For Aristotle, there is no fundamental rule or criterion of good action which is action-guiding in a specific way. There is the completely general principle that human beings aim at what they take to be good, and so the agent's action is an attempt (successful or unsuccessful) to perfect his or her nature. But this is not a criterion of what to do, it is a theoretical claim about human nature and human action. There is, for Aristotle, no counterpart to the Categorical Imperative, or the Principle of Utility, or for that matter, The Golden Rule. There are important ethical generalizations concerning being just, courageous, temperate, and so forth, and there is the meta-notion that virtues lie in the mean. But Aristotle's ethics lacks a criterion or a code. There are objective ethical considerations, but in a fundamental way, the norm in his ethics is literally a living norm, the excellent person.
Virtue, then, is (a) a state that decides, (b) [consisting] in a mean, (c) the mean relative to us, (d) which is defined by reference to reason, (e) i.e., to the reason by reference to which the intelligent person would define it. (NE, 1107a 1-3)
In Bk VI he writes "And this [best good] is apparent only to the good person; for vice perverts us and produces false views about the origins of actions" (NE, 1144a 35). This is not a strategy of subjectivizing good. The phronimos appreciates what in fact is genuinely good, (his judgment does not constitute it to be good) but is only able to perceive it and appreciate it because he has excellent character. In Bk. X, in his concluding discussion of pleasure and the naturally pleasing, Aristotle writes:
But in all such cases it seems that what is really so is what appears so to the excellent person. If this is correct, as it seems to be, and virtue, i.e. the good person in so far as he is good, is the measure of each thing, then what appear pleasures to him will also be pleasures, and what is pleasant will be what he enjoys. (NE, 1176a 16-19)
What does Maimonides say about how we can know our good? He writes, "As [the Psalmist] who knew it testified about it: The Law of the Lord is Perfect, making wise the simple, restoring the soul. Indeed, its goal is for man to be natural by following the middle way" (Maimonides, "Eight Chapters," p. 70). Also, "the Law forbids what it forbids and commands what it commands only for this reason, i.e., that we move away from one side as a means of discipline" (Ibid., p. 71). What is ethically required, what enables us to effectively strive to perfect ourselves, is given in the Law. Moreover, it also includes prescriptions for repentance, and thereby, reform of character. It prescribes for both the direction of activity and the restoration of the soul.3 There is, on the Maimonidean view, a source of moral guidance and a strategy of ethical retrieval that is not found in Aristotle's view.4
On more purely Aristotelian lines, an agent's judgment could be so disordered that the agent does not recognize what virtue requires. He might not know how to proceed to make the change in his character should he become motivated to do so. Or, he may be so fixed in vice that he is unmotivated to change in the direction of virtue. If the agent is fortunate in respect of the people who surrounded him, that can be a great aid in disposing him toward virtue. Aristotle's agent is not utterly alone, abandoned to only his own judgment. The role that Aristotle assigns to social relations generally, and to friendship and to cooperative under-takings, in coming to know and love human good makes that clear. Still, there is no codified set of prescriptions for ethical perfection or for the acquisition of the virtues. While the agent fixed in vice can be said to be pursuing his conception of good, his judgment may be so disordered that while he remains a voluntary, responsible agent, it may be practically impossible for him to alter his habits (of judgment, motivation, and decision) in the direction of virtue. There is also the chance that he is unaware that there is a need to, if the prevailing norms of his social world are also morally disordered. There is no Aristotelian counterpart to the Law as a constant, sound normative authority directing the agent's aspiration to perfection.
That there is the Law and its authority to refer to may help explain why in Maimonides' moral psychology there is more weight put on self-examination and self-consciousness than in Aristotle's moral psychology. To be sure, Aristotle does give a place to self-monitoring. He writes:
We must also examine what we ourselves drift into easily. For different people have different natural tendencies toward different goals, and we shall come to know our own tendencies from the pleasure or pain that arises in us. We must drag ourselves off in the contrary direction; for if we pull far away from error, as they do in straightening bent wood, we shall reach the intermediate condition. (NE, 1109b1-6)
It is important to him that we should be aware of what our actions and practices might lead to with regard to our characteristics. Our mature habits and dispositions are voluntary, and we must be on guard against falling into bad habits because we cannot tell at just what point the practice of acting in a certain way will become a fixed disposition (See, e.g. NE, 1114b 30-1115a 4). Once a habit is acquired, it may be practically impossible to change it, and even though we cannot now change it, the acts that flow from it are voluntary and we are responsible for them. "[Only] a totally insensible person would not know that each type of activity is the source of the corresponding state; hence if someone does what he knows will make him unjust, he is willingly unjust" (NE, 1114a 10-13). But, compare Maimonides: "Similarly, the perfect man needs to inspect his moral habits continually, weigh his actions, and reflect upon the state of his soul every single day" (Maimonides, "Eight Chapters," p. 73). And "Similarly, those with sick souls need to seek out the wise men, who are the physicians of the soul" (Ibid., p. 66). 11 It is the Law which is the measure of who is a physician of the soul.
Maimonides, like Aristotle, regards actual exemplars of virtue to be extremely important. He says "...a person ought constantly to associate with the righteous and frequent the company of the wise, so as to learn from their practices, and shun the wicked who are benighted, so as not to be corrupted by their example" (Maimonides, "Laws Concerning Character Traits," Ch. 6, sec. 1). Both philosophers stress the importance of the character of one's associates, mentors, and friends. Still, there is a crucial difference between the case in which there is a codified Law by which to ascertain who are the righteous, and the case in which one's judgment is more fully constrained by one's character and prevailing norms. There is, for Maimonides, a measure for, and a guide, to excellence that is accessible in a way that Aristotle does not recognize.
It is crucial that not only are the prescriptions for ethical perfection accessible, but that we have the volitional capacity to dispose ourselves toward virtue at any time. In Maimonidean moral psychology, dispositions are not so fixed that the vicious agent cannot repent and reorient himself toward virtue. He says that "whoever is bad is so by his own choice. If he wishes to be virtuous, he can be so; there is nothing preventing him" (Maimonides, "Eight Chapters," p. 89). And a man "should not say that he has already attained a condition that cannot possibly change, since every condition can change from good to bad and from bad to good; the choice is his" (Ibid., p. 88). The agent who examines himself and attends to the requirements of the Law need not be disabled for perfection. Maimonides does not mean that making the change from vicious to virtuous dispositions is easy. After all, it is a matter of partially reconstituting one's second nature. However, the requirements of virtue and the strategy of moral discipline to bring one into a virtuous condition are knowable through the Law.
A couple of points are worthy of note here. First, there is more plasticity to character in Maimonides' view. Unlike Aristotle, he does not maintain that the long-establishment of a disposition fixes it in such a way that revision of the agent's judgments and motives is practically impossible. They would agree that as virtue becomes more perfect it becomes more of a "firm and unchanging state" (NE, 1105a 35) but there is more scope for change in character, for better and for worse in Maimonides' view. Second, this difference of moral psychology is related to a difference in the metaphysics of morals. "If man's actions were done under compulsion, the commandments and prohibitions of the Law would be nullified and they would all be absolutely in vain, since man would have no choice in what he does" (Ibid., p. 84). This enlarged interpretation of freedom is explained by the relation of human beings to God and the Law. It is always in our power to learn and to love the Law or to flout or ignore it, and the freedom of the will which is an enabling condition for our perfection also makes it possible for us to ethically deteriorate at any point in our lives. So, while the interpretation of freedom is enlarged, so too is our responsibility, since it is always possible to relax or abandon our aspiration to ethical perfection, and good habits must be strenuously sustained.
As I have noted, Aristotle's agent may be so firmly established in vice as to be both judgmentally and motivationally alienated from sound ethical considerations, and there may be no practical possibility of the agent being reoriented to the good.5 Or, if the agent does acknowledge his vice, he may not have the capacity to overcome it, and may be condemned to a life of regret. He may recognize the character of his habits but not be able to change it. Aristotle says of vicious agents; "For they are at odds with themselves, and, like incontinent people, have an appetite for one thing and a wish for another" (NE, 1166b 7). "These people have nothing lovable about them, and so have no friendly feelings for themselves" (NE, 1166b 18). For Maimonides, the Law and the will enable genuine repentance which is not just painful acknowledgment of vice, but change of ethical disposition. Even long established bad states of character need not be insurmountable obstacles to perfection. "What is Repentance? It consists in this, that the sinner abandon his sin, remove it from his thoughts, and resolve in his heart never to repeat it,." (Maimonides, "Laws of Repentance," Ch. II, 2, in Book of Knowledge)." This exercise can be efficacious to the extent that the agent is a really changed individual. A different condition of the soul is brought about by repentance; this is not just a change in behavior.
Indeed, that there should be this change is the point of the discipline of behavior. He writes, 'Great is repentance, for it brings men near to the Divine Presence, as it is said, "return, O Israel, unto the Lord, thy God" (Hos. 14:2)' (Ibid., Ch. VII, 6) and:
Repentance atones for all transgression. Even if a man was wicked all the days of his life and repented at the end, nothing of his wickedness is recalled to him, as it is said 'And as for the wickedness of the wicked, he shall not stumble thereby in the day that he turns from his wickedness' (Ezek. 33:12). (Ibid., Ch. I, 3)
Maimonides is aware of the difference between acknowledgment of sin and changing one's ethical disposition, and he also knows how difficult is the latter.
Just as a man needs to repent of these sins involving acts, so he needs to investigate and repent of any evil dispositions that he may have, such as hot temper, hatred, jealousy, quarrelling, scoffing, eager pursuit of wealth or honours, greediness in eating, and so on. Of all these faults one should repent. They are graver than sinful acts; for, when one is addicted to them it is difficult to give them up. (Ibid., Ch. VII, 3)
Yet, he does maintain that even a character that is stabilized in vice can be changed by the practice of repentance. This is not just ceasing a practice and conforming to different rules; it is a reorientation of the soul. This agent can know what to do in order to alter his dispositions, because of the guidance of the Law. In that respect, Maimonidean moral psychology is importantly different from Aristotelian moral psychology. The Maimonidean agent need never be completely alienated from sound ethical considerations, need never be abandoned to his own ignorance about how to repair his disordered soul, and need never be abandoned to the fixity of vicious dispositions.
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