04 April 2011

Instruments of Virtue and Vice, Part I

I have now returned from the second day of the Anscombe conference at the University of Chicago, and found it just as intellectually rewarding as the first.  In addition to the two* papers (which I'll get to shortly), I had the pleasure of meeting Michael Thompson, who is at once encyclopaedically knowledgeable, funny, and eminently approachable and overall enjoyable; further acquainting myself with Jennifer Frey, who is unfailingly polite, insightful, and moreover ably defends an identifiably Aristotelean/Catholic philosophical position; and briefly meeting with the other speakers at the conference (all mentioned in my previous post), as well as some of my fellow non-participants at the conference, who were likewise pleasant to meet.  I am particularly grateful for the condescending (in the good sense) conversation afforded me by Anselm Müller himself.  Many thanks to them all!

Anyway, Jennifer Frey's paper argues, contra Anselm Müller, that no rational actions (which, as far as I could tell, are more or less identical with Thomistic human actions) are performed involuntarily, and that Dr. Müller's purported examples of such actions (most of which express some emotion or other) are not such.  Jennifer's chief argument, if I understand her correctly, is that certain essential features of rational action are missing from all of Dr. Müller's examples; most significantly, they are lacking in the intelligible means/end structure necessary for any rational action, a structure that demands some degree of volition on the part of the agent.  She advances other counter-arguments, as well, but this seemed to me her chief line of attack.

Dr. Müller, in his keynote address, advances an ‘Aristotelean revision of Aristotle's conception’ of the teleology of virtue.  If, again, I am understanding the speaker correctly, his central thesis is that virtuous activity frequently, if not always, exhibits the realisation of some good and end, not merely as an object external to the operation, but as qualifying it internally; for example, in returning a favour by buying my friend a drink, my action instantiates, not merely the form of drink-buying, but that of gracious activity, which form is a good end immanent to the action itself.  As Dr. Müller puts it, ‘[t]he telos [end] is simply the praxis [action] qualified, or, if you like, a qualification of the praxis [action].’  The paper, as goes without saying, is a great deal subtler in its treatment of the issue, and argues at length for the thesis that I have just attempted to summarise.

After the formal end of the conference, I managed to catch Dr. Müller and pose a question I had failed to voice during the Q & A section.  The question pertains to a subsidiary thesis of Dr. Müller's, which I shall briefly sketch before stating my question and defending what seemed to myself and Dr. Müller the correct answer thereto.  Finally, I shall advance a broadly Thomistic scientific explanation of this answer's truth.

The subsidiary thesis which provoked my question relates the connection (or lack thereof) between virtue and the products of poiesis, action terminating in some object external to the agent as such [shipbuilding, medicine, playwrighting], and is as follows: there is no product of poiesis which, as such, admits only of virtuous instrumental use (hereafter the Neutral-Product Thesis).  No such product, that is to say, cannot be employed in the service of some evil or vicious action, thus rendering poietic products intrinsically ethically neutral.  While plausible on its face, the thesis is open to criticism on at least two fronts: firstly, some such products (Dr. Müller cites thank-you cards as an example) seem to be of such a nature as to render vicious use repugnant to their (artificially-imposed) essence; secondly, on Aristotle's plausible account of the hierarchy of teleology seems to render many, if not all, products especially, and indeed essentially, ordered to virtuous use (shoes, for example, are as such ordered ultimately to the exercise of civic virtue in settings more prone to damaging tender human feet).  The first objection was anticipated by Dr. Müller in his paper, whereas the second arose in the ensuing Q & A session.  Let us examine them in reverse order.  (So as to render this post of reasonable length, I shall do so in a sequel.)

*Gavin Lawrence, sadly, did not attend.

P.S.: I have something of a steady readership in Germany.  Out of curiosity, may I ask of said readership its reason for reading me?

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