Practical Reason, Aristotle, and Weakness of the Will

Practical Reason, Aristotle, and Weakness of the Will

Norman O. Dahl
Volume: 4
Copyright Date: 1984
Edition: NED - New edition
Pages: 320
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  • Book Info
    Practical Reason, Aristotle, and Weakness of the Will
    Book Description:

    One of the central problems in recent moral philosophy is the apparent tension between the “practical” or “action-guiding” side of moral judgments and their objectivity. That tension would not exist if practical reason existed (if reason played a substantial role in producing motivation) and if recognition of obligation were one of the areas in which practical reason operated. In Practical Reason, Aristotle, and the Weakness of the Will, Norman Dahl argies that, despite widespread opinion to the contrary, Aristotle held a position on practical reason that both provides an objective basis for ethics and satisfies an important criterion of adequacy - that it acknowledges genuine cases of weakness of the will. In arguing for this, Dahl distinguishes Aristotle’s position from that of David Hume, who denied the existence of practical reason. An important part of his argument is an account of the role that Aristotle allowed the faculty nous to play in the acquisition of general ends. Relying both on this argument and on an examination of passages from Aristotle’s ethics and psychology, Dahl argues that Aristotle recognized that a genuine conflict of motives can occur in weakness of the will. This provides him with the basis for an interpretation that finds Aristotle acknowledging genuine cases of weakness of the will. Dahl’s arguments have both a philosophical and a historical point. He argues that Aristotle’s position on practical reason deserves to be taken seriously, a conclusion he reinforces by comparing that position with more recent attempts, by Kant, Nagel, and Rawls, to base ethics on practical reason.

    eISBN: 978-0-8166-5561-8
    Subjects: Philosophy

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-x)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xi-2)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. 3-8)

    One of the central problems in recent moral philosophy is the apparent tension between the “practical” or “action-guiding” side of moral judgments and their objectivity. The most natural way of accounting for the practical side of moral judgments is to adoptinternalism,¹ a position according to which motivation is essential to moral obligation. According to internalism, necessarily if a person has (or recognizes, accepts, or assents to) an obligation, then he or she has a motive to fulfill that obligation. But, since what motivates a person seems to vary from agent to agent, taking motivation to be essential to obligation...

  5. Part One Practical Reason and Aristotle
    • CHAPTER 1 A Statement of the Problem
      (pp. 11-22)

      Part of the purpose of this book is to argue that Aristotle provides an example of one who attempts to base ethics on the existence of practical reason. The interest of such an attempt is that if it is successful it provides a way of reconciling two apparently opposing sides of moral judgments, their “practical” side and their objectivity. However, before one can determine whether Aristotle, or anyone else, provides such an example, two questions must be answered. What is it for practical reason to exist? And what must the scope of practical reason be for it to provide an...

    • CHAPTER 2 Aristotle and Hume: A Preliminary Contrast
      (pp. 23-34)

      As I have already indicated, I shall be arguing that Aristotle did admit the existence of practical reason and that his ethics is based on the existence of practical reason. I shall put forward the argument as a response to one who is convinced that the Humean position on practical reason and its relation to ethics is correct. He is one who recognizes passages in which Aristotlesaysthat there is a specifically rational form of motivation and in which Aristotlesaysthat this motivation urges one to act rightly, but he regards this as just so much talk, because...

    • CHAPTER 3 Reason and General Ends
      (pp. 35-60)

      Although what has been said so far might cause my Humean critic to pause, it would not cause him to pause too long. As it stands, the case for saying that Aristotle based his ethics on practical reason is weak. To convince my Humean critic, one will have to show more than that it is possible to read into a passage or two a view according to which practical reason provides a basis for ethics. One must show that Aristotle actually left room for reason to play the role in the acquisition of ends needed to provide a basis for...

    • CHAPTER 4 The Pervasiveness of Aristotle’s Views on Practical Reason
      (pp. 61-73)

      Up to now I have concentrated on the most direct textual evidence there is for saying that Aristotle’s ethics is based on practical reason. Taken just by itself, however, it is not enough. To think that it is, my Humean critic might argue, would be to take four passages, two of which are ambiguous and the fourth of which is so controversial that one should be reluctant to attach much weight to it, and simply inflate their importance. Besides, part of the view that I have attributed to Aristotle has been read into these passages. If one reads these passages...

    • CHAPTER 5 The Apparent Support for the Humean Position
      (pp. 74-92)

      Still, the most serious objection to the position I have been arguing for has yet to be considered. In some passages, Aristotle seems to reject practical reason as a basis for ethics and embrace a Humean position. Given these passages, even if I am right in most of what I have said so far, my Humean critic can argue that it simply represents a tendency in Aristotle’s thought that gets outweighed in the total picture. Besides, one cannot yet dismiss the possibility that Aristotle had more than one position on practical reason, that at times what he says is incompatible...

    • CHAPTER 6 A Summary of the Argument
      (pp. 93-99)

      Since my argument for saying that the existence of practical reason provides an objective basis for Aristotle’s ethics has been long and complicated, it will be useful if I summarize the argument and the view I have attributed to Aristotle, pointing out exactly how it allows practical reason to provide an objective basis for ethics.

      I began by considering what must be true if practical reason is to exist. Although Hume seems to have thought that the existence of practical reason requires reason by itself to provide a motivation to act, I argued instead that a weaker condition will suffice,...

    • CHAPTER 7 The Interest of Aristotle’s Position on Practical Reason: Happiness and the Good Relative to Human Beings
      (pp. 100-118)

      If I am right in my argument that the existence of practical reason provides an objective basis for Aristotle’s ethics, then one would expect that an understanding of his position on practical reason would illuminate a good deal of what he says throughout his ethics. This has already received some confirmation, for I have argued that a number of passages that appear puzzling when one adopts a Humean interpretation become intelligible when the position I have attributed to Aristotle is read into them. In this chapter I want to extend this discussion by showing how an understanding of Aristotle’s position...

    • CHAPTER 8 Does Aristotle’s Position on Practical Reason Provide an Adequate Basis for Ethics?
      (pp. 119-136)

      Aristotle’s position on practical reason is of interest not only for the illumination of parts of his ethics, but also for its bearing on contemporary issues in ethics. Although there are a number of topics on which Aristotle’s position has some bearing,¹ its primary interest, I think, is the contribution it makes to the problem outlined in the Introduction. There is an apparent tension between two sides of morality—its “practical” side and its objectivity. This tension would disappear if ethics had a basis in practical reason. In the Introduction I suggested that one will make little progress in trying...

  6. Part Two Aristotle and Weakness of the Will
    • CHAPTER 9 The Traditional Interpretation: Some Problems and Preliminaries
      (pp. 139-155)

      I suggested in the Introduction that one criterion of adequacy for any attempt to base ethics on practical reason is that it admit the existence of genuine cases of weakness of the will. Traditionally Aristotle has been interpreted as denying the existence of genuine cases of weakness of the will. If this interpretation is correct, then what led Aristotle to this denial? Was it his position on practical reason? If so, then another objection should be added to those raised in Chapter 8. On the other hand, if Aristotle’s position on practical reason didn’t commit him to denying genuine cases...

    • CHAPTER 10 An Argument for the Traditional Interpretation
      (pp. 156-187)

      Although ultimately I want to argue for an alternative to the traditional interpretation, I first want to set out what I take to be the strongest argument that can be given for the traditional interpretation.¹ I do this for two reasons. If the argument I go on to give is stronger than this argument, then I will have given the strongest grounds possible for such an alternative interpretation. Second, in setting out the argument, a number of suggestions that have been made that might be thought to support an alternative interpretation will be examined. We shall see that, as they...

    • CHAPTER 11 An Argument for an Alternative Interpretation
      (pp. 188-218)

      Despite the formidable appearance of the argument just given, I think it is possible to give a stronger argument for an alternative interpretation. The alternative is nominally like the traditional interpretation, for it too maintains that according to Aristotle a person cannot act contrary to full and complete knowledge of how one ought to behave. However, it differs radically from the traditional interpretation at the point at which it locates failure to have full and complete knowledge. It takes seriously the view that Aristotle acknowledged a specificallypracticalform of knowledge, a view supported by the position on practical reason...

  7. Concluding Remarks
    (pp. 219-224)

    The argument of the two parts of this book have, to a large extent, been given independently of one another. Nevertheless, they are quite closely connected. In these final remarks I want to give a general picture of just what this connection is. I then want to indicate what the conclusions are that I think can be drawn from the arguments of both parts of this book, and to point to some of the work that remains to be done.

    Although the positions argued for in Parts One and Two of this book do not imply one another, they are...

  8. Appendix I NE1143a35-b5
    (pp. 227-236)
  9. Appendix II De Anima 434al2-15
    (pp. 237-246)
  10. Notes
    (pp. 249-284)
  11. Bibliography
    (pp. 287-292)
  12. General Index
    (pp. 295-297)
  13. Index of Aristotelian Passages
    (pp. 298-302)
  14. Back Matter
    (pp. 303-303)