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Dirtying Aristotle's Hands? Aristotle's Analysis of 'Mixed Acts' in the Nicomachean Ethics III, 1

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The analysis of 'mixed acts' in Nicomachean Ethics III, 1 has led scholars to attribute a theory of 'dirty hands' and 'impossible oughts' to Aristotle. Michael Stocker argues that Aristotle recognizes particular acts that are simultaneously 'right, even obligatory', but nevertheless 'wrong, shameful and the like'. And Martha Nussbaum commends Aristotle for not sympathizing 'with those who, in politics or in private affairs, would so shrink from blame and from unacceptable action that they would be unable to take a necessary decision for the best'. In this paper I reexamine Aristotle's analysis of putatively 'mixed acts' in Nicomachean Ethics III, 1, maintaining that Aristotle denies that there are acts that are (i) voluntary under the circumstances, (ii) right, all things considered, under the circumstances, but nevertheless (iii) shameful or wrong for moral or prudential reasons under the circumstances. The paper defends this interpretation with reference to Aristotle's discussion of shame in EN IV, 9 and Rhetoric II, 6, as well as his overall meta-ethical commitment to a position I call 'mitigated circumstantial relativism'. By focusing on Aristotle's analysis of putatively 'mixed acts', we come closer to a true appreciation of Aristotle's ethical theory, even though 'mixed act' is not, I argue, a category in Aristotle's considered ontology of action.

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Affiliations: 1: Department of Philosophy, Talbot College 320, University of Western Ontario, London, Ontario, Canada N6A 3K7


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