Tuesday, August 08, 2006

What I've Never Understood About Aristotle

I'm thinking about virtues. Aristotle argues that they are the heart of ethics. All things have an end, a goal towards which they are striving which is always a part of them as their potential. Something is virtuous when it actualizes part of its potential.

In terms of human behavior, Aristotle argues, the virtues are the mean between extremes. Glutton and anorexic = bad, moderate eater = good. Drunkard and teetotaler = bad, occasional drinker = good. Buffoon and wet blanket = bad, witty = good. Big spender and cheap bastard = bad, generous = good. It works in many cases, especially when it is easy to apply the relevant vice or virtue unambiguously.

But what happens when virtues come into conflict? Let's think about graciousness and determination.

Certainly it is a virtue to be gracious in defeat, especially when one has been defeated in an endeavor that one is deeply committed to. Such graciousness not only exhibits a maturity of character, but also bolsters the institution in affirming a deep commitment to its functioning. It shows that you consider the process more important than winning. If the process is democratically held elections, then graciousness shows a true commitment to the principles underlying the governmental structure.

At the same time, determination is certainly virtuous. Someone who does not let setbacks keep them from striving for their desired goals is to be lauded. We hear cliched platitudes from coaches all the time... "No pain, no gain." "Nothing worth doing is easy." "Do it, you wussy. C'mon little baby...what are you chicken or something? Be a man, god damn it..."

[Sorry, had to step out for a brief bit of therapy...better now.]

But what do we say of someone who is not gracious in defeat for the sake of perseverance? Is such a person a sore loser or is he deeply committed? Is it a matter of context? Is it a matter of intention? How much of an insult to the process is it if one runs over it to pursue one's personal goals? Suppose one's goals are more than personal?