Acting in order to know what’s good

Having just taught Aristotle’s ethics, I want to discuss an element of his ethical theory that I find plausible but lack a satisfactory account of why it’s plausible: In contrast to the Socratic/Platonic tradition, which held that one must know the good in order to act well, Aristotle held that one must first act well — and come to so act as a matter of habit or second nature — in order to know the good.  The interesting insight here (which seems obvious but is easy enough to overlook) is that one can only come to appreciate the reasons for acting in a particular way by first acting in that way.  Engaging in a practice, Aristotle thought, is necessary in order to understand the point of the practice.

Now there are several concerns about this claim that I won’t pursue here (for example, how we individuate practices and whether engaging in a practice is sufficient, and not simply necessary, to understand the reasons for engaging in it), but there does seem to be some wisdom behind it.  Suppose I have a friend who likes to engage in risky, daredevil-like forms of recreation (sky diving, roller coaster riding, and the like), and invites me to join him.  Being jittery, I refuse his invitation.  But if I had accepted, I might engage in these forms of recreation and come to perceive the value in them (that, say, there’s some exhilaration in feeling the forces of nature impinging on my body), and I couldn’t have perceived the reasons for this kind of recreation without having tried it out myself. 

The crucial question to ask about Aristotle’s claim is: How is it that by engaging in a practice I come to know what’s good about that practice?  Here are two obstacles I see:

[1] We might be tempted to re-analyze relevant examples so that they turn out not to be examples wherein knowledge of what’s good about a practice is what’s acquired.  So we might say that all I learn in the example above is an instrumental fact, not a normative fact: I learn that risky forms of recreation serve some good that I already have knowledge and appreciation of.  This would make Aristotle’s claim little more than the less interesting observation that in order to fulfill my aims, I may  have to engage in activities that fulfill my aims in order to know that they fulfill my aims.

[2] Aristotle’s claim is specific to crafts or skills, and one way in which engaging in a practice might help me value it is because engaging in it makes me better at the practice: When I first try to play the piano, I’m frustrated by how my fingers fumble across the keys, but as I improve my skills, playing becomes more enjoyable because  the frustrations and challenges that confront a novice disappear.  But I’m not sure if mastering the skill is a way of coming to see what’s good about engaging in the practice.  Admittedly, gaining skill in a practice tilts the balance, so to speak, in that reasons I may have for not engaging in a practice (i.e., I find it difficult) diminish in force.  But it seems possible to gain skill in a practice but still not see any intrinsic merit in the practice.  Indeed, people often come to disdain an activity that they spent a large chunk of their lives mastering. So what more is learned about what’s good about a particular practice besides how to successfully participate in it?  In other words, how does my participating in it make me see what’s worthwhile about it?

In any event, I’d be curious to know if others find the idea that one must do in order to know plausible and how it might be defended.

9 Replies to “Acting in order to know what’s good

  1. I think the focus should be on “know” here. Perhaps Aristotle’s point is more clear if we substitute “appreciate.” Engaging in it might add little to our cognitive grasp of the goodness of a practice. But it will contribute to the appropriate valuation of the practice and our motivation to engage in the practice. Isn’t a broad focus on valuation and motivation and not merely cognition consistent with the basic differences between Plato and Aristotle? Aristotle is less concerned with the good as an entity than with the good person, and less concerned with the good as an idea than with good action.

  2. Michael,
    “In contrast to the Socratic/Platonic tradition, which held that one must know the good in order to act well, Aristotle held that one must first act well — and come to so act as a matter of habit or second nature — in order to know the good.”
    I see what you’re getting at by putting the contrast between Plato and Aristotle this way. I think I’d put it differently myself: Plato’s ideal good is an abstract, Aristotle’s ideal good is a person– the good man. Putting it *that* way doesn’t have quite such radical consequences as your way of putting it. For it’s consistent with the latter formulation that one should have to know the Aristotelian ideal before one can act well.
    There is of course a problem about both formulations, which is that both, being slogans really, are very vague in how they quantify over actions– and indeed sorts or items of knowledge. What (and how much of it) does one need to know before one can do good actions (and how many of them)? That is a more accurate question, with a more complicated answer.
    Notice too that the following are different questions: (a) how does engagement in a practice bring enlightenment about the point of that practice? (b) how does engagement in a practice bring enlightenment about the worthwhileness of that practice? We could have an answer to (a) without an answer to (b)– we could see that the point of, say, a bar-room trick with a beermat was to flip it so as to catch it on the back of the hand without seeing anything worthwhile in this practice. I’m not sure the converse holds; I don’t think you can understand a practice at all without understanding its point. (What counts as winning the game, if anything does, is part of the definition of the game.)
    So you’re asking for info about (a) how participating in a practice shows you the point of it, and (b) how participating in a practice shows you what’s worthwhile about that practice. And I think I hear a third question in your comment: (c) how participating in a practice teaches you what counts as a good or a bad move in that practice, and why.
    The answer to (a) is simple: as above, unless you understand the point of a practice you don’t understand the practice.
    The answer to (b) is indeed, as you say, that participating in the practice can take you either way– can lead you to think that it’s worthless, or that it’s a wonderful way to spend your life.
    When we try to answer (c), that is where the most interesting ethical questions arise. (I don’t seem to be answering them, but this post is over-long already.)
    An important query about MacIntyre’s famous discussion of practices and their internal points in AFTER VIRTUE, which I take it was one of your starting points in framing the initial question, is how much he runs these three questions together.

  3. Michael,
    Why isn’t Aristotle just talking about ‘know how’ rather than ‘know that’? I ‘know how’ to play piano only because I’ve practiced a lot. The more I practice, the better I get. Eventually, I know how to play well. So, in this way, I come to have knowledge of the good of piano playing. Here, however, it is ‘know how’ regarding the good.

  4. Following somewhat on Robert’s point, doesn’t Aristotle make it clear early on in NE that ethical knowledge is acquired from what everyone already believes about morality or (failing that) from the majority opinion, or from the wise? I don’t think moral knowledge is esoteric for him, so we can (I think) know what morality requires even if we have not yet acquired the “moral skill” to practice it.

  5. Great topic.
    Mike says:
    “doesn’t Aristotle make it clear early on in NE that ethical knowledge is acquired from what everyone already believes about morality or (failing that) from the majority opinion, or from the wise? I don’t think moral knowledge is esoteric for him, so we can (I think) know what morality requires even if we have not yet acquired the “moral skill” to practice it.”
    This sounds close to Aristotle’s view, but I’m not sure what “acquired” means here. Is it instilled in one’s early youth by habituation? Is it adopted uncritically from majority opinion or the opinions of the wise? And if it’s the latter, would opinions acquired in this way count as knowledge?
    Tim Chappell says:
    “I think I’d put it differently myself: Plato’s ideal good is an abstract, Aristotle’s ideal good is a person– the good man. Putting it *that* way doesn’t have quite such radical consequences as your way of putting it. For it’s consistent with the latter formulation that one should have to know the Aristotelian ideal before one can act well.”
    This is a good point. But I think we need to distinguish between two kinds of knowledge. There is the knowledge that some general rule of thumb is correct, in virtue of the fact that some reliable authority endorses it or lives according to it (knowledge by reliable authority). Then there is the knowledge that it is correct for reasons that we understand for ourselves (call it “internal knowledge”). Since Aristotle’s goal is to make us virtuous moral agents, he ultimately wants us to have the latter kind of knowledge (so we can be motivated in the right way , as required for all truly virtuous action). But since we can only acquire the latter sort of knowledge by first doing the right sorts of things, we have to start out with the flimsy alternative–knowledge by reliable authority.
    I’m not absolutely certain that this is Aristotle’s view, but it has the advantage of making a number of his claims more coherent. It also has the advantage of being much more plausible than any “knowledge first/practice first” formulation.

  6. I used to have views about what Aristotle thought, but don’t have nearly as many as I used to anymore.
    Nonetheless, I think that there is some sense that can be made of the idea that learning how to do something eventually can yield more knowledge about what is to be done, including knowledge that is not just knowing how (though it may be that) but also knowing that. To run with Robert’s music example, presumably at some point people gain skill not just in how to play a particular thing, but also in figuring out what to play. I take it some improvisers are more skilled than others and that for at least some of them they know that the next thing to play is this note or chord or sound or rhythm or . . . That such and such is the thing to play sounds to me like something that counts as knowing that.
    Other crafts are likely similar, at least if they are sufficiently open ended. If I were skilled at any I could give some better examples. But it seems plausible that Picasso was able to discover new ways of painting (that there is a whole other way of using perspective that creates interesting effects) because he was a painter.
    Also, in response to Mike’s comments about the role of authority in ethics, I guess I do continue to have some views about Aristotle interpretation, despite my disclaimer above. In particular I think that the role of what most people think or say for Aristotle is not that of just telling us what is right about ethics. Rather he thinks that these are useful starting points in producing any sort of philosophical theory but that a good theory might explain away what people say rather than vindicate it.
    And with respect to ethics in particular he seems to think that nothing general is always right for that domain, so I don’t think he would agree that a person could figure out what to do through a rote application of common or uncommon advice. Thus I don’t think of him as suggesting we get from the majority or even from the wise advice about ethics that determines fully what we ought to do, even if advice from the wiser may play a big role in getting us started doing the roughly right thing.

  7. In his original post Michael (Mike?) says:
    “So we might say that all I learn in the example above is an instrumental fact, not a normative fact: I learn that risky forms of recreation serve some good that I already have knowledge and appreciation of. This would make Aristotle’s claim little more than the less interesting observation that in order to fulfill my aims, I may have to engage in activities that fulfill my aims in order to know that they fulfill my aims.”
    I take it that Mike thinks this explanation deflates the claim he attributes to Aristotle (namely, that by engaging in a practice we come to learn what is good about it).
    I think Mike’s explanation (1) above may be roughly correct, but it doesn’t seem to me to undermine the interesting claim. I say “roughly” because I would put the point in terms of constitutive (rather than instrumental) facts. By engaging in some activity I find out what constitutes “a good time” or “an exhilarating experience” or “a fun day”. If we see the experience as constituting the previously existing goal, then it seems to me that we do learn something normative from the experience because we learn about the nature of the valuable (normatively significant) goal. So, I would put the point this way: In order to fulfill my aims I have to discover what fulfilling the aims consists in and this I learn through experience. That’s not uninteresting, is it?

  8. I am not an Aritotelian by any stretch of imagination, but it seems to me that one way that we learn practices is by observing others whom we consider important doing them and then incorporating them into our lives as we learn the benefits that others derive from utilzing them. Dennis Moberg refers to these people that we observe as ‘moral exemplars.’ The practice becomes habitual to us as we incorporate what is learned into our lives.
    Secondly, it is possible to define a new practice without having ever performed it. This is done in practice all the time. Think of how problem solving and quality/productivity improvement plans are developed in business. We do not know the outcome until we try out the new practice; if it works to accomplish the goal then we keep it, if not, we modify it until it works.

  9. Like Valerie, I’d like to try to rehabilitate one of the original discarded re-interpretations – but I like [2]. It’s possible that I might come to get really good at something, and hence be able to access the goods that come with skilled practice, but still think they’re not worth it. But couldn’t Aristotle just stake his faith on the idea that, when it comes to morality, I *won’t* have that reaction (especially if we read him as rejecting any attempt to argue people into morality – if I get good at doing moral things, but still don’t like them, A might just say, “Feh. A barbarian, obviously.”)? It also strikes me that he might have a psychological background view that “doing morality” changes the agent in ways more fundamental ways than just removing difficulty, etc. (e.g., people who start skydiving a lot might find themselves becoming less risk-averse, for no good philosophical reason).
    On a different note, I wonder if there was a “Deweyan” aspect to A’s focus on moral action. It might be that humans are (contingently) just phenomenally *bad* at figuring out from our armchairs what sorts of things conduce to the good life, and we’re much more likely to get it right if we try it.

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