Deliberative Happiness: Part 4

September 12, 2016

Often, when faced with practical reason, questions regarding moral character arise, the most crucial of which being whether moral character is to be rendered fixed or flexible. If it is a case of the former it seems impossible that everyone is capable of practical reasoning. Those who cannot reason well like the akratic man or the man who was brought up disposed to bad decision making will have this decision making rooted in their character, leaving no ability for them to escape their flawed choices. On the other hand, if our moral characters are flexible, it seems possible even those who have done wrong or are prone to ill-decision making, are capable of reaching practical wisdom and displaying excellent moral character.

Aristotle argues we all begin life with no determinate character, however, some seem to have natural endowments, by nature one may have discernment, judgement and intellect in knowing what is greatest and most noble. Such a character cannot be learnt, but arises from birth. However, blurring this conception of character Aristotle questions if moral character and moral values were not to be innate, if individuals were to be naturally endowed, why would excellence be valued more than badness? If this is the case, it seems as if happiness is in the end a matter of fortune and not at all up to us, even if we did our virtuous best. Would there be any reason why we should try to be good? If we were stuck in a state of bad moral character, we would be wasting our time and efforts in attempting escape to goodness. Such conflicting statements give rise to questions of an agents free will, leaving us in great danger when faced with the question of practical wisdom's attainment. Does Aristotle believe some are more capable than others, allowing for biases in the potential development of individuals, or does he assert that acquisition of character is voluntary through our own choosing, acting and upbringing?

If moral character were fixed, it seems that no matter how hard someone may try to understand the concept of justice, or perform just acts, if its not in their character to associate justice with goodness, they would not be capable of practicing such a virtue. Not just limiting in this since, an even more alarming problem arises as a consequence of considering moral character as innate. If such characteristics were determined, no one could be blamed for wrongdoing, nor held accountable for their good actions. Surely Aristotle would agree this seems unfair to relieve blame from those who have done evil, or in contrast, to not praise those who act with a great deal of selflessness and goodness? By analogy, 'medicine is not in control of health. For it does not make use of health, but provides for healths coming into being', just like medicine is not in control of health, our character is not fully in control of our practical wisdom capabilities. Reminding us to place a great importance on our ability to be educated morally, we can tune into our characters, allowing us to use our character as a springboard helping with our coming into being, sometimes diverting from the original character and develop accordingly. Much meaning is to be found in our childhoods, as our character starts developing in the young through being encouraged to voluntarily do and refrain from certain things, ensuring character results from voluntary action. What is more, is that only an utterly unmindful person is unaware of the fact that by pursing certain lines of conduct we come to be such as to act in specific ways. Those who do tend to appeal to their acting as being 'part of their nature'.

To reason in accordance to ones nature is to be too lazy to change and show no willingness to alter ones own character. To clarify further, Aristotle makes clear what is meant by character and how it can sometimes depend on our action to evolve our character accordingly. Let us consider the man who is always late. He holds the view that because he os always late, it is in his character to act in such a way, however what he does not note is that it is his choice to act in such a way. He chooses action which adheres to his natural inclination of tardiness. However, this doesn't have to be the case, through the practice of moral education, if an individual develops a certain moral character, which was natural for him to develop, then so too is it possible for him to also develop a significantly different character. Initially this seems to go against the argument of fixed characters, however when we consider the approach as we do with the golden mean, we come to realise that it is possible to do both; to be inclined, to be of a certain moral character and yet also voluntarily choose ones character. The golden mean is an individuals ability to choose a middle path of action in accordance with ones own decisions and excesses. Why can't we consider character in a similar way? Our man who is incapable of being on time, may be inclined naturally to be late due to poor time keeping. However, this does not mean he has to act in such a way, only that he currently chooses the option which is easiest for him. If willing to, he could act in respect of his potency, to listen to the rational part of his soul and voluntarily choose to focus on bettering himself, on working on his deficiency of lateness.

If this means people have the potential to choose their moral characteristics, how can there be so little room for change and manoeuvre in the evil individuals disposition? For Aristotle, the evil man is objectively wretched as he he 'ethically bent'. Unfortunately, it is not uncommon for the man who is evil to feel trapped by his own nature, to some extent he shows clear signs of self-hatred because he does, which to be just in his ways. Broadie distinguishes why this is troubling as she states 'this underscores the lack of freedom, which leads us to question their status as voluntary agents'. It is important we continue to understand Aristotle's approach to our character as voluntary. Virtue and vice still stand as those which are up to us, vice therefore is an action which is decided upon and chosen willingly by the individual to change and choose virtue. Aristotle is doubtful. If brought up, educated or habituated into acquiring bad habits, naturally an agent becomes lenient to deciding on the wrong things, although not deliberately decided on the choice of being unhappy. They are more likely to do things they ought to avoid, due to being habituated in such a way, after such habits are formed, comes the time when it becomes difficult for the evil wrongdoer to escape his own disposition for one more virtuous. He becomes unable to choose the right things, the same way poor health can be a consequence of choices made in the past, in a sense bad decisions become a sort of self-mutilation. The same way a person may develop cancer from smoking or drinking, they lack an exercise of restraint, suffering from their past choices as a result, so too does the man of evil character.

The conditions which were once voluntary, through habit, become increasingly difficult to break. The individual remains a practical being and may way and wish for nothing more than to be a different way, but he knows no other way to be, he cannot think of a practical alternative, because he has been so prone to neglecting and not exercising his rational part of the soul, he becomes trapped by his passions and impulsive behaviour. As a result, reaching eudaimonia looks like an impossible task as the agent becomes entrenched in bad habits and imprisoned by his own choices. We are left wondering, is an escape route possible for everyone?

Next week we shall asses whether we really are as voluntary to action as we like to believe we are, or whether there exists an underlying deterministic reality from which our action arises.


Annas, Julia: Aristotle on Virtue and Happiness in Aristotle's Ethics: Critical Essays, Edited by Nancy Sherman, (Bownamn and Littlefield Publishing, Maryland, 1999)
Broadie, Sarah: Ethics with Aristotle, (Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1991)
Cooper, John: Reason and Human Good in Aristotle, (Hackett Publishing Company, Indianapolis, Indiana, 1986)
Crisp, Roger: Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics, (Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2000)

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