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Aristotle's Ethics and Moral ResponsibilityReview - Aristotle's Ethics and Moral Responsibility
by Javier Echeñique
Cambridge University Press, 2015
Review by Edward Willatt
Jun 28th 2016 (Volume 20, Issue 26)

This book relates Aristotle's thought to contemporary debates about ethics. Echeñique considers the challenges of reading Aristotle's work on ethics and how well Peter Strawson interpreted it. Strawson's account of Aristotle's ethical thought has shaped continuing debates about voluntariness and its role in formulating a theory of moral responsibility (2). This concerns the praise and blame of moral agents. Whether they deserve to be praised or blamed depends upon whether or not their actions were voluntary. Echeñique challenges the Strawsonian interpretation of Aristotle on voluntariness and its continued role in the work of thinkers including Terence Irwin and Susan Sauvé Meyer. For Echeñique, the Strawsonian reading of Aristotle is too narrow and does not do justice to the detail and complexity of Aristotle's understanding of voluntariness and moral responsibility.

In his 1962 paper 'Freedom and Resentment' Strawson argues that moral praise and blame must involve responses or reactions to an agent who commits a voluntary action. These might be indignation, resentment, respect or admiration (4). We judge that someone had acted voluntarily in a certain way and so we hold them accountable for this and thus worthy of praise or blame. As such the Strawsonian view is concerned with '... ways of holding moral agents responsible, accountable  or answerable, for breaching, or failing to meet, [certain] moral expectations' (48). For Echeñique this conception of moral responsibility is too narrow because it characterises all prospective or forwarding-looking attitudes towards moral actions as non-moral. The Strawsonian view makes all prospective attitudes 'instrumentalist' because they look to some non-moral purpose rather than looking back at the moral value of an action. We cannot point to what might be achieved by an action in the long term, its instrumental role, but must focus exclusively on reacting to the moral act if we are to make a genuinely moral judgement. The Strawsonian view also holds that the aims of education are non-moral and students in the process of moral education are non-moral agents (5). Such agents are not yet moral because they are not fully rational and able to act voluntarily. This Strawsonian reading of Aristotle concludes that children, like animals and psychopaths, are excluded from the community of rational, moral agents (6). We can only hold accountable those who are already educated, rational agents, and cannot base our moral judgements on outcomes like those of education.

Part 1 of the book comprises the first two chapters. Chapter 1 sets out a critique of the Strawsonian view as it is developed by a number of thinkers who share this reading of Aristotle. There follows a positive interpretation of Aristotle's conception of voluntariness in chapter 2. Echeñique makes the case for considering the genuine moral role of 'forward-looking or prospective' attitudes which consider what an action leads to (39). He argues that education, which is forward-looking by its very nature, is not confined to behavioural control and manipulation. If it were purely instrumental in this way it would remove students from the realm of rationality and hence morality (40). Echeñique seeks to undermine the Strawsonian conception by showing its narrow understanding of moral actions and of Aristotle's complex conception of them. In order to broaden our understanding a different aspect of moral responsibility, other than Strawsonian accountability, is to be drawn from Aristotle's conception of voluntariness. Here Echeñique draws upon Gary Watson's interpretation of Aristotle's account of moral responsibility as involving attributability rather than accountability (56). Echeñique develops this as a theory of 'ethical ascription' (7). This connects with Aristotle's conception of living the best life human beings can live, which is termed eudaimonia (62).  Acts are now viewed from the perspective of the virtues or moral capacities they express and these are essential to living well. We now attribute virtue to the characters of agents in a field of ethical activity, whether in the process of formation or fully formed.  This broader conception of moral responsibility and character-formation flows from a reading of Aristotle that emphasises the context and setting of ethical activity: 'What underpins this view of praising and blaming logoi, I surmise, is the function of the Aristotelian politikos (the statesman) and the nature of the polis (the city-state)' (63). The Strawsonian moral agent is judged in isolation according to the responses his or her actions elicit while the genuine Aristotelian agent living the good life exists in and through a wider set of ethical practices.

Echeñique argues that we can now make room for children in an Aristotelian account of moral responsibility based on voluntariness. If we can apply ethically significant terms to reason-responsive agents (76) then this includes agents who are not yet fully rational and is wider than the Strawsonian morally accountable agent. Echeñique argues that Aristotle does not deny that children possess reason, as he does with animals, but sees reason as present in them without being fully actual or developed (35). Aristotle's understanding of character-formation is explored in order to show that students are not non-rational and non-moral beings subject to behavioural manipulation and conditioning for other ends. Instead they are treated as rational beings in their own right because teaching is 'for the good of the learner' (37).

In this way, the first two chapters seek to develop an account of ethical ascription through a critique of the Strawsonian view and then a positive interpretation of the works of Aristotle. The remainder of the book, part 2, explores defeaters of ethical ascription. These are the limits upon ascribing praise and blame which must now be established once we have broadened the Aristotelian conception of voluntariness and moral responsibility. If moral responsibility has a broader role in Aristotle than the Strawsonian reading allows, where do we draw the line and set limits in this wider field of ethical praxis?

In part 2 Echeñique distinguishes and analyses defeaters of ethical ascription. These include violence and factual unawareness because we are unable to praise or blame an agent forced against their will to do something or acting in a state of ignorance. Echeñique seeks to reveal '… the intricate and complex nature of Aristotle's accounts …' in order to show that they are '… much richer and more complex than is commonly supposed' (191). Chapter 3 analyses the complex nature of violence in Aristotle's writings and concludes by separating and defining different meanings of the term (105). The role of character in Aristotle's ethics is highlighted in order to show that our response to external things, to violent motions, is conditioned by our character. Humans with developed or developing characters are thus distinguished from inanimate things and non-human animals. Insofar as moral violence is contrary to reason it has moral significance (99). This is because it works against the reasoned ends of a morally good life. Echeñique makes use of a range of Aristotle's writings on different areas of knowledge in order to deepen our understanding of violence in the field of ethics. Such a scholarly approach ensures that the systematic scope of Aristotle's writings is fully appreciated. His ethics come to make more sense in relation to other areas of his thought because the nature of violent motion in the moral realm is distinguished from motion as it is studied in other fields. As we see how violent movement differs in the moral psychology of reason responsive agents from the physics of inanimate objects (89) and the physiology of non-human animals (90-1), its distinctive problematic is revealed.

Chapters 4 and 5 consider coercion. Can it provide a justification and excuse when it comes to moral responsibility? Echeñique uses Aristotle to subject our preconceptions of coercion to 'further philosophical scrutiny' (113). In these chapters Aristotle's conception of 'internal compulsion' is explored and distinguished from modern notions of psychological compulsion (132). The subtlety and detail of Aristotle's conception of moral psychology is drawn from a close and careful reading of his texts. The account of coercion in the Eudemian Ethics is considered in chapter4 and that offered in the Nicomachean Ethics occupies chapter 5. Objective rational coercion is distinguished from subjective coercion on the grounds that a virtuous spectator must use objective standards to evaluate the role of coercion rather than depending upon a particular subjective point of view (116-17). The wider role of hypothetical necessity in Aristotle's work is brought into play in order to show that it is the end or goal of actions that is primary (121-2). Aristotle focuses upon the end adopted by a moral agent in order to understand the role of coercion in cases where a morally bad action is performed because it is the only way of pursuing a morally good end (117-18). This close reading of Aristotle's texts is justified by the richness of the account of ethical praxis that emerges, marking out a field where careful definitions of the defeaters of ethical ascription orientate us in our moral evaluations.

Chapter 6 considers factual error. What makes factual error culpable rather than being a legitimate reason for not being held responsible? Echeñique draws from Aristotle the idea that we are culpable for dispositions or character traits that we have developed and which lead us to make factual errors (161). This shows the subtlety of this ethical conception. It is not simply a question of what we know or don't know, but of the development of our character which for Aristotle is the basis of ethical judgements about us. The agent is blamed for getting into a state of ignorance, for having a disposition such as carelessness or negligence which leads them to make a factual error (161). However they are not responsible for the act that results because this remains involuntary (163).

In chapter 7 Echeñique returns to the pain condition, which he introduced during his discussion of violence in chapter 3. He now also involves the pain condition in Aristotle's account of acting through factual error (173). The ethical significance of the pain condition is linked to its effect not on the voluntary status of the action but on the voluntary status of the agent (174). It is the agent who feels regret at having committed an involuntary action (176). Agents feel a relevant sort of pain, such as regret, at having acted involuntarily (177).

This close reading of Aristotle's ethical writings reveals the subtleties of his thought and intervenes directly in contemporary debates in ethics. Echeñique argues that Aristotle's account is 'rich and appealing' (15). He offers a critique of the Strawsonian reading, judging it too narrow to capture the complexity and subtleties of the Aristotelian conception of voluntariness and thus unable to draw upon its richness when formulating a theory of moral responsibility. Aristotle's character-based ethics is seen to broaden moral responsibility beyond the accountable agent to include agents in the process of moral education. It also provides the defeaters of ethical description that orientate the virtuous spectator in attributing to agents the virtues and vices of character that have ethical significance. Echeñique also argues for the internal consistency of Aristotle's account. The differences between the Eudemian Ethics and the Nicomachean Ethics are understood as part of a 'coherent logical development' (15) where the Nicomachean Ethics improves the Eudemian Ethics because it is superior (193). Echeñique shows that by clarifying the concepts used by Aristotle, revealing fine distinctions between terms, coherence is revealed.

We find in this book a high level of scholarship that gives attention to the detail and subtleties of Aristotle's text and thought. The concluding chapter ends with the hope that the reading of Aristotle's Ethics and the theory of moral responsibility drawn from it here may influence current debates (194). The closeness and precision of this reading of Aristotle, and the careful consideration of the subtleties of ethical praxis, show that this volume deserves to have such an impact and to make a difference.

 

© 2016 Edward Willat

 

Edward Willatt


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