Thursday, November 21, 2013


Javier Echeñique, Aristotle's Ethics and Moral Responsibility. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2012. Pp. viii, 209. ISBN 9781107021587. $95.00.

Reviewed by Michael Pakaluk, Ave Maria University (

Version at BMCR home site


This is a book mainly about praise and blame, what these are, and what their function is. It is incidentally a book on Aristotle's views on moral responsibility.

Echeñique advances what he calls an "ascriptive" theory of praise and blame, according to which to praise someone for an action is to ascribe that action to some virtue which that action either expresses or will lead to in the agent; similarly, to blame someone for an action is to ascribe that action to some vice which that action either expresses or will lead to in the agent. This ascriptive theory, as Echeñique explains, is the same as the "attributional" theory of praise and blame put forward by Gary Watson and Joel Feinberg,1 with some slight changes: basically, on the attributional theory, insofar as we praise or blame someone we are not expecting that he act toward us in certain ways, or holding him accountable for doing so or not doing so, whereas on the ascriptive theory, praise and blame may, and often do, involve this added component, even if holding someone accountable is not at the core of, or essential to, what praise and blame are.

Echeñique favors this ascriptive theory over a competing theory, which is an adaptation of the position taken by P. F. Strawson in a well-known article and which Echeñique therefore refers to as the "Strawsonian" theory.2 The Strawsonian theory holds that praise and blame are reactive, emotion-like attitudes, which members of a moral community reciprocally feel toward one another, insofar as they either do, or fail to do, actions that are expected of them: they are "held accountable" for such actions; and actions like these therefore deserve to be praised or blamed.

In the main part of his book, Echeñique aims to refute the Strawsonian theory, relying on the following considerations. As explained, the Strawsonian theory holds that praise and blame are (1) reactive, (2) emotion-like attitudes, (3) felt reciprocally by members of the same moral community, and (4) for actions which deserve praise and blame. Against (1), Echeñique says that praise and blame have a prospective dimension (yet without being inherently manipulative), especially when parents, teachers, or legislators praise or blame those under their care with a view to fostering virtue and discouraging vice. Against (2), he says that praise and blame are statements in the indicative mood, not attitudes or emotions, merely. Against (3), he says that we praise and blame children, and yet children are not reciprocating members of the same moral community, because they do not in turn praise and blame the adults who care for them. Against (4), he says that we praise athletes for their talents and artisans for their skill, and yet it is clearly inappropriate to hold that these talents or athletes "deserve" praise, in any non-metaphorical use of that term. The ascriptive view, in contrast, seems open to none of these objections but rather helps to explain the relevant phenomena.

In the book, Echeñique refers to Aristotle in relation to each of these objections. For instance, Echeñique points out that Aristotle says that we praise athletes and artisans (51-4: see EN 1101b12-18); that Aristotle says that praise and blame take the form of statements (43-7: see Rhet. 1367b36-1368a9); that, although Aristotle does not explicitly say that children are suitable objects of praise and blame, nonetheless, in a passage in which we might have expected him to exclude children, if that were his view, he noticeably failed to do so (34-38, see EN 1149b31-1150a1). But obviously these references to Aristotle are all incidental, as the objections stand on their own. Moreover, it is too much to impute an ascriptive "theory" to Aristotle simply on the grounds that what he says (or fails to say, in the aforementioned argumentum ex silentio) is more consistent with that theory than with the Strawsonian theory: it seems better to hold that when referring to practices of praise and blame, Aristotle says what most of us would say, or what his contemporaries would say, and that the ascriptive view at least initially matches this non-theoretical or pre-theoretical view better.

So much for the main part of the book: as I said, it is the presentation of a series of objections to the Strawsonian theory in the guise of interpreting Aristotle and replying to those interpreters of Aristotle (T. Irwin and S. Sauvé Meyer) who seem to impute something like a Strawsonian account to Aristotle,3 followed by the development of the alternative ascriptive view. To my mind, this part of the book raises an interesting question about what is the proper method of ancient philosophy. It seems desirable that scholarship in ancient philosophy and the interpretation of classical texts be brought into relation with current debates about philosophical topics among philosophers who do not see themselves as engaged in the history of philosophy. And yet if — to take an extreme case – one merely uses an ancient philosopher or classical texts as instruments for carrying out a debate that in principle stands on its own, then no original contribution is allowed to the ancient philosopher or text, while one risks obscuring the arguments and evidence that are most relevant to the current debate, making fair assessment of that debate only more difficult. Moreover, one might think that ancient texts will not make their own contribution unless they are examined through a rather detailed exegesis of the sort which, I find, Echeñique typically does not undertake.

The second half of book is something like an appendix, consisting of chapters each of which is devoted to a condition which can render an action not voluntary (which Echeñique calls a "defeater"), such as non-culpable ignorance of particulars, extreme psychological compulsion, violent interference, and coercion. Why are these chapters added to a book mainly about praise and blame? According to Echeñique, to show that Aristotle "has an original, appealing and very complete account of each and every one of the defeaters" (83), which is internally consistent and moreover compatible with an ascriptive account of praise and blame; and, furthermore, to show that when some defeater is discussed by both the Eudemian and the Nicomachean Ethics, then the latter may be understood as resolving problems inherent in the former.

Here I find that the general absence of detailed exegesis serves as an obstacle to Echeñique's purposes. I shall briefly advert to one example to illustrate this point. In Chapter 3 on the defeater violence, Echeñique states four different definitions of violence or forcible interference with one's actions which seem offered by or implicit in the Eudemian Ethics account: violence is what is against natural inclination (88); what originates outside the agent's whole motivation set, besides being against natural inclination (94); what originates outside the agent's whole motivation set, besides being against the agent's "rational impulse" (100); and what simply originates outside the agent's whole motivational set (which Echeñique wishes to say is the "core" notion of violence, 103). Now Echeñique concedes that these four accounts hardly constitute an "appealing and complete" account, and they hardly seem internally consistent; rather, they seem heterogeneous and motivated by disparate considerations—thus his discussion of the defeater violence hardly corresponds to Echeñique's purpose in including a chapter on this topic at all. Moreover, Echeñique's does not include a separate or full consideration of the Nicomachean account but only refers to it in a footnote (n. 30 on pp. 104-5), in much too brief a manner to allow the reader to consider how this account might have evolved out of tensions in the four Eudemian accounts.

However, the Nicomachean Ethics gives a distinct definition of violence, different from any Eudemian definition, as that which someone does or suffers, the origin of which is outside the agent, to which the agent contributes nothing (1110a1-3). Moreover, although Echeñique thinks that Aristotle says nothing to explain or develop this definition in EN 3.1, it is interesting that the definition gets stated and then reiterated later in the chapter with δή, which is a characteristic way in Aristotle of marking off material which deals with the reiterated point:

τὰ δὴ ποῖα φατέον βίαια; ἢ ἁπλῶς μέν, ὁπότ' ἂν ἡ αἰτία ἐν τοῖς ἐκτὸς ᾖ καὶ ὁ πράττων μηδὲν συμβάλληται; (1110b1-3)

ἔοικε δὴ [τὸ] βίαιον εἶναι οὗ ἔξωθεν ἡ ἀρχή, μηδὲν συμβαλλομένου τοῦ βιασθέντος. (1110b15-17)4

That intervening material (b9-15) is indeed translated and briefly discussed by Echeñique (108), yet not as relevant to the definition of violence, but rather understood as a dialectical reply to the view of Gorgias in the Encomium of Helen (107-8).5

Suppose, then, we attempt to construe b9-15 as relevant to the definition of violence. Then it can be construed as an argument that the "origin of which is outside the agent" clause needs to be supplemented by the "agent contributing nothing" clause, as in the EN definition. We can gloss the argument as follows: "Suppose one were to say that it is enough, for something to be counted as a violent cause, that it is external (b9-10); but objects of perception and thought are like that; and when we act in response to such objects in a way which is voluntary, we do so with pleasure (b12); and so [δή] it is ridiculous to count as the cause of the action only that which is outside (b13), and not the agent for being such as to be influenced by those things: and so one has to add, when the influence is violent, that the agent contributes nothing (b15-17)."

My point is not that Echeñique should have considered and evaluated this particular interpretation of the passage, as giving an argument for the EN definition, but rather that, in my view, he in general does not deal with the text in sufficient enough detail as potentially to reveal considerations of this sort.

Notwithstanding the difficulties I have raised, Echeñique's book is exceedingly thoughtful, precise in expression throughout, consistently rich in insights, and enjoyable to study. It furthermore seems to be generally correct. Although, as a work of skill, on its own terms it does not deserve any praise, nonetheless, when I adopt the stance of the "apt observer" (73), as I must as a reviewer, I find it appropriate to express a judgment ascribing perspicacity, understanding of Aristotle, and intellectual integrity to its author.


1.   G. Watson, "Free agency" in Watson (ed.) Free Will (2nd ed., New York: Oxford University Press, 2003); J. Feinberg, Doing and Deserving (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1970).
2.   P. F. Strawson, "Freedom and Resentment", Proceedings of the British Academy 48 (1962), 187-211.
3.   T. Irwin, "Reason and Responsibility in Aristotle" in A. O. Rorty (ed.), Essays on Aristotle's Ethics (Berkeley / Los Angeles / London: University of California Press, 1980), 117-56; S. Sauvé Meyer, Aristotle on Moral Responsibility: Character and Cause (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1993).
4.   In his Aristotelica (London: Grant Richards, 1915), H. P. Richards argues, rightly I think, that the neuter article be athetized (p. 3, ad 1105a25).
5.   Aristotle's use of a future conditional to introduce the view he is considering (εἰ δέ τις τὰ ἡδέα καὶ τὰ καλὰ φαίη βίαια εἶναι … πάντα ἂν εἴη αὐτῷ βίαια, 1110b9-10) makes less likely, I believe, the possibility that he is responding to a view stated by a preceding thinker; rather, he seems to be developing a new objection, presumably presupposing his own view, that objects of sense perception, thought, and desire are "outside us" (ἔξω) and motivate us from without (see for example De Anima 417a4, b20).

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