On Possessing Oneself: The Moral Psychology of Temperance

On Possessing Oneself: The Moral Psychology of Temperance
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   1 On Possessing Oneself: The Moral Psychology of Temperance 1   Jennifer A. Frey, University of South Carolina Draft: January 2019 I According to Peter Geach, by contrast to the “exciting topic” of justice, the virtue of temperance is a “humdrum, common sense matter.” 2  Small wonder, then, that his lengthy  book on the virtues devotes a measly six pages of perfunctory commentary to it. Yet while Geach finds temperance dull, others regard it with suspicion or even scorn. For while almost everyone will agree that over-indulgence in food or drink as a matter of general policy is imprudent, many will see nothing wrong with occasionally going overboard; likewise, many have no problem with sexual license  per se , so long as necessary health and moral  precautionary measures are in place. For many readers, talk of a stable disposition to curb appetites for bodily pleasures is likely to be associated with a puritanical fear of them, a fear of pleasure that often masks a deeper sexism, since it tends to be inordinately directed towards its specifically feminine expressions. At best, then, temperance may strike us as  philosophically trivial; at worst, unappealingly dour, sexist, and Manichean 3 . The bulk of this essay will be geared towards addressing the first concern, but will end with some considerations that bear upon our contemporary discourse regarding the second. 1  Acknowledgements. 2  Geach, The Virtues , 131. 3   Geach’s discussion of temperance illustrates both tendencies. On the one hand, he dismisses it as philosophically uninteresting; on the other hand, he excludes human sexuality from its  provenance, in part because he states that these inclinations, though perfectly natural, are “corrupt” and “enormously evil.”  See Geach, 147.   2 II In order to generate philosophical interest in the neglected virtue of temperance, I want to focus in this essay on a neglected aspect of it: that it is a virtue that disposes our capacity to experience bodily desires and pleasures to conform to judgments of reason (  EN   1104b). I want to focus on the description of these desires as “animal” in the sense that they are not essentially rational  —  i.e., not under our direct voluntary control. The phenomenology of these desires is that they can present themselves as rationally unbidden, rather than as  products of deliberation and choice. They can at times seem to arise from some nether region of the self with which one does not identify, and be directed towards acts one does not rationally endorse. Consequently, these desires can engender deep feelings of alienation, frustration, or even shame and disgust. But Aristotle clearly thinks that temperance is a virtue that regulates these kinds of desires (1102a26-1103a10 and 1117b23-24), which implies that in some sense we can exercise rational control over them. What is the extent of this control and how is it exercised? Aristotle is less clear about this than we might have hoped. He often invokes a  political metaphor to try to express it: he writes that the soul rules the body like a despot, exercising absolute command and authority over something in no position to resist its demands  —  in the manner that a master rules a slave. (Pol. 1245b1-10). For example, if I want to raise my arm, I raise it. By contrast, if I want to feel hungry, I have to do something to make myself undergo the experience somehow; and if I want to stop feeling hungry, very often all I can do is either distract myself or just eat until I am full. And so Aristotle says that the intellect rules the lower appetites, our passions and sensuous desires, politically  —  in the   3 manner that a rightful authority rules over those who have the independence necessary to resist and disobey. Whatever rational control we exercise over our sensual desires and feelings, it clearly needs a separate account from the rational control exercised over our elementary powers of locomotion, which automatically obey our commands. The contrast here is, at least in part, between activity and passivity. Whereas deliberating and making judgments and choices are things we do, feelings and desires are suffered by us. This raises the question: How can one make herself rationally receptive to the world  —  that is, intelligently disposed to being affected   in ways that are in accordance with her general conception of how to live? Aristotle’s ow n view seems to rely on the supposition that there are natural teleological connections between specific feelings, desires, and pleasures and certain kinds of natural movements. For example, fear is related to flight away from its object, desire for union with or satisfaction in it, anger to striking out or attack it, and so on. Aristotle recognizes that while we are passive in our suffering of immediately present emotions and longings, we are nevertheless active with respect to our practical deliberation and choices, which shapes how we are affected in the long run. In this secondary, indirect sense, we may say that our feelings are voluntary and under our control. If we cannot directly choose to feel or desire, Aristotle thinks we can still choose to act in ways that will habituate these powers over time. While I cannot directly control my sexual attraction to any specific person, I can act in ways that shape this desire so as to make it align more closely with my beliefs about how I ought to react. Aristotle clearly thinks that a person who is trying to cultivate temperance must always be on guard with respect to how she is   4 affected by the people and things in her life, with an eye towards the future of goal of being like the temperate person she can now only poorly imitate. 4  The passive and receptive nature of feeling and sensuous desire is also key to understanding Aristotle’s distinction between the  phronimos , the akratic , and the enkratic . The enkratic , or merely self-controlled person, is divided against herself; what she judges she ought to do and what she chooses are not aligned with what she passionately desires and enjoys. Of course, exercising self-control is better than being driven by passion to act against reason’s commands, as the akratic  does. But mere self-control still falls short of virtue,  because she does not fully possess herself, which would require that she be unified and operating in such a way as to attain her natural good  —  happiness. Only the virtuous person is ordered to a single end: her judgments, feelings, desires, and pleasures are aligned that she can choose the right action in the circumstances with ease and pleasure. She is in full  possession of herself insofar as she moves all the principle powers of her soul in accordance with right reason in order to live well. No part of herself lies outside of her self-conscious, rational control. The moral psychological question of whether our emotions and sensual desires can be rationally discriminate is directly related to a deeper, metaphysical   question about the nature of the human person, and in particular, the characteristic capacities, activities, and experiences that are capable of coming under the sphere of rational control in such a way as to be trained and disposed toward the goal of living a good human life. For even if we agree with Aristotle that we can exercise some indirect control over our feelings and sensuous desires over time through choices that shape them, we are left wondering whether a moral virtue such as 4  On this point, see Kosman, 2014.   5 temperance is essentially a proper disposing of the human capacity for deliberation and choice, or whether, as Aristotle suggests, it is a proper disposing of our more receptive capacities of feeling and sensual desire. It is a question, as Bonnie Kent so aptly puts it, of where to locate the virtue of temperance on the psychological map. 5  The location question is central, because if we favor the first option, then the contrast  between the enkratic  and the virtuous person becomes less sharp. After all, the enkratic   person does deliberate well and his choice is correct. And yet, because enkrasia  falls short of virtue, we may conclude that merely “ choosing well ”  does not suffice for virtuous action; virtuous action must be performed for its own sake, with ease and pleasure. Insofar as the enkratic suffers from an unsatisfied sensual appetite, his choice is difficult, and he remains divided against himself. The temperate person, by contrast, does not desire what is excessive; when he chooses the proper amount of drink, he feels nothing lacking in himself. Given this, it is not surprising that when Aristotle turns to the ques tion of “the subject” of virtue, he settles two important issues. 6  First, he clarifies that virtues perfect our human capacities by disposing them directly towards acts that accord with right reason. Second, he states that the soul is divided into rational and non-rational parts, and that the latter is further divided into the part that is non-rational  sans phrase , where he places our capacities for growth and nutrition,   and the part that can “listen to” re ason, where he places our bodily appetites ( epithumaei ) and passions (  pathe ). Aristotle states that there are no virtues in the non-rational or nutritive part, as these not under the sphere of rational control characteristic of willing ( boulesis ). Moral virtues are located in the part that can become rational through 5  Kent, Virtues of the Will  . 6  Aristotle,  Nicomachean Ethics , citation.


Jan 26, 2019


Jan 26, 2019
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