Monday, October 4, 2010

Dirty Hands, Dirty Aristotle

Let's talk dirt.

In Aristotelian scholarship, there's a so-called 'dirty hands' debate.  It's about acts that are voluntary and seemingly necessary, but also wrong or shameful.

For example, we today might find invasion justifiable, but still ethically abhorrent.

Whether or not Aristotle agreed with invasion is beside the point.  Some scholars believe Aristotle's theory didn't allow for these kinds of acts, and was therefore unrealistic.

Others argue that his 'mixed acts' did recognise them, and that his outlook was more worldly than he's given credit for.

I'm no expert in this field, but it's a fascinating debate - if only for the possible conclusion that politics and ethics have a long history of ambiguity.  And incommensurability and ambivalence are part and parcel of moral life.

But this isn't about Aristotelian scholarship, or my (hurried) take on it.  This is about a bust of Aristotle.

He was too white. His facial features and name didn't stand out. And he clashed with the more weathered Socrates.

So we helped Aristotle get dirty. And we got dirty as we did.

Not quite as sophisticated as the 'dirty hands' literature, but good fun with the kids, on a slow Monday afternoon.


Elisabeth said...

Isn't this what they mean when they talk about giving something a 'distressed' look?' It usually applies to furniture, I think, but why not also to busts of Aristotle?

Damon Young said...

Yes, I think I've seen 'distressed' elsewhere, e.g. in glossies.

4/10/10. Dear diary, today we distressed Aristotle. The philosopher wept into his Guinness and chips, lispingly.

Jesse said...

I wrote my ethics paper on this last year!

I didn't realise there was literature on it, and ended up with a very confused paper. Doing the right thing when you are doing the wrong thing fascinates me, and as someone who just recently became an adult (aka legally responsible for my own well-being) it is an important issue for me. My leaning towards virtue ethics is due to my impression that Aristotle embraced it more then the later ethicists, but now I see it is a problem here too.

Damon Young said...

Jesse, Aristotle certainly allows for experience,changing circumstances, and different dispositions. He stresses habit, practical wisdom and the relevance of situation. In other words, he doesn't give a scientific or one-size-fits-all account of ethics. In this, he seems a good start for a more realistic, 'human' ethics (rather than a portrait of mankind as moral calculators).

But some have criticised him for having a naive ethical theory, which doesn't allow for these grey areas, i.e. 'dirty hands' decisions. The debate is still on, but I'd be surprised if Aristotle's virtue ethics didn't allow for this somehow.