A book on ethics and philosophy of values

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4/ Is axiology a practical or theoretical science?

1/ The idea that morals or ethics come within the practical sphere

a) The Aristotle’s tripartition into theoria, praxis and poiesis

All thought is either practical or productive or theoretical 1 : it is in the Metaphysics that Aristotle proposes this configuration of the field of knowledge, to which everyone, including his opponents, refer.

His commentators traditionally see in the theoretical sciences theology, mathematics, and physics, in the practical sciences politics, ethics and economy, and in the productive ones the ‘tekhnê’, viz. this activity including both art and technology that we, as modern people, distinguish.
Aristotle divides and classes these sciences according to two criteria. First, the origin of the movement of their object. Thus, in the case of productive science the principle of movement is in the producer and not in the product; likewise, in practical science the movement is not in the thing done, but rather in the doers. But the science of the natural philosopher deals with the things that have in themselves a principle of movement 2.

It is to be noted that what has in itself its own principle of movement is necessary, whereas what gets it from another thing is contingent. Thus, the objects of theoretical sciences alone are necessary, those of the practical and productive spheres contingent. Hence the second criterion of classification, which coincides with the first one: the degree of certainty that we are able to achieve, in each of these three kinds of science. The theoretical science alone is likely to be perfectly certain, due to the necessity of its object.
So there are two criterion, ontological and epistemological, deduced from one another, which lead Aristotle to propose such a configuration of the field of knowledge.
This division of sciences in three parts is at the same time a hierarchisation: the theoretical sciences are the supreme ones, since for Aristotle, it is obvious that if the divine is present anywhere, it is present in things of this sort 3 [the ones having in themselves the principle of their movement].

Let us consider ethics, to see how it takes place in this classification of sciences.

Two difficulties may arise. In the first place, as J.L. Labarrière says, any presentation of the moral philosophy of Aristotle comes across a stumbling block: he never employs the adjective êthikê in its substantive form, and he does not use it to denote a domain of philosophy or a kind of science 4. He does not speak in Nicomachean Ethics and Eudemian Ethics of a science that would be called morals, moral philosophy or moral science, or again practical philosophy. In fact, what we find is the expression of “ethical discourse” by which Aristotle denotes the content of these two books. In other words, the term “ethics” exists only as an adjective in Aristotle’s thought.

In the second place, the science whose object is these « ethical discourses » is not ethics, but politics, the term politikê being employed by him as a substantive, as well as an adjective qualifying a certain art, a certain science, or a certain potentiality or faculty (dunamis) 5. Politics is considered as the supreme architectonical science: the ends of other practical sciences are only means to this science which, for its own part, aims at the supreme end that Aristotle defines as the happiness.

However, we cannot probably infer from these two difficulties that morals or ethics, as disciplines, find no place in the Aristotelian field of knowledge, because their content deals with politics. In fact, if ethics is a part of a larger sphere, namely politics, there is no suppression of it, only a relativisation. Moreover, this politics is in itself moral (Aristotle searches “the good laws”).

If, despite these difficulties, we call “ethics” the science which has for object these ethical discourses, as tradition does, we remark that this science solicits the mind in a completely different manner than theoretical sciences do. So there would be a practical rationality, a rationality specific to prakta, viz. to the things to do, which is not a simple copy of the theoretical one 6. This affirmation, directly turned against Plato, has awakened the interest of neo-aristotelism, formed around the lectures given by the young Heidegger on Aristotle, attended by Gadamer, Arendt or Leo Strauss.

It is impossible here to investigate the exact nature of this practical rationality, and the debates about it. The main idea – inherited from Aristotle- is the following one: morals (or ethics) is a practical science, or concerns the practical sphere, and not the theoretical one. Let us discuss this.

1. Metaphysics, E, 1
2. Ibid., K, 7
3. Ibid., E, 1
4. Dictionary of ethics and moral philosophy, article « Aristotle »
5. Ibid.
6. Ibid., article « Practice »