A puzzle about knowledge and virtue

What role, according to Aristotle, does knowledge play in the exercise of the virtues of character? This is a simple question to ask, but a difficult one to answer simply. In order to answer this question, we have to tackle an elliptical passage in Nicomachean Ethics II.4, which is part of Aristotle’s solution to a different puzzle about virtuous action.

That puzzle is (very roughly) this: if we have to do the virtuous thing in order to become virtuous, but we have to be virtuous in order to do the virtuous thing, how do we ever get started? Aristotle notes that we talk about actions and corresponding states of soul in two different ways, (let’s label them) logically – the actions accord with a certain state – and causally – the actions are the product of that state. So, too, with virtue: there are actions that are courageous because they are what a courageous person would do and actions that are courageous because they flow from the courageous person’s courage. Puzzle solved: when we’re on the way to virtue, we have to do the first kind of action so that when we acquire virtue, we are capable of the second.

Where the terrain gets treacherous is when Aristotle decides to try to characterize the state of the soul that differentiates the latter from the former case:

[Actions] that come about in accordance with the virtues are not done justly or temperately just because they are a certain way, but only provided that the agent is also in a certain state when he acts: first, provided he has knowledge (eidōs), second provided he exercises choice and chooses things because of what they are, and third, provided he acts being himself stable and unchanging. These [conditions] are not taken into account, by contrast, with regard to possessing any of the crafts, except for knowing (to eidenai). But in connection with [possessing] the virtues, knowledge is of no or little significance, while the other [conditions], which arise from doing what is just and temperate many times, have no small influence but rather are all-important (1105a28-34).

Here’s how I’d frame the question I have about this passage given my topic: what kind of knowledge is important enough that it merits being one of the three conditions that differentiates the state of those performing actions virtuously from those merely doing what is virtuous but is not that important compared to the other two conditions?

The standard[1] answer is: knowledge of what you’re doing, i.e., the kind of knowledge you need for an action to be voluntary (cf. EN III.1, 1111a2-6). But I don’t think this answer can work.

For one, voluntariness just isn’t in play here. The question is not what makes something a virtuous action as opposed to any old action, but rather what characterizes someone doing something virtuously as opposed to someone doing something that happens to be virtuous on their way to possessing virtue. And it’s hard to see why the latter wouldn’t always be voluntary, too. Why then would Aristotle mention voluntariness here? 

Second, voluntariness seems to belong just as much to craft action as to virtuous action, and to make each no more and no less what it is than the other. Aristotle’s remark that knowledge is relevant for craft, but relatively unimportant for virtuous action demands that we understand something other than knowledge of what one is doing.

What, then, does he mean to pick out with ‘knowledge’?

[1] I say standard because this is the view of, at minimum, Sarah Broadie (‘[T]he sheer ability to know what one is doing’ – 2002, p. 301), John Burnet (‘It is essential that he should know what he is doing’, citing EN III.1 – 1900, ad loc.), C.C.W. Taylor (‘It is clearly a necessary condition of an action’s instantiating a virtue that the agent should know what he or she is doing in performing that action’ – 2006, p. 84), and St. Thomas Aquinas (ille qui facit opus virtutis non operetur ex ignorantia vel a casu sed sciat quid faciat – ad loc.), in their commentaries.

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    • Whitney Schwab
    • August 25th, 2014

    One possibility is to focus on the context, that of distinguishing virtuous actions done virtuously from virtuous actions done otherwise. Perhaps it’s not that knowledge is unimportant when it comes to being virtuous full stop, but it’s not as important as the other two conditions in distinguishing a virtuous action done virtuously from a virtuous action done otherwise. The central idea, then, would be that someone could have the knowledge before they have performed the relevant kind of action, so it is of little or no significance in distinguishing virtuous actions done virtuously and virtuous actions done otherwise. (Little significance, because it is a necessary condition–if the person lacks knowledge, he or she does not perform the virtuous action virtuously; or no significance, because it’s not sufficient, and a person could have the knowledge yet only be in a position to perform virtuous actions otherwise than virtuously.

      • Dhananjay
      • August 25th, 2014

      Whitney, I think that’s absolutely the right way to go, and I’ve been working mainly on arguments about whether or not we should identify the knowledge in question as practical wisdom. But whether or not it is, it seems clear to me that it is in some sense knowledge what to do not merely knowledge of what I am doing. Yet the commentators seem nearly unanimous in taking it in the latter, voluntary action way, which doesn’t make sense in the context. Am I missing something?

        • Whitney Schwab
        • August 25th, 2014

        No, I don’t think you’re missing something. I think the main reason why we shouldn’t take condition one to concern only the knowledge required to make an action voluntary (ala 3.1) is that such a condition would be made redundant by the second condition–every decided upon action is a voluntary action, he tells us right at the beginning of 3.2. So, if we’re guided by the plausible interpretative principle that we should make statements needlessly redundant, it has to be more than that. And, what on earth is it going to be if not something somewhat high-powered about the nature of the action at hand?

        I think interpreters are just led to minimize the kind of knowledge because they read the “of little or no significance” as, full stop, rather than, for the contrastive purposes I’m interested in.

    • Whitney Schwab
    • August 25th, 2014

    Sorry, “The central idea, then, would be that someone could have the knowledge before they have performed the relevant kind of action *a sufficient number of times to meet the other two conditions*, so it is of little or no significance in distinguishing virtuous actions done virtuously from virtuous actions done otherwise *compared to the other two conditions*.

    • djr
    • October 12th, 2014

    I’m a little late to the game here, but I just read Iakovos Vasiliou’s ‘Aristotle, agents, and actions’ in the recent Cambridge Critical Guide to the NE, and it reminded me of this post. Vasiliou takes the knowledge condition in II.4 as “correctly identifying what the virtuous action is in the circumstances.” He doesn’t really argue for this interpretation, though; so he may be an ally, but I’m not sure how helpful his essay would be for you.

    I’m entirely unconvinced, though. It seems to me that we should take the knowledge condition to require that the agent be acting in a fully voluntary way. I have two reasons for this, one textual and one more broadly philosophical. First, the word for ‘knowing’ here is the same term used in the discussion of voluntariness, appropriately so because it carries no connotations of explanatory understanding; it seems most appropriate to interpret it in the least ambitious way, and taking it to pick out awareness of the relevant parameters of one’s act does the trick. Second, this kind of knowledge is relevant to distinguishing between one way of doing what a virtuous person would do but without doing it in the way he would do it. Consider some examples plucked from real life. 1) a temperate person will resist inappropriate sexual advances from others; I might manage to resist in inappropriate sexual advance simply because I failed to notice that I was being advanced upon. 2) A generous person might tip his waiter 35% in some specific circumstances; I might tip him 35% in those circumstances, but only because I am terrible at calculating percentages, really lazy, and just wrote down a number that seemed neither too large nor too small. 3) a just person might promote the common good of his political community by contributing money to support homeless shelters; I might contribute money to homeless shelters through my taxes without having any idea about it. The general relevance of the knowledge condition for acting virtuously is just the flip side of its relevance for acting viciously; just as I don’t act viciously if I accidentally take your copy of Burnet’s edition of the NE, I don’t act virtuously if I accidentally return it.

    So I disagree that voluntariness just isn’t at play here because the question supposes that we are already dealing with virtuous acts and trying to clarify what else one needs to do in order to do them virtuously. As I read it, we do not begin with a fixed notion of what the “virtuous act” is as distinct from how a virtuous person does it; we get a clear notion of the difference only when Aristotle has resolved the puzzle. In a relevant sense, voluntariness qua knowing-what-you-are-doing does make a difference between doing what a virtuous person would do and doing it in the way a virtuous person would do it.

    The other objections to reading the knowledge condition in terms of voluntariness seem to me to fail, too. Whitney’s worry that it would make the knowledge condition redundant because the choice condition presupposes voluntariness proves too much; the disposition condition likewise presupposes the choice condition (virtues are prohairetic states). Nor does it seem at all bizarre or irrelevant, when giving a set of necessary and sufficient conditions, to begin with one that is presupposed by the others.

    Finally, the analogy with crafts seems to work equally well on the voluntariness interpretation and a more robust one such as you’re suggesting. Knowledge of what you are doing is indeed crucial for craft and virtue, but that is not a problem for the voluntariness interpretation. It is still an important feature of acting virtuously even if it is likewise an important feature of producing something in accordance with a craft. Accidentally producing a serviceable and attractive jug is insufficient for craftsmanlike jug-making in just the same way that accidentally leaving a generous tip is insufficient for acting generously. In fact, the similarity between the knowledge condition in both cases offers another explanation of why Aristotle would make it explicit rather than allow voluntariness to be implicit in the choice condition; by showing us that the knowledge condition is at play in both craft and virtue, we better understand what makes the difference between the two.

    To my mind, the best strategy for arguing that there is something more to the knowledge in question than knowing what you are doing is to emphasize that craft itself seems to need more than that. Crafts involve explanatory knowledge of causes; surely a craftsman knows what he is doing in some sense stronger than simply being aware of the particular features of what he is actually doing.

    I don’t think that strategy will succeed, though. First, the talk of things that “come to be by the crafts” and the like need not be restricted to the actions of master craftsmen who have the full craft knowledge that enables them to explain the craft and teach it to others; the examples of music and writing exclude only lucky success and acting on someone else’s instructions. But I may be literate, and hence able to read and write successfully neither by chance nor only under someone’s instruction, without being able to explain the writing system and teach anyone else to read and write. More importantly, though, I think that, in cases of craft and virtue, the knowledge required for voluntariness gets us closer than one might initially think to the sense of “knowing what you are doing” that denotes expertise. The parameters given at 1111a3-6 include the goal or end; one of the things I know if I am acting fully voluntarily is what the non-accidental outcome of my action will be if nothing interferes. Someone who is aware of all these features of what he is doing, including the “for the sake of which,” seems to have the kind of knowledge that a reliably successful independent practitioner of a craft needs.

    As a final thought, identifying the knowledge condition with practical wisdom seems especially implausible because we are told that the knowledge in question counts for little when it comes to the virtues but is important for the crafts. But practical wisdom is what makes the virtues of character virtues in the fullest sense, and so hardly counts for little, while excellence in craft does not require practical wisdom.

    So there you have it. Several weeks late, but better late than never (or perhaps just better never?).

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