Sukaina Hirji is a PhD Candidate in the Philosophy Department at Princeton University. This Fall, she will begin a position as an Assistant Professor in the Philosophy Department at Virginia Tech. She works primarily in ancient philosophy and, in particular, on Aristotle. In addition to working on the history of philosophy in its own right, she is interested in the potential that ancient thought has to contribute to contemporary debates in ethics and political philosophy. As such, some of her work is at the intersection of ancient and contemporary ethics. For more information, you can visit her website: http://www.sukaina-hirji.com.
First, I just want to thank Meena for continuing to run this wonderful blog. I’m truly honored to participate, and really excited for its new incarnation!
I’m a person of colour, a woman, and an ancient philosopher. For the most part, I love being all three of these things at the same time. This hasn’t always been the case. If I’m being honest, one of the things that initially attracted me to ancient philosophy was the idea that, to truly understand the thoughts of old dead white men, I had to cast off my brownness, to be a disembodied mind in the realm of pure logos. Growing up as a second generation immigrant in western Canada in a conservative Muslim household, I was confused, and tired of trying to figure out how to negotiate my social identity. I thought of philosophy as a way to escape my body and all the complications that came with it.
Thankfully, I’ve gotten older and wiser. I no longer think of discarding my social identity as a desirable — or even possible — way of doing philosophy, or, for that matter, of being a person. We’re always doing philosophy from a certain perspective, with a certain background of experiences and commitments. And, I suspect, we do philosophy better when we try to be self-conscious about that perspective, and to be in dialogue with people from many different perspectives. I now think it’s a real gift to be able to approach ancient thought rooted in a particular body, with its own particular set of experiences. Growing up uneasily balanced between cultures has been helpful, in part, for appreciating that not all the philosophical questions and commitments we might take to be central are universally shared. After all, although it is tempting, it is often misleading to take as an implicit starting point that philosophers two thousand years ago were motivated by the same concerns and commitments that preoccupy us today.
Below is a description of part of my current research on Aristotle. It is an example of how ancient thought can challenge what questions we take to be central to an area of philosophy, and how it can provide the resources for developing genuinely new ethical views.
Aristotle on Virtue and Happiness
One of the enduring attractions of Aristotle’s ethical theory is its supposed ability to explain why it’s always in an agent’s own interests to be ethically good. According to Aristotle, having a virtuous character and performing virtuous actions is necessary, and very nearly sufficient, for living a happy life. However, I believe the way Aristotle conceives of the relationship between virtue and happiness, or eudaimonia, has been badly misunderstood. In my current research, I reconsider how Aristotle understands the relationship between being good and being happy, and suggest why his ethical theory deserves renewed philosophical attention in its own right.
According to a highly influential strand of contemporary virtue ethics, inspired by Aristotle, what makes certain character traits count as virtues is the fact that they tend to promote a happy or flourishing life. What makes certain actions count as good or virtuous is, in turn, the fact they express these virtuous character traits. This analysis of the concept of virtue in terms of the concept of happiness establishes a tight connection between being ethically good and being happy, but it does so at the cost of the theory’s being fundamentally egoistic: what explains why a character trait or action is virtuous is, ultimately, the way in which it contributes to an agent’s own happiness.
This familiar picture, typically attributed to Aristotle himself, gets the structure of Aristotle’s own theory almost entirely backwards. I argue that, for Aristotle, what makes an action virtuous is the goodness of the ends or results it aims to realize independent of an agent’s own happiness. What makes certain character traits count as virtues is, in turn, the way they equip an agent to reliably identify and be moved to perform virtuous actions with a full appreciation of their goodness: virtue of character, on the interpretation I defend, should be understood as an in part rational capacity for a certain kind of practical agency.
If this is the right – if, for Aristotle, virtue of character is not analyzed in terms of the concept of eudaimonia – the connection between being virtuous and being happy is more complicated, and comes via the way Aristotle conceives of the value of rational activity. I argue that it falls out of Aristotle’s natural teleology that there is something deeply valuable about organisms developing and exercising the natural capacities that are distinctive or characteristic of their essential nature: when an organism develops and exercises its most characteristic capacities, it is most fully realizing the sort of thing it essentially is. The most characteristic and distinctive capacities that human beings have are their rational capacities, specifically, their capacities for theoretical and practical reason. When human beings perfect and then exercise these capacities, they are most fully realizing the sorts of beings they essentially are, namely, rational beings. And, I take it, this is precisely the way in which their excellent rational activity is the highest end and best good for them.
On the view I defend, recognizing and being moved to perform virtuous actions because of the good ends they aim to realize is an exercise of the developed state of an agent’s practical rationality. And, for Aristotle, when a human being exercises the developed state of her practical rationality, she is engaging in the sort of activity characteristic of her essential nature; she is, quite literally, most fully being the sort of thing she most properly is. The upshot is that virtuous actions are good because of the good ends or consequences at which they aim. However, when a virtuous agent performs these good actions with the right reasoning and desiring, she is also, at once, engaging in the sort of activity that is itself an end; she is fully realizing her potential for practically rational agency.
If the interpretation I defend is right, here are two significant interpretive upshots. First, my view
absolves Aristotle’s ethical theory from the familiar charge of egoism. On my metaphysical account of the way in which ethically virtuous activity is an end, Aristotle’s theory is not egoistic either in its explanation of the value of virtuous actions, or in its description of a virtuous agent’s motivations when she performs these actions. Second, my view advances the long-standing and persistent debate about the nature of eudaimonia by making available a position midway between “intellectualist” and “inclusivist” interpretations. My view is “intellectualist” or “monistic” by taking at face value Aristotle’s repeated and explicit identification of eudaimonia with a single good, excellent rational activity. However, my view is also “inclusivist” by establishing ethically virtuous activity as a genuine form of happiness alongside contemplation.
A more general consequence of this interpretation is that we need to be careful assuming we know what question Aristotle takes to be central to ethical theorizing. It is a mistake to assume that what we get from Aristotle is a distinct normative theory alongside deontology and consequentialism. Likewise, we are bound to be disappointed if we look to Aristotle for a worked out view about how to determine the content of morality. Rather, the chief insight of Aristotle’s view is how prudential and moral value might come to be aligned through a certain conception of human agency. Aristotle is not centrally interested in the question of what morality consists in but, rather, why we should care, in the first place, about being moral.
How plausible is the view we are left with? Even if we don’t buy Aristotle’s teleology wholesale, I want to suggest there is something in the vicinity of his view we might find plausible. We might, for example, be willing to accept that one of the essential components of a good life is successfully exercising one’s capacities and that, amongst these capacities, one of the most important is a certain kind of capacity for human agency. That is, we might find plausible the idea that one of the chief components of a good life is being able to correctly identify and appropriately respond to genuine value in the world, including genuine moral value. If we find this plausible, and if we are realists about moral value, we are well on our way to thinking, as Aristotle does, that being virtuous is an essential component of being happy.