Moral development can’t begin until the passions are under control
I’m rereading Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics for the umpteenth time for a book club with some of my colleagues, and a passage early on struck me as informative about much that’s going on in American culture today. It comes in Book 1 of the Ethics, and for those classics nerds among you, falls at 1095a.
It’s important to note that Aristotle sees his project, in the Ethics, as providing not just a moral theory — as philosophical texts on ethics do today — but a broader guide to leading a good life. The Ethics is an instruction manual, meaning it’s meant to be used by an audience. Thus, in the passage, Aristotle is setting out who that audience is.
Hence a young man is not a proper hearer of [these] lectures…; for he is inexperienced in the actions that occur in life, but its discussions start from these and are about these; and, further, since he tends to follow his passions, his study will be in vain and unprofitable, because the end aimed at is not knowledge but action. And it makes no difference whether he is young in years or youthful in character; the defect does not depend on time, but on his living, and pursuing each successive object, as passion directs. For to such persons, as to the incontinent, knowledge brings no profit; but to those who desire and act in accordance with a rational principle knowledge about such matters will be of great benefit.
Think about that passage in the context of contemporary debates about what’s going on on college campuses with free speech, safe spaces, the airing and censoring of disfavored ideas, etc. Or in regards to the negative reactions to NFL players kneeling during the anthem, the backlash to taking down of Confederate statues, or, on the technology front, the shaming and call-out culture we see on Twitter.
Aristotle believes children — which isn’t age limited, as it can mean also childish adults — aren’t ready to study ethics, which for him means something broader than morality, something closer to the principles of how to lead a good life. Children lack the life experience to understand what ethics aims at. And they’re too ruled by their passions, for which the end is action, not knowledge. Children want to live in their passions and operationalize them, but they’re too ruled by them to care much about the how and why of their exercise.
It struck me that this sheds light on the behaviors mentioned above, all of which seem to have in common the embrace of simple “feelings,” which are trusted and acted upon without critical examination, and with a lashing out at anyone who would ask us to consider more carefully their source or the actions that ought to flow from them.
In a sense, then, these aspects of culture might be the result of a lack of moral growth on the part of a range of American subcultures. Made worse, perhaps, by the incentives that exist in the online world (chasing likes and retweets, or the fun of joining a Twitter mob), which actively discourage the kind of reflection on passions and ends Aristotle thinks is necessary for the study of ethics.
In other words, I’ve come to think that quite a lot of what’s wrong with American culture — or at least some of its most vocal subcultures — is that we’re stuck in an indefinite adolescence. We’ve become uninterested in rationally examining our beliefs and behaviors so as to learn how to lead good and ethical lives, and instead are interested only in living out our (unexamined) passions.
America, I fear, is becoming a nation of unethical children.
I’ve written a follow-up to this post, exploring one of the ways this has played out in American political culture:
Stay up to date by signing up for my weekly(ish) newsletter.