Chocolate cheesecake, parenting dilemmas and Donald Trump – why Aristotle matters in 2017

Professor Howard Curzer was a keynote speaker at the Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues’ annual conference at Oriel College, Oxford. Here, as Donald Trump is finally inaugurated as the 45th President of the United States, Prof Curzer, of Texas Tech University, talks to journalist Richard McComb about the role of Aristotle in a “post-truth” world.

Why is Aristotle relevant today?

It’s a cliché, but everybody knows we need more ethics in the world. Aristotle’s view is that we ought to try to create better people, not better rules. I think there is substantial agreement about that.

One of the most interesting and controversial claims that Aristotle makes is that there are different sorts of value that are incommensurable. Think about physical safety, that’s one kind of value. Sensual pleasure is another value and money is another and justice is also a value.

A natural desire would be to find a common denominator and adjudicate potential conflicts. But Aristotle says that is doomed – there is no common denominator. And so it is not sufficient to just try to be good. You have to be good with respect to safety, sensual pleasure, money and justice and it is possible to fail at some of these and not others.

So you’ve got to be good at all of them?

That would be ideal. But most of us are courageous but intemperate. Or temperate but cowardly. We get some but not all of these things right. That’s an important insight that is missing from some other moral theories. You listen to certain religious traditions or Kantians or Utilitarians and they have got a reductionist picture – everything is all about one kind of good: “If you get that, you’re ok. And if you don’t get that, you’ve had it.” That sounds good on paper, but Aristotle says, “If you look around, real people are just not that way.”

But how can you be all those things? How can you be courageous and compassionate? How do you do it? Is it a secret?

It’s not a secret, it’s just hard. We all know, in a certain sense, how to do it. If you have been a parent you know how you do it with your kids – you talk to them about this, and you talk to them about that, and you talk to them about the other thing. But Aristotle says talking is not enough. You’ve got to build good habits.

If you go to the parenting sections of bookstores, you find books on how to raise a good child. They fall nicely into two kinds. There is the kind that says you have to talk your child through dilemmas, talk about their life, what’s going on at school. Period. Intellect will do it.

Aristotle says, “No, no, no.” There are plenty of us who know what the right thing to do is and yet we don’t do it. We all know that that second piece of chocolate cheesecake is not for us – and we take it any way.

Aristotle says, “Sure, you have got to talk to your kids but you also have to build good habits of action and of desire and of passion.” That’s not going to be easy and it’s not going to be quick and there is going to be a lot of backsliding.

Or if you think about how to deal with alcoholics or criminals. How do you get them to become good? Well, talk is just not enough. I teach an ethics class. I think it helps. But I don’t think it makes people morally good to just listen to me and get the answers right.

So if talk isn’t enough, how do you make a difference with, say, a criminal?

Now I’m not a correctional officer, so what I am going to say may sound simplistic and naïve. But I suppose you would give them manageable steps. See if they can get through a day or a week without committing a crime. Hopefully, after a while it gets easier. Of course “a while” may be a long time, maybe years. Then you set more ambitious goals. That might include not committing a crime and doing something kind. It could just be a kind word.

What you are doing here is building habits. It might not even be an action. It might be seeing if you can think a good thought about somebody. That’s more of an Aristotelian picture.

So returning to the books on parenting, there are books that talk about building habits of courage, for example. You take your kid to the park and you say, “Try to climb on that jungle gym.” Your daughter says, “But I’m scared, Daddy.” And you say, “Well, I’ll stand under you.” She climbs on the jungle gym. She does it a couple of times – and she doesn’t need you to stand under her because she has built up a little bit of a habit of courage.

In your own country, a new President is stepping up to the plate. Donald Trump would seem to the antithesis of what we have been talking about with regards to Aristotelian virtue.

I am sure Trump has some virtues – and some vices – like everybody else.

But do you think the billionaire businessman’s election to high office makes some of these issues more pertinent or important?

Activism has always been important but it is going to become more important. In a government dominated by one party, activism is the way people can exercise whatever power they have. Republicans now hold all three branches of government and most state government, so how do people who are opposed to government policy make their views known and have any influence? I think it is through activism – staging marches, calling up senators, and so on.

I think a lot more people need to become activists. An activist is a role and there are certain virtues that go with that role. To be a soldier, it is particularly important to be courageous. We all need a little courage but soldiers really need courage. Activists need certain things too and I think one of think one of the things academics ought to do is work out the virtues activists need and work out how we persuade people to become activists. That’s one thing we ought to do in a Trump world.

Aristotle doesn’t talk about activism explicitly but he does talk about the idea that virtues correspond to a role. He talks about a good citizen and the relationship between a good citizen and a good person. One of the things he says is that a good citizen is the same as a good person only in a good state.

A good citizen in a totalitarian dictatorship will inform on his parents, undermine resistance and be a good totalitarian toady, not a good person. In order to be a good member of an institution, do you have to be a bad person? In order to be a good Trump voter, do you have to be a bad person? We can ask the same of any administration and I think it is a good question.

I am not a Trump supporter, but I would say that in order to be a good Trump supporter you have to have a mistaken theory of justice. You have to think that the big threats in the economic sphere are threats from government. Whereas I think the threats come from extremely powerful, private individuals and corporations. These perspectives go with different theories of justice. If you think that the big threat is from government, then the theory of justice says you should try to reduce government, reduce its scope, hinder it from operating, cut the budget, cut regulation and cut taxes. That is a very rough approximation of what the Trump people want.

Whereas if you think the big threat is coming from unscrupulous corporations and unscrupulous, powerful individuals then what you want to do is build up government as a bulwark against that – more regulations, larger budgets.

Conversely, in the social sphere, Trump supporters think the big threat is private individuals with problematic lifestyles, so they favour increased government pressure on such individuals. But I think the big threat is government restriction of individual life-choices, so I favour reduced government intrusion into the social sphere.

How does Aristotelian thinking come into that?

He doesn’t take a stand on those questions but he does say you need a theory of justice. What’s more, your theory of justice should apply to a number of different spheres in life.

So where do you think he would stand on building a wall between the USA and Mexico?

I don’t think Aristotle has a view on walls as border control mechanisms. But I think the appeal of the wall for Trump supporters is not just that it reduces illegal immigration, but that it reduces immigration of Hispanics. It is racist symbolism. Aristotle, himself, had racist views, but all contemporary Aristotelians repudiate those views. So if I am right about the racist symbolism of Trump’s wall, contemporary Aristotelians would oppose it.

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