Essays V & VI

Okay, bear with me folks. This one got a bit out of hand as I wrote it. Rather than tossing the whole project and starting from scratch, however, I decided to break it out into two distinct essays, as described below. You'll submit the essays as two attachments to a single email; I'll work through them one after the other.

Throughout Book III, Chapters 1-5, Aristotle introduces a number of important distinctions so as to justify and motivate an inquiry into the specific human excellences (virtues) of character, including:

  • Voluntary actions;
  • Forced actions;
  • Actions caused by ignorance;
  • Actions done in ignorance;
  • Actions which permit both pity and pardon;
  • Involuntary actions;
  • Nonvoluntary actions;
  • An action decided;
  • An action deliberated upon; and
  • An action or outcome wished upon.

Why these distinctions? Think about the circumstances and conditions under which it makes sense to hold someone accountable (either praiseworthy or blameworthy, as the case may be) for the content of their character. There would be little point in discussing them if the virtues weren't genuinely up to us--if, that is, we weren't ultimately responsible for our own character.

Notice that this is controversial, as I mentioned in class. As it happens there is a strong current in the psychological and sociological research which asserts that our character is largely set in stone by dint of nature and, possibly, being well or poorly nurtured. Our character, according to this view, is not ultimately up to us. We are not responsible for it, and thus we ought not be held blameworthy for our bad actions nor, presumably, praiseworthy for our good actions. We're simply lucky if we end up being a person of good character, unlucky if not. Indeed, in circles like social psychology, evolutionary psychology, and sociology broadly, the denial of individual responsibility for character is taken as gospel. Zimbardo's TED talk, "The Lucifer Effect", provides an excellent distillation of this view:

Thus, to paraphrase Zimbardo, we must attend to the bad barrel makers, the bad barrels they make, and the bad apples that result from them willy nilly since our dispositions of character are simply brought forth or emerge (whether demonic or heroic) as a result of our social circumstances.

Aristotle, as I say, argues otherwise, although his argument is characteristically nuanced and attentive to such factors as nurture and nature. Indeed, much of Chapter 5 is spent carefully finessing the conclusion he therein constructs on the foundation he has laid down in Chapters 1-4.

In Essay V, spell out that foundation. That is to say, explain the distinctions he draws (above) in developing his argument. As I mentioned in class, make sure your explanations illustrate these distinctions with well-chosen examples not already given by Aristotle.

Given the foundation you've established in Essay V, devote Essay VI to answering the following questions:

How would you explain the conclusion Aristotle draws? Is there as much light between Zimbardo and Aristotle as it seems? How does Aristotle arrive at the conclusion you ascribe to him? As best as you can trace it, what specifically is his argument?