Temperate food thieves, courageous Nazis.

One of the most noteworthy tensions in Aristotle arises from the fact that he analyses virtues in two ways. On the one hand, he has a ‘doctrine of the mean’ according to which virtues consist in an ‘intermediate amount’. So, for instance, courage involves fearing things neither too much nor too less. That is, you must avoid the vices of rashness and cowardice respectively. Similarly, wit involves neither telling too many jokes like the clown, nor too little like the social bore. And he says that temperance involves indulging in bodily pleasures in the right amount: neither having too much sex and cake nor avoiding it all entirely like the dieting celibate monk.

And yet, simultaneously, he seems to insist on another analysis of virtue which has the potential to yield a contradiction: he talks of, as in my Quote for the day, of fearing, laughing and desiring not only in ‘the right amount’, but also in the right way, for the right reasons, towards the right objects and so on. And the problem is that the type of claim this is used to motivate – for instance, that adultery is a sign of intemperance because it involves sexual activity with the wrong person, need not map onto intemperance in the sense of having too much sex. What about the man who cheats on his wife once and has no signs of being swept off his feet by a rampant libido? And similarly, how about the man who steals food, but only in order to fill his inevitable desire for a light lunch around midday?

Aristotle’s two analyses pull in opposite directions here: on the one hand, he does wish to say these people are intemperate. On the other, if his doctrine of the mean is correct, they aren’t necessarily so. They may be unjust or guilty of any other vice, but if intemperance is solely about the extent to which you indulge in your appetites, adultery and food theft isn’t always going to be intemperate.

Either way, which story should we accept here? Are we more inclined to say that the one-time adulterer and the light-lunch food-thief are temperate, or not? I imagine our intuitions say they are not intemperate. But I’ll finish this brief post by noting one consequence of this conclusion, if you agree with me that it’s the right one to take.

It seems, then, that if the adulterer and food thief may be temperate, bad people may have virtues. So, in the same way, Robin Hood who pillages the rightful resources of the rich in order to feed the poor is indeed benevolent. In fact, he is more benevolent than the just people among us who respect social order and do not steal. Similarly, the Nazi soldier that stands firm and refuses to divulge information putting German lives at stake? He’s courageous, albeit for a perverted cause. And the homophobe standing up against social convention and condemning homosexuality also has to aptly be labelled ‘brave’.

Maybe you’re happy to ultimately accept those implications, but it’s certainly understandable why Aristotle shied away from them.



One thought on “Temperate food thieves, courageous Nazis.

  1. I’ve considered this problem at length and have concluded that bad people cannot be virtuous. It may resemble virtue but it falls short–just barely in certain cases.

    This is still a live debate for virtue theorists of all stripes. It’s often referred to as the “unity of the virtues”. Must one have all the virtues to be considered virtuous? I’d recommend Rosalind Hursthouse’s “On Virtue” and Crisp and Slote’s edited collection from OUP titled “Virtue Ethics”. Both touch on the subject a bit if you haven’t read them already.

    Nice post!

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