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Cognition of Value in Aristotle's EthicsReview - Cognition of Value in Aristotle's Ethics
Promise of Enrichment, Threat of Destruction
by Deborah Achtenberg
State University of New York Press, 2002
Review by J. F. Humphrey, Ph. D.
Feb 5th 2008 (Volume 12, Issue 6)

Deborah Achtenberg's Cognition of Value in Aristotle's Ethics: Promise of Enrichment, Threat of Destruction is an ambitious and challenging work.  In the belief that some philosophers and their philosophies, especially some contemporary social and political philosophies, have become too entrenched in their own methods and traditions, Achtenberg emphasizes that "the history of philosophy is culture-bound ... the result of decisions, rather than of observation or argument" (p. 12).  In keeping with her sensitivity to this postmodern age, this age of global connectedness, Achtenberg calls for a "new syncretism," a loosening of the fixed boundaries within which thinking currently takes place.  To this end, her detailed and carefully argued essay intends to shake things up.  Drawing upon the history of philosophy, she relates the works of those who have often been distinguished and differentiates the writings of those whose works have typically been compared to enjoin the contemporary debates surrounding Aristotle's ethics, especially the Nicomachean Ethics.  She believes that taking a fresh look at Aristotelian thought provides a new view of the philosopher's ethical theory that in turn encourages "a new way of looking at ethical theory in general." 

To guide her reflection, Achtenberg begins with a series of questions: What is ethical cognition?  What kind of cognition is involved in ethical choice and the exercise of virtue?  What kind of cognition is entailed by our emotions--"our feelings of love, hate, pity, anger, kindness, envy?"  She considers several answers to these questions, the most obvious of which, "the simple answer," is the view "that both ethical and emotional cognition  ... involve cognition of value."  Acting in accordance with virtuous character, the virtuous person chooses that which is understood to be "valuable in some way."  Thus, when one loves, hates, pities or envies another person, one is aware of the object of one's "emotion as valuable in some way: beautiful or bad, as the subject of suffering or the bearer of positive qualities."  

According to Achtenberg, however, this simple view was rejected both by the early Enlightenment thinkers and those of the early twentieth century.  Unlike the simple view, which claims that ethical and emotional cognition involve the cognition of value, emotivists maintain that "ethical choices or judgments do not involve cognition of value."  Emotions are not cognitive and they do not result from our relationship to the world; rather, they belong to us by nature; they are "brute and idiosyncratic."  Hence, if our emotions do not originate in our perceptions or our experiences of the world in which we live, the simple view has reversed the proper relation between value judgments and emotions--ethical and emotional cognition do not involve the cognition of value; rather, "value judgments are expressions of emotion."  Even formalistic ethical theories maintain that ethical cognition is limited to an understanding of a universal maxim and the way in which the understanding of the universal rule pertains to a specific instance. 

Recently, however, having rejected both emotivism and formalism, some thinkers have argued that while there is indeed "ethical cognition," it does not entail the formalists' view that ethical awareness involves the application of a maxim to a particular instance; rather, Achtenberg maintains that ethical cognition "involves a rich awareness of the particular features of complex concrete situations and the perception of some among those features as salient" (pp. 2-3).  Emotions are intentional; they do not have their origin in our brute animal nature.  "They are forms of perception, types of rational orientation, toward the world, ways of perceiving particular situations" (p. 2).  In the sphere of ethics, "salient particulars" stand out; they are the prominent features that are seen as being more important than other features.  For the mathematician, Achtenberg explains, mathematically relevant particulars are important; for the lawyer, features pertaining to law, right, or justice stand out.  Similarly, one acting virtuously perceives the "salient particulars," which involve certain "kinds of value."  Achtenberg provides the example of one trying to decide which health plan would be beneficial to the elderly.  Presumably, one would compare several plans; once the salient particulars of each plan under consideration announce themselves and are identified as being valuable, each plan may be evaluated in terms of the comparable relevant features, and the best plan may be determined.  In light of these considerations by recent thinkers, Achtenberg suggests that we must reconsider the simple answer.  

As Achtenberg points out in her first chapter, "Valuable Particulars," her discussion of "salient particulars" engages the work of several commentators on Aristotle's ethics, including John McDowell, Martha Nussbaum, Nancy Sherman, and Stephen G. Salkever (p. 13).  McDowell ("Virtue and Reason") argues for a version of "salient particulars" when he claims that ethical virtue involves the "perception of particulars as salient" in keeping with "one's codifiable view of how to live."  Achtenberg, however, insists that for Aristotle, if general principles for the way in which one is to live one's life "are only 'for the most part,'" then, as McDowell himself admits, they could not be codified.  Nussbaum ("Discernment of Perception" and Fragility of Goodness) also holds that "the cognitive component of ethical virtue is not knowledge of universals or rules, but perception of particulars, that is, recognition of the salient features of complex, concrete situations."  Achtenberg, however, argues that, for Aristotle, "wisdom utilizes a rule or general account (logos)," but "the rule that Aristotle has in mind is not intended to be authoritative for decision making" (p. 14).  To speak more precisely, Achtenberg, quoting Aristotle (NE 2.6 1107a1-2) writes: "the mean is 'determined by a logos, specifically by the logos the practically insightful person would use to determine it'" (p. 127).  Nussbaum herself admits "the standard of excellence is not a universal or rule, but what the person of practical wisdom would decide," but, Achtenberg insists, the logos involved is more akin to a "rule of thumb"; it "is not authoritative for decision making" (p. 14).  "The standard of excellence is not a universal or rule, but is what the person of practical wisdom would decide ... the decision requires discernment and the discernment is in the perception of particulars."  For Achtenberg, then, Nussbaum's claim that the "'standard of excellence' is not a universal but is the person of practical wisdom is too extreme" (p. 18).  Sherman (Fabric of Character) argues that "the cognitive component of ethical virtue is not knowledge of the applicability of rules but is perception of ethical salience and that emotions are intentional states through which we come to perceive particular circumstances, to recognize what is ethically salient" (p. 14).  Salkever (Finding the Mean) claims that "the cognitive component of ethical virtue is not deductively valid and necessary application of a scientific principle or a rule, but well-informed guessing, resting on a complex perception of the balance of importance and urgency likely to be best for us.  Human goods are diverse and competing, as a number of examples indicate.  Decisions require not the application of a rule, but the perception of an intelligent balance of the various competing goods."  While McDowell, Nussbaum, and Sherman employ the term "salience," and Salkever uses the term "balance," what Achtenberg perceives to be lacking in these commentators and what distinguishes her own contribution to this discussion is her insistence on "value."  Although Aristotle does not use the words "salience" or "balance," Achtenberg claims that for the philosopher, "what we must perceive in the particulars in each case is their value, that is, we must perceive the particulars as good or beautiful" (p. 15). 

To situate Aristotle's ethics in the tradition, Achtenberg distinguishes two approaches to ethics that she believes will provide "a new framework for thinking about ethical or emotional development" (p. 5).  First, there are those who "think the acquisition of ethical virtue involves an increase in awareness and the development of emotion."  Second, there are those who hold that ethical or emotional development involves "the suppression or channeling of intellect and emotion" (p. 7).  In this second group, Achtenberg includes not only the stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius who seeks virtue by eliminating emotions and ignoring the body, but also the psychologist Sigmund Freud who argues that morality originates in the oedipal stage of the child's development.  Marcus Aurelius' method, according to Achtenberg, entails what she calls "the 'imaginative deconstruction of wholes" (p. 4).  If, for example, we consider the fact that we will all eventually die instead of thinking about our potential, our possible achievements, or the contributions we might make to our communities, we focus upon only one part of our lives at the expense of the totality and the richness of our entire lives.  If we think of the main course of a special dinner as nothing other than the dead body of some animal, rather than as a scrumptious meal, we have deconstructed the whole experience and focused on one of its parts.  Similarly, "emotions," for Marcus Aurelius, are "neither good nor bad"; they are "neutral"; "virtue" necessitates the eradication of the emotions; one must "despise the flesh" (p. 3).  Thus, according to Achtenberg, Marcus Aurelius' view of ethical and emotional development does not involve an increase, but a decrease in awareness. 

Sigmund Freud argues that morality appears in the oedipal stage of development.  When the child is sexually attracted to the parent of the opposite sex, he or she knows that the object of his or her desire is unobtainable; hence, morality originates in the repression of desire.  While, Achtenberg claims, Marcus Aurelius and Freud hold that virtue requires the suppression of our cognition of the desired object, others have argued that virtue demands the suppression of cognition not because of the object of our desire, but because of cognition itself.  Jean-Jacques Rousseau argues that in the pre-rational state humans seek contentment and are kind to one another by nature but that the development of reason leads us away from the simplicity of our original virtuous state.  Thus whether the intellect is evil, merely "neutral, or ineffective with regard to what is good," "emotion is good" (p. 5).  Virtue requires the simplicity of the prerational state, i.e., the suppression of reason and the intellect.  Similarly, in the first book of the Hebrew Bible, Genesis, humans lose their special place in the Garden of Eden, the original idyllic state, by defying God's commandment not to eat the fruit of the tree of knowledge that would give knowledge of good and evil.  Since God is essential to the biblical conception, the human relation to the divine is of the utmost importance; living in accordance with God and the commandments is all that matters; indeed, obedience to God is more important than knowledge or intelligence.  Achtenberg understands the biblical conception to mean that human "ethical development is not intellectual development, but affective and voluntary development"; the biblical account requires the suppression of the intellect (p. 6). 

For Thomas Hobbes, however, while human emotions are instinctual and belong to human beings by nature, they do not involve any sin (Lev. I. xiii).  The basic human passions or emotions, according to Hobbes, are "Feare of Death, Desire of such things as are necessary to commodious living, and a Hope by their [humans'] Industry to obtain them."  However, since there is a shortage of resources to satisfy humans' desires, and since in their natural state human beings are without government, this natural condition is a state of war of "everyone against everyone."  Hence, human beings are motivated by fear to do anything to preserve themselves.  Of course, as Hobbes emphasizes, the only way to truly achieve this end is to establish a sovereign power that will be able to coerce and overawe them all.  Human beings, Achtenberg explains, become good citizens because they fear the way in which sovereign power will avenge violations of the social contract.  Human beings "become just, then, not by developing our passions ... but by channeling them: once all significant power is in the hands of the sovereign, our brute, ineradicable fear of death is redirected away from every person and to the sovereign, since he is now the most fearful person there is."  The problem then for Hobbes is not really the suppression of the passions--they are after all part of what it means to be human--but the redirection of human emotions. 

Additionally, Achtenberg includes Immanuel Kant and Friedrich Nietzsche amongst those who maintain that ethical and emotional development entail "the suppression or channeling of intellect and emotion" (p. 7).  Kant, Achtenberg argues, holds that "virtue is force against that natural inclination to violate the law."  Appealing to reason, Kant argues that to act virtuously requires the suppression of the emotions.  Nietzsche, on the other hand, contends that since the intellect in the search for truth has always acted to promote an other-worldly perspective--one that denies the truth of this world--the intellect must be surpassed; "untruth," according to Achtenberg, "is a condition of life" for Nietzsche. 

In contrast to those sources that have in various ways called for the suppression, repression, channeling, and redirection of the emotions or the intellect, Achtenberg asserts that Aristotle belongs to that group of thinkers who maintain that "ethical or emotional development requires the development of intellect and emotion."  Indeed, she asserts, Aristotle does not distinguish "emotional or ethical development"; they are "the same for him."  Following Aristotle, "virtue," Achtenberg insists, involves choice and is defined as "a settled disposition to choose well."  "Choice" (prohairesis) however, is not merely understood as simple desire, but as "deliberate desire," i. e., "desire that has been shaped and informed by deliberation" (p. 7).  Still, choice is not considered to be the precursor of the Stoic notions of "'assent' / 'consent'" or the modern conception of the faculty of will (n. 2, p. 191).  Instead of thinking of Aristotle's conception of choice as an antecedent to the faculty of will that, given time, eventually achieves true completion in some conception of the faculty of will, Achtenberg understands these notions--"deliberate desire," "assent / consent," and "the faculty of will"--as "members of a family of concepts that have related meanings and functions."  Thus, "virtue ... requires both the development, not the suppression, of emotion and the development, not the suppression, of intellect.  Emotions are shaped and developed by deliberation and, more broadly, by practical insight (phronēsis) as a whole" (p. 7).  "Deliberation," involves more than coming to some sort of a decision about our needs and desires; for Aristotle, Achtenberg stipulates, deliberation means "good deliberation," that is, "the kind of deliberation that results in a decision for the mean not for one of the extremes."  Again, Achtenberg insists that cognition involved in ethical virtue and emotion is not simply the cognition of the salient particulars, but it involves the perception of the value of the salient particulars. 

"Value," as Achtenberg uses the term, is "a broad term" for what philosophers find "evaluatively positive."  Although she underscores the fact that for Aristotle they are not categories, she distinguishes "two principal types of value," namely, "the good and the beautiful" (pp. 7 and 8).  Following Aristotle, Achtenberg identifies the "good" with "telos or teleion" (p. 8).  Quite clearly, telos or the good is important to her understanding of Aristotle's ethics and leads her to consider the relationship between ethical theory and metaphysics; indeed, she argues that, for Aristotle, ethical theory must rely on "extra-ethical principles found in metaphysics, physics, and psychology" (p. 86).  Although she does not promote value realism in her work, she understands Aristotle to hold the view that "value is real, but relational" (p. 8).  Indeed, one of the stated goals of her essay is "to discuss the importance of the awareness of a certain kind of relatedness for the development of ethical virtue ... for what we may call 'character development' or, simply, 'emotional development.'"  Often been ignored by current thinkers, the "type of relatedness" that concerns her is the relation that "a telos has to things whose telos it is."  It is one of the "great discoveries," attributable to both Plato and Aristotle, and Aristotle names it "'entelecheia' and 'energeia.'" The relational character of value, then, is grounded, according to Achtenberg, in specific situations such that what is perceived to be "valuable in varying contexts itself varies in complex and sometimes unexpected ways."  This kind of relatedness, and here she is thinking specifically of Aristotle, is one in which an individual thing or person "is not replaced or destroyed by another, but is developed, enriched, or enabled to flourish" (pp. 8 and 9).  In contradistinction to a thinker like Hobbes for whom the other is, at least in the state of nature, to be avoided at all costs for fear of annihilation, for Achtenberg, this implies that the other could be understood as "an opportunity to fulfill one's own deepest aims" (p. 8). 

Achtenberg identifies two contemporary conceptions of value.  While some claim that since "value is not fact, it is not anything at all," other thinkers maintain that "since value is not fact, it is ... a human creation."  The former, she associates with what until recently was known as Analytic or Anglo-American philosophy; the latter, with Continental philosophy.  The view that Achtenberg wishes to promote, namely, that "the cognitive component of ethical virtue and of emotion is not just cognition of particulars but of their value" presents difficulties for both views.  If value is not fact, i. e., if value is nothing, then it is not possible to be cognizant of value; if, on the other hand, value has been created by human beings, then "cognitively" human creation of value is prior to value--"creation of value is more ... fundamental than" the cognition of value (p. 9).  Nonetheless, Achtenberg agues that value, as understood by Aristotle, is closer to the first view of value.  At the same time, the good and the beautiful, according to Achtenberg, are not categories as Aristotle understands that term; "evaluation is not categorization."  Rather, if one designates something as beautiful or good, one recognizes "that it shares in a kind of relatedness in which one thing or person is not replaced or destroyed by another, but is enriched, developed, or enabled to flourish."  

Turning to the Metaphysics (IX. 6), Achtenberg argues that since the relatedness in which she is interested cannot be defined, it is identified by examining the particulars to arrive at a principle in a specific given case, i.e., relatedness "becomes clear in different cases by induction," but we become cognizant of this relatedness by analogy.  In other words, "awareness of value" turns out to be "awareness of analogy."  Achtenberg interprets Aristotle's discussion of the good (Nicomachean Ethics, I. 6) to hold that "since the good means telos," "good is not univocal"; rather, good is "an analogical equivocal"; indeed, as she argues, it is an "imprecise analogical equivocal" (p. 18).  Following Aristotle, then, Achtenberg insists that "the cognitive component of ethical virtues and of emotion is not just perception of particulars ... but is perception of a certain recurring relationship between particulars.  The virtuous person's practical perception is perception of an analogy" (p. 9).  For Achtenberg's reading of Aristotle's ethical theory, while "good and beautiful are" not the same, they are "principles of wholeness or completeness" and that means "practical perception is perception of particulars as parts of larger wholes."  Hence, while Marcus Aurelius deconstructs wholes to focus on the particular (i. e., the scrumptious dinner is ignored to focus on the body of the dead animal), Aristotle argues that virtuous action "requires the imaginative construction" of wholes; "the virtuous person," Achtenberg writes:

sees particulars in the light of the wholes they could compose: the food before me in terms of my overall bodily health; the dangerous action I must pursue in terms of victory in battle; another person in terms of the joint activities we could engage in; my current activities in terms of the life goals I wish to attain; and, in general, every event, situation, and thing in terms of an overall developed and flourishing life. 

Achtenberg's stated goal in her essay, then, is to examine "the importance of the awareness of a certain kind of relatedness for the development of ethical virtue," by which she means "character" or "emotional" development (p. 8). 

One of the main reasons that scholars are currently interested in Aristotle's ethics is precisely this: that virtue does not involve the repression, suppression, channeling, or redirection of emotions or the intellect, but that "virtue results ... from the development of our intellectual capacity to see value, and to see it in more and more rich and complex ways in the particular situations that confront us" (p. 10).  Unlike some of the moralists who Achtenberg discusses, Aristotle does not want us to repress our emotions or our intellects; rather, the philosopher promotes "a harmonious life" for human beings--a life "in which what we want and what we think can, for the most part, be in accord."  Still, Aristotle's conception of "enriching relatedness" does not provide the final word, for Achtenberg; indeed, she faults Aristotle for his "hierarchical" understanding and advocates "the implicit teachings of twentieth-century developmental psychology, according to which our sense of our self as a self and of an other as other are coterminous and that ... developmental theory is a rich source for our thinking about virtue theory today" (p. 11).  Perhaps Achtenberg will develop the relation between current thinking in value theory and developmental psychology in the future. 

Achtenberg's book is the work of a mature thinker; it is confident and self-conscious.  Achtenberg perceives her work to address and to resolve "certain long-standing interpretive problems," for example, the problem of the proper relation "between metaphysics and ethics for Aristotle."  She also examines the importance of Aristotle's conception of virtue as a mean; virtue understood as a mean is not insignificant and it can inspire us to action.  Clearly, those who are interested in the contemporary debates in ethical theory will benefit from Achtenberg's work and her willingness to engage current thinkers in the field, but those specifically interested in ancient philosophy and the history of philosophy will also profit from her careful reading of Aristotle and her analysis of his ethical works in relation to the entire history of the field.  One of the greatest values of her essay and, indeed, in my mind, of any interpretive work is that it invites us to rethink the work of a great philosopher; it drives us back to the original text.  Back to Aristotle! 

© 2008 J. F. Humphrey

J. F. Humphrey, Ph. D., North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University


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