T.


[15] If S observes a feature {f2} of an event {e}, and feature {f2} is inconsistent with theory T, then the observation of {f2} disconfirms confirms theory T.


[16] Harman, “Ethics and Observation,” 121.


[17] I mention this point because the (so called) voices detected by the recording devises are not always understandable. They are often garbled. I have noticed that occasionally the members of TAPS are guilty of fudging an understanding of the meaning of the voice phenomena in much of the same way that people are guilty of seeing figures, e.g. rabbits, flowers, etc. in the formation of clouds.


[18] This is just a simple case of modus ponens: 1. If S observes a feature {f2} of an event {e}, and the feature {f2} is consistent with theory T, then the observation of {f2} confirms theory T. 2. During the event of an investigation, S (a member of TAPS) records a (understandable) voice phenomena and the electronic voice phenomena is consistent with the theory of haunting. Therefore, 3. The voice phenomena is confirmation of the theory of haunting. All of the other observations by the members of TAPS follow the same method of reasoning.


[19] Harman, “Ethics and Observation,” 121.


[20] In science it is necessary to develop a set of assumptions, e.g., {a1, a2, . . ., an} about the features {f1, f2, . . ., fn) of event {e} in order to explain the occurrence of the observations S makes about one or more of the features {f1, f2, . . ., fn} that make up the event {e}.


[21] If the assumptions {a1, a2, . . ., an} about the features {f1, f2, . . ., fn} of the event {e} best explains the occurrence of the observation S makes about the features {f1, f2, . . ., fn} of event {e}, then this counts as evidence for the truth of theory T.


[22] Harman, “Ethics and Observation,” 122.


[23] Ibid. If the observations of the features {f1, f2, . . ., fn) of the event {e} can be explained without any of the assumptions {a1, a2, . . ., an} about the features {f1, f2, . . ., fn} of event {e}, then the observations of the features {f1, f2, . . ., fn} of event {e} do not count as evidence for the truth of theory T.

[24] Ibid., 122.


[25] If S makes an observation about event {e} and the observation is determined to be true, i.e., it is determined that the assumptions {a1, a2, . . .,an} made about the features {f1, f2, . . ., fn} of event {e} best explain the occurrence of the observations S makes about the {f1, f2, . . ., fn} of event {e}, then the truth of the observation provides a reasonable explanation of why the observations of the event {e} was made.


[26] The argument is this: 1. If the observations of the features {f1, f2, . . ., fn) of the event {e} can be explained without any of the assumptions {a1, a2, . . ., an} about the features {f1, f2, . . ., fn} of event {e}, then the observations of the features {f1, f2, . . ., fn} of event {e} do not count as evidence for theory T. 2. The observations of the TAPS members made during an investigation can be explained without any of the assumptions about spirits. Therefore, 3. The observations made by the members of TAPS during an investigation do not count as evidence for the truth of theory of hauntings.


[27] David Hume, An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, Eric Steinbery (Ed.) 2nd Edition (Indianapolis and Cambridge: Hackett Publishing Company): 77.


[28] Bas C. van Fraaseen, The Scientific Image (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1980): 19.


[29] Ibid.


[30] Harman attributes the Counterfactual Test to Nicholas Sturgeon. Harman critiques and discusses the limitations of the Counterfactual Test in Gilbert Harman, “Moral Explanation of Natural Facts—Can Moral Claims be Tested against Moral Reality?” The Southern Journal of Philosophy, vol. xxiv (1986 Supplement), 57-68. My own discussion of the Counterfactual Test relies heavily upon Harman’s assessment.

The Counterfactual Test relies upon a counterfactual condition or subjunctive conditional which is a statement indicating what would be the case if its antecedent were true. This is contrasted with an indicative conditional, which indicates what is (in fact) the case if its antecedent is (in fact) true.

[31] Both points were related to me by my colleague, Associate Professor Eugene Schlossberger.

     George W. Bush claims that if a country knowingly harbors a group of terrorists, it is also guilty of terrorism itself. The public announcement of this position has led many people to believe that it is part of the reason why the Bush Administration invaded the sovereign nation of Afghanistan and even Iraq. I will assume that this is true for the purposes of this paper. Having said that, it will be argued here that such a position is woefully mistaken. The challenge is as follows. I will argue that the Bush Administration is mistaken because harboring an individual who commits a crime, does not automatically make one guilty of the same crime.

     Let me begin with an admission. There is a certain plausibility about the Bush Administration’s position. Here’s what I mean. When it was made public that the terrorist group al Qaeda was responsible for the 9/11 attacks, there was a great sense of moral outrage toward al Qaeda and its members. Additionally, when the media and the Bush Administration began to point the finger toward the Taliban Government of Afghanistan, it was easy, in a sense, to transfer that moral anger toward the Taliban Government as well. The reason is that it is natural to think that since the Taliban Government knew what al Qaeda was doing in Afghanistan—were they not harboring al Qaeda?—the Taliban Government should also equally share the blame for the 9/11 attacks as well.

     Unfortunately, I think there is a crucial mistake in the reasoning above. I want to illustrate my point with several different but related scenarios.

     Let’s begin with a simple example. Hillary is a bright young lady who has an unfortunate propensity toward criminal activity. Of course, Hillary did not start out this way. Her recent criminal activity is the product of a series of actions that began, as a matter of historical perspective, early on in her life. Little thefts here and there has eventually led her to embezzle thousands of dollars, as a bookkeeper, from a local home health organization. But here is an important fact: Hillary is acting alone because, although we may not believe that there is a perfect crime, Hillary’s accounting and computer skills make it easy for her to cover up what she is doing.

     Now what are we to think about this example? Certainly, since Hillary’s criminal activity is a causal consequence of her own actions, it is reasonable to assign moral culpability to her actions. And not only that, if she lives in a society with a just legal system (including a system modified by reasonable principles of proportionality), then whatever punishment someone deserves for embezzlement, Hillary certainly deserves that punishment. Let me add one more obvious point. If Hillary and some other individual, who works for the same company, knowingly embezzle money together from the same home health company, it stands to reason that both deserve the same punishment.[1]

     Now let’s change this example in order bring it closer in line with the claim in question. Let’s suppose that everything we just said about Hillary is true. And not only that, but let us assume for the moment that Hillary rents a bedroom in a private home in town. The owner’s name is Aubrey. Although Hillary and Aubrey are friends, Hillary has never shared with Aubrey what she is doing at work.

     What are we to make, if anything, of Aubrey’s involvement with Hillary’s criminal activity? Well, it certainly is true that Aubrey is harboring a criminal. And not only that, there is a real sense in which Aubrey has benefited from Hillary’s criminal activity in terms of the rent she receives from Hillary. However, I dare say that no one would want to say that Aubrey deserves any blame whatsoever; she does not deserve any moral culpability, and she has not broken any law. The reason is obvious: Aubrey has not assisted nor has she made it possible for Hillary to commit her criminal activities. In fact, Aubrey has no knowledge of what Hillary is doing at all. Having said that, my intuitions change as we increase Aubrey’s participation in Hillary’s criminal activity. Let’s turn toward two more examples.

     Let’s suppose that everything we said about Hillary in the beginning is true with one single difference: Hillary did not possess, at least initially, the knowledge of accounting and computers in order to pull off her embezzlement activities. Instead, Hillary was able to commit her acts because she was assisted by Aubrey. Here’s how the story goes.

      Shortly after Hillary moved in to Aubrey’s private residence, she confided to Aubrey her desire to steal funds from the home health organization she currently worked for. She was confident that, given the fact the owners dawdled over their duties, it may be possible to skim a certain amount of money off the top without anyone being worse for the ware. Unfortunately, because she does not have enough knowledge about accounting, she is too afraid of getting caught. Much to Hillary’s delight, Aubrey volunteers the information Hillary needs to successfully pull off the embezzlement.

     Now what of Aubrey’s involvement? It certainly has changed. Not only is it true that she is harboring a criminal, but she is assisting Hillary to commit the crime. But what does this mean? It means that although Aubrey does not actually embezzle the funds at work, she made a significant contribution to Hillary’s crime in terms of her knowledge of accounting, a crime that Hillary would not have been able to commit without Aubrey’s assistance.[2]

     But now the question is this: how much blame does Aubrey deserve? This is a little tricky to answer. The problem is that Aubrey is not directly involved. She is not changing the numbers, and she is not redirecting the funds to a personal account. In any case, my moral intuitions tell me that Aubrey assistance qualifies her for the same punishment Hillary deserves. The reason is that without Aubrey’s assistance, Hillary would not be able to carry out her criminal activity. Additionally, there is a real sense in which Aubrey is also benefiting from the money Hillary embezzles even if it is only in terms of the rent that Hillary pays her. Thus, although Aubrey is indirectly involved, she is still morally culpulable and legally responsible for the criminal activity.

     There is one last scenario to discuss. In this situation, Aubrey’s influence is less pronounced than it is above. Instead, in this case, Hillary is quite capable of conducting herself in the illegal activity. If this is the case, then what is Aubrey’s role? Instead of instructing Hillary how to embezzle money from the home health organization, Aubrey’s sin, as it were, is that she intentionally fails to turn Hillary in to the proper authorities. But not only this, Aubrey is still benefiting financially from Hillary’s illegal activities. Thus, by not informing the authorities and, thus, providing a safe haven for Hillary, Aubrey makes it possible for Hillary to commit her crimes.

     So, what sort of blame does Aubrey deserve in this latter circumstance? My moral intuitions tell me the following: since Aubrey knows about Hillary’s criminal activity, and since she has not taken any measures to curtail Hillary’s criminal activity, Aubrey deserves some blame. But how much blame does she deserve? That’s not clear. Does she deserve the same amount as Hillary? Pretty clearly she does not. The reason is that she has not participated directly or even indirectly with Hillary’s illegal activity.

     Before we turn back to the original issue of the Taliban Government and al Qaeda, what is the moral of the story from the three scenarios above? Clearly, what they show is three things. First, they show that if an individual knowingly harbors a criminal, e.g., like Aubrey did for Hillary, it does not automatically mean that the individual participates in the criminal activity. Second, since the individual, who harbors a criminal, participation may vary—as Aubrey’s participation varied, it would be utterly wide of the mark to automatically assign the same amount blame, whether moral or legal, to both individuals. Finally, since an individual, who harbors a criminal, participation may vary, and since it is unreasonable to assign the same amount of blame, then it requires no extraordinary perception to discern that before blame is assigned, it must be determined how much or how little the individual participated in the criminal activity.

     Now let’s turn back to the Bush Administration’s claim that that if a country knowingly harbors a group of terrorists, it is also guilty of terrorism itself. What are we to make of such a position? It has become perfectly evident that such a viewpoint is mistaken. Again, without sounding too redundant, it is mistaken because, as the scenarios earlier show, a individual, who harbors a criminal, may or may not be involved with the criminal activity. Thus, if it is possible that an individual, who harbors a criminal, participation may vary, then it is reasonable to assume, as well as possible, that a country, which harbors a terrorist group, may or may not be involved with the activity of the terrorists. Thus, it needs no great play of imagination to see that the Bush Administration’s position is false.

     Having dispensed with the Bush Administration’s position, there is still the real world issue of how much the Taliban Government participated in the activities of al Qaeda. What do we know? We do know that the Taliban Government harbored al Qaeda. We also know that the Taliban Government knew that al Qaeda was a terrorist group. Additionally, we know that the Taliban Government benefited from the financial resources of al Qaeda in terms of rent. But what is still unclear is whether the Taliban Government directly helped al Qaeda in its terrorist activities, whether it assisted al Qaeda in its terrorist activities, or whether the Taliban Government made it possible for al Qaeda. If the first two apply to the Taliban Government, then pretty clearly its involvement with al Qaeda would make it guilty of the same criminal activity. However, if only the third position applies, then although the Taliban Governement deserves some blame, it does not deserve to be labeled a terrorist Administration. The Bush Administration would have us believe that the Taliban directly helped or assisted al Qaeda. Unfortunately, the evidence of such a view is still forthcoming.

     What of the Taliban’s role in the 9/11 attack? Again, how much al Qaeda benefited from the Taliban’s involvement before 9/11 is a moot point. We must still determine whether the Taliban Government directly helped, assisted, or whether it made it possible for al Qaeda to attack the United States. There are two points to underscore. First, there is no evidence that shows beyond a reasonable doubt that the Taliban Government was directly involved or assisted al Qaeda to attack the United States. Second, if the facts about al Qaeda’s wealth and resources was true, then it points to the fact that al Qaeda did not need the Taliban’s Government to help it attack the United States. Although these two points do not show conclusively that the Taliban Government was not directly involved or assisted al Qaeda, it does paint a reasonable picture of the Taliban’s role in 9/11: the Taliban Government does not deserve the same amount of blame al Qaeda deserves.

     We are now in a position to discuss whether the invasion of the sovereign nation of Afghanistan was justifiable. Pretty clearly the answer is no. The reason is that the government of Afghanistan did not attack the United States, and, thus, create a state of war between itself and the United States. No doubt the Taliban Government should bear some responsibility. Of course, this is true. But they did not attack us—al Qaeda attacked us. Additionally, not only did Afghanistan not attack us, there was no evidence—and there still is none—to show that Afghanistan had a sedate and settled design to go war with us. Without either one of these reasons, the Bush Administration’s invasion of Afghanistan is morally unjustified [4].

So thought Samuel Zinaich, Jr. 2006             


[1] This example follows from the following definitions and corollaries. Definition No. 1: S intentionally commits crime C means that the act of crime C is a causal consequence of the intentional actions of S. From this definition follows two corollaries: 1. If S intentionally commits crime C, then S deserves punishment D. And 2. If S and R intentionally commit crime C, the S and R deserve the same punishment D. The definitions and corollaries employ capital letters R, S, C, and D.  The letters R and S are placeholders for individual people.  The letters C and D are placeholders for a specific crime and a specific punishment, respectively.  Letters like this are used in order to show that the definitions and corollaries apply across the board to different people, crimes, and punishments. 

[2] The second example stems from the following definition: R intentionally assists S to commit crime C at time t means that (1) S intentionally commits crime C at t and (2) at t-1 the actions of R have a contributing causal consequence on the act of crime C, and (3) S will not be able to commit crime C without R. Corollary. 3. If R intentionally assists S to commit crime C, then R (as well as S) deserves punishment D. A note about the language of the second definition is in order. The second, and as we shall see, the third definition, and even the corollaries utilize time locutions.  Although such phrases are awkward, they are needed in this discussion to indicate two things: First, when a person commits a crime, it takes place at a specific time.  This is, of course, obvious.  To make this clear, I add the phrase “at time t” where “t” is a placeholder for an appointed, fixed, or customary moment or hour.  Second, when a crime is committed at a specific time, there may be other people, prior to the time of the crime, whom assist or make it possible for the crime to be committed.  To make this clear, I add the phrase “at t-1” which reads “at time minus 1.”  This means that before the crime is committed, there are actions taken at some prior time that assist or make it possible for the crime to be committed. 

[3] Definition No. 3: R intentionally makes it possible for S to commit crime C at time t means that the act of crime C at time t by S is an ameliorating consequence of R’s action at t-1 and R’s help is not necessary for S to commit crime C. Corollary 4. If R intentionally makes it possible for S to commit a crime C, then R does not deserve punishment D. To ameliorate means to make better or more tolerable. 

[4] For a fuller account of this position, see John Locke, Two Treaties of Government, and see my unpublished paper entitled “John Locke on War,” in this same blog.

The inexcusable breach of trust and confidence created by the current Bush Administration has underscored a warning, which we dare not ignore. Political fakery, blind partisanship, and public apathy will erode the foundation of liberty, justice, and equality. Unfortunately, countering the waters that are washing away the foundations of our society is no easy task. Nevertheless, simple or not, it is the purpose we are faced with. Therefore, to fulfill our purpose it is necessary to begin in the following way: we must see clear and think straight. Therefore, it is of inestimable value to consult scholars who may have solid contributions to our situation. John Locke (1632-1704) is one such scholar. His views, recorded in the Two Treatises of Government, represent not merely his own intellectual energy dedicated to political theory; on the contrary, his opinions are founded upon the best teacher of all, viz., experience. Locke faced many political and social disasters that ultimately lead to war and to the basis of his political viewpoints. Therefore, it is the aim of this paper to discuss Locke’s view of war. Such a discussion is decidedly worthwhile for our time as it was Locke’s day. Having said this, I must qualify the goal of my paper. Although I offer some critical remarks, the emphasis is primarily exegetical. It is offered primarily as an expose of Locke’s mind and not so much as a traditional philosophical critique, which no doubt later will come.

Locke on the State of War

Locke’s chapter on war proceeds with a discussion of the nature of war. He brings up two issues: What is war? And how is a state of war initiated? I will be quite brief in discussing the first question. The second is the most controversial and most important to understand Locke’s viewpoint. War, or what Locke calls a “state of war,” is a state of enmity and destruction. The term “state” does not seem to play any helpful technical role. It simply means a condition or situation. The description he offers is not helpful either. It is roughly tautological. In other words, when one thinks of a situation in which a war takes place, there is a tendency to associate with it the hostility and the devastation found in war torn context.

The question of how a state of war is initiated is more important in Locke’s mind. A state of war begins with the declaration of an intention by word or action to begin a war. He points out that such an intention must be specific. It is not simply a passionate or hasty declaration of one’s intention to kill someone else; on the contrary, the intention must indicate, what he calls, “a sedate setled Design.” I will try to make clear the difference.

In our contemporary context, the term “sedate” is normally associated with the inducing of a relaxed psychological state by means of a drug or mediation. Locke’s use is a little different. The word “sedate” initially appeared in the English language around 1663, and it was used to indicate the keeping a quiet steady attitude or pace. The term “setled” also has its own contemporary use. It can mean to make quiet as in the phrase: “You guys settle down!” It can mean to adjust an account: “Sir, the problems in your account appear to be settled now.” Or it can refer to how a heavy object settled to the bottom of the riverbed. Finally, it is also used with the word “down” to indicate an orderly life: “Jim has settled down.”

None of the meaning appear to grasp what Locke has in mind. What he means is something akin to establishing or securing something permanently. If this is correct, then what this adds is that the intention to kill must have a permanent character to it.

Although the word “design” has it contemporary uses, its meaning is more familiar. Here Locke refers to a particular purpose held in view by an individual. Together then what Locke means is that the intention to kill (whether articulated by word or action) by an individual must be the purpose he has in mind and the individual’s attitude toward this purpose must be steady and permanent.

It takes no great play of imagination to see the difference between this outlook and the one mentioned early is clearer. A passionate threat does not represent the kind of permanence Locke has in mind for the initiation of a state of war because the threat is, in most case, extinguished with the loss of the passion. A hasty threat does not epitomize what he means either because words spoken in haste typically do not have the deep intention normally reserved for more permanent attitudes.

Before he illustrates the practical nature of his view, Locke draws an important conclusion. He maintains that it is morally permissible to kill someone who attempts to create a state of war. This is true because, as Locke argues, the predator has given up the common law of reason that states that since all people are free and equal, no one ought to harm another in his life, heath Liberty or possessions. And for this same reason, he “may be treated as Beasts of Prey, those dangerous and noxious Creatures, that will be sure to destroy him, whenever he falls into their prey.”

To illustrate the practical nature of his view of war, Locke discusses two different cases. The first case concerns the attempts of an individual to gain absolute power over another, and the second case concerns why it is permissible to kill a thief. Although, Locke’s first case appears to be aimed at any monarchy that claims for itself absolute power, he also draws implications for slavery as well.

Locke’s discussion begins with general terms that express what happens when one individual claims absolute power over another. Locke makes clear that such an action creates a state of war because it represents “a Declaration of a Design upon his life.” His reasoning is basically this. If an individual attempts to create this relationship with someone else without first soliciting the other’s consent, his intention is to take away the other’s right to freedom and to enslave him. Once this relationship is established, Locke adds that such a relationship makes it possible to kill the other whenever he wants to. So anyone one who attempts to create a relationship must be seen to as creating a state of war and as a consequence, it is morally permissible to kill him.

Locke also adds that a thief may also be killed. Although my intuitions veer off here, Locke reasons in the following way. Locke argues that if someone uses force or the threat of force to steal money or what he pleases, the victim must see him as someone who, once he establishes this relationship, would take away my liberty, and my life. As a result, the thief creates a state of war and thus exposes himself to being killed. Interestingly enough Locke even reasons that his applies to a thief who does not have a “sedate setled Design to kill the people he will rob.

I think my intuitions veer off for this reason. Locke’s second argument depends upon a slippery slope argument. A slippery slope argument is an argument in which a person asserts that allowing a little of event X will inevitable bring about event Y. Typically, when someone uses a SSA, there is a series of steps or graduations that follow from X and eventually lead to Y. Again, typically, but not necessarily, SSA are used to show that if we allow a little of X, there will be steps that will lead to Y, which has untoward consequences even though, X, considered by itself, may not seem particularly objectionable. Again my problem is not with SSA. My problem is with the way Locke uses SSA. In other words, once a thief establishes his intentions with force or the threat of force, I (as the victim) have to assume that he will not stop there. In other words, once the thief understands his position, I have to assume that he will take the next step and kill me. Let me unpack this a little bit more.

I can think of three different types of slippery slopes: logical, causal, and psychological. Roughly, a logical slippery slope would be discussion about the logical connection ideas have. For example, a minister told me once that he de-emphasized the notion of God’s foreknowledge because he was a afraid that his congregation would figure out all actions are determined by God, and that they are not ultimately responsible for their actions.

A causal slippery slope may be something like this. As the name suggests, a causal slippery slope is a discussion about how two events are causally related. For example, suppose two young people discover a loaded revolver in their parent’s bedroom. Without knowing the serious causal consequences of playing with the revolver, the gun fires and one child is wounded. Or suppose these two young people are playing with matches in a forrest. Like the earlier example, although there was no intention of causing an untoward event, nevertheless, because of the carelessness of the two young adults, the forrest is set ablaze.

The psychological slippery slope is roughly something like this. Perhaps, through experience, when I hear or think of something, I also have a tendency to think of something else. For example, suppose that, in a conversation, an individual praises the profession of our political leaders. My reaction may certainly be understandable: I react with the view that the slightest modicum of common sense would teach that our political leaders are not to be trusted. In other words, what I think of is not logically or causally related. I just do it as a matter of experience.

My question is this: which of these does Locke have in mind? Here is what Locke specifically states: “because using force, where he has no Right, to get me into his Power, let his pretence be what it will, I have no reason to suppose, that he, who would take away my Liberty, would not when he had me in his Power, take away every thing else.” At first glance, I think he has the psychological one in mind. If this is true, then if I am taken at gunpoint and robbed, according to Locke, I have to assume that the robber’s moral psychology (regardless of what he really has in mind) is such that once he realizes his power, his experience as a thief will (non-causally or non-logically) lead him to take more than just my money. I have to assume that he will also kill me as well.

Three problems, in particular bear notice. All the problems concern what evidence there is that harms will actually follow. First, although I do not have any sympathy for someone who might rob me, my intuitions tell me that it would be wrong for me to kill a thief without knowing a bit more about his intentions. Second, I do not see why the habituation that is needed to make someone a thief will also turn him into a murderer. Finally, without any evidence of the outcome, I do not see why I have to assume a worse case scenario even in a dangerous situation as a robbery.

Locke’s discussion turns very quickly to a topic that is often used to signal the difference between Locke’s view of war and Thomas Hobbes’s view of war in the Leviathan. Whereas Hobbes collapses both together, Locke initially attempts to keep them separate: “And here we have the plain difference between the State of Nature, and the State of War, which however some Men have confounded, are as far distant, as a State of Peace, Good Will, Mutual Assistance, and Preservation, and a State of Enmity, Malice, Violence, and Mutual Destruction are one from another.” The distinction Locke makes should be noted. Contrary to Hobbes, Locke paints the state of nature as a culture winsome in appearance. Whereas the state of war is a state that not only wearies, but disgusts sensible men.

So far the discussion has centered around what war is, and how it is initiated. It comes as no surprised then that Locke brings up the subject matter of the cessation of war. There are three scenarios that Locke discusses: war within a civil society, war within a society whose justice system has been perverted, and war within the state of nature. I will briefly discuss the first two and leave the last one for the next discussion.

If a war takes place within civil society, Locke argues that war ceases immediately when the actual force is over. It is at that time that the civil authority may be sought to rectify the past injuries, and to prevent future harms. War within a perverted civil society is a different issue. In this context, the authorities in place sanction and protect the violence organized against the innocent. As a result, the innocent parties no longer have the right to a fair determination of the law by an unbiased judge. Instead, Locke points out that their last hope is an appeal to heaven.

To make clear his point, Locke appeals to the story of Jephtha and the Ammonites. The story goes something like this. The Israelites turned away from God and began to worship the gods, Ba al and Ashtoreth. They were the gods of Syria, Sidon, Moab, Ammon, and the Philistines. As punishment for this, God sent the armies of the Philistines and the Ammonites, and they defeated the Israelites and consequently occupied their land. In desperation, with no where else to turn, the elders and the people of Israel turned to heaven and pleaded with God to deliver them from the hands of their enemies. God directed the Elders of Israel to make contact with a warrior named Jephthah. When they did, the Elders pleaded with him to lead them against the Ammonites. Jephthah agreed and became head and commander of Israel. The story ends with Jephthah’s victory over the Ammon and the Ammonites.

According to Peter Laslett, this is apparently one of the crucial stories for Locke about civil society and justice. For Locke, and (apparently) for even Grotius and St. Augustine, the time of the Judges represents a stage between the state of nature and the establishment of the first King and the early Israelite civil society. In other words, Locke argues that in a context as desperate as the Israelites, there appears to be only one last recourse, but to appeal to heaven. But here is the crucial point. It is this kind of situation within the state of nature (even though it is intermittent) that is the “one great reason of Mens putting themselves into Society, and quitting the State of Nature.”

War in the State of Nature

By far the most attention that Locke gives to the topic of war is when war takes place within the state of nature. This is no less true for Locke’s chapter on war than it is for Locke’s chapter on the state of nature. I will summarize Locke’s thoughts on the state of nature and draw our attention again to his chapter on war.

Initially, Locke describes the state of nature as a time prior to the establishment of a civil authority. Specifically, it is a time where there is no legal system in place, including no impartial judges to hear cases or to make laws. Additionally, there is no legal system in place to enforce the laws. Even though there is no civil society, contrary to Hobbes, the state of nature still has a law. It is not state of unbridled liberty. The state of nature has a law of nature to govern it. The law of nature apparently teaches each person that since all people are born free and equal, “no one ought to harm another in his Life, Health, Liberty, or Possessions.” Since there are no judges in the state of nature to enforce law of nature, the execution of the law of nature is given to every person in the state of nature. This gives every person the right to punish the violators of the law of nature. But this does not mean we can do whatever we want to the violator. The right of punishment is constrained. Punishment must be inhibited by what calm reason and conscience dictates, and also one other element. The punishment must be “proportionate to his Transgression.” In other words, Locke makes clear that the punishment that is proportionate to the crime is determined primarily by what will serve for the right of reparation and the right of restraint.

Locke discusses the right of restraint first. The right of restraint in the state of nature may only be invoked under certain conditions. The offender must violate one of the precepts of the law of nature, and when he does this, Locke adds that “the Offender declares himself to live by another Rule, than that of reason and common Equity. . . .” The other right is called the right of reparation. This right gives the victim the right to recover “from the Offender, so much as may make satisfaction for the harm he has suffer’d.” Locke also adds something else. Although a third party may help the victim restrain the offender (as long as “his own Preservation comes not in competition”), the third party may not demand any reparation from the offender. The observant reader (or listener) may notice that Locke has not (so far) made the connection between someone who violates the law of nature and someone who initiates a state of war. Fortunately, he draws this connection in the next section. He uses the obvious example of murder. Locke reasons that every person has a right to kill a murderer because the murderer “hath by the unjust Violence and Slaughter he hath committed upon one, declared War against all Mankind, and therefore may be destroyed as a Lyon or a Tyger, one of those wild Savage Beasts, with whom Men can have no Society nor Security.” Here is what I think he means: when a person commits murder in the state of nature, his action creates a state of war so the victims of the family and anyone else may seek out and kill the offender in order to accomplish two things: deter others from doing the same and to secure others from the actions of the murderer. The right of reparation he points out does not apply because the murder victim cannot be compensated.

Immediately after this point Locke writes: “And upon this is grounded the great Law of Nature, Who so sheddeth Mans Blood, by Man shall his Blood be shed. And Cain was so fully convinced, that every one had a Right to destroy such a Criminal, that after the Murther of his Brother, he cries out, Every one that findeth me, shall slay me; so plain was it writ in the Hearts of all Mankind.” A couple of questions about this line of argument are in order. First, why does Locke make reference to passages in the Scriptures? It appears to be an attempt to show that his views have Scriptural justification (even though I do not think it is really necessary to do so). [Laslett comments that Locke equates the Scriptural command with the law of nature (274).] This is clearly a misunderstanding of Locke’s text. In other words, Locke wants to maintain that the two normative entitlements of the law of nature, viz., that it is permissible for the victim’s family and for anyone else in the state of nature to kill a murderer, are warranted by the Scriptures. Second, if we suppose that the Scriptures may be used as a source of justification for normative political claims, do the Scriptures in fact support Locke’s points? The answer is no. First, Locke’s appeal to Genesis 9: 6 assumes that the command given to Noah and his family is still relevant for seventeenth century Christians. Second, Locke assumes that the same verse is actually a command. Third, Locke’s reference to Cain and Abel at Genesis 4: 14 is actually taken out of context. Here is why I think this is true. After God discovers that Cain murdered Abel, God curses Cain in the following way: “So now you are cursed from the earth, which has opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand. When you till the ground, it shall no longer yield its strength to you. A fugitive and a vagabond you shall be on the earth.” In other words, God’s punishment for Cain is banishment from his community and the removal of his ability to sustain himself through agricultural means. Cain’s response to this punishment is a little different: “Surely You have driven me out this day from the face of the ground; I shall be hidden from Your face; I shall be a fugitive and a vagabond on the earth, and it will happen that anyone who finds me will kill me.” The story ends with this final verse: “And the Lord said to him, “Therefore, whoever kills Cain, vengeance shall be taken on him sevenfold.”

Although the context of this story is pretty clear, Locke seeming ignores the background of the story and instead he attempts to use Cain’s response to God’s curse as a justification for the claim that all people in the state of nature have the right to be executioners of the law of nature. Unfortunately, on my reading of the story, no such right is mentioned or even implied. In fact, the last verse speaks against such a right.

Although there are other important topics in Locke’s chapter on the state of nature, I will now discuss his views of the state of nature in his chapter on war. Again, the first time he discusses the state of nature in the chapter on war, he emphasizes the difference between the state of war and the state of nature. They are not the same; instead, war is created in the state of nature when one individual uses force or a declaration of force to harm another in his life, health, liberty, or possessions. This, as I pointed out, even applies to a thief. In fact, Locke argues we may kill a thief even if we are in a civil society. He argues that where the civil authority cannot protect me from a thief, in order to secure my own life (which if lost, is capable of no reparation) the right of war, which is a liberty to kill the offender, morally permits the offender to be killed. The last point for war within the state of nature concerns the cessation of war. Earlier, as I pointed out, Locke makes clear that in civil society a war ends primarily when the violence stops. Unfortunately, war does not end so easily in the state of nature. War in the state of nature is only ended when three (maybe four) conditions are met. Once war begins, the innocent party has a right to pursue the aggressor “until the aggressor offers Peace, and desires reconciliation on such Terms, as may repair any wrongs he has already done, and secure the innocent for the future.” As I understand this point, war does not end with just an offer of peace. On the contrary, the offender must also exhibit certain peace-making characteristics. He must consent to the settlement and appeasement that the victim desires. He must also be genuinely willing to make repair for the destruction he caused, and he must be willing to give evidence that he will not act like this in the future.

War Between Nations

Like Thomas Hobbes, Locke employs the concept of the state of nature to give us an explanation for why political societies form. It is an important tool employed by both because it illustrates quite plausibly (even if hypothetically) why people “join and unite into a community for their comfortable, safe, and peaceable living” (II §95). The unhappy situation is that there are a lot of worries associated with using the concept because there are critics that have argued that no such time ever existed. But what exactly does this objection come to? Apparently, to this conclusion: minimally, it takes away the plausibility of Locke’s explanation for the creation of civil societies.

Is there any evidence in favor of the existence of the state of nature? Locke thought so. His point, in short, is this. The world never was, nor ever will be, without a state of nature because, in reference to one another, all independent governments are in a state of nature (II §14 and §183). Of course, one might immediately point out the following objection. How can a state of nature exist between independent countries? Doesn’t every country have some sort of alliance with another country? Locke was aware of this objection and he responded in this way: Not every compact or alliance ends the state of nature. A state of nature is ended only when there is a mutual agreement “to enter into one community, and make one body politic” (II §14).

But what kind of body politic is needed to end the state of nature between nations? I imagine that we are talking about a one-world government. But it cannot be a government in the sense of a monarchy. The reason is this. One of the primary concerns for Locke in the Two Treatises concerns the origins of political society. Typically his discussion has both descriptive as well as normative aspects. Locke’s analysis of monarchies is a perfect example of this. Not only does he illustrate how and why monarchies exist, but he also discusses why monarchies are not true political societies. Locke reasons that the legislative and the executive powers are in the hands of one man alone (II §90). This undermines the possibility of a securing relief or redress that may be inflicted by the King because there is no common judge who may fairly and indifferently judge between them (II §91). Locke concludes that “there those persons are still in the state of nature; and so is every absolute prince, in respect of those who are under his dominion” (II §90) and as a result, all monarchies are “inconsistent with civil society, and so can be no form of civil government at all” (II §90).

Unfortunately, until something like that comes about, each nation remains in a state of nature with reference to each other. Initially, this point does not appear to be to problematic because, as the analogy goes, since all nations are free and equal, no one nation ought to harm another nation in terms of its life, health, liberty or possessions. It is agreed by the vast majority of scholars that this is so. Regrettably, it is what follows that is a cause for much anxiety. Since, in reference to one another, each nation is in a state of nature, each nation has the power to be the executioners of the law of nature. This means that each nation has two distinct rights, the one of punishing for restraint other nations, which violate the law of nature; the other of taking reparation. Of course, although the execution of the law of nature must be constrained by the law of nature, my question is this: who or what is going to make sure that a nation, which employs a law enforcement institution or a military multiplex, will stay within those boundaries? Additionally, who or what will make sure that the requirements for peace will be followed? In fact, Locke worries about this same point about the state of nature. He remarks that there is more than a strong tendency for individuals to step outside of the precepts of the law of nature when they are judges in their own case, including the self-love that will make men partial to themselves and to their friends. Indeed, Locke recommends that such inconveniences are only remedied by the formation of government. Therefore, while Locke’s initial point appears to be reasonable, his additional points rob each nation of the tranquility that is needed for global cooperation and agreements.

War Between Nations and Non-citizens

Later, Locke adds the following point. Not only does a state of nature exist between independent nations, a state of nature exists between a nation and an individual, who is not a member of that society. “So that under this consideration, the whole community is one body in the state of nature, in respect of all other states or persons out of its community” (II §145). The upshot is that whatever conclusions we may draw from the analogy for the interaction between nations must also apply to the interaction between a nation and a non-citizen of that nation.

War and the Dissolution of Governments

The last discussion concerns Locke’s examination of the dissolution of government. Specifically, the context concerns just how secure the foundation of a government is when it is based upon the consent of its citizens. Locke asks the following questions: Can such a republic stand upon such a flimsy base? Will not such an arrangement inevitably give way to frequent rebellion? Locke’s carefully crafts his answer in three replies of which the second and third add to our understanding of the state of war. What we see is that under certain circumstances, the actions of politicians and rebels may actually introduce a state of war, and the unfortunately reintroduce the state of nature.

First, Locke makes clear that although civil society rests upon consent of its members, the citizens of this republic are not so easily persuaded to give in to the temptation of revolution or rebellion. Perhaps from his own experience (Locke lived through the England’s civil war), Locke remarks that citizens often put up with many abuses and mistakes with great patience. However, he does mention that there are extreme conditions in which the citizens will not placidly bear the strain of a corrupt government. Instead, these same citizens will endeavor to put the rule of the government back into the proper hands “to secure to them the ends for which Government was at first erected: and without which, ancient Names, and specious Forms, are so far from being better, that they are much worse, than the state of Nature, or pure Anarchy; the inconveniencies being all as great and as near, but the remedy farther off and more difficult.”

Although in this reply Locke attempts to play down, so to speak, the potential for rebellion among the citizens of a government formed primarily by consent, in the next reply (§ 226) Locke makes the potential for rebellion a deep virtue for such a republic. Locke reasons that the leaders of society and civil government will think twice before making the situation too miserable for its citizens because the citizens know what is at stake: “For when Men by entering into Society and Civil Government, have excluded force, and introduced Laws for the preservation of Property, Peace, and Unity amongst themselves; those who set up force again in opposition to the Laws, do Rebellare, that is, bring back again the state of War, and are properly Rebels.”

Like the passage discussed earlier, Locke appears to make a case that once the foundations of civil society are sufficiently undermined, the state of nature and a state of war is automatically reintroduced. In fact, one scholar, Richard Cox, attempts to make a case that Locke moves away from his early view that both are different to a view that they coextensive. This is certainly one reasonable interpretation. But there is a problem that Cox appears to miss. Cox fails to understand that the passages at § 225 and § 226 discuss a specific example. That is, Locke specifically concentrates on what happens to a civil society that is successfully destabilized by violent means. Thus it would make sense to pronounce that a state of war (or a state of anarchy) is introduced because of the sedate and settled design of the rebels. But does this have to imply that the state of nature and the state of war are the same? Not yet, at least. Again, as I understand Locke’s initial account of the state of war at the beginning of the Second Treatise (§§ 16-21), a state of war is introduced by specific criteria. It is not, as Hobbes contends, a time of fear and suspicion. What we need is a statement by Locke that makes clear that any sort of dissolution of the civil society introduces not just a state of nature but also a state of war. Although I do not think such a passage is forthcoming, § 227 comes pretty close to what we need.

Locke begins § 227 in the following way: “In both the forementioned Cases, when either the Legislative is changed, or the Legislators act contrary to the end for which they were constituted; those who are guilty are guilty of Rebellion.” The following point may be noticed at once. The quotation lists, what appears to be, two different conditions. The government can be dissolved when the Legislative is changed (without the consent of its citizens) or it can be dissolved when the members of the Legislative branch of the government act in some way that undermines the government. My intuitions, at this point, tell me that the distinction is important. The point, in short, is this. A civil government can be changed by non-violent or by violent means. But does the text support such a distinction? If it does, then we may have nearly resolute evidence for collapsing the state of nature and the state of war together. In fact, in the rest of the passage, Locke states the same. In short the argument is this.

First, in the same paragraph (§ 227), Locke discusses separately both conditions I just mentioned. This means, at least, that he has in mind that a government may be dissolved in different ways. Second, when he discusses the first condition, he appears to have something close to what I have articulated. “They, who remove, or change the Legislative, take away this decisive power, which no Body can have, but by the appointment and consent of the People.” Whatever change Locke has in mind, it appears he does not mean a violent overthrow. But here is the upshot. He concludes that “introducing a Power, which the People hath not authoriz’d , they actually introduce a state of War, which is that of Force without Authority: And thus by removing the Legislative establish’d by the Society . . . they unty the Knot, and expose the People a new to the state of War.”

Finally, in the same passage, Locke discusses the second condition. Here it is clear that, unlike the first condition, Locke has in mind the violent dissolution of a civil government. “And if those, who by force take away the Legislative, are Rebels, the Legislators themselves, as has been shewn, can be no less esteemed so; when they, who were set up for the protection, and preservation of the People, their Liberties and Properties, shall by force invade, and indeavour to take them away; and so they putting themselves into a state of War with those, who made them the Protectors and Guardians of their Peace. . . .”

Taken together these passages appear to paint a different outlook of Locke’s state of nature. The state of war is not just a possible intermittent, temporary time during the state of nature, it appears to be coextensive with the state of nature. Nevertheless, Cox anticipates skeptics at this point and adds the following thought for our consideration: “. . . what can Locke mean by the expressions “bring back again the state of war” and “expose the people anew to the state of war except that the state prior to or without government is the state of war?”

In conclusion, it requires no extraordinary perception to discern two things. First, although this was not the focus of my paper, our current presidential administration has raised serious problems for the stability of our country and the global community. Second, Locke’s clarity of mind in the Second Treatise about war may help us to think straight about our own situation, and his thoughts may give us the ability to repair the sea wall Bush and his administration has torn down with a bit of fine-spun fallacious reasoning.

So thought Samuel Zinaich, Jr., April 20, 2004.

Philosophy by sartre
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