Why does Aristotle Think that Ethical Virtue is Required for Practical Wisdom?

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In this paper, I ask why Aristotle thinks that ethical virtue (rather than mere self-control) is required for practical wisdom. I argue that a satisfactory answer will need to explain why being prone to bad appetites implies a failing of the rational part of the soul. I go on to claim that the self-controlled person does suffer from such a rational failing: a failure to take a specifically rational kind of pleasure in fine action. However, this still leaves a problem: could there not be someone who (unlike the self-controlled person) took the right kind of pleasure in fine action, but who failed to be virtuous on account of bad appetites? If so, would such a person be practically wise but not virtuous? I end with some suggestions about how Aristotle might answer this.

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  • 2)

    As Hendrik Lorenz (2009) points out Aristotle does not actually say here that intellectual virtues are of the rational part and character virtues are of the nonrational-but-reason-responsive part. (Lorenz argues that it would be a mistake to infer from this passage that character virtues are states solely of the nonrational-but-reason-responsive part.) However it is hard to see in what sense Aristotle would be distinguishing between the two types of virtues on the basis of the difference between these two types of the soul unless he were at least committed to the view that the intellectual virtues were virtues solely of the rational part (as Lorenz himself implies p193).

  • 3)

    McDowell (1998) p40. By ‘the desiderative element’ McDowell means the nonrational reason-responsive part (described as ‘desiderative’ ὀρεκτικόν by Aristotle at NE I.13.1102b30).

  • 11)

    McDowell (1996) p105. See also McDowell (1998) pp46-7 where he claims that [for Aristotle] ‘there cannot be both a perfect match with the practical thinking of a fully virtuous person and a felt temptation to do otherwise [than as the virtuous person does].’

  • 16)

    Irwin (1988) p88. McDowell (1998) pp46-7 seems to endorse a similar view when he says: ‘On this occasion what matters about the situation as the practically wise person sees it is not the opportunity for pleasure but say the fact that this would be his fifth doughnut at one sitting. The practically wise person registers but counts as irrelevant to the question what to do an instance of a kind of consideration (that pleasure is available) that does bear on the question in other circumstances. His counting it as irrelevant shows in his being unmoved by it by contrast with the merely continent person (the ἐγκρατής) who has to overcome temptation to get himself to do the right thing.’

  • 19)

    Woods (1986) p152. Drefcinski (2000) makes the same point and invokes it to explain why the self-controlled person cannot be practically wise.

  • 20)

    Cooper (1998) p279.

  • 21)

    Broadie (1991) p308 ft. 11 uses this point about reliability to explain why the akratic cannot be practically wise: ‘The incontinent may deliberate well on one or other occasion but he cannot be relied on as the wise person can to deliberate well. If the temptation which deflects him from acting had occurred instead when he was deliberating he would have been distracted from deliberating well.’ Note however that this justification for regarding the akratic person as unreliable would not apply to the self-controlled person: he is not deflected from action by pleasure so there is no reason to suppose his deliberation would be vulnerable either.

  • 23)

    This point is emphasized by Cooper (2009) pp11-13. The self-controlled and akratic types are ‘people with more or less permanently or at least well-settled divided minds and feelings about the matters that they are self-controlled or uncontrolled about’ (p13).

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