This Week’s Special: On a Metaphor in Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics

by Daniel A. Kaufman

I want to talk about a certain metaphor in Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics.  It appears in a lone sentence in Book III, Ch. 3., and while mentioned only briefly, it is significant, not just in understanding the Ethics, but in grasping a crucial point about the limits of reason and deliberation more generally.

[T]he end cannot be a subject of deliberation, but only the means; nor indeed can the particular facts be a subject of it, as whether this is bread or has been baked as it should; for these are matters of perception. (1)

My interest here is not with the first part of the sentence, regarding ends and means, but the second part, regarding the bread.  In the first part of that second part, Aristotle seems to anticipate Wittgenstein’s idea of family resemblances: we cannot deduce that something is bread, by holding it up to a list of criteria, but must see that it is bread by perceiving it as being suitably similar to already established instances of bread.  Aristotle then goes on to say that the same applies to whether the bread is sufficiently baked – that is, whether or not it is good bread – and this too is a matter of perception, not deliberation.  The reason is fascinating and sheds a great deal of light on the relationship between the general and the particular in ethics and thus, the appropriate role of reason in social and civic activity.

Aristotle’s ethics is probably most associated with the famous “doctrine of the mean,” according to which the virtuous temperament is the moderate or “reasonable” one, and the right thing to do in any given situation, consequently, is whatever lies between extremes of excess and deficiency.  He arrives at this conclusion after an investigation into human nature, concluding that human beings are essentially rational in both the contemplative and deliberative sense of the word and that moral well-being, like physical and psychological health, is served by moderation and undermined by its opposite.

One of the notable things about Aristotle’s view is that it means that no action is intrinsically good or bad, because any action could lie anywhere on the relative spectrum of deficiency/moderation/excessiveness, given suitable circumstances.  Also notable is that as far as action goes, the doctrine of the mean doesn’t help us very much.  To be told not to do too much or little of something, but rather, the right amount, isn’t particularly helpful in determining how I should act, on any given occasion and neither is being told that “the reasonable/virtuous thing to do is what the reasonable/virtuous person would choose.”

Of course, this is all by design, as early in the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle tells us that “it is the mark of an educated man to look for precision in each class of things just so far as the subject admits.”  Ethics and political science are subjects that do not admit of much precision, in this sense, and thus, Aristotle warns us that “find and just actions, which political science investigates, admit of much variety and fluctuation of opinion. We must be content, then, in speaking of such subjects and with such premises to indicate the truth roughly and in outline.” (2)

Aristotle’s account here of why ethics and political science do not admit of precision ultimately boils down to the question of the general versus the particular.  Geometry, to take an example, is concerned with the general: Squares are definable in terms of a set of essential characteristics, and thus, what applies to one square will always apply to another.  But people and their lives and behavior are not like this.  One person is very different from the next, as are the circumstances in which people find themselves, and this means that what applies to one person, in one set of circumstances, may not apply to another person in another set of circumstances.  Unlike geometry, then, ethics and political science are concerned with the particular, much more than the general, the latter about which we can only make the vaguest of claims.  In the case of moral and civic virtue, the devil is pretty much all in the details, as the very same action could be the best thing to do for one person on one occasion, and absolutely the worst for another on a different one.

Allan Bloom wrote that “the particular as particular escapes the grasp of reason, the form of which is the general or universal,” and we can see why.  (3)  One square is as good as another, so I can entirely reason my way to a complete understanding of squares, on the basis of nothing but their essential characteristics and a number of intuitively grasped axioms.  In the case of particulars like people and circumstances, however, one is not as good as another, so in order to gain a full understanding of them, one must, as Wittgenstein put it, look and see, as deducing will only get us so far – in this case, as far as “don’t do too much or too little, but rather the right amount.”

Returning to the metaphor of the bread, across the street from my university is a Panera Bread store, which, oddly, allows you to enter from the back, through the kitchens.  One thing that always catches my eye is a chart that is supposed to instruct bakers on when a bagel is properly baked.  On it are pictures of three bagels: one is undercooked, one is overcooked, and one is cooked just the right amount.  Of course, the chart is entirely useless to someone who is not already an experienced baker, just as models of excessive, deficient, and moderate behavior would be useless to someone who is not already well experienced in social and civic goings-on.  Resemblances and certainly, sufficient resemblances can only be seen, not reasoned to.  No bagel that you cook is going to be identical with any of the pictures in the chart, so whether the bagel in your hand is cooked the right amount is a matter of seeing whether it sufficiently resembles the bagel in the picture, and this requires an experienced eye.  Similarly, no action-situation with which one is confronted is ever going to be identical with the models of excessive, deficient, and moderate behavior you have been shown, which means that determining whether this is the right thing to do in these circumstances will be a matter of seeing whether the thing and the circumstances are sufficiently similar to others, in which it was the right thing to do.  This also requires an experienced eye, which, with respect to moral and civic matters, is what Aristotle calls “practical wisdom.”

Ethics, then, is the discipline in which ratiocination and rational investigation do us the least good.  A practically wise person – the one with an experienced eye for moral and civic affairs –  who has never been told the doctrine of the mean or given any other moral principles or rules can be counted on to do the right thing on a consistent basis, whatever situations may come.  But the person educated in principles, rules, and doctrines, if not practically wise, will get no farther than the platitudinous generalities that are all we can get by way of reason in ethics, and as a result, can be counted on to get things wrong, morally and civically speaking, on many occasions.


  1. Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, Book III, Ch.
  2. Nicomachean Ethics, Book I, Ch. 3.
  3. Allan Bloom, The Closing of the American Mind (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1987), p. 173.





31 responses to “This Week’s Special: On a Metaphor in Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics”

  1. dmf

    there is some of this caution against the programmatic in Heidegger’s attack on cybernetics and Bert Dreyfus’ work on expertise and ethics (some related talks still on his website) and for anyone (say in academia) who is facing new methods of account-ability:

  2. Dan,
    largely in agreement.

    One implication of the need for some sort of experience with social situations and ethical actions possible in these, is how important our narrative and dramatic arts and entertainments are for developing ethical savvy among the young.

    This also suggests aesthetic choices and standards: In our discussion of the politics of Doctor Who, I noted that the classic series tended to present politics as a dialogue between those who believe in the good of their different positions, as opposed to the reboot series, where good guys are such whatever they do, and bad guys bad no matter what they say – thus taking an ideologically hard-line position on political issues. There are at least two positions on the moral responsibility of the artist here – either the artist presents the truth of a given situation, or he/she/they use the story to ‘instruct’ the audience on moral values. This latter notion has been entombed in our minds in the notion that art ‘entertains and educates,’ and I’ve had heated conversations with writer friends convinced that an artist must take a moral position in writing. This utterly misses the real educative value of the arts,which is to present us with situations and possible responses we would not experience otherwise.

    The worst instance of the ‘morally/politically correct’ is of course the heavily over-coded – and ultimately sterile – the lecture as story we get from the ideologically committed, whether religious or political – the problem with Soviet Social Realism, was that it was not realistic, and hence not meaningful socially. Tom Sawyer was a better experience for young readers than all the dozens of moralistic children’s books produced by well-meaning Christian writers of the same period; no wonder it was preserved and remembered, and they all disappeared into dust.

    So it would seem preferable for artists to find and present the truth of a situation – that is, get as close as possible to likely human experience of a given situation (no matter how fantastic the given situation), rather than beat us over the head with a single point of view.

    Occasionally, this will seem counter-intuitive; for instance, isn’t there but one ethical point of view on the horrific conditions of the camps of the Holocaust? But here’s the thing: the camp guards and commandants were not mustache-twirling villains reveling in human destruction, they were ordinary men with the brutality we all too often find in ordinary men unleashed during state-sanctioned employment. Many did demonstrate real sadism, for their is the potential for sadism in many of us, but most were just doing their jobs. That’s the real horror of it – and why in the aftermath the world, at least for a time, found it could no longer accept ‘I was just following orders’ or ‘it had nothing to do with me’ as excuses for participating in mass murder or other depravities.

    Of course, nowadays, the interest of the young in our more honest arts and entertainments has deteriorated, and even yesterday is but ‘ancient history’ to them, unworthy of attention; whereas they are overwhelmed with excuses of all kinds for every action, flooding their media environment at every turn. I don’t have much hope for the young, as to the kinds of moral choices they may make going forward, because I don’t know that many of them understand that they have such choices – and will have to make them more frequently the longer they live.

    However, I am certainly glad that I read Tom Sawyer when I was young and growing in a culture where such books were still highly valued. Perhaps some similar cultural configuration will develop in the future.

  3. TheDudeDiogenes

    Dan, another excellent essay. Do I recall you writing in a comment that these pieces are developing ideas for a book? If so, I cannot WAIT to read it! Your essays over the past year have been more interesting and provoked more thoughts than much of what I read for my B.A. or my brief stint in grad school. Please keep it up!

  4. ombhurbhuva

    Now as we have often maintained, those things are both valuable and pleasant which are such to the good man; and to each man the activity in accordance with his own state is most desirable, and therefore to the good man that which is in accordance with virtue.

    (from N.E. BkX Chap.6)

    What I take from that is the idea that the good man is connatural with the good, he resonates with it. Therefore he does not require deliberation as to means to achieving that end. He goes straight to it the way a good baker knows a properly cooked bagel. It’s a matter of perception for him. But how does that help the rest of us who are apt to opt for the half-baked? We must apprentice ourselves to a good ‘baker’ and gradually interiorise his intuition. Parents, teachers, preceptors fulfil that role; the ‘half-baked’ pseudo sciences will never do that as you suggest.

    The following is a note that I wrote some time ago which may be apposite:

    Is there such a thing as wisdom. Could someone be so connatural with wisdom that everything they do and say has that virtue.
    “But in all such matters that which appears to the good man is thought to be really so.” (i.e. that which appears good to him) Aristotle,’Nichomachean Ethics’ Bk.10.chap.V.

    Wisdom and Truth can often be connatural with persons who know nothing of abstruse philosophy and ethical theory. The only explanation is that they are it. A Nisargadatta or a Ramakrishna is more impressive than a hyper educated Brahmin but of course ‘it’ can land anywhere.

    From War and Peace:
    “Oh, well, of course, folks are different. One man lives for his own wants and nothing else, like Mituh, he only thinks of filling his belly, but Fokanitch, is a righteous man. He lives for his soul. He does not forget God.”
    “How thinks of God? How does he live for his soul?” Levin almost shouted.
    “Why, to be sure, in truth, in God’s way. Folks are different. Take you now, you wouldn’t wrong a man ……”
    “Yes, yes, good-bye!” said Levin, breathless with excitement, and turning round he took his stick and walked quickly away towards home. At the peasant’s words that Fokanitch lived for his soul, in truth, in God’s way, undefined but significant ideas seemed to burst out as though they had been locked up, and all striving towards one goal, they thronged whirling through his head, blinding him with their light.

  5. This morning I looked up the difference between morals and ethics. Morals address why something is right or wrong, while ethics are the practices that are either right or wrong. The conclusion I drew, amateur that I am, is that morality precedes ethics.

    If one were to construct an ethical code in the absence of a moral code, it could be done, but the only thing keeping one on track would be the realization that if you stepped away from the code for the sake of convenience, comfort, or any other reason, the “consequence” would merely be that the decision you made before would be replaced by another decision. For instance, if you had an app that tracked caffeine because you had decided that it was bad for you, and you woke up dragging on an important day, I hardly think you would have a difficult time rationalizing your momentary relapse. You might even construct ethical amendments. You would very likely simply reset the app and carry on if you acknowledged the lapse at all.

    But if morality came first, you could still fall far from being ‘good’. Your ethics in fact could suck. But you would know you were not living well and difficult changes would always reside on the horizon. You would recognize good people precisely because they would be living the life you knew you should be living. We do not utter the phrase, “You are a better man than I.” because that other person obeys more rules. We recognize them because they face the same challenges we do, and always try for the better outcome, even when perhaps doctrines are calcified or laws are fuzzy.

  6. alandtapper1950

    Hi Dan:

    I don’t think Aristotle agrees with you when you say: “One of the notable things about Aristotle’s view is that it means that no action is intrinsically good or bad, because any action could lie anywhere on the relative spectrum of deficiency/moderation/excessiveness, given suitable circumstances.”


    “But not every action nor every passion admits of a mean; for some have names that already imply badness, e.g. spite, shamelessness, envy, and in the case of actions adultery, theft, murder; for all of these and suchlike things imply by their names that they are themselves bad, and not the excesses or deficiencies of them. It is not possible, then, ever to be right with regard to them; one must always be wrong. Nor does goodness or badness with regard to such things depend on committing adultery with the right woman, at the right time, and in the right way, but simply to do any of them is to go wrong. It would be equally absurd, then, to expect that in unjust, cowardly, and voluptuous action there should be a mean, an excess, and a deficiency; for at that rate there would be a mean of excess and of deficiency, an excess of excess, and a deficiency of deficiency. But as there is no excess and deficiency of temperance and courage because what is intermediate is in a sense an extreme, so too of the actions we have mentioned there is no mean nor any excess and deficiency, but however they are done they are wrong; for in general there is neither a mean of excess and deficiency, nor excess and deficiency of a mean.” (NE, 2.6)


  7. Of course if an action is described via an already morally loaded predicate, it won’t admit of a mean. The point is that actions, neutrally conceived are not intrinsically right or wrong.

  8. hedgescholar,
    “Morals address why something is right or wrong, while ethics are the practices that are either right or wrong. The conclusion I drew, amateur that I am, is that morality precedes ethics.”

    But given what we know from anthropology, the conclusion doesn’t follow. There have been many societies where people have acted according to the ethical norms of their community, and the only justification given amounts to ‘we do this/ we don’t do that.’So it seems more likely that ethics – the actual behavior – precedes any explanation.

    We don’t have to ‘construct’ an ethics prior to morals. people already do that – they have always done that, long before there were any philosophers to ruminate on the matter.

    Modern discussions concerning moral theory developed in the wake of the collapse of the moral theory – and many of its ethical practices – enforced by various forms of Christianity. That doesn’t mean to say such discussions are worthless or can not be learned from; but that moral theory must precede ethics is an intellectualist conceit.

    People will generally act within the ethical expectations of their community. Then later someone will try to explain it. One such explanation is moral theory that presumes that people think on the rational basis of their behavior and make strictly rational decisions on the basis of these. But that seems to be asking too much of people who need to make choices rapidly day to day

  9. alandtapper1950

    So some actions and some types of character are intrinsically good or bad?

  10. labnut

    This essay is another lovely example of your clarity and cogency. I never fail to learn from you.

    The point is that actions, neutrally conceived are not intrinsically right or wrong.

    That is true for anything, by definition, if they are neutrally conceived. But actions which affect other people cannot be neutrally conceived, at the very least, by the subject of the action. If I strike a stone it will not perceive a wrong but if I strike my neighbour he will immediately and unambiguously perceive my act as being a wrong.

  11. dmf

    DK you might be interested in Chris Long’s book Aristotle on the Nature of Truth, could be another good guest for yer bloggingheads gig:

  12. If you use a morally thick term to describe them? Of course. But that’s nothing but a semantic trick. It tells you nothing about morals.

    Murders are intrinsically bad. But that’s because a murder just is a wrongful killing.

    But killing is not intrinsically bad. It depends on the circumstances.

  13. labnut

    but that moral theory must precede ethics is an intellectualist conceit.

    Aren’t you being more than a little harsh here? Hedgescholar made a sincere comment in good faith and I don’t think it should be dismissed as an intellectualist conceit.

    As it happens, it seems you two are talking about two different things and you are not addressing what he says(and he never used the word must). He is talking about ethical behaviour, as we understand it today, while you seem to be talking about the origins of ethical behaviour(you refer to anthropology)(which we can only guess about since hunter-gatherer societies were not kind enough to leave written explanations).

    Ethical practices today are informed by extant moral theory and in that sense moral theory precedes ethical practices. Any person raised in a Western liberal society is raised in a world drenched with moral implications(mostly Christian/Judaic). He would have to be a cave dweller to escape them. Any person making an ethical decision today does it against this background knowledge of moral beliefs and in this sense Hedgescholar is right.

    You simplify badly when you claim that
    that presumes that people think on the rational basis of their behavior and make strictly rational decisions on the basis of these“.

    You can’t resist taking your usual side-swipe at Christianity(have you noticed that I don’t continually poke at Buddhism?) but you should know that Catholicism realises very well that ethical behaviour is not a strictly rational process. It is a complex process of ratiocination, emotion and motivation. A large part of Catholic liturgy, ritual, symbols and ceremony was designed to encourage ethical behaviour. Any priest who hears confessions will tell you this is no easy thing to do.

    James Rast described a four component model to describe this process and if you studied this model you would see the nature of your simplification(see The components of the model are
    1) Moral sensitivity,
    2) Moral judgement,
    3) Moral motivation,
    4) Moral commitment.

    You will note that “the rational basis of their behavior and make strictly rational decisions” is contained in (2), Moral judgement, which is only the second stage of a four step process. Moral judgement, without moral sensitivity, moral motivation and moral commitment is an empty thing with no force at all. Saint Paul memorably said this rather better than I could. The major purpose of religion is, for the most part, to develop all four components of moral sensitivity, judgement, motivation and commitment.

    An example of this is a set of tests done by Dan Ariely. Two groups were give tests of honesty. One group(the test group) was primed by being asked to read the Ten Commandments first. The other group(the control group) was given a random piece of literature to read. The test group(the primed group) show double the honesty of the control group and this result held even if avowed atheists were tested. He concluded that repeated priming was necessary to maintain ethical behaviour. So I hope you will see that ethical decision making was never a case of pure rational thinking.

  14. labnut,
    I was not taking a “poke” at Christianity, I was remarking a historical fact: By the end of the 18th Century it was evident to large numbers of people that inherited Christian moral theories had exhausted themselves in decades of doctrinal debate, warfare, heresy trials and executions, discriminatory oppression enacted between sects, and were generally lacking in viable explanations of emergent social, economic, and political forms and realities and the behaviors these realized. Moral philosophies then developed to fill the vacuum left behind; because it was presumed that people needed moral education and expert guidance, which the churches could no longer deliver. But this is not the case. It is not only hunters and gatherers, but my next door neighbors who can generally be relied upon to act ethically with but the slightest awareness of what might constitute a ‘moral reason’ (in the sense of a theoretically grounded reason) for doing so. People in any community will act, or try to act, to the ethical standards understood in that community, not because they have reasoned it through, but because of the relational ties that bind the people into a community. Moral philosophy is something we can learn from, but it is not a necessary preliminary to ethical behavior, and never has been.

    And once again you’ve forgotten that I was raised Catholic and studied its theology and culture, and need no lectures concerning its undeniably complex (occasionally contradictory) but often praiseworthy ethical positions and practices. Whether it worked or not for me is not a relevant question. My remark on history is that by 1800 many Europeans were deciding that it no longer worked for them. The intellectualist conceit of the time was that ‘something like it,’ albeit without reference to a divinity, was needed to take its place, or the world would fall into chaos (I didn’t say ‘anarchy,’ because anarchism was in fact one such moral philosophy).

    The world did not collapse into chaos. It is certainly messier than it was in 1800, and terrible things have been done since then; but every terrible thing has had its moral theory or other forms of apologetics, Hence my suspicion that, for many, moral theory acts as post-hoc explanation rather than preliminary consideration before taking action.

    I certainly wasn’t trying to be harsh with hedgescholar; he offered a conclusion that he had reached, and I pointed out that factual knowledge about cultures in different times and places, including the history of our own, works against such a conclusion; and in fact such a conclusion can only be reached deductively; but ethics can only be enacted on a case by case basis. “The particular as particular escapes the grasp of reason, the form of which is the general or universal.”

  15. EJ,
    In referring to the anthropological phenomenon of people explaining behavior as “we do/we don’t do” for no particular reason, I suspect you would be making my point for me if you followed those same people a decade or so down the road from their first exposure to the “civilized” world. Precisely those things that they did or didn’t do for no particular reason (ethics only) would be the first things to be replaced where comfortable or convenient. Ethics, in its malleability, is little more than habit. And while we all know habits are hard to break, they aren’t impossible and you certainly don’t feel you are betraying your “true” self when you do so.

    “One such explanation is moral theory that presumes that people think on the rational basis of their behavior and make strictly rational decisions on the basis of these.”—-I was unaware that there was a singular thing called “moral theory” that presumes only reason. I’m more of a historian than a philosopher, so you’ll forgive me for this small lapse I hope. But if some Vulcan wannabe has managed to convince the whole of academia that their version of morality is deserving of the umbrella term “moral theory” then I think academia needs to do some rethinking. Surely we cannot have thrown out the baby with the bath water. Theological thinking delved deeply into things not immediately knowable for quite some time. In talking about morality and ethics we can’t even say that we are confining ourselves to epistemology. What people do and believe on a daily basis is firmly within the domain of psychology and sociology so that excluding anything that is not reason (emotions, aspirations, belief in a higher power, etc…) is short-sighted at best as things not rational often motivate behavior.

    “We don’t have to ‘construct’ an ethics prior to morals. people already do that – they have always done that, long before there were any philosophers to ruminate on the matter. “—People have been philosophers as long as they have been people. If you have a more exclusive definition of philosopher, you will find knowledge, but miss wisdom. And yes, people have and will continue to develop ethics (or habits, or laws) in the absence of morality, but these things will not define them.

    I do think I get where your resistance is coming from. Your conception of morality is crystalline, as in, morality is set and incapable of evolution. But I don’t think that has to be true. Even when morality issues from a “Book” there has been evolution over time. You mentioned Christianity, and so I will stick with that. To think that the morality of a Christian is a singular thing would be a great oversimplification. Christianity has changed greatly over time. Some sects/denominations have been more resistant to change than others, but the opposite of that observation would be that some sects/denominations have been less resistant to change than others. Should a Christian from the Middle Age walk into a Methodist Church of today, I’m sure they would be amazed at the differences. Anyway, I’m beating a dead horse here. My point is that I have encountered your perspective often, the one where those who espouse a personal moral code are presumed to have put no thought into its adoption, to be intellectually lazy, and to feel their code should stand alone for all men. This is true of some men, but the exceptions outnumber the rules.

    And it is very possible that I have pegged you wrongly here. Hope so, makes for better conversation.

  16. labnut,

    Didn’t see your response to EJ before I responded to him. You make some really good points and the thought of James Rast seemed especially to reflect where I was coming from.

  17. […] inquires as to how we might understand the positions of others while considering ethics in his post This Week’s Special: On a Metaphor in Aristotle’s Nicomachian Ethics. It is a bit of a heavier read, but for readers ready for philosophical discourse, it delves deeper […]

  18. alandtapper1950

    Hi Dan: Your view, if I understand it, seems to be that ethics is entirely particularist. The thing you are opposed to is ethical theories that offer general recipes for ethical action (“principles, rules and doctrines”, as you call them). As it happens, I share this anti-theoretical viewpoint. But I don’t think ethical matters are entirely particularist.

    As I see it, ethics is in part governed by core ethical concepts. Of these, the most important is the concept of justice. A philosophical account of ethics has to include an account of the concept of justice. The examples that Aristotle gives of actions that are always wrong (“adultery, theft, murder”) are always wrong because they are types of injustice. Where there is no injustice in an action, its rightness or goodness is subject to complex judgement, much as you describe in your essay. In those cases, principles, rules and doctrines don’t help much.

    You might reply that “justice” is just another thick ethical concept and its use in ethical theory has to be question-begging. I don’t think that is so, but it would take rather too long to argue that through here.

  19. The entire purpose and value of ethics is practical. What good it to know that murder is wrong, if I don’t know what counts as a murder and what doesn’t? The point is not that one cannot formulate such propositions as “Murder is wrong” — identify categories of actions that are “always wrong” — but rather that doing so does not in any way help a person to behave in an ethical fashion.

  20. Alan and Dan

    Using murder as an example reminds me of something someone once said about asking the question: “What’s wrong with killing people?” Only philosophers and psychopaths would ask it.

    I think we would agree that mentally healthy people just don’t have the desire to kill their fellow creatures – unless they are perceived to have wronged them in some very serious way. So the question wouldn’t take a general form, but would be more along the lines of “Why shouldn’t I kill the man who … ?”

    So I guess my point would be more in line with what Dan is saying (particularism?) than with what Alan is saying (though he did not elaborate on his notion of justice).

    As I see it, we start out with these social instincts, and only then do we start to categorize and label and ultimately philosophize (about just wars, justice, and so on).

    I don’t think the notion of justice is empty, but it is generally used in a very rhetorical way. If you strip away the rhetorical elements, I am not sure what you are left with.

    Personally, I am more comfortable with the concept of fairness. Maybe it can’t do a lot of legal or ethical heavy lifting, but at least it avoids any suggestion of something metaphysical lying behind it.

  21. alandtapper1950


    “The entire purpose and value of ethics is practical.” Agreed.

    “What good is it to know that murder is wrong, if I don’t know what counts as a murder and what doesn’t?” Agreed.

    “The point is not that one cannot formulate such propositions as “Murder is wrong” — identify categories of actions that are “always wrong” — but rather that doing so does not in any way help a person to behave in an ethical fashion.”

    Not agreed. Why would you think that? Take the case of someone in the jury in an alleged murder case. They will be thinking very hard about what sort of wrongness is involved in murder. Does what the accused did amount to murder or not? Do the elements of the case add up to murder? Here the concept is doing a lot of serious work. There is a variety of kinds of ethical wrongness, so it is not a plain and simple matter.

  22. alandtapper1950


    Yes, social instincts come first. Philosophy comes third. Second is social debate about what counts as just and unjust. Social life is impossible without that.

    Yes, too much talk about justice is rhetorical, in the pejorative sense of the word.

    Yes, fairness is very important. It take it that fairness concerns the allocation of rights by means of a conventional decision procedure (coin tossing, for example), whereas justice is about the allocation of benefits and burdens in a communal practice. Is that your sense of the terms?


  23. Alan

    I don’t know that you can make a clean distinction between ‘justice’ and ‘fairness’. The connotations and usages are slightly different however. The fact that one is from the Latin (via Old French) and the other is a good old-fashioned English (i.e. Germanic) word helps explain the different ‘feel’ of the two words, I think. (Like mansion and house, or tempest and storm.)

    Actually ‘fair’ is being increasingly used for political purposes, but the first context I think of – and this fits your example – is the humble context of games. From that basis it extends into real life (playing fair etc.).

  24. alandtapper1950

    Mark: I agree with what you say here. It’s an interesting topic, I think. I don’t know of any good discussion of it.

  25. hedgescholar.,
    for some reason, your direct response to me has only tonight appeared on my webpage here. A few notes:

    ” Your conception of morality is crystalline, as in, morality is set and incapable of evolution.” That isn’t me, and further does not follow from the points I argued. Perhaps my later note to labnut clarified this.

    Perhaps also, from that note, it was clear that I am using the words ‘philosophy/philosophers’ as they are commonly understood in modern culture. (Medieval philosophers would not understand themselves as philosophers – they were theologians. And they would not only have not recognized Methodism, they would have condemned it. Thomism remains the primary philosophical stance of the Catholic Church to this day, which I have been at pains to remind labnut on other occasions. We cannot assume an evolution for an institution that will not evolve, except on its own terms, and according to its institutional agencies. I have friend who practice Latin Mass, and I have friends who perform folk masses conducted by women in the functionary roles as priests. Both are in the same hot water according to the Vatican.

    I’m not given you “resistance.” I hold that your position is misguided, and, though you claim to be a “historian,” frankly, uninformed.

    It is a mistake to reduce morality, its sources, development and consequences to broad generalities.

    Also, as side remark, concerning “moral psychology” (Rest) – a highly questionable field of study, since it presumes the moral norms of a given culture, and test subjects in a way as to get an expected response. If you ask subjects for reasons of course they will give you reasons, and so what is reported is that subjects have reasons. No surprise.

  26. animal symbolicum

    I’d like to offer a friendly addendum, Professor Kaufman.

    Here is another quote from Aristotle in which he says that the kind of perception we might call moral perception is “akin to that by which we perceive that the particular figure before us is a triangle” (NE 1142a 27-9). Think of how fundamental and inarticulate the ability to see triangularity is!

    The triangle serves as a good example. I can’t do a geometric proof — I can’t reason in the right way — armed only with, say, the belief that the figure before me is a triangle. Rather, I have to SEE the triangularity and its spatial features in the figure.

    Analogously, I would think, I won’t give up factory-farmed meat armed only with the belief that factory farming is cruel. Rather, I have to see the cruelty in factory farming, if I am to reason about it in the right way. And, as I think your discussion brings out, learning to see the cruelty (to continue with the example) is prior to learning to reason about it, since to describe or see something in a certain way is to prepare it (in that certain way) for uptake in a certain path of reasoning, a path of reasoning that can’t get off the ground without the right sort of seeing or describing.

    But I think I’m a little more sanguine than you are about the possibility of learning to see things in the right way. Sure, I can’t reason my way into seeing factory farming as cruel. But that doesn’t mean learning to see isn’t reasonABLE. It just means that seeing correctly is not the outcome of an argument or explanation. No argument or explanation will GIVE me the correct perceptual skill. But that’s just to point out that to have a skill is neither to know a fact or explanation nor to believe a proposition or its justification. You and I can still take reasonable, understandable steps together to get me to acquire the perceptual skill of seeing cruelty in factory farming. We could visit a factory farm, e.g. You and I will both understand why you are taking me, and you can say some things to direct my attention, articulate some crucial features you want me to note, and so on. None of this is describable as “the giving of an argument,” but all of it is understandable, reasonable, and at least partially communicable.

  27. I agree that it is sometimes possible to get people to see things they had not seen before — this has long been an idea in aesthetics. It’s just that there is no real “routinizable” process by which to do it, and the possibility of failure is quite high. Moreover, there remains the very real possibility that even if one succeeds in getting the other to see it, the change in valuation you hope for doesn’t come. I am very well aware of what factory farming looks like, and I eat meat nonetheless, as do the overwhelming majority of people. So, the point is not to deny that such things can happen but rather, to observe that the manner in which they do is rather haphazard, and the failure rate is very high.

  28. alandtapper1950

    This discussion started off with Dan contending that our knowledge of moral matters is very unlike our knowledge of geometry. “Squares are definable in terms of a set of essential characteristics, and thus, what applies to one square will always apply to another. But people and their lives and behavior are not like this.”

    But geometrical knowledge may not be so simple. That’s what Plato’s “Meno” tried to show. The slave boy, under neutral questioning by Socrates, shows that he knows more than anyone would have thought he knew. And his knowledge is sound geometry.

    Incidentally, the bit I quoted above from Aristotle on adultery (“Nor does goodness or badness with regard to such things depend on committing adultery with the right woman, at the right time, and in the right way, but simply to do any of them is to go wrong.”) may be the only joke in all his works. Plato is full of jokes. None better than the joking about stingrays (torpedo-fish) in the “Meno”.

  29. animal symbolicum

    Thanks for your reply, Professor Kaufman.

    I see. Getting someone to see samenesses (“This is the same as these other cruel things,” “This being is like these other human beings who have dignity,” etc.) is not a “routinizable” process, and therefore not, perhaps, to be counted on. And now I see that in your original post you were stressing the need for RELIABILITY in matters of ethics (and showing that knowing the propositional content of principles and rules won’t get us there).

    I suppose, then, that my point is now just whittled down to this:

    Routinizable or not, bringing someone to see relevant sameness can be reasonable and understandable and not just, say, brainwashing. When one says, as you do in your original post, that “ethics is the discipline in which ratiocination and rational investigation do us the least good,” we shouldn’t take that to presuppose that either ethics is about grasping propositional truths and drawing inferences or it’s is about brainwashing that completely bypasses thought altogether. I was trying to point out that there’s conceptual room for something’s being thoughtful (or amenable to thought) and yet neither purely algorithmic or intellectual nor bypassing thought altogether.

  30. It’s always my pleasure to have civil, high quality conversations like this. Very nice to have you here.

  31. dmf

    somewhere (probably in Doing What Comes Naturally) Stanley Fish has a bit along the lines of even if God himself came and told you personally that Murder is wrong you would still have to do what we always do to figure out what might count as murder or not which is to check in with trusted resources/persons (including in some sense with ourselves), there is a good book on such Fishy ethics
    Justifying Belief: Stanley Fish and the Work of Rhetoric by Gary Olson, also worth a bit of google-fu is Assembling Ethics in an Ecology of Ignorance by Paul Rabinow.