Friday, May 15, 2020

Aristotle's optimism and pessimism

Aristotle seems to accept these three claims:

  1. For the most part, things behave in a natural way.

  2. Most people are bad.

  3. To behave well is to behave in accordance with your nature.

I always thought there was a contradiction between (1) and (2) given (3). But actually whether there is a contradiction depends on the reference class of the “For the most part” operator in (1). Suppose the reference class is all behaviors of all things. Then it is quite likely that most of these behaviors are natural, bad human behaviors being far outnumbered by the natural behaviors of insects and elementary particles.

Back when I thought there was a contradiction, I assumed the reference class was the behaviors of a particular kind of thing, a sheep or a human, say. That may be correct exegetically, but even so it does not yield a contradiction. For morally significant activity is only a small fraction of the activity of a human being. Leibniz thought that about three quarters of the time we behaved as mere animals. That’s likely an underestimate. So even if all our morally significant activity is bad, it may be far outnumbered by non-moral activity, and hence it may well be that most activity of humans is good. But when we say that a human is good or bad, we only refer to their moral activity.

The only hope for a contradiction is to take the reference class of (1) to be all the activities of every subsystem type. Even so, I do not know that there is a contradiction. For to say that a person is bad is not to say that the majority of their morally significant actions are bad. Suppose that Monday in the morning Bob kicked a neighbor’s puppy. At noon, she sent a harsh and false email to a struggling student saying that he had never seen worse work than theirs. At three, he googled for articles in obscure Romanian journals that I could translate and plagiarize. And in the evening he cheated while playing chess with his daughter in order that she might never win. It would be fair to say that Bob am very bad person indeed, but that’s only on the strength of four morally significant actions. There were many other morally significant actions Bob engaged in. Each time he was asked a question, he had the possibility of lying. When driving, he had the possibility of murder. He did many things that were morally neutral and no doubt a number of things that were good. But the four bad things he did were enough to show that he was a bad person.

Our standards for moral okayness are much higher than the standards for a hard calculus exam where you just need to get more than half the questions right.

See also the quote from George MacDonald here.


Avraham said...

TO act in accord with your telos nature would be how Aquinas understands Aristotle

Walter Van den Acker said...


I'm not sure there is a contradiction, but the 'natural way' in which things seem to behave is not the same 'natural way' in which people behave.
If people have libertarian free will, then if they use their natural LFW to control their behaviour, they behave in a natural way. Hence, if most people are bad (and there is no reason to think they are), then it is not because they don't behave in a natural way.

Alexander R Pruss said...


People are a special kind of thing. I don't think it's true that when we freely choose the wrong we behave naturally. Rather, we are misusing our free will.

Walter Van den Acker said...


If you believe in libertarian free will, the process of choosing is, by definition, natural behaviour.