Deborah Achtenberg. Cognition of Value in Aristotle's Ethics: Promise of Enrichment, Threat of Destruction. Albany: The State University of New York Press, 2002. Pp. xiii + 218. Paper, $20.95.
Deborah Achtenberg argues that, for Aristotle, virtue is a disposition to respond to situations with the appropriate emotions, where emotions are understood as perceptions of the value of particulars. To perceive the value of a particular is to perceive that particular as a limit; some limits enable what they limit to be more fully what it is, while other limits do the opposite. My activity in writing this review, for example, is "limited" both by the rules of grammar and by my computer's tendency to crash frequently; one kind of limit enriches my activity, while the other hinders and threatens it (hence Achtenberg's subtitle). An enabling limit is a telos or end; something is a telos of yours if it connects you to a larger context that in some way fulfills or completes you.
Achtenberg's interpretation enables her to steer Aristotle clear of a number of persistent false dichotomies. For example: is the doctrine of the mean an uninspiring counsel to do the middling thing, or a vacuous counsel to do whatever one ought to do? Neither, says Achtenberg; rather, it is Aristotle's way of insisting on the flexibility of the virtuous person's [End Page 411] responses. Is Aristotle siding, then, with Odysseus, who suppressed his emotions in order to suit his actions to the demands of the occasion, as against Achilles, who stubbornly followed his emotions regardless of circumstance? No, that dichotomy falls as well: the virtuous person has flexible emotional (not just behavioral) responses, and so can be as adaptable as Odysseus yet as sincere as Achilles.
Does Aristotle's ethics have a metaphysical foundation, or is it autonomous? Achtenberg dissolves that dichotomy by distinguishing two different ways in which Aristotle takes ethics to be an "imprecise" science. First, ethics and metaphysics are both imprecise, because they share a common subject-matter (final causation) that is an analogical equivocal and so indefinable. Second, ethics is less precise than metaphysics because ethics can establish that, but not explain why, its claims are true. Metaphysics can explain the why of ethics, but for practical purposes the why is not necessary; so metaphysics is explanatorily but not epistemically prior to ethics.
How can Aristotle's particularist-sounding denial that the virtuous person needs rules be reconciled with his insistence that the virtuous person follows a logos? Must we play down the logos passage, or instead conclude that Aristotle is a rule-theorist after all? Once again, neither: in this context, Achtenberg suggests, logos means "analogy," not "rule." Since goodness is an analogical equivocal, perceiving goodness means perceiving analogies. Being transcategorial, these analogies are not definable or codifiable, so the rule-theorists are wrong; but we are grasping something common to all good things, so the particularists are wrong too.
Let me close with a couple of criticisms. Once the notion of an enabling limit has been established, Achtenberg seems to accept as unproblematic the inference to the legitimacy of paternalistic legislation: citizens are more free, not less, for being subjected to such coercion. Now on a view that regarded persons primarily as moral patients or recipients, it might be reasonable enough to elide in this way the difference between imposing limits on oneself and having them imposed by external compulsion; but it is harder to see how forcibly imposed limits could be constitutive of a life's being happier when happiness is defined, with Aristotle, as a self-generated activity.
I think Achtenberg also fails to catch one false dichotomy. She contrasts Aristotle's theory, which seeks to increase and enhance emotional awareness, with the Stoic theory (as represented by Marcus Aurelius), which seeks to decrease or suppress such awareness. The contrast seems to me misleading. Both Aristotle and the Stoics agree that moral maturation involves learning to pay more attention to some things and less to others (and thereby to enhance some desires and diminish others). And they both see the decreased attention, no less than the increased, as cognitive enhancement, since it is a response to genuine differences of importance in the world. (Where they differ is on the question of what those relative importances are.) Aristotle and Marcus can agree that we should train our emotions to respond to particulars not in their own solitary right but as parts of a significant whole. They would also agree, I think, that correct perception of a whole sometimes requires a relative decrease in one's awareness of some of its parts; to correctly perceive a painting as representing something, one may have to attend to a figure and disattend from its background.
Quibbles aside, Achtenberg makes a convincing case for a fresh and
attractive reading of Aristotle's ethics. Both classical scholars and
contemporary ethical theorists will read it with profit.
Roderick T. Long