A Puzzle in Aristotle: Why Must There Be an Unmoved Mover?

A well-known doctrine of Aristotle’s is that of the unmoved mover, the first cause of the eternal motion of the universe. Aristotle’s key argument for the necessity of an unmoved mover is presented in Physics, Book VIII, chapters 4–5, where he argues, first, that everything that is in motion must be moved by something (ch. 4) and, second, that a thing cannot move itself (ch. 5). I have long been puzzled by this argument, and lately I have come to think it’s not just my ignorance—there really is something wrong with the argument. My aim here is to explain what it is.

Continue reading

Desert and Merit (4)

In a previous post, I criticized George Sher’s view that merit-based desert is based on (the recognition of) existing conventions of merit. In these cases, the existing rules are already fashioned to reward merit in a justified way, so that justice (in the sense of rewarding desert) consists simply in acknowledging that a given person satisfies the criteria of merit, and acknowledging that in accepting the convention, we accept the further implication that the person deserves what the rules say they deserve. Continue reading

Need and Desert

This is just a passing thought that I’ve been meaning to blog for awhile–almost apropos of nothing. It isn’t a natural continuation of any topic we’ve discussed so far in our conversations on Sher’s Desert, but bears an obvious relation to the topic of desert in general.

It’s common to distinguish claims of desert sharply from claims of need. The contrast, I think, goes back at least to Aristotle, who makes it in a rather complex way in his discussion of justice in the Nicomachean Ethics. It finds clearer and sharper expression in the work of Ayn Rand, who insists that no claim of need, as such, can in principle ever be a claim of moral desert. To deserve is to earn moral title to the deserved object, but one can need something without having done anything to earn it (e.g., a roof over one’s head, health care, food), and one can deserve something without really needing it (e.g., praise). The things we need and deserve can, of course, overlap in certain instances, but (on Rand’s view) need is never sufficient for desert.

Continue reading

Tragedy, Catharsis, and Explanation

In the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry on Aristotle’s Poetics, Joe Sachs writes (italics mine):

Because the suffering of the tragic figure displays the boundaries of what is human, every tragedy carries the sense of universality. Oedipus or Antigone or Lear or Othello is somehow every one of us, only more so. But the mere mention of these names makes it obvious that they are not generalized characters, but altogether particular. And if we did not feel that they were genuine individuals, they would have no power to engage our emotions. It is by their particularity that they make their marks on us, as though we had encountered them in the flesh. It is only through the particularity of our feelings that our bonds with them emerge. What we care for and cherish makes us pity them and fear for them, and thereby the reverse also happens: our feelings of pity and fear make us recognize what we care for and cherish. When the tragic figure is destroyed it is a piece of ourselves that is lost. Yet we never feel desolation at the end of a tragedy, because what is lost is also, by the very same means, found. I am not trying to make a paradox, but to describe a marvel. It is not so strange that we learn the worth of something by losing it; what is astonishing is what the tragedians are able to achieve by making use of that common experience. They lift it up into a state of wonder.

Though Sachs disclaims the desire to make a paradox, I find his claim curious–neither obviously false nor obviously true, but puzzling to the point of inducing a bit of wonderment. I’m interested to hear what readers think.

Continue reading

Stand Up with Aristotle

When I first read Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics maybe thirty years ago, I was both puzzled and disappointed by his discussion of the moral virtues in Book IV–generosity, magnificence, friendliness, wit, and so on. It seemed a waste of space. A whole book on this? What were such banalities doing in a classic work of moral philosophy?

Aristotle’s (very brief) discussion of the place of humor in social life seemed a case in point. On Aristotle’s account, wit turned out to be a moral virtue, buffoonery and humorlessness, vices. 

Those who go to excess in raising laughs seem to be vulgar buffoons. They stop at nothing to raise a laugh, and care more about that than about saying what is seemly and avoiding pain to the victims of the joke. …

Those who joke in appropriate ways are called witty, or in other words, agile-witted. For these sorts of jokes seem to be movements of someone’s character, and characters are judged, as bodies are, by their movements (NE IV.8, 1128a5-12).

Really? That’s what morality requires? Telling the right jokes at the right time, in the right way, for the right reasons, etc. etc.? Continue reading

Natural Law Libertarianism in Two Flavours

My two latest Agoric Café videos:

In the first one, I chat with philosopher Eric Mack about walking out on Ayn Rand, clashing with Nazi Sikhs in Seneca Falls, libertarian rights theory, Kantian vs. Aristotelean approaches to fixing Randian ethics, Nozickian polymathy, the unselfishness of Samuel Johnson, the ethics of COVID lockdowns, physical distancing in Durango, the CIA as an argument against anarchism, shoving someone in front of a bus as a form of restitution, and the edibility of matter.

In the second video, I chat with philosopher Gary Chartier about Robin Hood, left-wing market anarchism, natural law, free speech and employer power, libertarian secularism, Seventh-day Adventism, religious epistemology, long-arc television, urban fantasy, Lawrence Durrell, Iris Murdoch, Whit Stillman, the evils of giving extra credit and taking attendance, and the attractions of being emperor.

Aristotle on Free Will: One From the Vaults

Today I found that my 1992 Ph.D. dissertation, Free Choice and Indeterminism in Aristotle and Later Antiquity, is a free (to those with institutional access) download from UMI, so I decided to make it a free download for everybody.

Reducing and optimising the hell out of it only got it down from around 25 MB to around 18 MB, so I split it into four parts in order to get around the 5 MB maximum upload limit.

I haven’t OCR’d it because UMI has inserted renderable text on every page, which bizarrely blocks Acrobat’s OCR function, and getting around that is more hassle than it’s worth to me right now.

I still agree with what I say here in broad outlines, but not with every detail, and indeed I have a book manuscript, Aristotle on Fate and Freedom, that revises, updates, and supersedes the Aristotle portion of this. (It leaves out the sections on later antiquity.) That is better than this. But that’s not published, and this is, so here ya go.

The main thing I would want to retract today is the snarky remark about Los Angeles in the autobiographical sketch. L.A. is the bee’s knees, man! Not sure what my glitch was. (Of course it was inspired by a similar remark in Isaac Asimov’s bio, but that hardly justifies it.)

Bloomberg on “Stop and Frisk”: (Part 2 of 2)

I wrote this post back when Michael Bloomberg was still a presidential candidate. He dropped out of the presidential race on March 4. Soon after that, the pandemic struck. Consumed in the latter issue, I forgot that I’d written the second half of my “Bloomberg on Stop and Frisk” series. In some ways it’s dated, but in other ways not, so for whatever it’s worth, I’ve decided to run it now, six months after the fact. Sue me. 

In my last post on this topic, I distinguished between two different senses of “stop and frisk,” ordinary and Bloombergian, and argued that the distinction between them matters to our assessment of Michael Bloomberg as presidential candidate. On the one hand, it makes no sense to attack Bloomberg for his support of ordinary stop and frisk. To attack ordinary stop-and-frisk is to attack police work as such. On the other hand, it makes perfect sense to attack him for the specific version of it that prevailed when he was mayor of New York City. To attack Bloombergian stop and frisk is to attack a perversion of the real thing. Continue reading

It Sometimes Begins with Emerson

I just did this survey, “put together by the Philosophy Learning and Teaching Organization (PLATO) and the APA Committee on Pre-College Instruction in Philosophy.” (You have to be an APA member to take it.)

https://delaware.ca1.qualtrics.com/jfe/form/SV_4McDN9ZhI7GVYCp

It was fun. It gave me a chance to reflect on my first encounter with philosophy, which, contrary to the old saw, didn’t begin with Ayn Rand. It began in a high school English class on American literature, where we read Emerson and Thoreau. I’m not sure contemporary analytic philosophers would regard either of the two as real philosophers, but whatever you call them, they were my first contact with anything describable as philosophy.* I found them pretty enthralling, and still do. As it happens, I’m re-reading Walden for the first time in a couple of decades, and enjoying it immensely. One of my undergraduate teachers, George Kateb, predicted to me back then that I would one day forsake Ayn Rand and return home to the American Transcendentalists. I was offended at the time, but by George, he was right. Continue reading