Saturday, August 7, 2010

Phronesis and Openness

I have always found comfort in Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics. Particularly, what Robert Louden has called anti-theory. However, I have never liked this expression since it questions Aristotle's general focus on ethics as a move to anti-theory. In Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics, ethics is capable of a very general level of precision. It is not about finding a single monistic principle by which to explain all of morality and the content of what we ought to do. Instead, practical wisdom, or what I will call throughout this post as phronesis is to be cultivated through our virtuous character. Central to this ethics is a process of responsive realization we have to difficult scenarios, and in denying that morality is codifiable -- that is by a principle or set of principles as in deontology or consequentialism -- practical wisdom stands in for determining what we ought to do. Virtue ethics is in my words a wisdom tradition and phronesis is at the heart of it all.

Phronesis is practical wisdom. Practical wisdom is acquired through the reinforced habits of our ability to discern, see, judge and realistically implement the best course of action. It is incredibly open only insofar as there are many wise things to do in a given situation. The usual rendering of its ethical principle is the following: 

An action and/or character-trait is right if and only if it is exemplified in a phronimos. 

Phronimos are ideal moral agents in the community that are known for their excellence. They excel at doing the wise thing and knowing what one ought to do.  In truth, most difficult moral scenarios take time and a great deal of maturity to handle. Aristotle does not deny that there is intrinsically valuable life, a worthy life lived well. It's just that there are many ways to respond, and it is proper to respond well through the exercise of the virtues, including the intellectual virtues which are at the heart of knowing what we ought to do. Yet, it is anti-theoretical given the range of openness conducive to the exercise of a virtue trait and construes morality as something other than a principle or set of principles. Let me explain. 

Suppose a man is a former Marine and trapped in a hostage situation. The Marine is with his girlfriend and is one of several customers lying on the floor while the gunman is having a nervous breakdown at the chance of little or no escape. He has already shot one hostage. Now, when the negotiator is on the phone, the man reaches down to the Marine's girlfriend. The Marine as you has every right to think that he is dangerous in his intentions. Prevailing practical wisdom might require that we respond courageously to this incident, and acting courageously is understood as a v-rule. Conceding this point, however, we can interpret a whole range of morally appropriate manners:

1. Acting courageously might require that you get in the way of the gunman to grab your girlfriend
2. Acting courageously might require that you attack the gunman straight out. 
3. Acting courageously might require that you wait and do nothing while waiting for the police.
4. Acting courageously might require that you talk down the gunman. 

Now which of these three are the most morally appropriate? In many ways, the Marine can still do the courageous thing. Yet, it does not specify exactly what I ought to do precisely. Such a level of thinking permits us to respond contextually to a full range of possible outputs. This openness is then a strength and it takes phronesis to discern what we ought to accept. 

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