Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Exploitation, Economic and Political

Exploitation, "naked, shameless, direct, brutal", according to Marx, is the characteristic of the modern capitalism. Compared with the exploitation veiled by religious and political illusions of the old regime. Then he went on to beuild his tortuous analysis of labor value in his Capital, which turned out to be rubbish.

The center of Marx's complaint is the old one of the worker or the peasant. How come that the middle man gets to mark up the labor of the worker? To the piece-worker, the putter-out pays ten cents a piece, and then sells it for twenty, or more. And by the time that the garment reaches the consumer it sells for a dollar or more a piece. Where is the justice in that?

The justice is that the employer or the putter-out is doing a lot of work so that the piece-worker can sell their piece. In the modern workplace, the employer provides the workplace, the tools, heating, cooling, refreshments, and often does all the legwork to make benefits like health care and other insurance easily available. Then he researches the markets, finds buyers, finds investors, finances the work in progress. Then, of course, he takes the risks of profit and loss. So who is exploiting whom?

And what about the politician that is levelling the charge of expoitation? Does not he take a chunk of the full value of the laborer's product? Does not he take his taxes off the top, whether sales, excise, payroll, or income tax, without particularly thinking about the worker's need or worth?

Ah yes, you'll say. But with those taxes, the worker buys civilization, as Justice Holmes wrote a century ago. Excuse me, Mr. Justice, but it is with his wages that the worker buys civilization. It is invidious to single out your particular preference--and a judge lives off taxes, after all--and call that civilization. In fact all governments, civilized and other, impose taxes, starting with the meanest guerrilla group in the mountains. It is the civilized nations that mitigate the brute force of government, naked, etc, with the veil of credit, exchange, capital, universal wealth, and ease.

Our liberal friends have made a nice business out of critiquing the exploitative tendencies in early modern capitalism, and no doubt they are right.  But our task in these latter days is to deal with the problem of big-government exploitation.  And that is about as "naked, shameless, direct, brutal" as you can get.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Temperance is Moderation in All Things, Except Courage

When Aristotle applies his doctrine of the mean to the virtue of courage, he has a problem. The epitome of courage for the Greek polis is the courage of the heavy infantry hoplite solider, and a mean between rashness and cowardice doesn't cut it. The hoplite must have the courage to surrender his life, no matter what. That's just how the shock battle of heavy infantry with shields and spears works.

But once we get away from courage then the full meaning of Aristotle's virtue theory can work. A person with practical wisdom, equipped to live a life of eudaimonia, has learned to live a life of the moderate mean in between excess and defect, in the right way at the right time for the right reason. And right action is directed by the ability to think the right thoughts. Action is preceded by thought, and the temperate man "is so called because he is not pained at the absence of what is pleasant and at his abstinence from it."

The man of practical wisdom knows that "if appetites are stong and violent" they can overcome moderation, so he cultivates moderation and develops the habit of moderation. He knows that the only way to live a happy life is to make sure that "the appetitive element should live according to rational principle" and not the other way around.

Once you get away from the moderate rational principle then you are in danger of succumbing to the appetitive element: self-indulgence. There may be some that are so insensitive to the urges of pleasure, but they "are hardly found," says Aristotle.  So the question of temperance is largely a question of the regulation of self-indulgence, the appetitive urge. And that requires a life-long devotion to a life of moderate rational principle, the practical wisdom of living, doing the right thing for the right reason in the right way at the right time.

But it's worth it, because it all leads to eudaimonia.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

If Virtue is Voluntary, So is Vice

Virtuous actions are voluntary, we want to say, for "the end... is what we wish for, the means what we deliberate about and choose". Yet we like to think that people don't actually choose vice, but only happiness: "no one is voluntarily wicked nor involuntarily happy". Aristotle wants to attack this because it obviously threatens his notion that both virtue and vice are choices.

It could be that a man is ignorant of the means of happiness, but it is notable that legislators do not agree. They say ignorance of the law is no excuse. It may be that a man is careless, and thus his slack life ends up in his being unjust or self-indulgent.

But Aristotle says all this is a choice. You can suppose a man is ill involuntarily, but maybe in the past he had the choice, and disobeyed his doctor. So we could say that he threw away his chance to be well. Thus blindness from birth is one thing, but blindness from drunkenness another.

Of course, we inherit some virtue by nature, but the good man adopts the means of virtue voluntarily. Thus virtue consistently practiced becomes a state of character, as one who trains for a contest becomes excellent by training.

Clearly, Aristotle finishes, all our actions are voluntary: we have a choice each time we act. We start in the right direction, but the progress of our state of character is not so obviously voluntary, just as  health is not the result of specific actions. But since we had the power "to act in this way or not in this way" states of character are voluntary.

And that takes us back to the basic position. Virtue, the state of character, is the result of right action in the right way at the right time. And vice is the reverse.

Monday, February 6, 2012

Aristotle Fiddles the Mean on Courage

It's easy enough to set up a general law or rule.  It's when you have to apply the rule in practice that the fun begins.  So it is with Aristotle's idea of the mean when applied to the virtue of courage.  He defines virtue as a mean between two vices such as "the man of practical wisdom would determine it", for the vices exceed or fall short of "what is right in both passions and actions while virtue both finds and chooses that which is intermediate."  Then, when our man of virtue actually goes forth and acts in the world he acts upon three principles: he must have knowledge, must choose his acts for their own sakes, and must proceed from "a firm and unchanging character."

Very good, that is the theory.  How does it work out in practice when considering the virtue of courage?

In practice Aristotle wants to privilege a certain kind of courage.  It is the courage of the hoplite, the citizen-soldier that stood in line with his fellow citizens  to defend his polis.  You can understand why.  The independence and civic pride of each polis depended upon the courage of its hoplites, the first heavy infantry in history.  Heavy infantry is designed for "shock" battle, and victory depends on soldiers with the courage or the discipline to stay in line, not matter how bad things get.  How about your Aristotelian mean then?

You might think that the professional soldier, experienced and knowledgeable in the "many empty alarms in war" and the contingencies of fighting, would represent the mean.  But the professionals "turn cowards" when things turn against them "while citizen forces die at their posts."  In other words, the professional soldier observes the mean of courage, while the citizen-soldier stands at an excess.  Perhaps the professional soldier, although possessing knowledge, suffers a defect since he does not choose acts for their own sakes, but subordinate to the job of professional soldiering.  Still, he seems to exhibit a firm and unchanging character: he does what is sensible and practical.  Does not then the citizen soldier exceed the mean when he continues to fight shoulder to shoulder with his brothers against all odds?

The "sanguine" also merit the back of Aristotle's hand.  They are "confident in danger" because they are used to success.  But put them in a sudden firefight and they run, unlike the braver man who is "fearless and undisturbed in sudden alarms".  The "ignorant" are just as bad as the sanguine, only worse.  If "deceived about the facts" they often fly from the battle as soon as they are undeceived  And as for courage from "passion", why "wild beasts act under the influence of pain".  Men who fight under the influence of passion, when from anger or pain, are "pugnacious but not brave".  They act not from honor or rule, but from feeling alone.  But Aristotle allows their pugnacity as "something akin to courage."  So here Aristotle keeps with his system: passionate courage is all from feeling, not a balanced application of feeling and reason.

To privilege his citizen-soldier, Aristotle must meddle with his definition of courage, defined back in Book II-2 as the mean between the excess of rashness and the defect of cowardice.  "For the man who flies from and fears everything and does not stand his ground against anything becomes a coward, and the man who fears nothing at all but goes to meet every danger become rash." (1104a21-23)  Now he wants us to forget that, for his hoplite must not observe the mean but exceed it if his polis is to win the shock battle of heavy infantry.  Now he says that the man who "exceeds in fearlessness has no name".  Really?  I thought he was the rash chap.  Not a bit of it.  The rash man, it turns out, "is thought to be boastful and only a pretender to courage".  Most of the rash men are "a mixture of rashness and cowardice."  It turns out that the coward and the rash man are similar.  They both of them exceed and they both of them fall short.  So Aristotle's new analysis conveniently leaves the courageous man in the middle (rather than at the extreme you'd think he is at since both the rash chap and the cowardly chap fall short in the courage department).

Why all this fol-de-rol? Aristotle could have held with his excess-mean-defect model just by saying that the rash are wild and excessive.  They want to rush out and attack the enemy rather than advance in the right way at the right time with the right intention.  Sounds like he'd had a bad day in the agora and had forgotten his system for a moment.

So what then is the man of courage?  He lives a mean between fear and confidence, but some things he does not fear: "poverty and disease" and "the things that do not proceed from vice".  Certainly he should fear "insult to his wife", but he must "stand his ground against what is awe-inspiring" even unto death and be willing to face the noblest death, to fall in battle.  Thus he fears what he should, and fears not what he should not, for the "brave man feels and acts according to the merits of the case and in whatever way the rule directs."  Courage is the bravery of the hoplite soldier, but not the courage of the professional soldier, not the man in a fury of passion or anger, nor the habitual courage of the "sanguine" person used to conquering, not the courage of the ignorant.  Courage is for "facing what is painful", accepting pain for the end aimed at.  In the virtuous man, the virtue of courage is all the more excellent since the more virtuous a man is, the more painful is the thought of death.

The idea of the mean is a great idea.  It's just that, when it comes to courage and the defense of the city-state, the mean between excess and defect just doesn't cut it.  The deeper Aristotle gets into his analysis of the courageous person the more his model of the mean falls apart.  See how he proceeds.  In Book III-6 some things are to be feared; some are not.  But the epitome of courage is courage in battle, courage against death, "the most terrible of all things".  Never mind death at sea or from disease; the courageous man is only concerned with the noblest things: death in battle, which is "honored in city-states and at the courts of monarchs."  But this is not a mean between excess and defect, but a striving towards the utmost.  He is "brave who is fearless in the face of a noble death."  What then becomes of courage as a mean "with regard to feelings of fear and confidence"?  They are all forgotten in the celebration of a good death.

But wait, now we are done with Book III-6.  In Book III-7, the brave man, "dauntless as may be" may now, Aristotle tells us, "fear even the things that are not beyond human strength".  But he will "face them as he ought and as the rule directs".  Now the courageous man is not fearless after all, and so we are back at the mean, and the right action at the right time in the right way.  But he will, of course, do all this facing of fear only for a noble end.

You can go just so far with that.  Then it is best to pull up like Mr. Brooke.  In Book III-8 we gather to dispose of the courage of professional soldiers, the passionate, the sanguine and the ignorant, who are said to be courageous but, according to Aristotle, are not.  We come to praise only the courage of citizen-soldiers who "die at their posts" rather than admit that discretion is the greater part of valor.

Finally, in Book III-9, Aristotle trims his notion that courage is a mean between confidence and fear.  It is really more about fear, the "things that inspire fear", for "facing what is painful" just as the boxer takes the distressing blows for the pleasant aim of winning the "crown and the honors".  Thus it is not necessarily always the case that the exercise of virtue is a pleasant, lifelong journey of eudaimonia.  Getting there is often painful.

It's all very well to talk of virtue as a mean between excess and defect.  But the man of virtue is not in fact living at a delicate balance point between two extremes.  The virtuous person is hacking through a jungle armed only with a machete, he is living an arduous life that is located right out on the edge of the Bell Curve.  The man practicing the virtue of courage is straining to the utmost to practice that virtue in the right way at the right time for the right reason.  He is standing shoulder to shoulder with his fellow citizens slowly advancing towards the opposing line of hoplites.  His reward is not to occupy a mean but to cherish the hope that, if he falls in the melĂ©e, his awful and painful death will be celebrated as noble and honored by his fellow citizens.

It is telling that the Prussians solved the problem of shock battle with "Prussian discipline" and file closers.  They felt that the fear of combat could only be neutralized by the mindlessness of discipline and the fear of the sergeant.  It was only the in the 20th century that the Germans turned away from compulsion and General von Seeckt called for soldiers "self-reliant, self-confident, dedicated, and joyful in taking responsibility."  So for Seeckt courage came more from confidence, not from overcoming fear or a mean between confidence and fear.  Courage is a matter of extremes, as Aristotle accepts, when he shifts his gaze from theory to practice.

Friday, February 3, 2012

How to Judge Actions

If you are a philosopher like Aristotle or maybe a legislator in the business of judging the actions of lesser mortals, you need a template, a measure, by which to rule and hand out honors and punishments.

To do this you probably need to be able to "distinguish between the voluntary and the involuntary" action.  Sometimes, of course, you have to do something, such as throw goods overboard in a storm, that you would normally never do voluntarily.  And sometimes you would face death rather than voluntarily do something evil.

But what about things done by reason of ignorance?  Obviously, says Aristotle, everything "done by reason of ignorance is not voluntary".  Now he makes a fine distinction.  Suppose you do something in ignorance that you would presumably not do voluntarily.  If you repent of your action, your action is "involuntary."  If you do not repent, your action is "not voluntary."

So, says Aristotle, if you throw a pointed spear at a friend, thinking that your spear "had a button on it", your action would be involuntary, since you would surely repent of your action.  That is action in ignorance that is involuntary.  It is hard to think of an action in ignorance that is "not voluntary," i.e., not repented.  Suppose you threw a pointed spear at an enemy thinking it had a button on it.  Would you regret the action when the poor chap fell down dead?  If you didn't regret, the action in ignorance would be "not voluntary."  Perhaps a better example would be Candidate Romney saying that he doesn't worry about the "very poor."  Everyone thinks that this is a stunning error, because conservatives do too worry about the poor.  But if the struggling middle--the folks that Romney says he does worry about--were to wake up and say to themselves, "Wow, finally a politician that cares about us and not the bloody poor!" then Romney would not repent of the action in ignorance.  So that would be action in ignorance that is "not voluntary."

But Aristotle is not yet done.  He does not want to admit that actions due to anger or appetite could be involuntary.  The "wicked man is ignorant of what he ought to do" but that does not make his ignorance involuntary.  Actions done in ignorance but where "the moving principle is in the agent himself" are voluntary.  Thus we could say that the liberal welfare state policies that have cratered the working class are voluntary.  Liberals may have been ignorant of the specific consequences of their policies, but they cannot hide from the results.  It is evil to encourage people to exchange their birthright for a mess of pottage.  Period.