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  • Aristotle's Method in Ethics by Joseph Karbowski
  • Carlo DaVia
KARBOWSKI, Joseph. Aristotle's Method in Ethics. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2019. xii + 275 pp. Cloth, $99.99

This book presents a systematic account of how Aristotle understands ethical inquiry, and how that understanding fits into his broader conception of philosophy. The writing is admirably clear, avoids unnecessary technical jargon, and relegates relatively minor scholarly points and squabbles to footnotes. The book should consequently be of interest to any student of Aristotle's ethics, not just experts in the field. But while the book can be enjoyed by a wide readership, it also ambitiously attempts to overturn quite a bit of orthodoxy.

The standard line on Aristotle's method in ethics runs something like this: according to Aristotle, ethics is a practical science that differs essentially from theoretical sciences like physics or mathematics. Ethical [End Page 367] inquiry accordingly begins not from scientific facts, but rather from endoxa, which are, roughly, reputable beliefs held by the many, the few, or the wise. The goal of ethical inquiry is to develop accounts of ethical phenomena that render relevant endoxa as coherent as possible. This goal is achieved, at least in part, by means of dialectic.

Each of these widely held claims is not without textual evidence. Karbowski carefully weighs much of this evidence and shows how it is insufficient. In so doing he defends an alternative and more plausible account of Aristotle's method in ethics. According to Karbowski, ethics is a practical science that shares the essential features of any demonstrative science, as Aristotle articulates them in the Posterior Analytics. The goal of ethical inquiry, like any scientific inquiry, is to provide causal explanations of scientific facts. In ethics, the scientific facts include, for example, nonessential though necessary features of ethical phenomena. In order to develop causal explanations of those facts, Aristotle relies not on some single, monolithic method—dialectic or otherwise—but rather on a set of "global," "domain-specific," and "topic-specific" norms of scientific inquiry.

Karbowski's argumentative strategy is to begin by unhitching philosophical inquiry from dialectic. He does so by arguing that philosophical and dialectical reasoning have incompatible epistemic standards. Philosophy takes truth as its standard. In dialectical discussion, by contrast, the answerer must only respond to questions according to the beliefs held by some individual (for example, Heraclitus) or group (for example, the many). Since those beliefs need not be true, the results of dialectical reasoning from those beliefs also need not be true. Even "investigative" (exetastikē, Top. 101a36–b4) and "peirastic" (peirastikē, Soph. el. 169b25) sorts of dialectic do not establish truths; at best they uncover inconsistencies among the claims subjected to dialectical scrutiny. That said, Karbowski does not deny that dialectical techniques may help philosophical inquiry. After all, it certainly helps to realize when some philosophical view is at odds with beliefs that we or others hold dear.

According to Karbowski, Aristotle considers it the aim of every philosophical discipline to yield demonstrative epistēmē, and ethics is no exception. This is the most controversial thesis in the book. Most scholars contend that epistēmē in ethics is either impossible or unnecessary. It is often thought impossible because Aristotle seems to say that all ethical truths are true only for the most part, and yet an epistēmē trades in universal truths. But Karbowski denies both claims, arguing that there are universal truths in ethics, and in any case Aristotle allows that there can be epistēmē, at least in a qualified sense, even for fields whose truths hold true only for the most part. Acquiring such scientific knowledge is not only possible in ethics, but also valuable insofar as it can confer practical benefits. Just as the doctor can better heal his patients with scientific knowledge of health, so too can the statesmen help his citizens become morally better with his knowledge of virtue. This knowledge can also [End Page 368] benefit individuals in their own practical deliberations. Aristotle describes (in Met. 7.7.1032b6–9) how a doctor reasons how best to heal a patient by first stating a definition of health. Presumably an individual deliberating how...


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pp. 367-370
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