Difficulties in Applying Aristotle’s Theories Into A Modern Setting

Difficulties in Applying Aristotle’s Theories Into A Modern Setting

October 13, 2018 0 By Felso

While Aristotle’s ethical and political theory may sound convincing, it would be extremely difficult to incorporate all that Aristotle argues for in today’s society.

In this chapter, I raise some concerns about the effectiveness of Aristotle’s theory in relation to a present society. One obstacle that I raise in this chapter concerns the difference in how morality is seen between our culture and Aristotle’s, which is one of the reasons why implementing Aristotle’s theory into a modern context is so difficult.

MacIntyre understands this disjunction, and he argues that we live in an emotivist society – that is, we use moral language in order to express our feelings about certain issues. This is a problem because not everyone uses the same moral language which causes us to speak past each other. MacIntyre offers a modern perspective that preserves Aristotle’s core values from his theory in positing that “the Aristotelian tradition can be restated in a way that restores intelligibility and rationality to our moral and social attitudes and commitments”.

Another issue with Aristotle’s theory concerns slavery, as it is no longer as widely acceptable as it was during Aristotle’s time. As mentioned before, Aristotle claims that slaves lack the ability to deliberate, a key feature in the ability to live out the best possible life. Already Aristotle has established a social hierarchy in this regard, and it is not simply with slaves, because Aristotle includes women, farmers and artisans in this category of non-citizenship. Returning to Aristotle’s view of such a distinct stratum would erase hundreds of years of fighting for equal rights in the United States, and to relinquish all of that is problematic. Another critique about Aristotle’s work is the idea that citizens must devote almost all of their energy in pursuing the virtuous life.

This does not seem completely possible nor entirely necessary, because once a person acquires virtue, then they possess that virtue whether they are exercising it or not. While a person must continue exercise virtue throughout an entire life, it is not entirely necessary that a person must devote so much time and energy into achieving such an ideal. In spite of all this, Aristotle’s general conception of the virtuous life and the ideal polis and their connections still relates to today. By breaking down the aspects that we appreciate and altering the parts we feel less certain about with respect to Aristotle’s thesis, we can better understand ourselves. Further, Aristotle’s conception gives us an idea and a model for rulers and citizens who desire the virtuous life to follow.

Aristotle’s conception of the virtuous life and the overall picture of the polis cannot directly cross over to our modern world for an important reason: today we do not all share the same moral language. MacIntyre argues that “there seems to be no rational way of securing moral agreement in our culture” (MacIntyre 6). Unlike the Aristotelian ideal polis where the standard virtuous life is understood and agreed upon, our present society lacks that sense of concord in morality to the point where we seem to talk past one another.

MacIntyre identifies this detachment as a “conceptual incommensurability,” or the fact that “each premise employs some quite different normative or evaluative concept from the others, so that the claims made upon us are of quite different kinds”. When we engage in debates concerning the value of human life, for example, we express our opinions using moral language. However, we use such language to express our emotion and passion in an attempt to win a debate. Since moral language is being used as a tool for conveying personal emotion, it is difficult for people to communicate because society is inconsistent using different moral terms for various circumstances. Hence MacIntyre claims that we live in an emotivist culture, one that propagates this miscommunication.

What is emotivism? According to MacIntyre, emotivism is “the doctrine that all evaluative judgments and more specifically all moral judgments are nothing but expressions of preference, expressions of attitude or feeling, insofar as they are moral or evaluative in character”. Emotivism is the idea that people express their personal preferences through emotion yet pass off these preferences as moral judgments. In other words, emotivism is the claim that a moral judgment goes beyond a mere emotion. To understand this quotation, consider the following example.

MacIntyre presents three emotivist characters that exemplify the crux of emotivism: the rich aesthete, the manager, and the therapist, all who “share the emotivist view of the distinction between rational and nonrational discourse, but who represent the embodiment of that distinction in very different social contexts” (MacIntyre 30). MacIntyre argues that examining these characters reveals their lack of moral debate. In order to contextualize their emotivist reactions as MacIntyre illustrates them, I pose the following question: how would each character respond to a pregnant teenage mother who was deciding whether or not to have an abortion?

The rich aesthete man would probably overlook the pregnant teenager’s situation because the rich aesthete “searches restlessly for ends on which he may employ them; but the organization [bureaucratic structure] is characteristically engaged in a competitive struggle for scarce resources to put to the service of its predetermined ends”.

The rich aesthete only considers his own good, so his only interest would be what he could get out of her situation. Even if she was his daughter, his concern would rest on the reputation of the family, and if having an abortion means holding onto the good family name, it is probable that he would want her to choose that route. The manager approaches the situation differently, as he “treats ends as given, as outside his scope; his concern is with technique, with effectiveness in transforming raw materials into final products, unskilled labor into skilled labor, investments into profits”.

The manager judges based on “matching means to ends economically and efficiently”, so if having the abortion was a better way to save money, he would advise her to choose this route. The therapist “also treats ends as given, as outside his concern is with technique, with effectiveness in transforming neurotic systems into directed energy, maladjusted individuals into well-adjusted ones”. The therapist would speak to her in order to find out the mental state of her health and then try to transform her into a well-adjusted person so that the pregnant teenager could deal with the issues herself. If she does not have the abortion, the technique would be to work with her throughout the pregnancy to ensure that she becomes a well-adjusted individual.

In all three cases, each character utilizes their personal background and makes a decision based “in the sphere of personal life,” whether it is completely self-interested, managerial, or reformative. These judgments are not moral because they are based upon their personal preferences. If these characters met, they could never engage in moral debate, but instead they would invoke their feelings toward the issue of abortion by appeals to their moral sphere. Since these individuals do not share the same moral language, they would not be able to understand the situation. Each character bases their moral language on different standards, so it is no wonder that they would not be able to reason with one another. Thus the previous model represents the interactions of current society.

As we do not share a common moral language similar to the one Aristotle conceives, we cannot hope to resolve or deliberate these issues properly. Fortunately, MacIntyre realizes the disparity between Aristotle’s ethical world and our own, and so he discusses three principles that relate to Aristotle but are tweaked so that they make sense in a modern setting: practice, narrative, and tradition.

MacIntyre classifies a practice as follows: Any coherent and complex form of socially established cooperative human activity through which goods internal to that form of activity are realized in the course of trying to achieve those standards of excellence which are appropriate to, and partially definitive of, that form of activity, with the result that human powers to achieve excellence, and human conceptions of the ends and goods involved, are systematically extended.

In other words, a practice is a complicated activity that produces goods, both externally and internally. External goods are common to similar activities, while internal goods are ones gained only through that specific activity. An example of a practice is triple jump, an event within the sport of track and field. Internal goods are such that “their achievement is a good for the whole community who participate in the practice”, and all practices contain internal goods. In other words, people who engage in the sport may acquire body coordination and athleticism specific to triple jumping, and this is the internal good.

External goods are ones that “when achieved they are always some individual’s property and possession”. An external good for triple jump would be winning a medal during a competition. Not everyone wins a medal, so it is only related to that particular individual. Moreover, a person can win a medal in another sport or a completely different activity; this makes medals external goods.