A little Nicomachean Ethics to brighten up your morning

November 18, 2020
Reading about Obama's first visit to Kenya (before he went to Harvard) and his discomfort with the remainders of colonialism he saw led me to looking up the Wikipedia page for "Guns, Germs, and Steel"- a book that describes how much of a culture's grown power is much more a matter of happenstance than of intrinsic values of the population. I guess the book talks about The Anna Karenina principle- I've always wondered about
All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.
but wikipedia interprets it as
In other words: happy families share a common set of attributes which lead to happiness, while any of a variety of attributes can cause an unhappy family. This concept has been generalized to apply to several fields of study.
The article goes on to point out a parallel with Aristotle in "Nicomachean Ethics":
Again, it is possible to fail in many ways (for evil belongs to the class of the unlimited, as the Pythagoreans conjectured, and good to that of the limited), while to succeed is possible only in one way (for which reason also one is easy and the other difficult – to miss the mark easy, to hit it difficult); for these reasons also, then, excess and defect are characteristic of vice, and the mean of virtue; For men are good in but one way, but bad in many.
I don't think I agree. A single axis to gauge success and failure is very limited; or even the text is more about a dartboard model: the singular point of success in the center, everything else various degrees of failure.

Yeah. That's nuts. If a dart expert gets a bullseye because of their excellent form after years of practice, that's one thing; but even a duffer will get the odd bullseye. And at least in that case, the results the same, but the implications for future success are very different.

And single target? I'd say everything of worth in life is a competition among competing priorities, competing targets, and the struggle is getting the right compromises set among them

I keep getting my Greek philosophers mixed up but it looks like it was Socrates who said "No one errs or does wrong willingly or knowingly.". I've thought of that as "hardly anyone is the bad guy of their own story at the time their living it". I think I've previously been corrected that that isn't as universal as I thought, that some people are conflicted even as they are drawn or compelled to act in ways they know are ultimately bad.

But still, everything is a compromise. Barbara Tversky puts it as "There are no benefits without costs". We gotta do some robbing Peter to pay some Pauls. Sci-fi fans put it as TANSTAAFL, "There Ain't No Such Thing as a Free Lunch". Understanding that isn't the same thing as moral relativism - at some point you gotta pick what lunch you're paying for, and some lunches are better choices than others. (And the religiosity of my youth compels me to think there must be one objectively correct best algorithm for deciding which lunch is best for you - even if that's not the best lunch for everyone or in every circumstance.)
There is more worth loving than we have strength to love.