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A Theory of Moral Objectivity (Section 4b - Sceptics and Aristotle)

By Robert M. Ellis, originally written as a Ph.D. thesis 'A Buddhist theory of moral objectivity' in 2001. This html version copyright 2008.

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4b)      The classical roots of nihilism


Nihilism did not exist in the ancient world in anything like the strength with which it has developed in the modern one, and, in contrast to the position with eternalism, there is relatively little continuity between its ancient and modern forms. Nevertheless, important influences in its modern formation have come from two sources, the rediscovery of which were vital in the development of nihilism from the time of the Renaissance: these were Scepticism (which I shall refer to as Classical Scepticism to avoid confusion with the stipulative use of the word that I have already made) and Aristotle. Of these Classical Scepticism is the more important, for even in its ancient form it illustrates the slippage from metaphysical agnosticism to negative dogmatism about the possibility of universal ethics which I shall be claiming is typical of much nihilist thought. An examination of classical Scepticism will thus enable a discussion of some of the core epistemological issues in nihilism. Aristotle’s contribution to the nihilist tradition is much more ambiguous, but nevertheless important, as he both provides some early arguments for ethical coherentism and, as one of the first empiricists, displays some of the features of scientism at least embryonically.


i)                    Classical Scepticism


Classical Scepticism may well have been influenced by Indian thought, and there is even a case for believing that Pyrrho, the founder of Classical Scepticism, encountered Buddhist influences at the time he visited India with Alexander’s army[1]. Those who argue against the importance of this likely (though by no means proven) connection tend to focus on the fact that the details of arguments to be found in the Sceptical tradition can be accounted for merely as developments of arguments used by Greek philosophers before Pyrrho[2]. However, the central realisation of the Pyrrhonian tradition, that moral progress could be made through the suspension of judgement rather than the reaching of correct judgements according to Dogmatic criteria, seems to be one which, if it did not emerge in the Sceptical tradition as an original realisation, had previously been taught only by the Buddha. Unfortunately, as I shall argue, this Sceptical grasp of the Middle Way never seems to have been strong enough to avoid a slide into nihilism, with the result that it is nihilism that is the chief legacy from Classical Scepticism to the modern world. The causes of the slide will be seen to be the familiar ones of the dualist tradition as I have described it so far.


The classical thinker whose work I shall take to be representative of Classical Scepticism is Sextus Empiricus (2nd Century CE), who, though representative of a much later development of Classical Scepticism than Pyrrho (who wrote nothing), has left whole works extant. Sextus’s definition of Scepticism runs as follows:

The Sceptic way is a disposition to oppose phenomena and noumena to one another in any way whatever, with the result that, owing to the equipollence among the things and statements thus opposed, we are brought first to epoché and then to ataraxia.[3]


It is notable here that Classical Scepticism is understood as a disposition rather than as a belief. Its Scepticism is directed towards any beliefs which are “non-evident” or noumenal in nature, not with the aim of refuting them but with the aim of producing a suspension of judgement by realising the equipollence, or equality in the power of argument, on each side, whenever the issues involve any ontological claims. This suspension of judgement (epoché), leads (it is claimed on empirical grounds) to ataraxia (freedom from mental disturbance), which is the ethical goal of Classical Scepticism.


This genuine Scepticism focussed on suspension of judgement should be distinguished, as Hankinson points out, from negative dogmatism about either ontological beliefs or epistemological ones[4], for despite the fact that in each case the evidence appealed to may be the same, the conclusions drawn are different. An appeal to the relativity of perception, for example, may be used to support either the ontological view that there are no objects, or the (“hard agnostic”) epistemological view that it is impossible for us to know whether there are objects, or the genuinely Sceptical (“soft agnostic”) view that we cannot judge whether or not there are objects, but should continue to search open-mindedly for them. This is the basis of Sextus Empiricus’s claim that genuine Scepticism is zetetic, continually searching without reaching any judgement[5], and that his Scepticism is distinguishable from the Academic Scepticism of Carneades, which follows a negative dogmatism on the epistemological question of the knowability of objects[6].


Sextus Empiricus also extends his Scepticism to the second-order judgements which form Sceptical theory itself, thus attempting to avoid the paradox of Sceptical self-contradiction.

For concerning all the Sceptic slogans it is necessary for this to be understood first of all: we absolutely do not firmly maintain anything about them being true, especially since we say that they can be confuted by themselves, as they are included among the cases to which they apply – just as cathartic drugs not only flush out the bodily humours but expel themselves as well. Also, we do not put them forward as sharply  expressing the points with which they have to do, but we employ them imprecisely….and besides, it works in our favour that not even these slogans are said to have signification absolutely, but only relatively, that is, relative to the Sceptics.[7]


It is this attitude to second-order (and subsequent orders of) judgement that particularly reveals the element of non-dualist insight in Classical Scepticism. For the appeal, manifested here in the therapeutic imagery of purgation and in the relativity of Sceptical statements to Sceptics as persons, is to a psychological state in which rational dichotomies incrementally dissolve. The purpose of Classical Scepticism is not to reach any final state of knowledge, but to remove beliefs of those types which are judged dogmatic by a process of cognitive therapy. And this therapy seems to be based on the insight that any second- or higher-order cognitive position (such as that employed in a negatively dogmatic conclusion based on selective Scepticism) will immediately become a new point of identification for the ego and thus thwart any ethical goal aimed at by Sceptical analysis. Only complete provisionality of view will thus serve any ethical purpose.


Failure to appreciate this non-dualism of form has led to constant misunderstanding of Classical Scepticism by modern commentators, even in some cases when these were expert scholars. The tradition of misunderstanding started with Hume, who famously alleged that if Pyrrhonian principles were to prevail “all human life must perish….All discourse, all action would immediately cease; and men remain in total lethargy”[8]. The more modern commentator Burnyeat agrees with Hume on the grounds that it is impossible to maintain the degree of detachment from ones own views that Classical Scepticism requires[9]. But both of these assume that any credible and applicable account of the purpose of human life must be understood in representationalist terms, with a discontinuous and indissoluble cognitive account of the Sceptical theory necessarily continuing to exist alongside any successful Sceptical practice in which judgement is increasingly suspended. If one thinks of Sceptical practice in this way, a false dichotomy is imposed whereby either a successful Classical Sceptic has no sense of purpose (Hume’s view) because he has no cognitive account of his practices, or he maintains a cognitive belief in that purpose from which he must necessarily be alienated (Burnyeat’s view). If however, instead of thinking along representationalist lines one understands the meaning of Sceptical theory pragmatically, so that it consists not in a representation of a purpose but a purpose itself, it becomes possible to understand how a Classical Sceptic can maintain that purpose without explicitly representing it. This is as much as to say that if meaning is understood as a function of our very bodily existence, that sense of meaning can be maintained in relation to psychological states themselves and does not necessarily have to be projected onto verbal explanations[10]. It is the withdrawal from this egoistic identification of meaning with verbal explanations that the practice of Classical Scepticism attempts to bring about.


Martha Nussbaum, in contrast to Burnyeat, sees no reason why the Classical Sceptic should not be able to live her Scepticism (even though she has doubts about its advisability)[11]. However, she offers another criticism of Classical Scepticism based on a similar misunderstanding: that it is dogmatic about the nature and ethical value of the goal of ataraxia. “The dogmatic element” she writes “comes in two parts: first in a claim that eudaimonia is equivalent to ataraxia (or ataraxia along with metriopatheia [moderation in feeling]); second, in a causal claim that this end is reliably secured by the Skeptic way”[12]. The claim that ataraxia is equivalent to eudaimonia requires claims both of its ethical justification and of its status as the supreme happiness. Nussbaum gives a number of examples from Sextus Empiricus of the assertion of the value and efficacy of the Sceptic method, and then argues that Sceptics could not have in fact made any converts, nor could their method have worked therapeutically, without such assertiveness[13]. But this again assumes that the method must have been reliant on a fixed, rather than a provisional, set of beliefs about itself and hence that there is no real distinction between dogmatic and provisional belief. If (as Nussbaum seems to accept) Sextus Empiricus’s assertions can really be understood and put into practice in the provisional way he claims they can, then they are not dogmatic, since even the value of the practice as a whole can be understood with a similar provisionality, and the ethical and causal assumptions involved can be confirmed by experience. The problem again seems to arise from understanding value representationally and thus absolutely.


Thus far, then, I have been defending what appears to be a non-dualism in the form or structure of Classical Scepticism. This does not mean, however, as I have already indicated, that I believe Classical Scepticism to be consistently non-dualist. In fact I want to argue that it is nihilist. The nihilism, however, does not arise from what Hume alleges to be the lethargy induced by suspension of judgement. On the contrary, the suspension of judgement is usually difficult and demands effort. The problem seems to arise from the Classical Sceptic’s dependence on cognitive method alone in realising the theory of the suspension of judgement. It fails, in other words, not because the Sceptic does not realise that a method exists whereby cognitive attachment can be overcome, but because the suspension of judgement alone does not account for the entirety of that method if it is to be successfully applied. This does not mean, as Nussbaum argued, that dogmatism is unavoidable in practically applying any such general system as Sextus offers, but that it will probably turn out, on applying Sextus’s method, that the causal claims made for it were dogmatic in the sense that following that precise method could not lead to experience of the claimed ethical goal.


Philosophically, this means that the Classical Sceptic does not take his Scepticism far enough, and it remains selective, not in terms of the general understanding of moral progress involved, but in failing to be Sceptical about the assumptions of his own method. The Sceptic is forced by practical necessity to draw a line (at which precise point need not concern us too much at this point[14]) between those beliefs which are considered “non-evident” and therefore subject to sceptical doubt and those considered “evident” or merely a matter of “appearance” and therefore to be accepted. In making such a distinction the Sceptic is effectively choosing to make certain explicit beliefs a focus of therapeutic activity, but to exclude other explicit beliefs together with all implicit beliefs. Despite the fact that cultural differences as they affect individual belief are a standard mode of reflection for Sceptics[15], this reflection cannot thus be applied to any critical consideration of the Sceptic’s society, for this would involve apparently making positive judgements.


The Classical Sceptic thus cannot be Sceptical about the suspension of judgement itself as a method, and the assumptions implicit in it. One of these assumptions is the distinction between the suspension of an explicit judgement and the continuance of an implicit one which thus continues by default as a background assumption. Another, related to this, is the sole focus on the individual as the field of identification for the sake of which judgements are suspended. To support these assumptions the Classical Sceptic appeals to nature and culture, both of which are claimed to belong to the world of appearances which should not be subject to Scepticism.

Holding to the appearances, then, we live without beliefs but in accord with the ordinary regimen of life, since we cannot be wholly inactive. And this ordinary regimen of life seems to be fourfold: one part has to do with the guidance of nature, another with the compulsion of the pathé, another with the handing down of laws and customs, and a fourth with instruction in arts and crafts. Nature’s guidance is that by which we are naturally capable of sensation and thought; compulsion of the pathé is that by which hunger drives us to food and thirst makes us drink; the handing down of customs and laws is that by which we accept that piety in the conduct of life is good and impiety bad; and instruction in arts and crafts is that by which we are not inactive in whichever of these we acquire. And we say all these things without belief.[16]


Though there is a distinction between dogmatic and provisional judgements to be justifiably made here (which in the terminology I have established I would describe as that between the rational judgements of the ego and those of the whole psyche), this appeal to nature and culture does not provide any clear grounds for this distinction, as what we understand to be natural and/or cultural depends on our prior conceptions of the scope of those terms. So in effect Sextus can only argue that these things are said without belief by ignoring the degree of influence exerted on our judgement by implicit belief. Since the Sceptic does not aim to overcome these implicit beliefs we cannot describe them as provisional. Whilst it may be obviously true, then, that the Sceptic needs to make some judgements to live, these judgements certainly do not have to have the scope and justification Sextus offers here.


Sextus’s individualism thus follows from the way in which he attempts to discount the whole field of implicit social and political judgement from the sphere in which the Sceptic should suspend her judgement. And this is just one example of the continuance of judgement by default which appears compatible with Sextus’s view of the scope of the proper suspension of judgement in Scepticism. As Nussbaum comments, the Sceptical life “lacks commitment to others and to society”: the Sceptic “may do a friend’s housework, or even wash her pig. But none of this can be done out of any serious commitment or even emotion[17]. The Classical Sceptic is thus guilty of insufficient Scepticism about the suspension of judgement itself, assuming that it must be interpreted so as to rule out moral judgement or commitment, and creating a cool superficiality as a sort of pseudo-enlightenment. Rather than suspending all the beliefs with which the ego identifies, the Sceptic has maintained a belief in the value of his individual suspension of belief (despite the inconsistencies this creates), in which the ego can retrench.


If Classical Scepticism is to be regarded as a precursor to one of the branches of nihilism, then, it must be the existentialist variety. Like existentialism, it relies on a phenomenological analysis as a basis on which to attack metaphysical claims, and also produces an ethical coherentism where what is effectively seen as the moral good is the phenomenological freedom of the individual, even if that freedom is understood rather differently by Sextus and by existentialists. For Sextus, this freedom is understood as ataraxia, which, as in the other Hellenistic schools, manifests autarcheia, translated by Hadot as “that state in which the ego depends only upon itself”[18]. Whilst in Stoicism autarcheia means the positive freedom of the self to be universal[19], the Sceptic would clearly not accept such a claim to universality, leaving autarcheia as an isolated condition of existential freedom.


This concept of freedom does not extend to an explicit assertion of freewill, which would be inconsistent with Sceptical indeterminism and agnosticism about causality[20]. Nevertheless it seems impossible to avoid an implication of freewill in the very activity of an explicit and independent individual suspension of judgement, for the failure to recognise implicit judgements in the background to an individual suspension of judgement implies that the fact of conditioning is being ignored and thus the causal independence of the will in suspending judgement assumed.


The role of dualistic assumptions in creating this slide away from consistent non-dualism and into nihilism in the thought and practice of Classical Scepticism should now be evident. In summary, the implicit individualism of the conception of the suspension of judgement found in Sceptical practice brought with it an ethical coherentism whereby the practical value became the individual’s sense of freedom from commitments of judgement, accompanied by an implicit freewill whereby the individual succeeded in avoiding such judgements. Psychologically this value would also manifest itself as a refined hedonism in which the pleasure taken in individual freedom from disturbance became a supreme motivation.


Such a view would remain unchallenged by any realisation that the Sceptical epistemology needs to involve just as much scepticism about individualism as it does about universalism, so long as Sceptical arguments were mainly employed against contemporary universalist assumptions and it was not realised that linguistic idealism was thereby being employed to also make an unwarranted case against the provisional assumption of universalism. Without such an implicit linguistic idealism, there would be no reason to provisionally accept the “customs and laws” of ones society and not to accord a similar status to universal ethical principles. Because of the dogmatic basis of contemporary universalism, it seems that the possibility of provisional prescription, at least beyond the individual application of the Sceptical suspension of judgement, was rejected along with that of absolute prescription. Thus the debate between Sceptics and Dogmatists became polarised and the Classical Sceptics lost the middle ground one might at first have expected them to occupy between positive and negative Dogmatism.


Given the individualistic tendency of the Sceptics, it is not surprising if they seem to have had little or no political influence or popular appeal. Though Greek and Latin culture was tolerant enough to allow them to operate, the conditions for a really widespread nihilism had not yet arisen. The Sceptics do seem, however, to have had a stimulating effect on philosophical debate in the ancient world, not simply creating conflicts of contradiction with conventional beliefs, but also causing dogmatic philosophers to refine their arguments[21].


After Scepticism was forgotten during the Middle Ages, a similar effect seems to have been created by its rediscovery in the sixteenth century, following the publication of a Latin translation of Sextus Empiricus’s Outlines of Pyrrhonism by Henri Étienne in 1562. This seems to have been a pivotal point in the development of nihilism in the modern West: for though of course it would not have occurred without the individualism which had already developed in the course of the Renaissance, the Reformation, and the development of printing, from that point the selective use of Sceptical arguments played a key role in the philosophical articulation, assimilation and justification of these developments by both eternalists and nihilists[22]. This time, however, the development of Scepticism would eventually be supported by the forces of individualism and hedonism unleashed by capitalism, to such an extent that it would gain wide popular appeal. For example, the remarkable similarity between Classical Scepticism and the ethic in modern youth culture of being “laid back” has been noted by Nussbaum[23]. The further development of the philosophical relationship between these two chronologically removed ideologies remains to be shown in the later parts of this chapter.


ii)                   Aristotle’s empiricism


If the Classical Sceptics offer an early version of existentialism, Aristotle may in many respects be considered the founder of scientism as an alternative approach to nihilism. This is not just because he was also the founder of science in the sense of systematic empirical study, but because this scientific approach was motivated by a belief in both the possibility and the value of representationally objective knowledge. Aristotle believed this objective cognitive knowledge to be available to us in a way in which objectivity of ethics was not, since he understood ethics ultimately in conventional and descriptive terms. He was thus a forerunner of the scientistic tradition of belief that if ethics exists, it is a subsidiary and unconvincing type of knowledge which is probably best explained in the descriptive terms of local custom. The weakness in this account lies in the claims made for knowledge in the first place with which ethics is compared, so it is this aspect of Aristotle which must be considered first.


Aristotle’s account of scientific knowledge begins with his view of human nature as finding fulfilment in gaining knowledge, linked to his view of the nature of the world as intrinsically intelligible. This complementary pair of beliefs is explained by Jonathan Lear in relation to Aristotle’s use of “the why”.

‘The why’ is an objective feature of the world: it is that about which we ought to be curious if we wish to understand a thing. The expression ‘the why’ is suggestive of the intimate link Aristotle saw between man and world. Man is by nature a questioner of the world: he seeks to understand why the world is the way it is. The world for its part reciprocates: it ‘answers’ man’s questions. ‘The why’ performs a curious double duty, as interrogative and indicative, suggesting both question and answer. And the world’s answers are not merely responses to man’s probings: they manifest the ultimate intelligibility of the world.[24]


Both the beliefs about human nature and about the world here are based on a teleology which makes the type of justification involved quite distinct from either the rationalism of Plato or the eternalist empiricism of the Stoics. For the world is intelligible not because of a cosmic Logos but because each object has its own logos (form), making an intelligible natural order the result of mutually independent goal-directed processes. The forms of all objects can be understood in relation to their own individual purposes, just as human purpose can be understood in relation to human form. But what makes human form and human purpose distinctive is the capacity to understand the forms around it.


The relationship between the goals towards which things tend and the forms in which we experience them is explained in Aristotle’s fourfold analysis of ways in which the logos appears[25]: (1) as constituent matter, (2) as essence, (3) as prior cause and (4) as telos or “final cause” for the sake of which a thing develops. These are all terms in which we can understand an object, but they are all interrelated. The constituent matter out of which things are formed is ultimately unknowable[26], since when we investigate it we merely find more basic levels of form, but “the last three often amount to one; for both the whatness and the final cause are one, and the first source of motion is the same in kind as these (for man begets man)”[27]. In other words, the essence which Aristotle believes consists in the intelligible form of things is identical to the independent purpose for which they exist, and the prior cause operates by introducing a change in a thing so as to realise a potentiality in that thing which already existed[28]. To understand a thing is to interpret its appearances in relation to its potentialities, and thus its purpose.


In this way all forms of observation, whether of cause, purpose, or appearance, are believed by Aristotle to potentially create knowledge not only of patterns of appearance and causality, but of the ends served by those patterns, without which they would not be intelligible. The essence of an object, which is inseparable from its telos, is intelligible to the human mind because that mind consists in the contemplation of such essences when these have been understood and separated from their material substantiations[29]. It is not even considered to be a representation of the object which human beings contemplate, but the very form (logos) itself, consisting in the object’s intelligible nature transferred into the mind through the process of understanding, for the mind does not exist in distinction from its formal content, and thus cannot contain representations. Aristotle is thus not strictly speaking a representationalist, but his doctrine serves the same function as representationalism, since he believes that the mind is capable of partaking of a truth beyond it, not by representing it, but by being it.


It is through this understanding of the process of knowledge that Aristotle maintains the belief that scientific certainty about nature is possible. Such knowledge is gained through a combination of theorisation and observation, but it is Aristotle’s assumption that the two are shaped so as to be compatible with each other. Perception, Aristotle claims, is of the universal, so that when a particular form has been perceived it can establish itself in the mind gradually “as when after a rout one man makes a stand and then another, till the original formation has been restored”[30]. This involves the accompanying assumption that there is a natural taxonomy of kinds which can be known through intuitive reason, and that its application to experience can yield increasingly higher levels of classification, up to the categories as the most abstract and unanalysable universals.


It is this epistemology which is the basis of the dogmatic element in Aristotle’s philosophical and scientific approach. It allows him to reject Sceptical arguments which appeal to reason at the expense of common sense, for such arguments provide a glimpse of a frighteningly unknowable aspect of nature which Aristotle was evidently not prepared to face.


This is particularly evident in Aristotle’s treatment of the debate about infinity in time and space, where he attacked the assumptions in Zeno’s paradoxes, each of which trades on the contradiction between the rational belief that time and/or space are infinitely divisible and our experience that they can be traversed[31]. For example, rationally speaking an arrow fired at a target would never reach it, since it would first traverse half the distance to the target, then half the remaining distance, and so on ad infinitum.  Zeno originally produced these paradoxes to support the Parmenidean view that change is illusory because rational argument identified only unchanging substance: an approach which fits the eternalistic approach of Stoicism with its appeal to a rationality in harmony with the unchanging cosmic Logos. Aristotle, however, claimed that Zeno was wrong to assume that time and space were actually infinitely divisible: for him they were only potentially so, since a given space could be divided anywhere but not everywhere. Given that our experience of space and time, like that of objects which exist in them, is finite, it will always leave aspects unknown. There are some potential divisions in space which will never actually be made, and thus its infinity will always remain unknowable before us, just as matter in itself will always remain the unknowable aspect of objects however much their form is explored. However, this unknowable infinity must never be identified with the whole, since our knowledge of wholes is a knowledge of the known limits or forms of things. Aristotle thus defends our experience of limits and the continuity between them against the claim that such an experience of continuity is illusory.


This argument is seductive because it offers all the reasonableness of a scientific approach which aims to make the world familiar and comfortable. However, there seems to be no more reason a priori to adopt Aristotle’s account than there is to adopt Zeno’s. Zeno denies our experience of continuity and change by insisting that they are insubstantial by comparison to the unchanging truth which must exist behind them, whilst Aristotle denies the power and value of conceptions of the infinite by substantialising change and assuming that the wholes we experience, whether of objects or of space or time traversed, are likewise real rather than projected or illusory. Whilst Zeno has leapt ahead to appropriate the infinite, Aristotle has prematurely rejected it. Aristotle is still in danger of being undermined by the unknown infinite if it should produce an experience which does not fit into the conceptual scheme which he takes to be natural, whilst Zeno is already in the process of attempting to alienate himself from an important aspect of his experience.


It should already be evident that this is yet another scene in the long drama of dualistic opposition between eternalist and nihilist. What is characteristic about the type of nihilism in Aristotle’s approach (in contradistinction from that of a Classical Sceptic) is that the appeal is ultimately made to convention over reason, to the empirical over the rational, and to the finite over the universal. So whilst Aristotle’s belief in the intelligibility of things suggests a version of the belief in cosmic justice, whereby those who investigate invariably gain the reward of knowledge, the kind of cosmos which is theoretically predictable by Aristotle’s science is already a human-shaped one. Whilst actual things may be knowable once the potentialities according to which they work have been understood, these potentialities are finite: defined by their telos, no creature can move beyond the conceptual limits which this imposes. Whilst human beings may be thus capable of knowledge of the universe, the possibility of universality in their values is already ruled out by this system.


Aristotelean teleology can thus be used to create an alternative version of cosmic justice which appears to move according to scientific laws. It was this aspect of Aristotle which enabled medieval Christian thinkers like Aquinas to appropriate his work so easily for the creation of a naturalistic account of Christianity. For teleology is not incompatible with eternalism, and can be incorporated into it as it was by Hegel and Marx[32]. For Aristotle, however, teleology did not serve the purpose of establishing a universal ethics: its universality was strictly limited to the cognitive realm, and the values associated with knowledge (where teleology provides the basis of a type of cosmic justice) were carefully distinguished from those associated with ethics. The way in which Aristotle made this distinction, typical of that in much later scientism, will be the topic of my next subsection.


iii)                Aristotle’s ethics


In considering Aristotle’s ethics it must first be appreciated that he did not labour under many of the false dichotomies that have oppressed later Western ethics. He did not offer any explicit concept of freewill or of determinism in opposition to it, nor did he oppose the desires of the ego to an absolute conception of the ethical goal beyond them. In these respects Aristotle appears to be a forerunner of scientism rather than fully scientistic in the ways I have described in the previous section. The central reason for this is found in the distinction between Aristotle’s teleological science and the mechanistic model which has been associated with more modern versions of scientism, for his understanding of causation was built on the model of the potentiality of a thing being activated into an actuality rather than patterns of event plotted in relation to abstract points in an absolute time and space, and he identifies some features of things (though not all) as conditioned because they are the actualisations of identified potentialities, not because all events are in principle conditioned according to a universally observed pattern[33]. Similarly, in his treatment of human beings, Aristotle had reason to recognise the conditioning effect of human nature and individual experience, but did not extend this to the assumption that a human being is a mechanism which will predictably act according to its conditioning.


Nevertheless I want to argue that Aristotle’s account of ethics offers an ethical coherentism for reasons which are broadly similar to those of later scientistic thinkers. Whilst he did not have a conception of determinism, he believed sufficiently that human beings were conditioned by their finite nature to rule out meaningful engagement with the universal. This finds expression in his dismissal of Plato’s belief in the Form of the Good, firstly as the idea that universal goodness is actually impossible for human beings and secondly in an unfavourable contrast with empirical method.

…even if the goodness that is predicated in common is some one thing and has a separate existence of its own, clearly it cannot be realised in action or acquired by man….It may perhaps be thought that we had better gain knowledge of the Good as a means of attaining to those goods that can be acquired and realised in practice; because if we have it as a pattern we shall gain a better knowledge of the things that are good for us, and so knowing, obtain them. The argument has a certain plausibility, but it seems to clash with the procedure of the <practical> sciences; for all these, though aiming at some good and seeking to supply its deficiency, neglect knowledge of it….And there is another problem. What advantage in his art will a weaver or a joiner get from this knowledge of good-itself?[34]


This argument goes beyond what is required to attack the doctrine of the Form of the Good, since it claims not merely that a concept of the absolute is useless when applied discontinuously to people with finite concerns, but also that concern with the concept can have no effect on anyone’s relative concept of a good. Aristotle does not seem to allow for the possibility that a weaver or a joiner might become genuinely concerned with ultimate good in a way which might modify the way they weave or join. This passage also illustrates the central scientistic concern with the good as knowledge, not in spite of but because of its argument against the need for ethical knowledge in addition to that of the practical sciences, for this shows that Aristotle wants to supplant an absolute rationalist theory of ethical knowledge with a relative empiricist one. On the assumption that knowledge of other objects is possible (despite the infinity bounded by the wholes they represent), Aristotle believes that knowledge of goodness is not similarly possible because it is infinite. Sufficient reflection on universal goodness in comparison with other objects of belief, however, might reveal very similar justifications for the use of the concept of universal good as those for other objects: or at least justifications with similarly differing degrees of strength existing on the same incremental scale, and each capable of further modification in response to experience.


This concern with knowledge creates a discontinuous reliance also on convention, because it imposes a requirement on any account of ethics that it be descriptive. Since a description of absolute knowledge is impossible, but nevertheless a description is required, the description of ethics which Aristotle provides thus has to be relative. The discontinuity this creates is similar to that found in the eternalist tradition between absolute and conventional ethics, since the role of the dogmatic absolute cognitive position in Aristotle, like that of dogmatic ethics in eternalism, is largely to support conventional ethics by providing a narrow justificatory focus of belief. The belief that knowledge can be empirically justified, in this case, provides Aristotle with a justification for giving conventional ethical beliefs a stronger status than they deserve, and thus reinforcing egoistic identification with those conventional beliefs instead of supporting movement beyond them.


It is this dualism, perhaps developed in reaction to Plato, that prevents the full advantage being gained from Aristotle’s incremental understanding of the role of desire in the development of goodness, which appears as a strong element of non-dualism in his account. Aristotle sees pleasure as something to be cultivated and developed rather than rejected, although he maintains that the pursuit of pleasure by itself is insufficient to achieve the ethical goal of eudaimonia, since intelligence is required to cultivate it[35]. Likewise, with striking psychological insight he realises the importance of harmony between will and intellect, and sees their integration as essential to genuine altruism[36]. Nor can Aristotle be accused of one-sided rationalism, since not only does he have a dispositional model of human development in his description of the virtues, but within these he gives as much attention to emotional as intellectual refinement. In some respects it even appears that Aristotle wants us to have a provisional idea of the Good as the final end, because it provides a way of avoiding infinite regression of the type which he cannot accept: “if we do not choose everything for the sake of something else (for this will involve an infinite progression, so that our aim must be pointless and ineffectual) – it is clear that this must be the Good”[37]. However, Aristotle is once again concerned with good as knowledge here, which he wants us to treat in the way of empirical hypothesis rather than rationalist dogma, but nevertheless as an empirical hypothesis about something which can either be known or not known.


His dualism emerges more clearly when he gives an account of the objectivity towards which moral development tends. He offers an ambiguous choice here between the description of convention and a purely cognitive ideal.


The description of convention is his account of eudaimonia, which required not merely virtue (since Aristotle rejected Socrates’ conviction that virtue was sufficient for happiness) but also modest external goods and a complete life[38]. Likewise in his account of virtue Aristotle appeals constantly to the norms of his society, even in his doctrine of the most virtuous magnitude of a quality being the mean between extremes, where the extremes can only be conventionally defined[39]. So although the empirical basis of Aristotle’s description of the conventionally-achieved ethical goal allows him to claim that it has a strong relevance in its context, we have no reason to assume that it has any beyond that context unless Aristotle can also offer criteria for universal prescription which go beyond the conventional. The closest he can come to this is the teleological understanding of human nature as fulfilled through the cultivation of its excellences, but this itself does not indicate what those excellences consist in.


The purely cognitive ideal emerges most strongly in the advocacy of contemplation of knowledge as the highest activity[40]. This contemplation (theoria) consists not in the search for knowledge or truth, but in the reviewing of knowledge one already has. Aristotle praises its self-sufficiency and claims that it is the closest human beings come to the continuous contemplative activity of the gods. Pierre Hadot stresses the relationship that this practice has to the rest of the tradition of spiritual exercises in Hellenistic philosophy, in order to avoid the common view of Aristotle as a pure theoretician[41]. However, what this shows is only that Aristotle adapted contemporary practice so as to support an ethic which placed knowledge at its apex. Given that happiness is produced by the activity of virtue, Aristotle believed that the highest such activity is intellectual, and knowledge for him consisted in the intellectual activity of contemplation rather than a static accumulation in a book. As Jonathan Barnes writes, this means that “The good man, or expert human, is thus an ace rationalist, either in that his actions are as a rule soundly based on excellent reasoning, or that he indulges fairly often in fine excogitations[42]”. The first of these (the application of intellectual virtues) is ultimately given as subsidiary to the second. Aristotle thus maintains an ethical goal which has some continuity with the ataraxia of the Stoics, Epicureans and Sceptics, but turns it in the direction of scientism by making its autarcheia dependent on the exercise of knowledge.


This cognitive emphasis is also brought out by Nussbaum in her account of Aristotelean therapeutic practice. Although Aristotle’s approach shared a number of features with the medical model of philosophy she identifies as running through the whole of Hellenistic ethics, his method appeared to use therapy as a means of reaching knowledge, knowledge being the ultimate goal. “Results in ethics must be consistent, not just internally, but with everything else held to be true”[43]. Each person’s opinions, however emotionally expressed, were understood by Aristotle to contain some truth, but this truth had to be “winnowed” or “sifted” through a process of philosophical therapy[44]. This philosophical activity cannot take place, however, without a prior development of character up to the point where it would be profitable. Nussbaum is worried by the discontinuity which appears here between “character training” which is of a general ethical importance, and the higher philosophical training which, whilst still therapeutic, is scientific in both its final goals and its choice of methods[45]. Aristotle has certainly not abandoned the realm of our fundamental desires as incapable of any modification, but the separation he makes between politics, which deals with the initial conditions of our lives, and scientific and philosophical practice, focussed on knowledge, indicates an initial step in the direction which later nihilists turned into a complete relativism argued on the basis of the unalterable determinism of the human ego.


Aristotle’s account of choice again indicates a separation between a realm which he takes to be fundamentally conditioned and one which he thinks amenable to rationality. Choice (prohairesis) is depicted as the culmination of a process of deliberation which is intrinsically rational[46]. Choice concerns the means to an end, not an end itself (which is taken to be determined by previous disposition) and consists in reaching an awareness of the decision made by the rational part of the soul. “If the choice is to be a good one, both the reasoning must be true and the desire right[47]. The possession of intellectual virtues is thus important for the making of rational choices, which are seen as an alternative application of the same skills used in the development of science. This focus on rationality (as opposed to ethics) as consistency of motive within a limited and determined sphere is again typical of later scientism, since such a construction is required in order to maintain some account of correctness of judgement in scientific investigation as well as in practical decision-making. The motivation for scientific investigation itself, however, is assumed to be unquestionably innate on such accounts, as it is in Aristotle’s account of the human telos.


Aristotle also has a broader concept of voluntariness which appears to appeal, not to the rational criteria which define choice, but to conventional criteria of responsibility[48]. A voluntary action originates with the agent himself, but not necessarily in his rationality (thus perhaps in his non-rational desires). Involuntary acts are thus only allowed to be those resulting from ignorance of the circumstances. Aristotle’s chief argument for rejecting the idea that desire might be compulsive, however, seems to involve little but an implicit appeal to the absurdity of people not being considered responsible for their actions. Again, then, the implication of Aristotle’s proto-scientism in a sphere where it cannot be applied directly is merely an appeal to convention.


Further evidence of both of these tendencies in Aristotle’s thought are to be found in his Politics, where the same empiricist justification is offered to support both aspects of the conventional assumptions of his society, and some radical departures from them. The objections to Plato’s political philosophy found in the Politics also reveal a political correlative to the over-reaction to the doctrine of the Form of the Good found in the Nicomachean Ethics that I have already discussed. Whilst Plato was concerned to overcome egoism through a radical re-organisation of society along rational lines, Aristotle’s empiricist ground of argument leads him to take value as being expressed, not holistically as in Plato, but individually either at the level of the group or of the individual person, and thus to resist radical change unless it could be justified at that level. This strategy in its turn, however rests on an appeal to nature which tends to assume that egoistic urges are to be supported by the state because they exist.


This can be illustrated by Aristotle’s arguments on the question of property. He rejects Socrates’ view (as expressed in Plato’s Republic) that the ideal state should hold all property, including women and children, communally because this would increase the unity of the state[49]. Aristotle argues that “the nature of a state is to be a plurality” and that it relies on reciprocal relations between people who are in some respects not too closely united because they are effectively specialised. But this appeal to nature is supplemented by much stronger practical arguments: he suggests that too much commonality does not work because it is conducive to disharmony and neglectfulness rather than harmony. Aristotle’s greater reliance on observation gives him the conviction that human nature in the ideal environment put forward by Plato would produce the same effects that it did in his actual environment, where harmony and care were largely dependent on attachments. Of Plato’s Republic he claims “Of the two qualities which chiefly inspire regard and affection – that a thing is your own and that you love it – neither can exist in such a state as this.”


Aristotle’s approach becomes individualistic here because he assumes that the narrow range of our egoistic identification is such that even in an ideal state, where all the conditions are geared towards producing optimal dispositions, it could not be altered. This identification focuses, for him, on self and on those things and people whom one regards as ones possessions. His grounds for believing this, however, are based on observation within a fairly limited set of circumstances, where many of the conditions Plato required do not operate. So although he may have been right to attack the dogmatism of Plato’s beliefs about the possibility of fundamental changes in human nature wrought by a fully rationalised society ruled by guardians educated in a highly rationalistic fashion, Aristotle’s responses also seem dogmatic in assuming that no such changes are possible because of unchangeable individualism. This approach also seems discontinuous with the higher path of scientific knowledge which Aristotle offers in his ethics, where fundamental changes do seem to be possible, at least for an elite.


The grounds for the discontinuity are probably conventional ones, as Aristotle insists on a natural inequality in society: “that some should rule and others be ruled is a thing, not only necessary, but expedient”[50]. This inequality is not merely an incremental inequality of moral dispositions, but a discontinuous distinction between those capable of a full humanity and those not: “the difference between ruler and subject is a difference of kind, and therefore not of degree”[51]. Aristotle argues in this connection that the virtues are different in kind in free men, women, children and slaves respectively because of the different limitations of their reasoning faculties[52]. Since all but free men did not have full use of their reasoning faculties, for Aristotle they it would be impossible for them to have the higher kind of training. From a modern perspective it seems obvious that Aristotle’s observations here were heavily circumscribed by his culture and that what he took to be “necessary” as well as what he took to be “expedient” were largely a reflection of its conventions.


Aristotle’s individualism is thus detectable as an effect of his proto-scientism and its discontinuity, but it is not very much developed and does not seem to be much connected with hedonism, as I shall argue is the case with later scientism. His “individualism” (in the broader sense defined in 4.a.iv above) is much more evident in the form of the implicit appeal to the values of the group, whether this is a class, a city-state, or a race, where nevertheless it is supported by empirical observations as well as direct appeals to nature. Like Plato’s eternalism, then, Aristotle’s proto-scientism provided a rationalisation for the practices of his society. Insofar as it was actually effective in aiding individuals to become more ethical rather than merely following these conventions, this seems to have been mainly due to the practice of applying reason towards the development of virtue which was already common in all the main philosophical movements of his time, even if Aristotle provided a more coherent account of this development than we can gain from any other classical source.


iv)                MacIntyre’s reformed Aristotelianism


At this point I shall depart from the chronological progression of my account of nihilism to consider a question which arises in relation to Aristotle’s ethics through the interpretation of the ethical approach he represents made by such modern Aristotelians as Alasdair MacIntyre. This question is, can Aristotle’s ethics be separated from his scientistic tendencies? If we can separate the account of virtue found in the Nicomachean Ethics from the metaphysical assumptions and particular cultural biases which surround it, it might be claimed that we can isolate a different form of Aristotelean ethics, inspired by Aristotle but not limited to his context or by his dogmas. To examine this kind of claim I shall consider the basis of MacIntyre’s approach to ethics in After Virtue.


MacIntyre would certainly not accept Aristotle’s account of how true scientific knowledge is possible, yet After Virtue begins with a “disquieting suggestion” based on very similar assumptions[53]. MacIntyre invites us to consider a world in which science is annihilated and then later tries to revive itself, but only manages to do so through a kind of patchy and over-literal understanding which prevents the actual terms of science being properly understood. Despite the limitations of their knowledge some argue that science is nevertheless representationally objective, whilst others take a subjectivist line. MacIntyre suggests that science in this hypothetical situation is analogous to ethics in its actual position today, with the very nature of our discourse being based on a fragmentary understanding and we thus unable to grasp its nature.


MacIntyre’s point is at least partly the fair one that both science and ethics depend on contextual assumptions which make them meaningful, but at the same time it seems that he assumes that we will believe in the representational objectivity of science sufficiently to experience disquiet at the thought of the loss of that objectivity so that its subjectivity is as great as that of ethics. MacIntyre’s analogy only makes sense if we assume that ethics is of such a nature that its loss of objectivity could be understood in the same way as the loss of objectivity in science, on an account of science that enables it to be objective in some privileged way to begin with. But if we have only ever had a relatively objective science (and especially if that objectivity can only be understood psychologically), not only would a decline in scientific objectivity be not nearly as “disquieting” as MacIntyre suggests, but an analogous decline in the objectivity of ethics would show only a quantitative and continuous change, not a qualitative and discontinuous one.


MacIntyre’s suggestion here may be only hypothetical, and needs to be seen in the context of his plain opposition to the fact-value dichotomy elsewhere. Later in After Virtue, for example, he argues that the Enlightenment worship of “facts” and their simplistic contrasting with values was quite a distinct development from that of science, which has a much more sophisticated view of the epistemology of its theories, although both occurred simultaneously[54]. MacIntyre clearly does not have a simplistic representational view of scientific truth. Yet the shadow of this view, the conventionality of ethics as we find it in the scientistic tradition from Hume onwards[55], continues to be cast by a set of assumptions at least resembling that of scientism, because MacIntyre has no alternative epistemology to offer. Instead he sees it as important to reconcile us to the ultimate social conventionality of ethics.


MacIntyre’s position, like that of Aristotle, overcomes many dualisms by working outwards from an empirical basis towards a coherentist understanding of ethics. However, his position maintains the subtle scientism which his opening analogy suggests by maintaining the dualism between a supposed objective position and a relative one. An implicitly objectivist cognitive position for MacIntyre is what makes an ultimate relativism inevitable because it provides us with objective descriptions of (actual or possible) irreducible moral conflict without further questioning the psychological state which underlies that conflict. MacIntyre offers a historical and anthropological perspective which Aristotle lacks, but this serves only to make the relativism more self-conscious, not to get beyond the assumptions of the empiricist method which Aristotle founded, even when Aristotle’s absolute epistemology (or its more modern successors) is no longer available.


MacIntyre offers a sophisticated ethical coherentism on three levels, each level offering a teleology which, concatenating with the previous ones, tries to reach an approximate replacement for Aristotle’s account of the goal of human life by drawing out the internal goods of that level of coherence. Important to this is the notion of a practice, which provides an empirical and coherentist basis of value at the first and most basic level. A practice is defined thus:

…any coherent and complex form of socially established co-operative human activity through which goods internal to that form of activity are realised in the course of trying to achieve those standards of excellence which are appropriate to, and partially definitive of, that form of activity, with the result that human powers to achieve excellence, and human conceptions of the ends and goods involved, are systematically extended.[56]


This definition performs the same role, in MacIntyre’s moral analogy to science, that Aristotle’s telos plays in relation to essence: our understanding of the end of a practice also provides an account of what it is and what its value is. In distinguishing internal from external goods he has to introduce an essentialism like that of Aristotle, since it seems that a quality which produces goods external to a given practice as essentially defined, but not internal to it, is not a virtue. This is notwithstanding MacIntyre’s claim that his account of virtue is independent of Aristotle’s metaphysical biology[57]: this claim presumably depends on a narrower account of metaphysical essentialism than the one I want to apply here. MacIntyre’s essentialism comes down to the assumption that there are ends which cannot be specified independently of means[58], so that an action (or series of actions comprising a practice) must have clearly definable bounds which enable the ends it serves to be separated as either dependent on the action itself or independent of it. The definition which supports the boundary of a practice is supported contingently by the function, not of the virtue which it helps to justify, but of the practice, so that although the essence is created by a coherence this is not necessarily a moral coherence.


MacIntyre’s understanding of the way in which value can be derived from virtues internal to practices thus depends on a circularity in the relationship between practices and their ends which is (quite literally) not necessarily virtuous, because it does not enable any advance to objectivity beyond the context of the practice. He has to separate off the practice itself from any ends exterior to it using an essentialism which becomes dogmatic because of this circularity. He then asserts that virtue consists in the sort of quality which allows the attainment of internal goods (that is, internal to the ends of the practice)[59]. To develop virtue, then, we must be able to subordinate ourselves to a discipline and accept its rules without expectation of any rewards beyond those of that discipline itself.


MacIntyre’s understanding of how people actually acquire virtues recognised in society is here shown to be acute, like Aristotle’s. However, his commitment to a sociological rather than a psychological mode of description for the nature of the virtue he observes means that his description may be misleading. In distinguishing internal from external goods he has to ignore the contingency of the boundaries of any practice. And in describing only the social context which gives rise to virtue he neglects to give any account of the mental states which it seems might operate across the boundaries of social contexts, despite the enculturated nature of their origin. If someone takes up the practice of portrait painting (one of MacIntyre’s examples[60]) but has little real interest in painting people’s faces as such, but nevertheless develops qualities through associated skills like communicating well to the sitters or painting excellent backgrounds, he might thus develop virtues quite external to the contingently defined practice in which he was working, yet they may be just as much virtues because of the habitual mental states in which they were performed. Although MacIntyre recognises that virtues are not only used within practices, he does seem to insist that it is only in terms of practices that we can understand what a  virtue is. But the assumption that “human powers to achieve excellence… are systematically extended” only through “socially established co-operative human activity” appears to ignore the potential for development and expression of awareness in solitary contexts, which, even if they are originally dependent on social contexts, continue to develop creatively beyond the limitations of those contexts. The solitary practice of any art, and particularly of introspective techniques such as meditation, appears to fall into this category[61].


MacIntyre’s dependence on the dualities imposed by convention, and accompanying neglect of the psychological complexity of virtue, also shows itself in a discontinuity between the possession of virtues and their absence. This is revealed at the point where he claims that virtues can only arise in a state of non-attachment to external goods:

…although the virtues are just those qualities which tend to lead to the achievement of a certain class of goods, nonetheless unless we practise them irrespective of whether in any particular set of contingent circumstances they will produce those goods or not, we cannot possess them at all.[62]


This requirement for purity of motive means that unless the ego already identifies wholly with internal goods, moral progress is apparently ruled out. The complete rejection of any set of goods as productive of good, in fact, introduces psychological dualism, as it prevents the integration of those identifications. MacIntyre thus seems to offer us just another version of the eternalist discontinuity, scientistically couched as a sociological claim.


MacIntyre’s account of virtues in practices works together with a further account of ethical coherentism at two higher levels: at the level of an individual life and at the level of moral community and moral tradition. Each level of coherence resolves any conflicts in the previous one, so that a conflict between practices is resolved according to the story that one is developing of the values of one’s life, and this life-story itself attains meaning within the social context of the moral community. At each of these levels, however, Macintyre has to appeal to a similar implicit essentialism in order to make the new level of coherence a basis of value. The unity of a life is made coherent by the internal goods of the narrative, but it simultaneously excludes goods external to that narrative. Likewise, in any moral tradition, whilst some goods may be external to the unity of a particular life, the furthest intelligible  criterion of good for MacIntyre is reached in the internal goods of that tradition.


At these levels it appears that MacIntyre, like Aristotle, is constrained by ethical coherentism into individualism (of the group). MacIntyre insists that the individual cannot understand a good beyond the context of its social relationships, although at the same time this “does not entail that the self has to accept the limitations of the particularity of those forms of community[63]. Moral traditions are seen as living and evolving things where internal reasoning and contact with other traditions may lead to adaptations and improvements. Two conflicting traditions may also have enough agreed premises in common to enable a resolution of their differences, but nevertheless there is no moral standard external to traditions[64].


In his postscript to the second edition of After Virtue MacIntyre makes it clear that traditions with completely incompatible premises may exist. This in itself shows that MacIntyre’s arguments do not lead to a resolution of moral relativism. Later, in Whose Justice? Whose Rationality? he goes on to argue that traditions may develop greater rational objectivity through a dialectical process in which previously held dogmatic beliefs in the tradition are questioned, abandoned, and then modified as the continuity of the tradition reappears. MacIntyre’s explanation of what constitutes a rationally objective new theory which can resolve an “epistemological crisis” within a tradition resembles that of Lakatos[65]: it must prove fruitful in problem-solving, explain past failures and provide continuity by building on past successes[66]. Like that of Lakatos, however, the usefulness of his explanation is limited by its dependence on the scientistic conception of rationality, with its accompanying failure to give any account of the broader psychological processes which provide an equally important element of such steps towards objective progress. MacIntyre thus insists that progress towards objectivity is only made at points of epistemological crisis, and that there are thus no grounds for rationally objective judgement between traditions at any other point. In support of this he claims that, since there are no neutral standpoints outside traditions, no one could ever be in a position to change traditions except at a point of epistemological crisis[67].


Here MacIntyre introduces an unnecessary dualism between a wholly neutral standpoint and a determinism of traditions, which is dependent on the dualism of freewill and determinism. The fact that there is no wholly neutral standpoint free of the conditioning of traditions does not imply that relatively independent judgements cannot be made by individuals at any given point, whether or not this point coincides with an “epistemological crisis” in the tradition as a whole. To assume that there is no individual agency of this type can only presuppose determinism of a metaphysical kind, which MacIntyre has adopted by accepting the priority of sociology. As I shall argue in more detail later[68], there is no reason why groups should not make progress towards objectivity, but such progress is interdependent with the progress made by individuals and does not consist only in the refinement of epistemological premises.


MacIntyre’s sociological scientism here is accompanied by representationalism of a Wittgensteinian kind, which I shall be commenting on in 4.e. This assumes that representationalism can be avoided merely by acknowledging the conventionality of the represented reality. MacIntyre’s coherentist conception of the relative truth reached by traditions at each stage of rational progress is thus based on a conception of the meaning of the language used as dependent on a correspondence between individual utterance and the linguistic norms of the group[69]. Yet group linguistic norms may be just as alienated from an individual sense of meaning as any supposed metaphysical reality. Again, here it is important not to fall into the dualism of the assumption that because groups have important causal effects on the meaning of the symbols of individuals, the relationship is entirely one of one-way causal determinacy rather than of systematic interdependence.


If we do not accept these dualisms, and the priority of sociology that they depend upon, then there may still be provisional grounds on which an individual may judge a tradition right or wrong on grounds which are pragmatically universal; that is on non-dualist grounds of universality, not through the assumption of a neutral standpoint[70]. MacIntyre’s account is widely taken to be stronger than it is on the assumption that there is no better alternative to a thoroughgoing and realistic ethical coherentism: but that such arguments can be turned to the justification of any tradition, no matter how dualistic its fundamental premises, is indicated by MacIntyre’s own embracing of Roman Catholicism. In effect MacIntyre’s dogmatic insistence on the priority of sociology puts us in the power of the conventionality of the group[71], justifying conformity to its premises even when we have grounds for doubting them because of the belief that there is no alternative.


MacIntyre’s modern reformation of Aristotle, then, does not succeed in removing the fundamental problems associated with Aristotle’s proto-scientism and ethical coherentism. Rather he has substituted for Aristotelian scientism a sociological version with similar implications, limiting his (representationalist) essentialism to the social constructs of “practices” and “traditions”, but nevertheless deriving value in a particular context from the mere conventional assumptions made in the description of those practices. Other features of scientism would almost certainly not be acknowledged by MacIntyre but appear to be implied by this overall approach: the implicit determinism of our powerlessness before social constructs and the delusion of our individual rationality, and the dream that following the relativistic dictates of sociological analysis can lead to the cosmically just reward of our proper and happy functioning within traditions.


[1] See Flintoff (1980)

[2] E.g. Hankinson (1995) p.58-65, Annas & Barnes (1985) p.12

[3] Sextus Empiricus (1996) I: 8 [For consistency with my own use of terms I have changed Mates’ American spelling “Skeptic” in this and subsequent quotations].

[4] Hankinson (1995) p.13-18

[5] Sextus Empiricus (1996) I: 7

[6] ibid. I: 226

[7] ibid. I: 206-8

[8] Hume (1975) §128

[9] Burnyeat (1980)

[10] See 4.e.iii & 5.c.i for a fuller account of this view of meaning.

[11] Nussbaum (1994) p.311-315

[12] ibid. p.301-2

[13] ibid. p.301-5

[14] For a discussion of where the distinction lies between “evident” and “non-evident” in Classical Scepticism see Hankinson (1995) p. 24-7. For the similar problem of the precise nature of the distinction between provisional and absolute forms of belief in non-dualism (a distinction which in my view is psychological rather than philosophical) see 5.d.

[15] Annas & Barnes (1985) ch.13

[16] Sextus Empiricus (1996) I: 23-4

[17] Nussbaum (1994) p.314

[18] Hadot (1995) p. 266: Hadot’s use of “ego” should not be assumed to be equivalent to mine.

[19] See 3.e.iii above

[20] Sextus Empiricus I: 180-6 & 198-9

[21] One example of a high-profile action by a Sceptic (though not a Pyrrhonist) which probably had both these effects is the two public lectures on law given in Rome by Carneades. He caused a furore (and got himself expelled from the city) by contradicting in his second lecture all the conventional views he had put forward in the first. See Hankinson (1995) p.95.

[22] Hankinson (1995) p.9-12

[23] Nussbaum (1994) p. 314

[24] Lear (1988) p.26

[25] Aristotle (1969) p.29-30: Physics 194b17-195a3

[26] ibid. p.56: 207a25-32

[27] ibid. p.37: 198a25-27

[28] For this reason Aristotle claims that a change consists not in the activity of an agent force on a patient, but the changing of a patient in accordance with its potentiality: See Physics 202a12-202b29 & Lear (1988) p.32

[29] Aristotle (1986) p.203: De Anima 430a1-7

[30] Aristotle (1964) p.266: Posterior Analytics 99b15-100b17

[31] Lear (1988) p.65-74

[32] See 3 h & i

[33] See Lear (1988) p.30-33 for discussion of this contrast

[34] Aristotle (1976) p.72: Nicomachean Ethics 1096b26-1097a14. The final sentence of this quotation is also mentioned in 3.d.iii.

[35] ibid. p.312-325: 1172a19-1176a29

[36] ibid. p.293-5 : 1165b30-1166b29

[37] ibid. p. 63: 1094a18-22

[38] ibid. p.78-85: 1098b12-1101b9

[39] ibid. p.100-110: 1106a20-1109b26

[40] ibid. p.328-335: 1177a5-1179b1

[41] Hadot (1995) p.29

[42] Barnes’ introduction to Aristotle (1976) p.37

[43] Nussbaum (1994) p.65

[44] ibid. p.76-77

[45] ibid. p.97-9

[46] Aristotle (1976) p.115-121: Nicomachean Ethics 1111b4-1113a12

[47] ibid. p.205: 1139a16-b1

[48] ibid. p.111-115: 1109b30-1111b4

[49] Aristotle (1905) p.54-69: Politics 1261a-1265a

[50] ibid. p.32: 1254a

[51] ibid. p.50: 1259b

[52] ibid. p.51: 1260a

[53] MacIntyre (1985) p.1-5

[54] ibid. p.79-82

[55] See 4.c-e

[56] ibid. p.187

[57] ibid. p.196

[58] ibid. p.184

[59] ibid. p.191

[60] ibid. p.189-190

[61] MacIntyre’s assumptions here perhaps depend on Wittgensteinian assumptions about private meaning which I shall discuss in 4.e.iii. The premises on which I discuss the whole area of the relationship between groups and individuals are also much more fully explained in 6.d.

[62] ibid. p.198

[63] ibid. p.221 (MacIntyre’s emphasis)

[64] See 8.a for a positive non-dualist account of the role of traditions which is not based on ethical coherentism.

[65] See 2.b.iii

[66] MacIntyre (1988) p.362

[67] ibid. p.366-7

[68] See 6.d.iii

[69] This is implicit in MacIntyre (1988) ch.19, where he concludes that it is only by accepting untranslatability between traditions that we can actually make progress in the understanding of other traditions.

[70] See 8.a.iv

[71] See 6.d.ii & iii for an account of the ways in which group conventionality may be distinguished from the group itself.


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A Theory of Moral Objectivity: quick links to other sections


1. introduction

2a. Psychology of belief

2b. Heuristic process

2c. Psychology & philosophy

3ab. Eternalism

3cd. Plato

3e. Stoicism

3f. Christianity

3g. Kant

3h. Hegel

3i. Marx

3j. Schopenhauer

3kl. Utilitarianism

4a. Nihilism

4b. Scepticism & Aristotle

4c. Hume

4d. Analytic Philosophy

4e. Wittgenstein

4f. Pragmatism

4g. Nietzsche

4hi. Existentialists

5. Integration

6. Philosophical Problems

7. Normativity

8. Middle Way Ethics

9. Conclusion

10. Appendix



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