Ethics By Aristotle Summary and Analysis Book VII: Chapter III - Incontinence and Knowledge

Summary

There are three main problems to be solved in any analysis of incontinence:

  1. Do incontinent people act with knowledge of the wrongness of their actions, and if so, in what sense?
  2. What is the sphere of incontinence, that of pleasure and pain in general, or only in some particular form?
  3. Is a continent man the same as a tenacious one and is an incontinent man the same as a profligate one?

The first question is the most important. There are several approaches to answering it:

  1. Some have contended that the actions of a morally weak man violate opinion rather than knowledge. This has no bearing since opinion can be accompanied by as great a feeling of certainty as knowledge.
  2. There are two kinds of premise, universal and particular. It is possible for a man to know both the major and minor premise of a practical syllogism pertaining to a certain kind of action and still to act wrongly because the minor premise he uses is universal rather than particular, and he cannot apply his knowledge to the action he is about to perform because the action is a particular (e.g., a man knows the major premise, "X food is good for a man," and a minor premise with personal application, "I am a man," and perhaps an even more specific minor premise, "food of a certain kind is X," but if he does not know the final minor premise, "this food here is X," he can act incontinently despite his knowledge).
  3. There is a distinction between potentiality and actuality in knowledge. Knowledge is potential rather than actual if it has been learned once and is forgotten or at the back of one's mind at a particular moment and cannot be called on in a given situation. Thus it is possible to act wrongly when one's knowledge is in a potential state, even if one would never act wrongly in that way if the knowledge were actual. When a man is asleep, drunk, or mad, the knowledge he has may be even further removed from actuality, because first he must wake up, become sober, or become sane and then he must pass from potential to actual before he can apply his knowledge in a given situation. Since passion changes the physical state just as madness, sleep, or drunkenness do, this is a very close analogy to the condition of the incontinent man and helps explain why he can commit wrong acts despite having the knowledge that they are wrong.
  4. Another cause of moral weakness despite knowledge is that when both premises of a practical syllogism are present, one must do the act to which the syllogism leads. There are certain instances in which a syllogism that is theoretically correct can lead one to commit an incontinent act, and in such a situation one would have acted with knowledge and according to a rule, and yet would still be guilty of a wrong act.

To a certain extent all this supports Socrates' view that one cannot act against knowledge, since it means that when a man does wrong he does not, at that moment, know that he is doing wrong. Moral weakness cannot occur in the presence of knowledge in the strict sense, but it is possible for sensory knowledge or ability to reason to be affected by emotion and this means that a man can act incontinently despite knowing in a certain way that his act is wrong.

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