Monday, June 13, 2011

Socrates vs. Aristotle

I think I have lamented earlier in these posts about our culture's devotion to Socrates' theory of ethics and knowledge. According to the Socrates -- as Plato depicts him in his dialogs, in any case -- no one wants evil: as long as they know what's good, they'll pursue it. I doubt that there's actually any direct connection between American television and Socrates, but our public service announcements blare away in the happy hope that if we just tell kids that drugs are dangerous, they'll refrain from trying them. With the same hallucinating faith (is that even worse than blind faith?), the schools teach America's youth about "safe" sex, thinking that as long as high-school students (or middle-schoolers!) know about condoms, teen pregnancy and the spread of STDs will decrease.

How refreshing the other day to read Aquinas explain just why Socrates was wrong! In his section on sin, Aquinas has to battle this old theory that only ignorance can cause it, and he makes his first attack not with Bible verses or a line from Augustine but with Aristotle's Ethics. In book VII, "the Philosopher" (as Aquinas reverently calls him) points out that knowledge is not always actual: we know a lot more than we have in consciousness at any one time. I know, for instance, that the square of any even number is even and the square of any odd number odd, but I hadn't actually thought about it in a very long time. So a person with all the right knowledge can still sin: sometimes we just forget what's right and what's wrong, and sometimes passions distract us from actively considering the right knowledge.

With the aid of the Bible and other Christian authorities (including Augustine), Aquinas's analysis of sin goes a little farther. The first step involves defining sin. Following Aristotle, Aquinas agrees with Socrates that no one chooses evil per se. A sin is the choosing of a temporal, changeable good against reason or eternal law (or both). Earlier in my life, with little theological or philosophical training, some things that Aquinas calls good seemed neutral or even evil to me. Trying to be virtuous, I wouldn't have called money good twenty years ago. But money is good. It can't buy happiness, but as George Bailey says, "It comes in pretty handy." It can buy shelter, food, clothes, gifts, beautiful things, tickets to nice places, and so on. Money in itself is good; only its improper use is evil. Pleasure, too, is good. A life lived entirely for pleasure is not good, and without having thought it through, I would have said earlier that as a consequence, pleasure itself is not good. But of course it's good. Pain is evil, or else we wouldn't take pain reliever, and pleasure is good, or else we wouldn't ask for backrubs.

The key to understanding how we sin by choosing something good is in the hierarchy of goods. Goods of the soul rank higher than physical goods. Eternal goods ranker higher than temporal goods. A good that is used (like money when I use it to buy ice cream) ranks lower than the good I use it for (i.e., the ice cream). And so on. People regularly opt for some kind of pain (i.e. evil i.e. loss i.e. lack of good) as the price for a good. I might take nasty medicine to improve my health, for instance. I don't choose the evil (bad taste) for itself; primarily I choose the good thing (health) and accept the evil as a rational trade-off. Health is a higher good than pleasant feelings in the mouth, so this is a good trade. The Christian Scientist thinks exactly the same way when he makes the opposite choice. Given his premise that taking medicine hurts his soul, he chooses the disease of the body as the cost for the health of his soul, which is a higher good.

But what if I choose to steal your car to go for a thrill ride? My goal is the thrill (which is good: it's fun to be thrilled), but the cost I pay is faithfulness and right standing with the law. In this case I have given up higher goods for lower. According to Aquinas this happens when the sensitive appetite influences the will toward a changeable good and reason fails to offer the right thinking (or fails to "come to the rescue" as he says in one place). This breakdown can occur in any one of those three parts of the soul. The sensitive appetite might long for some good it perceives with passion so great it simply overwhelms the reason. The reason might be impaired (through lack of sleep or drunkenness, for instance) or, yes, it might be ignorant of some act being a sin. And the will might simply deliberately choose the lower good and accept the greater evil, a sin of malice.

I'm amazed at how much of this language ends up in our current legal practice. OK, to be more honest, I'm amazed at how much of this language ends up in television's depiction of current legal practice. I haven't spent a lot of time in a courtroom, thankfully. We talk of "crimes of passion," we hear that "ignorance is no excuse," and we hear sometimes that a suspect "did with malice aforethought" commit some crime. It all makes so much sense that even commercial television gets it. So why can't the schools figure it out?

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