Learning from Aristotle on dual systems


Recently, a young philosopher, Kathi Beier, presented a paper on the virtue ethics of Aristoteles and Thomas at the Max Weber Centre, my institution. That was very inspiring against the backdrop of the current foundational debates that I discussed in previous blogs. I think that reflecting on Aristotle can even provide insight for modern neuroscience and behavioural economics, such as on the nature of emotions. This springs to the eye when we realize that the dual view on explaining behaviour as outcome of an interaction between a ‘reasonable’ part of the mind and an impulsive part, i.e. controlled versus uncontrolled, obviously originated with Aristotle, who distinguished between two parts of the human ‘psyche’, one which has reason, and one which has not, and with the latter being the source of behavioural phenomena such as loss of control or akrasia. But he deals with this dualism in a way very different from the use in modern neuroscience and behavioural economics. That is why I think that Aristotle can give much inspiration for contemporary debates.

Neuroeconomics and behavioural economics are all about choice at a certain point of time. Rationality remains an important reference in the dual systems view in the sense that people’s choices are often torn between the rational system and the intuitive and affect-driven system in the moment when a certain decision is taken, with the latter sometimes prevailing. Therefore, the rational system needs support, such as scaffolding by nudging devices. I think that the notion of ‘virtues’ is of great relevance here, because virtues are not about choices at a particular point of time, but acquired behavioural dispositions that are activated by a certain situation. In Aristoteles’ view, the virtues are governed by standards of reason, but that does not mean that in the moment of acting, the person would conduct a rational deliberation: The virtuous behaviour expresses the disposition, and is therefore a manifestation of habitus, not choice. Aristotle is even sophisticated enough to include that the virtuous person knows why the action is virtuous, which puts him close to intuitionist approaches in modern psychology: in the virtuous person, a ‘habitual’ or ‘spontaneous’ generation of action goes along with the reflexive recognition of reasons for this action. In fact, the latter is necessary for evaluating the behaviour as virtuous in the strict sense.

It seems to me that the burgeoning literature about virtue ethics in philosophy is highly relevant for neuroscience and economics because virtues directly relate with emotions, hence reflect the modular design of the brain. For example, in the dual systems view the emotion of anger, driven by modules related to aggression, might overcome the rationally preferred behaviour in a certain conflict. The perspective on virtues is much more balanced and realistic, because it recognizes the value and significance of the emotions and argues that they must be formed to become reasonable via the virtues, which results, for example, in a balancing between the poles of subduing all aggression or letting oneself overcome by fear (which qualifies as cowardice) or blindly following aggression and forgetting all fear (which is daredevilry or blind rage). The middle ground is bravery. Bravery is nothing that we can rationally choose, but which expresses our disposition that has grown by education and experience. I think that this view is very helpful in matching with the neuroscientific literature on basic emotions and related brain modules, because it breaks the generic standard of ‘general purpose rationality’ down to standards of reasonable behaviour that directly relate to those modules, and that emphasize human sociality, as all virtues mostly refer to behaviour in social interactions, and context-bound standards of groups.

The second is, as Kathi Beier emphasizes, that Aristotle grounds his theory of virtues on the analysis of the ‘soul’ ‘psyche’. That is not done by modern virtue ethics, which mostly sees this as a deficiency of Aristotle. But Kathi Beier claims convincingly that Aristotle’s account needs to be appreciated. Indeed, I think that in terms of modern neuroscience, that is exactly the right approach, as already transpired in the previous discussion: Virtues might relate to certain structural principles of the brain, and therefore are a kind of ‘special purpose rationality’. In fact, it seems to me that Aristotle’s notion of ‘psyche’ might be reinterpreted as ‘brain’ in modern science, because it is not the same as Descartes’ dualism between res extensa and res cogitans: That immediately transpires when one notices that for Aristotle, not only humans have psyche, but also animals and even plants. In other words, psyche is a natural phenomenon, too, most generally a principle that distinguishes life from mere physical matter in terms of autonomous teleonomy. The interesting result is that the psyche is multifunctional and includes all kinds of behaviour, such as eating or highest-level intellectual pursuits. Aristotle distinguishes between virtues of the part of the psyche that has reason (like wisdom) and ‘ethical’ virtues that relate to that part of the psyche that does not have reason, but is susceptible to it. Kathi Beier gave an illuminating metaphor, which is tellingly different from the ‘horse and rider’ metaphor that is often found in the modern dual systems literature: The relationship between father and children. Children listen to the father, and the father takes care and recognizes his children as autonomous agents. That is what transpired already above: The virtue shapes an emotion in a way such that it becomes reasonable but is at the same time affirmed. A brave person manifests the appropriate degree and mix of aggression, fear and courage.

In conclusion, I feel that a virtue ethics approach is much closer to our life-world than the standard of rationality upheld by behavioural economics. Therefore, behavioural economists and neuroeconomists might benefit from reading Aristotle.



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