Deliberative Happiness: Part 6

October 18, 2016

Questions of moral education are prevalent as ever in modern society. To what extent can we argue there exists any definitive modern morality? We take less time to focus on morality as being taught , the way the greeks did, however is this to say we are any less aware of what is right and wrong?

The purpose of moral education is to render the irrational part of the soul amenable to autonomous rational prescription. Through acting, the non-rational part of the soul becomes receptive to reason, it listens and forms rational judgements in order to conform to the prescribed, desired action. Like we have seen through our phronesis, if I want to be more generous, it follows that I should be more giving and less selfish in my actions to attain the virtue of generosity. Such receptiveness highlights a communication between the irrational part of the soul and reason. Expressing an understanding of what is to be done and a readiness to abandon immediate pleasures in order to execute rationally arrived at by action. The non-rational part of the soul must also become reflective. Instead of being absorbed by its impulses and desires, as the akratic man is prone to, it must curb them through self discipline and reflect on decisions. One must not act through impulse but consider a practical line of action in light of his soul being receptive to reason. Such a process distinguishes the link between reason and action. To achieve an excellent character we require emotions, feeling and motives, doing the right action alone is not sufficient for moral character, we must show a contemplative structuring in our choices, leading to a forming of moral character which is dependent on each individual.

To asses whether we are all capable of practical reasoning, it seems necessary to consider agents from an early age in order to contemplate the importance of moral education. Moral training is not focussed on teaching like those who teach through words and explanations, but instead is valued through the process of habit, accepted ways of behaviour and the persistence of displaying morally virtuous habits. Whilst not naturally endowed with these habits, they are not solely the results of social interaction. Broadie notes, they should be seen as moral qualities an agent acquired through upbringing and sustains by his own practice. However, to become an agent exhibiting ethical substance we must have a sense of potentiality. Are we born with this potentiality? Do we asses our potential through upbringing? For example, the girl fed on a silver spoon has more potential from birth than the boy who unfortunately suffered beatings and abuse from a young age? Such questions beg for answers, but assessing potentiality leaves us, to some extent, in murky waters. In order to distinguish what is right we must be disposed to rightness, for example we must be disposed to just acts in order to act in a just way, act in temperance only when we have been exposed to temperate acts and so on. Potential then, is formed from being disposed to moral activities  and it is only then when we have the potential to form moral dispositions. By being disposed to moral activity we can begin to try our own hand at acting.

Through this reasoning, Aristotle makes clear that until one knows what virtue is, one cannot know how it is to be acquired. It is through being disposed to acts that we area capable of constructing our own understanding of virtuous behaviour. However, if one is not disposed to such behaviour through upbringing and being taught what is right and wrong, are we exempt from reaching phronesis? Burnyeat considers Aristotle to place great importance on our primitive materials which characters are derived from, these being the starting point which we a brought up in, recognising from a young age what justice is through learning in a 'it-is-that' sense from the conduct of others around us. For example, if I see my mother acting in a just way, like giving to those less fortunate, I can make note, my mother mentioned this is a good action, from this I will see further similar actions being performed, recognising a link between them, I become familiar with what it means to act in accordance with justice, From a sense of familiarity of specific actions the individual, with a good upbringing disposed to such actions is capable of internalising, through comparison and correlation, what are noble and fine actions.

Such guided conduct involves both being told what is noble, seeing and acknowledging what is good through action and finally, discovering that what you have been told is fine and true through ones own judgement. Discovering in this sense is to learn, not like instruction, for example to learn that 2 + 2 = 4, but to discover the reasons why certain actions are fine and good. For example, I learn that it is just to share my things with others. You must understand why the action is good, and good in itself, in order to meet to standards of reasoning phronesis requires; it is not enough to merely follow the instruction of sharing if you are doing so just because a parent has told you to. To find the reasons why you are performing such actions, to interpret it as doing good for its own sake, to make your friends happy, to realise by sharing you are all benefitting instead of just one person, is to recognise the 'because' of your action. Understanding why you have made a choice of action is an integral part of practical reasoning the individual becomes aware it is much more than just a response, but an internally recognised decision founded upon deliberation.

However, Aristotle notes it is only someone with a good upbringing who can benefit from a character well bred, as a true lover of what is noble, ready to be possessed by virtue, they are not able to encourage the many to nobility and goodness. Recognising moral education in this way it seems that when considering virtues, Aristotle is reluctant to allow just anyone the potential of reaching a state of practical reasoning. Touching upon fear and shame, Aristotle identifies that being disposed to nobility necessarily gives individuals a greater chance at achieving eudaimonia, for by tasting the pleasures of what is noble from a young age they understand bad acts are avoided because of shame and not fear. One mast have been disposed and educated morally to act not merely with appropriate action, but to truly understand why one acts; it is not enough to fear punishment, but as mentioned, individuals go wrong in their choices, who have been educate morally, feel shame after acting; they are aware their decision was not in accordance with virtuous behaviour and it is such an experience of shame that deters them from acting against their better judgement in future. Burnyeat makes clear Aristotle allows for failings of reason like this in individuals of young age, this is because they are still learning what is virtuous and what right decision entails, each mistake is motivating them to further their evaluative responses to situations at hand and through such a reflective scheme they are more likely to arrive at objects of nobility. However, what can be said for the man who continues to make mistakes of reason throughout adulthood? Aristotle notes that this is a likely possibility, for most peoples desires are already so corrupted, that no amount of argument will bring them to see that some things are desirable for their own sakes, leaving us doubtful as to whether we are all capable of arriving at phronesis and subsequently eudaimonia.

Stressing the educational process further, Sherman makes note that passion seems to yield not to argument, but to force, which is why those who cannot constrain their appetitive desires have underdeveloped reasoning faculties and become incapable of responding appropriately. To yield to argument requires a guiding hand, for the individual to appreciate at a young age, not the passions but the things which are good in themselves. Again, we see the importance of education and upbringing emerging, causing problems concerning those who have not had fortunate childhoods. The child, in a sense, borrows the eyes of wisdom and listens to the words of elders and the more experienced. By being disposed to different situations and perceiving what is right from such dispositions, the child sees correlations in particular circumstances, realising what is appropriate and not appropriate from watching others perform actions.

Through forming an understanding of action to circumstance in their 'this-is-that' sense, the individual from a young age can consider the particular incidents to form a general understanding of what is right and noble and what actions are wrong and should be avoided. For example, someone may accidentally stand on your foot, in which case the agent would realise the correct response would be maybe to wince in pain, but not feel anger or contempt. On the other hand, if someone went out of their way to deliberately stand on your foot, to cause pain, feeling anger would be more appropriate; naturally, someone has slighted you and purposefully gone out of their way to hurt you. Your emotional response would be justified in this way in the second example, but not the first. As a result, the individual's forming of appropriate action to circumstance arises out of the parental guidance elicited from childhood. The child mimics the action of the parent but with the additional clause of judging for oneself and feeling the appropriate emotions about what he or she chooses. Ideal action is the goal, however it is unlikely this will be achieved in the first, second or even third try; but the successive attempts and refinement of action that help us get closer to successfully arriving at the right action, as well as realising our mistakes along the way, adding to the virtue learning process. Without this training, mimicking of action displayed by those who help us learn, Aristotle seems skeptical that those with an unfortunately upbringing are capable of phronesis.

Difficulties of learning requires that the process be sweetened in various ways, with the cultivation of virtue focussed on getting better, something the individual is not born with, but arrives at through coming-to-be. Being brought up in the right ways allows agents to find enjoyment in the right things from an early age. With this in mind however, although Aristotle places great importance on moral education and upbringing, this is not to say that those who have not been brought up in such a manner are forever wretched and cannot attain phronesis. We are in agreement that the special affection children have for the family makes a privilege and effective environment for ethical learning. Yet, that is not to say that is the only environment which an individual can learn virtuous behaviour. Examples are few and far between, but are a possibility. Aristotle notes, as we have mentioned, that a changing of who we are is exceedingly difficult, but that is not to mean it is an impossibility. We cannot change our past, but we do have the potential to change our character. Although difficult, there is room for manoeuvre. Friends, work colleagues, teachers, are all capable of disposing us to a sense of what-is-rightness, through this social interaction it becomes clear that whilst a poor upbringing can infringe upon an individuals ability to achieve phronesis, there are other factors which contribute to our mimicking of action, our own judgements and subsequently our responses.

Next week we shall finalise our investigation into eudaimonia and individual's ability to attain phronetic reasoning. Taking our arguments against the egoistic problem, difficulties determining what is to be deemed voluntary and involuntary action and whether there is any scope for those with very little moral education to discover what is noble, we shall conclude whether we are to be as skeptical as Aristotle is, or if there is more potential for reaching eudaimonia than originally thought. 


Broadie, Sarah: Ethics with Aristotle, (Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1999)
Burnyeat, M: Aristotle on Learning to be Good, in Ethics with Aristotle, (University of California Press, London, England, 19980)
Crisp, Roger: Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics, (Cambridge University press, Cambridge, 2000)
Nussbaum, Martha: The Fragility of Goodness, (Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1986)
Sherman, Nancy: The Habituation of Character in Aristotle's Ethics by Nancy Sherman, (Bowman and Littlefield Publishing, Maryland, United States, 1999)

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