Saturday, November 27, 2010

Aristotle's Virtue Ethics: Is There Only One Right Way?

"Failure is possible in many ways, but success is possible in only one." --Aristotle

Is there just one right answer for success? This sounds correct as an intuition or as a general rule. In any skill, such as hammering a nail, there is an indefinite list one could make of the things that the hammerer could do wrong: the hammerer could miss the nail, hammer sideways and bend the nail, hammer too hard and put a dent in the wood after, hammer to softly so that the nail never goes in, etc. As a skill, hammering accords with the doctrine of the mean as well: in order to hammer correctly, one should not have excess nor deficiency of force, one should find the right weight distribution from which to hold the hammer and have it work efficiently, one should hit the hammer to the nail at one point of contact, neither too far one way or another, and at the right angle, etc. In the small skill of hammering, there seems to be little room for interpretation about the right thing to do. With building in general, however, or, even more broadly, architecture, there seems to be much more to be said about what the right thing to do is. On the same neighborhood block with the same terrain and foundations, many houses are built with differing floor plans, landscape designs, and colors. There does not seem to be one correct way only to build a house. If there were, architecture as an art would end because a master of architecture would always determine what the one way to build a house was for any given parameter, and were there many similar foundations and parameters, the same houses would go up. Architects, like many artists, prefer variety. Success is not one answer, but many possibilities. A master architect will make the most of the possibilities such that his or her structure will be the definition of excellence for that lot, and will be defined by his or her apprentences as the one correct thing to do. But this does not change that the architect could have gone in a completely different direction from the outset and could have still made such a defining structure in some other way. Simmilarly, It does not follow that when the master architect happens to build upon another lot of the same parameters, he or she will not build a completely different structure that will then define excellence. And so, while intuitively there are so many more wrong acts than right acts, there may be, for a true master of a skill, an indeterminite number of right acts as well, though admittedly probably not as many as wrong acts.

This holds true for virtue. In social situations, there are many acts one could make that would make him or her look petty, trivial, boorish, or just insane; and a limited number of actions that would make him or her look respectful, witty, and intelligent. And yet, it is not clear how limited the latter is. Being witty is just about finding a creative or unexpected outlook and uncovering that outlook in a creative way. The creative way cannot be just any way: it cannot be too esoteric as to be not understood, yet it cannot be too exoteric as to make the listener think that anyone off of the street would have understood. And yet, even for all of the ways that being witty can go wrong, it does not follow that there is just one way to be witty in a given situation. A master of conversation would make use of all possibilities, and which ever one happened to facilitate one possibility in a particular situation, the conversationalist would use it to his or her advantage.

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