Aristotelian thoughts, possibly

Alasdair MacIntyre writes in After Virtue:

Aristotle tries to use the notion of a mean between the more and the less to give a general characterization of the virtues: courage lies between rashness and timidity, justice between doing injustice and suffering injustice, liberality between prodigality and meanness. For each virtue therefore there are two corresponding vices. And what it is to fall into a vice cannot be adequately specified independently of circumstances: the very same action which would in one situation be liberality could in another be prodigality and in a third meanness.

This is a decidedly foreign way of thinking to us now; we tend to locate ethical debates at the level of societies rather than individuals, think in terms of individual positive qualities which can each be independently maximised (liberty, equality, security etc), and unpack political disagreements in terms of different orderings of those qualities (putting security above liberty, liberty above equality, etc). Morality for individuals has a similar shape, with unquestioned virtues such as truth-telling and promise-keeping, each of which can be maximised until some unpredictable point where they may turn out to conflict. Whether for individuals or societies, the idea of not maximising anything – of seeking a point between two opposed maxima – seems counter-intuitive. The Aristotelian ‘mean between extremes’ also has overtones of the complacency of moderate centrism – the frame of mind according to which ‘extreme’ political views can be dismissed unheard purely because they are ‘extreme’ – which makes it unappealing, at least if you’re not a moderate centrist.

I think it may be more useful than it looks, though. Here are two cases where this approach has some value, both of which should ring some bells with anyone who’s been involved in political debate recently.

In Saturday’s Graun, Oliver Burkeman wrote about what looks like an interesting paper on “prevalence-induced concept change”. I haven’t been able to access the full text, but here’s the abstract:

Why do some social problems seem so intractable? In a series of experiments, we show that people often respond to decreases in the prevalence of a stimulus by expanding their concept of it. When blue dots became rare, participants began to see purple dots as blue; when threatening faces became rare, participants began to see neutral faces as threatening; and when unethical requests became rare, participants began to see innocuous requests as unethical. This “prevalence-induced concept change” occurred even when participants were forewarned about it and even when they were instructed and paid to resist it. Social problems may seem intractable in part because reductions in their prevalence lead people to see more of them.

Does the point generalise? Is it possible that things are in fact getting better, but that we don’t realise it because we treat whatever our current worst social problem is as the worst social problem? Durkheim certainly thought it was possible; in fact, he thought it was happening in nineteenth-century France:

Imagine a society of saints, a perfect cloister of exemplary individuals. Crimes, properly so called, will there be unknown, but faults which appear venial to the layman will create there the same scandal that the ordinary offense does in ordinary consciousness. If, then, this society has the power to judge and punish, it will define these acts as criminal and will treat them as such. … Formerly, acts of violence against persons were more frequent than they are today, because respect for individual dignity was less strong. As this has increased, these crimes have become more rare; and also, many acts violating this sentiment have been introduced into the penal law which were not included there in primitive times.

(See also “anti-social behaviour”, “problem families” etc.)

The question then is, does this matter? Yes. And then again, No. Burkeman cites a neat analogy from Dan Gilbert, one of the paper’s authors:

an emergency doctor is right to prioritise gunshot wounds over broken arms; but if there are no gunshot wounds to treat, she’s perfectly correct to expand her definition of “what needs immediate attention” to include broken arms. Conversely, a neurologist shouldn’t expand his definition of “brain tumour” simply because he can’t find any.

Unpacking the analogy, we can envisage two main approaches:

A: We can be thankful that problems causing really serious harms have abated, and alert to prevent their recurrence, while still devoting most of our attention to the problems that we face now. This does not mean that major and minor problems are equally serious; to treat them as equivalent would represent not only a loss of proportion but also a betrayal of historical memory. Things can get better; the fact that things have got better is proof of it.

B: We face new types of problem now – many of which we previously saw as minor, as causing less serious harms – but they are just as serious for us. After all, every problem is serious if it causes genuine harm. Not to take our current, supposedly minor problems just as seriously as the old major problems would demonstrate the persistence of outdated ways of thinking and show contempt for the people who are actually suffering now.

Which is right? It’s probably clear that I lean one way rather than the other – indeed, it could be argued that the way I’ve set up the problem is skewed* – but I don’t think one argument is right and the other wrong; indeed, I don’t think it’s possible to conclude that one’s right and one’s wrong. Historical memory, and keeping faith with those we’ve learnt from, are important virtues; so is attention to the present, and keeping faith with people who may need us now. And it’s hard to do both at once; beyond a certain point, it’s impossible to do both. The answer is, frustratingly, somewhere in the middle; even more frustratingly, there’s no single answer that can be applied at all times. Like Trillian’s handbag, life teaches us that there are times when it’s important to keep a sense of proportion and think of the past, and that there are times when it’s important to keep a sense of urgency and learn from the present; what it doesn’t teach us is which is which.

*Have I put an authorial thumb on the scales by insisting that we know which is a major problem and which a minor one? Isn’t the severity of contemporary problems actually unknown, given that they haven’t finished harming us yet? I don’t think so – or rather, I don’t think that the unknowability of contemporary problems is a point at issue between A and B. Someone who maintains that a certain kind of speech act is actually violent, or that failing to affirm Israel’s right to exist is anti-semitism, isn’t generally saying that the unknown longer-term effects of a relatively harmless speech act in the present could ultimately reach the level of a harmful action; that would be a different argument, one which conceded that those speech acts were in fact relatively harmless.

Another example: you support a cause, or a set of inter-related causes; they’re reasonably coherent and comprehensive, so you don’t generally find it hard to read off your position on a contemporary issue. On one issue, however, you find yourself at odds with some – perhaps a majority – of your usual allies; they make arguments that sound familiar, referring back to the broad set of causes both you and they support, but on this issue you find you’re not convinced. On ‘your’ side of the problematic issue, you’re pleased to find a number of people who share those same causes with you; alongside them, however, are people with whom you share nothing but this one issue. What to think? If you believe something, does it matter who else believes it?

A: You can tell a lot about an issue from who supports it. If the far Right are agitating on an issue, that means one of three things: it’s part of a right-wing programme, in which case Leftists should oppose it; it can be twisted to support a far Right agenda (“green belt” campaigning targeting new mosques, “animal welfare” targeting Halal meat), in which case Leftists need to take care not to get dragged in; or it’s just being used to exploit splits in the Left, in which case Leftists shouldn’t play their game for them. Brexit is a perfect example; the fact that the EU is an anti-democratic capitalist institution fooled some Leftists into giving their backing to what was always a neoliberal project exploiting xenophobic nationalism, in which the hopes of the anti-EU Left could play no real part.

B: My political outlook is my own; the issues I agitate on are issues that I believe are important. More importantly, given that I’m a Leftist, these are issues that I believe can – and should – be articulated as part of an overall Left agenda. We should not be put off from doing so by the fact that an issue can also form part of a Right-wing agenda – let alone the fact that it can be exploited by the Right. (The Conservative Party supports full legal equality for gay and straight people; that doesn’t make it a reactionary demand.) The EU is a perfect example: while we need to oppose the reactionary neoliberal project of Brexit, this should not fool the Left into making common cause with the pro-EU ‘remain’ lobby and overlooking the intractable problems which the EU poses for any Left project.

Again, which is right? My discouraging answer is, again, that I don’t think we can say that one’s right and the other’s wrong; in some situations “look who you’re lining up with” will be a correct and appropriate response, in others it will be a distraction that should be ignored. And, again, it’s impossible to do both. Life teaches us that there are times when it’s important to see where your allies and enemies are and form your opinions accordingly, and that there are times when it’s important to keep your wits about you and make your own mind up; what it doesn’t teach us is which is which. Or, as Douglas Adams (and Michael Bywater) put it in Mostly Harmless:

[Trillian] reflected that if there was one thing life had taught her it was that there are times when you do not go back for your bag and other times when you do. It had yet to teach her to distinguish between the two types of occasions.

This isn’t a counsel of despair, or a justification for impulsiveness and actes gratuits; there is still a scale, and it is still possible to hit the right spot on it. But it’s a scale with two ends, and heading for either one won’t reliably get us where we want to go. To complete that MacIntyre quotation:

what it is to fall into a vice cannot be adequately specified independently of circumstances: the very same action which would in one situation be liberality could in another be prodigality and in a third meanness. Hence judgment has an indisputable role in the life of the virtuous man which does not and could not have in, for example, the life of the merely law-abiding or rule-abiding man.

Interesting, no? Reads a bit like a dispatch from a neighbouring universe, but it’s interesting. (Sorry about the early-80s sexism – although, to be honest, I don’t think “the virtuous person” is much less foreign a concept to us now.)

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: