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Routledge - Philosophy GuideBook to Aristotle on Ethics

Routledge - Philosophy GuideBook to Aristotle on Ethics

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Published by Gabriela Florea

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Published by: Gabriela Florea on Feb 04, 2012
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11/25/2014

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What Aristotle has to say about practical wisdom has occasioned more
discussion and more controversy than almost any other part of the
Ethics. So I shall start by trying to give a general survey of what is
going on in this part of the book – with the warning that any attempt
to put it neatly and clearly will inevitably result in oversimplification.
To possess practical wisdom, in Aristotle’s view, is to be good
at thinking about what one should do. He is careful to make it clear
that he has a very particular use of ‘should’ in mind. He is not speaking
about occasions when we might say of a footballer that he should have
passed sooner than he did, or of a cook that she should not have used
such a hot oven, or of a doctor that she should have noticed that the
patient was somewhat confused. In contrast to these occasions when
we use ‘should’ almost in a technical sense, Aristotle has in mind
something which comes close to a moral use; as he puts it, to have
practical wisdom is to be good at thinking about how to live a fulfilled
and worthwhile life as a whole.

PRACTICAL WISDOM

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The very way in which I have described practical wisdom, in
terms of being good at a particular kind of thinking, will easily suggest
that practical wisdom is a type of intellectual skill, perhaps like being
good at crossword puzzles, or good at mathematics. Aristotle is in some
ways quite struck by the possible similarities here, even though his
explicit view is that practical wisdom is definitely not a skill. It will be
recalled that he had a very similar problem in separating moral virtues
from skills. Why is being good at moral decision making not a matter
of possessing what might, in the jargon phrase, be described as the
appropriate life-skills? One set of problems, then, arises from trying to
sort out exactly what the similarities and differences are, and precisely
how moral thinking differs from other types of intellectual pursuit.
This set of problems is linked to another. One way of charac-
terizing a skill is in terms of what the skill aims at producing. To
possess the skill is to be good at producing the end-product: to be a
good sculptor is to be good at making statues and so on, and to be
good at solving crosswords is to be able to produce the correct solu-
tion. By their fruits you shall know them. The test for whether someone
is skilled or not is whether they can take the right steps or means to
the end which the skill aims at. So one chooses suitable stone, prepares
one’s tools, and starts chipping away, now here, now there, doing what-
ever is required to produce an impressive statue. If practical wisdom
is like that, then being good at moral thinking consists in knowing how
to take the best means to achieve one’s goals in life.
It is just here that the major difficulties in interpreting Aristotle’s
intentions start. Sometimes he does seem to suggest that practical
wisdom never thinks about ends but only about the means to achieve
ends which are taken as already fixed; but on other occasions he
equally seems to suggest that practical wisdom involves thinking about
the ends, too. Indeed one would surely have thought that any sensible
account of practical wisdom – being good at thinking morally – would
involve thinking about what one’s goals in life should be, and not just
about how to achieve goals which are taken as given. One might even
think that the most fundamental difficulty in trying to live morally lies
in knowing what it is that one is aiming at: if we could get that clear,
it might seem comparatively easy to work out the practical details of
how to achieve it.

PRACTICAL WISDOM

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So what is it to be good at thinking morally? One answer,
perhaps not very plausible, would be that being good at thinking
morally consists in having a good grasp of a set of moral principles –
to know that stealing is wrong, or that one ought to be generous to
those in need, and so on. But then, do not such principles have to be
applied to individual situations? So is it perhaps more important to
know what to do at any given instant, rather than to have an abstract
grasp of moral principles? But perhaps both kinds of ability are
required: we could hope both to have the right principles and to know
how to apply them by seeing what is the right thing to do here and
now. Aristotle seems to say something along these lines. To help the
reader, he gives some examples of how the good practical thinker
might think. But the examples, often described as ‘practical syllo-
gisms’, are less clear than one might wish, as are the explanatory
comments Aristotle makes about them. So we need to try to get clear
about these, too.

Finally, we have already seen that Aristotle defines the moral
virtues in terms of the choices made by the person who has practical
wisdom. In this section of the Ethicshe elaborates on this connection
from the other end, as it were. What positive contribution do the moral
virtues make to one’s ability to think well about how to live a morally
admirable life? Or, to put the question more concretely, exactly what
does emotional balance have to do with moral judgement?
These, then, are some of the issues with which Aristotle deals
in Book VI. The account of practical wisdom lies at the very heart of
his position, and differences of interpretation here have repercussions
on one’s interpretation of almost everything else which he says. But
quite apart from the problems of getting the interpretation of the text
right, there is the question whether Aristotle gives a realistic picture
of how we do in fact think about moral issues, and whether he manages
to defend that picture satisfactorily.
So much for an outline of the issues. Aristotle makes a start by
distinguishing intellectual virtues from the moral virtues we have
already considered, and by focusing on two key intellectual virtues.

PRACTICAL WISDOM

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