Aristotle on Moral Responsibility. – book reviews
Oxford: Basil Blackwell Publishers, 1993. Pp. 210. H/b 40.00.
Two equal and opposite responses to Aristotle’s ethics, both typical of modem moral philosophy, both presuppose the truth of some famous remarks made by Elizabeth Anscombe:
If someone professes to be expounding Aristotle and talks in a modem
fashion about “moral” such-and-such, he must be very imperceptive
if he does not constantly feel like someone whose jaws have
somehow got out of alignment: the jaws don’t come together in a
proper bite. (Anscombe, “Modern Moral Philosophy”, Philosophy,
The first response to the yawning gap which Anscombe sees between Aristotle and modem moralists is to conclude that it shows that Aristotle must have been doing moral philosophy the wrong way. This option seems to be commonly, if largely tacitly, taken by utilitarians–at least when they are not engaged in heroic attempts to recruit Aristotle to their own forces.
The other response is to conclude instead that we modems must be doing moral philosophy the wrong way. This of course was Anscombe’s own conclusion. Today positions significantly like hers are being elaborated by several writers, in particular Bernard Williams in Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy and in papers, before and since, on moral responsibility.
Meyer’s new book is a response to Williams’ and others’ insistence on keeping Anscombe’s gap open. She concentrates specifically on the gap as it is supposed to appear in the case of what Aristotle says or fails to say on the subject of moral responsibility.
So which of our two responses to Anscombe’s gap does Meyer display? Neither. Instead she denies the gap. Of course she admits that between Aristotle and us there are some differences of approach to moral questions, and specifically to the question of moral responsibility. But these are not (in her view) so wide and so important that impasse is inevitable, or the gap unbridgeable. “The project of this book” (she tells us, p. 3) “is to argue, on the contrary, that Aristotle’s concerns and aims in his various discussions of voluntariness are precisely those of a theorist of moral responsibility”–in the modem sense of that phrase.
Meyer gives a catalogue of the difficulties in the way of her project–the very difficulties, of course, that prompted the original postulation of what I have been calling Anscombe’s gap. She sees four main problems (pp. 2-3):
1. If Aristotle “thinks that praise and blame are justified not on the basis
of the agent’s merit or desert, but rather on the basis of their contribution
to the formation and control of the agent’s character”, then
“Aristotle’s concern with the conditions of [praise and blame] is not
a concern with moral responsibility.”
2. According to Aristotle, some agents (children and animals) are voluntary
but not responsible: so how can what Aristotle means by voluntariness
be a sufficient condition of responsibility?
3. Aristotle’s “unreflective compilation of `commonsense’ criteria” for
imputability seems at best merely an account of what is not involuntary
rather than of that is voluntary, and at worst “hopelessly aporetic
4. Aristotle allegedly fails to address “the question of whether causal
determinism precludes our actions being up to us in the way that
moral responsibility requires”. Do Meyer’s responses to problems (1)–(4) succeed in showing that Anscombe’s gap is not an important obstacle to seeing Aristotle as a theorist of moral responsibility in the modem sense?
First, her response to (3). Meyer argues in her chapter 3 that Aristotle’s discussion of the voluntary does have a structure: a “dialectical” one, which deliberately generates conflicts and then solves them. This view, for which she argues by a detailed exegesis of Aristotle that I will not discuss here, is surely correct. Aristotle’s discussion of voluntariness is neither inchoate, nor inconclusive, nor merely negative, nor unreflective; the adjective “dialectical” is easily justified as a description of Aristotle’s technique by his own words in NE 1145b3 ff.
Meyer then makes an impressive specific case for her general thesis, that Aristotle’s discussion of voluntariness is a good and useful one. Her general thesis too is important, though one may wonder who it needs defending against. Has any important recent writer on Aristotle seriously disagreed with it? I was unconvinced by Meyer’s own account of who her targets are. Not Kenny for one, whose overall verdict on Aristotle’s theory of the will in Aristotle Theory of the Will is highly favourable, despite his specific criticisms of NE. Not Austin either, despite Meyer’s suggestion (p. 87 n. 1; p. 14 n. 6) that his view in “A Plea for Excuses” was that Aristotle’s account of the voluntary was “unreflective” in this way. (Meyer misses Austin’s point, which is that a properly reflective account of imputability ought to be, or begin as, a compilation of commonsense criteria of what is not involuntary.
Meyer’s answer to (2) is simply to admit that voluntariness is not a sufficient condition of responsibility: only voluntary actions which arise from a character are responsible, and children and animals have no characters because they have no stable conception of eudaimonia (p. 28). Her answer to (4) is that Aristotelian agents are “free”, in the sense that matters, if and only if their actions result from their characters (chapter 6). And her answer to (1) is that, although for Aristotle the justifications of our practices of punishment and reward are (as Jean Roberts argues, in an article in Ancient Philosophy 1989 to which Meyer rightly gives an important place in her discussion) prospective rather than retrospective, this is not true of our attitudes of praise and blame, which “are justified retrospectively: based on the causal relation between the state of character that is the focus of the praise or blame and the good or bad activities it produces” (Meyer, p. 134).
Regarding this last claim, which Meyer just accepts from Roberts: one might have expected there to be more of a connection than that between our practices and our attitudes. After all, the practice/attitude distinction is not quite so clear-cut as Meyer and Roberts want to make out. Vengefulness is presumably an attitude, and revenge a practice, but there can hardly be a case for saying simply that the attitude is (solely?) retrospective whereas the practice is (solely?) prospective. But if not in this case, then why in the apparently very similar case of blame and punishment?
More importantly, Meyer’s answers to the three questions (1), (2), and (4) all turn on her discussion of the notion of moral character. I will now consider that discussion.
Notice first that Meyer’s answer to (2) suggests a way of subverting her position. She says that Aristotle holds that children are not responsible for their actions because they don’t yet have characters: adults, by contrast, are responsible for their actions precisely because they do (by now) have characters. But, Aristotle tells us, a character-type is formed by the actions that go to make it. So my character now must wholly depend on the actions I performed before I had, and while I was forming, this character: i.e. when I was a child. But my actions then were not ones I was responsible for (see above). So how can I be responsible for actions which are entirely due to a character which is entirely due to actions for which I was not responsible?
This is the problem that leads Williams, for one, to conclude that “Aristotle should not have believed that, in the most basic respects at least, people were responsible for their characters” (Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy, p. 38). Aristotle should not have believed this, says Williams, because he also offers us an account of character formation which leaves no room for one to “stand outside” one’s character, reflecting on how it is shaping up, in the way that Aristotelian responsibility for character allegedly requires. Here then is an anomalous slip on his part into the role of a modem theorist of moral responsibility–a role which, according to Williams, Aristotle does not otherwise occupy.
Meyer, on the other hand, thinks that Aristotle does in general occupy that role. For all that, she shares Williams’ inclination to attach little weight to Aristotle’s defence of responsibility for character. For Meyer, that defence is not a fundamental part of Aristotle’s argument that we have moral responsibility. On her view he can be a theorist of moral responsibility even without relying on that point. It is not, as Williams thinks, a moralistic anomaly in an otherwise non-moralistic view; it is rather a hyper-moralistic superfluity in an otherwise moralistic view.
Meyer’s defence of this claim relies on three main tactics. First, she defends another exegetical view: that NE iii.5, which is commonly taken to be a crucial part of Aristotle’s defence of responsibility for character, is actually not that, but a refutation of the Socratic “asymmetry” thesis, that virtue is voluntary but vice is not. This latter thesis (and the “symmetry” thesis with which Aristotle replaces it) are not, according to Meyer, theses about responsibility for character at all. (But why can’t Aristotle’s defence of the anti-socratic thesis also be a defence of the notion of responsibility for character?)
Second, she distinguishes between full and qualified responsibility for character, and claims that Aristotle makes a case only in favour of there being qualified responsibility for character. This claim is more convincing; but it has the feel of a concession to the view Meyer wants to disagree with–that Aristotle does believe that responsibility for character is fundamental. Moreover it is a concession that those who hold that view, me for example, might want to exploit. “Of course” (I might say) “it would be crazy of Aristotle to demand complete responsibility for character, if that entails thinking that people can change their dispositions as easily and as quickly as they can change their clothes. But one can (pace Williams) reasonably demand something rather less than that–the possibility of being led by reflection upon one’s life to the thought that one’s life needs drastic change, however difficult that will be; and the possibility of acting in some way–however small–to bring about such change. What is more, one can also reasonably demand that such reflection and the resulting change be basic to the moral life, and basic to other forms of responsibility.” Now how much more than this could there be to any feasible account of unqualified responsibility for character as fundamental to all sorts of responsibility?
Third comes her most effective gambit: in her short final chapter she argues for a view about efficient causation. For Aristotle, what makes my actions free from causal determination is the fact that they derive from my character, which is itself the underived first principle of those actions in the same sort of sense as, to take the Physics’ stock example, the art of building is the underived first principle of a given edifice: “the agent’s states of character … constitute the causal power Aristotle takes to be essential to the self-mover” (p. 154).
If this perceptive suggestion of Meyer’s is right–which is not entirely unlikely–then it may also not be entirely surprising if Aristotle has no important role in his theory for an account of responsibility for character. However, we might then wonder if Aristotle is right to shrug off that question so easily. How will he now answer the objection that everything in his view is compatible with the truth of causal determinism? Meyer, as a compatibilist, would presumably resist the idea that this is an objection; but in any case, she also invokes Aristotle’s distinction between accidental and natural causes. On her view, the sort of things that determinists might fasten on as the determining causes of my actions will all, in Aristotle’s terms, only be accidental causes of those actions; it is my character which is their natural cause, and this sort of cause is supposedly not undermined by deterministic considerations.
This, of course, may simply lead a determined determinist to question Aristotle’s distinction between accidental and natural causes. I shall leave that debate to be pursued elsewhere; however it goes, one may still point out that, on this front, Meyer’s account of how Aristotle avoids the problems often claimed to follow from determinism, without depending fundamentally on responsibility for character, at any rate puts up a good fight.
If Meyer can solve the problems which I have discussed here, is that enough for her to achieve her objective, of showing that Aristotle is concerned in his ethical writings about moral responsibility of the same sort that modem writers are concerned about? I believe that it is enough to show, at any rate, that Anscombe’s gap has been exaggerated: for Aristotle does face (and even face up to, on the whole) the same enduring difficulties about moral responsibility that we face. The central problems, about e.g. the relation of responsibility and character, are the same for us (assuming we do not hide in, for example, any specifically Kantian garments of thought) as they were for him. If the idea of moral responsibility is to be thrown out, then Aristotle’s ethical theory will go out with it; one cannot let go of that idea, and yet keep hold of the nub of Aristotle’s ethics. On this point
at least, Meyer refuelled the convictions of at least one reader
No one who reads it will deny that Meyer’s book is ingenious, learned, original, and an important contribution to important debates: about how we see ethics, about how we see Aristotle, and about how we see ourselves.
T. D. J. CHAPPELL Philosophy Sector University of East Anglia Norwich NR4 7TJ UK
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