Monday, August 1, 2011

On some alleged quantifier shift fallacies, Part III

We’ve been looking at alleged cases of the quantifier shift fallacy committed by prominent philosophers.  We’ve seen that Aquinas and Locke can both be acquitted of the charge.  Let’s now look at the common accusation that Aristotle commits the fallacy in the Nicomachean Ethics.  Harry Gensler tells us that “Aristotle argued, ‘Every agent acts for an end, so there must be some (one) end for which every agent acts.’”  But what does Aristotle actually say?  And need it be interpreted the way Gensler interprets it?

The first relevant passage comes at the very beginning of the Ethics, which in the Ross translation reads as follows: 

Every art and every inquiry, and similarly every action and pursuit, is thought to aim at some good; and for this reason the good has rightly been declared to be that at which all things aim.

Is Aristotle reasoning here the way Gensler supposes?  Is he saying something like “Every action aims at some good; therefore there is some one good at which every action aims?”  Notice first that, as with the passages from Aquinas and Locke we’ve considered, there is nothing in this passage that forces us, right off the bat, to interpret it as committing a fallacy.  Aristotle doesn’t say exactly what Gensler claims he does, and that raises the question of whether there are other ways to read him.  And if there is some at least equally plausible alternative reading that does not involve a fallacy, then the reasonable conclusion to draw is that it is that non-fallacious interpretation which captures what Aristotle (who was, after all, a logician) really meant.  

So, are there any such alternative readings?  There are several.  For example, in his book Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics: An Introduction, Michael Pakaluk seems to hold that it is a mistake to read Aristotle as giving an argument here in the first place:

We may take him, instead, to be proposing a definition, rather than arguing that there is some particular good at which all things aim.  What Aristotle wishes to claim, in effect, is that “good” should be defined as “aimed at.”  To be a good is to be a goal (or an “end”)… His introductory lines are designed not to give a grand argument, but to replace talk of goods with talk of goals.  (p. 49)

Since there is no argument, there is no fallacy.  Aristotle (on Pakaluk’s reading) is really just telling us how he understands “good.”  (I assume Pakaluk doesn’t think Aristotle is even arguing for the aptness of this definition, but just stating it.)

Pakaluk proposes a similar reading of a related passage from Book I, Chapter 2 of the Nicomachean Ethics.  Aristotle writes:

If, then, there is some end of the things we do, which we desire for its own sake (everything else being desired for the sake of this), and if we do not choose everything for the sake of something else (for at that rate the process would go on to infinity, so that our desire would be empty and vain), clearly this must be the good and the chief good.

Pakaluk comments:

We should understand this not as an argument that there is a best thing, but as a definition of the best thing -- of the condition that would suffice to establish that there is a best thing. (p. 51)

In particular, the best thing, for Aristotle (as Pakaluk understands him), would be whatever goal the highest discipline aims at, if there is a highest discipline.  And the highest discipline would be the one for the sake of which other disciplines exist but which itself exists for its own sake rather than for the sake of some yet further discipline.  But determining whether there is such a discipline requires a separate discussion.

So, that is one alternative reading.  Preferable in my view, though, is the reading suggested by David Oderberg in his article “On an Alleged Fallacy in Aristotle.”  Oderberg asks us to consider the following argument:

Every material object has some colour.
Therefore, there is some property, namely being coloured, which every material object has.

As Oderberg notes, this argument 

does not fallaciously conclude that there is some colour which every material object has.  All it does, as it were, is extract the determinable ‘…is coloured’ which is possessed by every (material) thing which has some determinate colour or other, and show how the possession of the determinable is logically entailed by the possession of one or other determinate. (p. 108)

Now, Oderberg says, consider this parallel argument:

Every art and inquiry etc. aims at some good.
Therefore, there is some property, namely the good, at which every art and inquiry etc. aims.

Here too, Oderberg says, we have an argument that commits no fallacy.  Rather, “aiming at a good is to goodness as having a colour is to colouredness” (p. 110).  The good or goodness “are different terms denoting the same universal determinable whose instances constitute particular or determinate goods” (Ibid.).  And this, Oderberg suggests, is the argument Aristotle is giving. 

Moreover, there is nothing in Aristotle’s position that entails that realizing the good or goodness involves pursuing only a single end.  As Ralph McInerny writes in Ethica Thomistica:

[Aristotle]is not saying that there is some one end, the same one, of all particular actions.  Virtuous activity or living humanly well do not signify one thing because there are different kinds of rational activity and thus different kinds of virtue, and our happiness or perfection or ultimate end is constituted, not by some one virtue, but, to the degree this is possible, by them all. (p. 24)

Of course, all of this raises further questions, and Pakaluk, Oderberg, and McInerny address them in the works linked to above.  But this much suffices to show that there is good reason not to attribute a quantifier shift fallacy to Aristotle.


  1. "Every agent acts for an end, so there must be some (one) end for which every agent acts."

    So what you're saying is that the quantifier shift fallacy comes into play only when we introduce the '(one)' qualifier in the above quote.

    Absent that, it would appear that the argument does seem valid. After all, can we not infer from the first sentence that there is some end for which every agent acts, without trying to narrow it down to only one specific end?

  2. Do black holes have colour? ;)

  3. Just in case you hadn't seen it, Bill Vallicella has a post up about a problem for hylomorphic dualists. Not relevant to the post above, just trying to stimulate conversation.

  4. Good point, Anonymous. I just finished reading Valicella before you posted. I would love Feser and Valicella to have a dialogue on this. Now, something does jump out at me right away. I believe I remember Feser in Aquinas stated that while form does not exist without matter, and vice versa, the exception would be angels. This is just from memory, however, I can't remember what exactly justified that move so that it wouldn't be, as Valicella puts it, ad hoc and contrived.

  5. its very long but as well as so useful post... thanks for this...

  6. I read Vallicella's post. His argument is not invincible, to say the least.

  7. Dr. Vallicella misunderstands St. Thomas' motivation for saying that the soul is a subsistent form. To say that the soul can survive apart from the body which it informs is not some ad hoc religious insertion into Aristotle's otherwise philosophical argument. In fact, St. Thomas' argument for the subsistence of the soul apart from the body relies on distinctly Aristotelian premises which, on their own, seem to imply that the soul does not go out of existence at death.

    The argument is simply that the operation of the soul, the understanding of substance as intelligible being, cannot possibly be the act of a material organ. Sight, for example, is the act of the eyes, and we would not expect the act of seeing to subsist without the eyes because it is in material eyes that the act of seeing is expressed. The intellectual act, for purely philosophical reasons, cannot express itself as the act of a body and therefore must be immaterial. Operation, though, follows being, and so we must conclude that the rational soul itself is immaterial in nature. It therefore cannot undergo corruption as material substances do.

    As for his final comment about God being the form of forms, St. Thomas' response to a similar objection might prove helpful.


    Objection 3: Further, matter is the principle of individualization. But God seems to be individual, for He cannot be predicated of many. Therefore He is composed of matter and form.

    Reply to Objection 3: Forms which can be received in matter are individualized by matter, which cannot be in another as in a subject since it is the first underlying subject; although form of itself, unless something else prevents it, can be received by many. But that form which cannot be received in matter, but is self-subsisting, is individualized precisely because it cannot be received in a subject; and such a form is God. Hence it does not follow that matter exists in God.

  8. St. Thomas would (I think) accept Vallicella's complaint but only to this extent: you cannot pose that the soul is the form of the dual composite without the composite entity coming-to-be with the form present to the matter. That is, whatever one may say about the form persisting, we only mean persisting AFTER the unified composite has already been in existence, and then decomposing. Nowhere does any Christian recommend believing that the form can be in existence before the composite is constituted.

  9. Adding to what ER Bourne and Tony said, I think form could exist without matter but not vice versa.

    For matter to exist it must have some 'form' or another, so much is obvious

    On the other hand form could exist without matter...

  10. Aquinas and Locke have similar definitions for what they believe the purpose of the state.