A book on ethics and philosophy of values

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4/ Axiology: a practical or theoretical science?

1/ About the idea that morality or ethics belong to the practical sphere

a) The Aristotelian tripartition of the theoretical, practical and poetic spheres

All thought is either practical or productive or theoretical 1: Aristotle proposes this configuration of the field of knowledge in Metaphysics, to which even those who oppose it will refer.

The tradition of commentators sees the theoretical sciences as including theology, mathematics and physics, the practical sciences as including politics, ethics and economics, and the poetic sciences as having as their object tekhnê, that activity which encompasses both art and technique, which we moderns distinguish.
Aristotle divides and classifies these sciences according to two criteria: firstly, according to 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. On the other hand, The science of the natural philosopher deals with the things that have in themselves a principle of movement 2.

Now what has its principle of movement in itself is necessary, whereas what receives it from others is contingent. So only the objects of the theoretical sciences are necessary, the objects of the practical and poetic spheres being marked by contingency. Hence the second classification criterion, which overlaps with the first: the degree of certainty that can be achieved in each of these three types of science. Only theoretical science is capable of achieving perfect certainty, because of the necessity of its object.
It is therefore a dual criterion, ontological and epistemological, one deduced from the other, that leads Aristotle to propose such a configuration of the field of knowledge. This tripartition of the sciences is at the same time a hierarchisation of them: it is the theoretical sciences that are the supreme sciences, since for Aristotle, If the divine is present anywhere, it is present in things of this sort 3 [i.e. the ones that have in themselves the principle of their movement].

Let us turn now to ethics, to see how it fits into this classification of the sciences.

First of all, there are two difficulties. Firstly, as J.L. Labarrière notes, Any presentation of Aristotle's moral philosophy immediately comes up against a stumbling block: he never uses the adjective êthikê in its substantive form, nor does he use it to qualify a field of philosophy or a type of science 4. He does not relate what he expounds in the Nicomachean Ethics and the Eudemian Ethics to a part of philosophy or to a type of science that should be called morality, moral philosophy or moral science, or even practical philosophy. In fact, we find the expression "ethical discourse" by which Aristotle designates the content of these two works. In other words, the term "ethics" exists only as an adjective in Aristotle's thought.

On the other hand, the science whose object is these "ethical discourses" is not ethics but politics: The term politikê being used by him both as a noun and as an adjective qualifying a certain art, a certain science or a certain power or faculty (dunamis) 5. Politics is considered to be the supreme architectonic science, meaning that the ends of the other practical sciences are merely means to this one, which aims at the supreme end, which Aristotle designates as happiness.

However, we probably cannot infer from these two difficulties that morality or ethics, as disciplines, have no place in the field of Aristotelian knowledge, because their content would be taken over by politics. In fact, if ethics is encompassed within a wider sphere, politics, this does not mean that it is suppressed. What is more, politics is itself largely moral (Aristotle is looking for "good laws").

If we call the science whose subject is ethical discourse "ethics", as tradition has done, and bypass these difficulties, we see that it engages the intellect in a completely different way from the theoretical sciences. As a result, there would be a practical rationality, a rationality specific to prakta, to things to be done, and which is not therefore a mere transfer of theoretical rationality 6. This assertion, turned directly against Plato, aroused the interest of the neo-Aristotelianism that grew up around the courses given by the young Heidegger on Aristotle, followed by Gadamer, Arendt and Léo Strauss.

It would be impossible here to go into the exact nature of this practical rationality and the debates it has generated. The idea we feel it is important to retain, and which is inherited from Aristotle, is the following: morality (or ethics) is a practical science, or concerns the practical sphere, not the theoretical sphere. This is precisely the idea that we now need to examine.

1. Metaphysics, E, 1
2. Ibid., K, 7
3. Ibid., E, 1
4. Dictionnaire d'éthique et de philosophie morale, PUF, Paris, 2004, "Aristotle" article
5. Ibid.
6. Ibid., « Practice » article