ARISTOTLE'S CONTRADICTION: Part I
Though a great thinker he may have been, Aristotle’s inability to successfully remain consistent regarding his theories of virtue, happiness, and akrasia leave him open to criticism. In order to justify his belief in akrasia, his “clean slate” theory of virtuous knowledge must be dropped. The manner in which he links all of these concepts together seems to be irreconcilable with his viewpoint on akrasia.
In Book II Aristotle expresses the idea that virtue (of character) results from habit, and that no virtue of the human character arises naturally. To explain this concept, he uses the example of a stone being thrown into the air, saying that no matter how many times you do so, it will not stay in the air, or begin to move in an upward direction. Things predisposed to a particular action or path by nature cannot by habituation be made to do otherwise. By saying this, he makes it clear that he believe that ourselves, being human, do have the ability to learn, and by habit behave in many different manners because we must not have some disposition to do these things in a particular manner in the first place, or we would not be able to alter our behaviors. This seems a faulty argument though, given that while he considers humans to have this ability to change, he ignores that a rock is a rock. It is not a conscious living thing, it does not learn, and so, how could it form any habit. It is not in the rocks nature to drop to the ground, its in gravity’s nature to pull it there. The fact that humans have an ability to consciously override their innate tendencies does not eliminate the possibility for innate nature of virtue.
Further, Aristotle seems to think that people are born with capacities for certain behavior, such as playing the harp, but that by habituation one becomes good at playing the harp. Why then cannot one also have the capacity for virtue? Say for example that in a different culture a particular practice is considered virtuous, and through habituation all the people within that culture view this action as necessary to being a virtuous person. Now, from time to time, someone rebels against the practice feeling for some reason that it is wrong, immoral, or otherwise. Through education, habit, environment, legislation, and tradition, this person has been raised to believe it is the proper manner of all people, but for some reason cannot bring him/herself to do it. Is that person then non-virtuous?
Let’s say that the particular practice in question here is that every woman by a particular age must have the part of her body that increases sexual pleasure, surgically removed to prove just how virtuous she is.
She has been properly raised to understand and believe in the virtue of this particular pain. Her mother wants her to do this, her sister did it years before, and her father and future husband insist that it is the proper behavior of a good woman. The girl is young and knows nothing of sexual pleasure. She does not know to miss it, or to desire it even, but she feels for some reason that she should not have to partake in this procedure to prove her worth. Is it not nature that tells her this thing is wrong even though everyone believes it to be right? If not nature, then what? Why does she have a compulsion to avoid the procedure? Also, Aristotle might be tempted to say that this is an involuntary action, that it is forced upon the girl through compulsion, but isn’t that what all habit is when it comes to virtue? Do we not all do things out of habit simply because our society has taught us that it is correct and virtuous?
Let’s look at another example. In modern history there has been slavery, the Jim Crowe laws, segregation and discrimination to the point that our society sucked the very breath of a race from them and called it virtuous behavior. Eventually this changed, but why would it change if every person by habit knew it to be virtuous? Some part of the nature of certainn individuals was too strong to let it continue, and so it had to change. Others, who may have known within themselves that things like discrimination and slavery were wrong to begin with, were through habit forced to change their nature.
Children in the time of slavery played together freely with no inkling of the differences between their own color, and the color of another child. As the white children grew older however, they were taught that blacks were beneath them, and that they were the masters of that other race. Blacks were taught to obey the white man because white was superior to black. If through habit these notions of virtuous behavior were learned by so many, then why or how could it ever change?