Wednesday, December 17, 2008

and another thing.

the same actions which are responsible for and instrumental in the origin and development of the virtues are also the means of their destruction.

the nichomachean ethics
book ii, part 3

aristotle famously posits the golden mean as the way to understand virtue-- courage, for instance, as the virtue standing midway between cowardice (a vice of deficit) and recklessness (a vice of excess). virtue is the target, standing at the balanced dead center of all manner of vice and moral compromise.

i wrote a little about virtue ethics over the summer-- not so much about the golden mean, but what the actual exercise of a virtue consist in. what i mean is, i was addressing not so much the question of how, in theory, we understand what courage is, but what it is to be courageous (or to be patient-- the example i used at the time). to actually be virtuous is to be someone whose behavior conforms to virtue time and time again. it has to do with a consistency that is the result of each action springing from the same firm character. and just as consistency depends on firmness of character, firmness of character depends on authenticity. if it's not really you, you can't sustain it. beyond that, the virtuous person explicitly takes herself to be striving for virtue, undertakes virtuous acts for their own sake (that is, for the sake of the ultimate end-- the good life) and not in pursuit of some extrinsic end (like money or something like that), and, in turn, gets a certain pleasure from acting in the way according with virtue.

so, i'm trying to finish a paper on all this. in the paper i try to come to some understanding of how we can make sense of extremists-- radicals, visionaries, ascetics-- in these terms. a lot of our moral heroes (religious saints in particular, but also secular figures like ghandi or john brown) fall into this category, and there are lots of other people (particularly artists) who make valuable contributions to society, although their value isn't explicitly moral, which seems to be generated by certain extreme or ultimately self-defeating character traits. on the surface, at least, it looks like these sorts of extreme characters are not conforming to any sort of "happy medium", and yet we revere them, either for their moral integrity, or some quasi-moral aesthetic integrity.

are creative highs and principled stands the elevated end of a seesaw-- dependent upon, caused by, or one part of a whole that necessarily includes a lowered end? does the golden mean leave us perfectly balanced at the fulcrum, the low end raised, and the raised end lowered? what do we lose, if anything, and is it worth it?

i seriously have to finish this paper.

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