Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Ethics: A Dead, White Man’s Habit-ism?

Aristotle invented ethics. We could call him the first father and absolute original author of ethics. More on that in a moment.

First this:
Some of my blogger friends have been recycling and playing the “Ethical Philosophy Selector” (at Curt Anderson’s selectsmart.com). Here’s the game: Answer 12 multiple choice questions and you get a list that ranks, by percentage, how close your ethics matches the ethics of these:

  • 13 men: Thomas Aquinas, Aristotle, Augustine, Jeremy Bentham, David Hume, Thomas Hobbs, Immanuel Kant, Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche, John Stuart Mill, William of Ockham, Plato, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Baruch Spinoza.
  • 5 –isms (all fathered by men like Epicurus and John Stuart Mill): Cynicism, Epicureanism, Stoicism, Universal Prescriptivism, and General Utilitarianism
  • Oh, and 3 women (2 unmistakable feminists): Simone de Beauvoir, Nel Noddings, and Ayn Rand.

What is fascinating to us onlookers is how Aristotle invariably and always makes the lists. But Simone de Beauvoir never does. So right now let’s say no more about them, or her.

Now let’s go back to Aristotle:
Aristotle’s ethics are not feminist, but are rather sexist (surprise, surprise). Look here (and in the comments) at the “man”-ly word play in Nichomachian Ethics (NE), the treatise he names for his father Nichomachus, the Macedonian King’s scientist physician.

But since we’re playing with lists and numbers, also look at this. Elsewhere in NE, Aristotle explicitly uses the term “ethics” (which is the transliteration of his Greek ἠθικὴ) some 27 times. Aristotle also writes a few other works in which he explicitly uses ἠθικὴ (a number of times): Economics (2), Eudemian Ethics (24), Great Ethics (of disputed authorship, 29), Poetics (5), Politics (20), and Rhetoric (18).

The thing to note is that Aristotle seems to coin the word “ethics.” No one before father Aristotle uses ἠθικὴ, not even Plato.
Some related things to note are these:
1) Plato is Aristotle’s teacher;
2) Plato coins a lot of words, such as “rhetoric”;
3) Plato’s neologisms are customarily made out of a common word, say “rhetor” (i.e. “speaker”), plus the very uncommon ending “-ike”;
4) Plato’s word ending of choice is that icky feminine suffix, coined by Homer and Hesiod for their “virgins.”
5) (Sappho never uses the perhaps sexist, perhaps pejorative suffix).
6) Plato does use ἠ̂θος (which we transliterate with the English alphabet as, “ethos”); and Plato uses “ethos” as a noun or a verb some 147 times in 17 different treatises when he writes about “ethics” (but just not “ethics” as ἠθικὴ). I just counted them.

So in Aristotle’s Rhetoric (a central interest at this blog),
in his Book III (where he makes the most explicit references to “γυναικὸς” and “πότνια” (or “woman / wife” and “mistress / queen”),
we begin to get to get some interesting things starting from his 5th Chapter:

We find lessons in “speaking Greek,” which get to “grammar” more for “clarity” than for “correctness.” Then starting Chapter 7, Aristotle, the student of Plato, has a few things new to write to his own students about “ᾐ̂ παθητική τε καὶ ἠθικὴ” (or, transliterally, the “pathe-tics” and even the “etho-tics”). We might follow the classicists who translate παθος (“pathos”) as “feelings” or “passion” and ἠ̂θος (“ethos”) as “character” or “habits” or “customs” or “culture.” And yet there's this new "passion-ism" and even "habit-ism."

But get out your 1926 John H. Freese translation and your 2007 George A. Kennedy, and read along at paragraph 6, on page 1408a:

[6] Character also may be expressed by the proof from signs, because to each class and habit there is an appropriate style. I mean class in reference to age--child, man, or old man; to sex--man or woman; to country--Lacedaemonian or Thessalian. I call habits those moral states which form a man's character in life; [7] for not all habits do this. If then anyone uses the language appropriate to each habit, he will represent the character;

6. Proof from signs is expressive of character, because there is an appropriate style for each genus and moral state. By genus I mean things like age (boy, man, old man; or woman and man or Spartan and Thesslian) and by moral state [hexis] the principles by which someone is the kind of person he is in life; 7. for lives do not have the same character in accordance with [each and] every moral state. (Cf. Nicomachean Ethics 2.1.)

Now before we get to Aristotle’s Greek, we have to see a few things in Freese’s and Kennedy’s English. Aren’t we glad, for example, that Kennedy avoids Freese’s use of the word “class” in the context of various categories of peoples? “Class” might suggest that the Macedonian-born Athenian was actually a bigot, that he deplored Spartans and Thesslian’s perhaps. But Kennedy muddies it more by just transliterating the Greek genuswhich is our English scientif-ic bio-log-ical word for, well, a particular level of classification. It certainly gives Aristotle a little more, shall we say, “ethos”? If it’s genus, then he’s just the innocent, objective observer of phenomena in nature. And we all know that scient-ists cannot be bigots or rac-ists or class-ists.

So how about that sexist habit in Freese’s English: “a man's character in life” but not a woman’s? Kennedy has already highlighted for us in his “Prooemion” one salient “feature” of his own translation: “avoidance of some of the sexist language seen in older translations, which often speak of ‘men’ when Aristotle uses a more general plural.” But Kennedy hedges imagining the historical, customary, cultural habits of the Greeks: “Aristotle usually envisions only males as speaking in public” (“Prooemion” page xxi, my bold font). So Kennedy continues to envision this: “the principles by which someone is the kind of person he is in life,” in which no one is a person who is a woman, although Aristotle has already been writing about women, Spartan and Thesslian, as he writes about boys and men young and old, Spartan and Thesslian.

So let’s get back to the Greek, to papa Aristotle’s coinage of “ethics” (or habit-ism) from “ethos” (or a habit). And do note how the passage begins with the former and ends with the latter. And stay tuned for a more inclusive, less sexist English translation. We may have to learn from the French, from the feminists, from Simone de Beauvoir and her Pour Une Morale de L'ambiguïté (The Ethics of Ambiguity) (if that’s at all “eth-ick-al” or the habits of anyone at all):

[6] καὶ ἠθικὴ δὲ αὕτη ἡ ἐκ τω̂ν σημείων δει̂ξις, ὅτε ἀκολουθει̂ ἡ ἁρμόττουσα ἑκάστῳ γένει καὶ ἕξει. λέγω δὲ γένος μὲν καθ' ἡλικίαν, οἱ̂ον παι̂ς ἢ ἀνὴρ ἢ γέρων, καὶ γυνὴ ἢ ἀνήρ, καὶ Λάκων ἢ Θετταλός, ἕξεις δέ, καθ' ἃς ποιός τις τῳ̂ βίῳ: οὐ γὰρ καθ' ἅπασαν (30) ἕξιν οἱ βίοι ποιοί τινες. [7] ἐὰν οὐ̂ν καὶ τὰ ὀνόματα οἰκει̂α λέγῃ τῃ̂ ἕξει, ποιήσει τὸ ἠ̂θος:

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