A Critique of David Oderberg’s Defense of Aristotle

Here’s the script for this video:

Hey guys! Gunlord comin’ atcha once again with another critique of the so-called classical tradition in philosophy. This time, however, I’ll not be going up against Edward Feser. Rather, I’ll be taking on one of his good friends, David Oderberg. I’ll be providing a small critique of his article in Philosophical Papers , volume 27, no. 2 in 1998, “On an Alleged Fallacy in Aristotle.”


According to Oderberg, aside from some parts of Mill’s work, “no moral philosopher has been subject to a more egregious accusation of slipshod logic than Aristotle at the beginning of the Nicomachean Ethics.” This accusation is based on Aristotle’s statement, “Every art and every inquiry, and similarly every action and pursuit, is thought to aim at some good; and for this reason the good has rightly been declared to be that at which all things aim.” According to Aristotle’s critics—many of whom, as Oderberg notes, are Aristotelians themselves, this is what is called a quantifier shift fallacy.

However, there is a way to interpret Aristotle’s statement here in a way that doesn’t commit the quantifier shift fallacy. Oderberg asks us to think of a trait like “colored.” If we were to say, “everything that possesses some color or another—red, green, blue, whatever—possesses the property of being colored,” this would be obviously true and guilty of no fallacy. When we say something is red or green or blue, we’re noting it has a color, and there’s no way to say something is any particular color without also saying it has the property of being colored, even if there are many different colors any individual thing could be. This statement describes the relationship between determinate and determinable. A determinable is a characteristic or property, or ‘adjective’ (in general) which is represented by a variety of different instantiations called determinates, all of which are incompatible with each other but still represent the determinable characteristic as a whole entirely by themselves. So in this example, color is a determinable, and each shade of color is a determinate, because something can’t be simultaneously red or green or blue at the same time—it can only be one of those colors—but red, green, and blue are all colors themselves, no one of them is any more or less of a color than the other.

But here’s where Aristotle, and his defender Oderberg run into trouble, in my estimation. According to oderberg, the reason so many people have interpreted the argument, “since every action aims at some good, goodness is what all actions aim at” as committing a quantifier shift fallacy is that they conflate it with another argument Aristotle made soon after. In the Nicomachean Ethics, a few pages later, Aristotle says,

According to Oderberg, the proper interpretation is that Aristotle is arguing that practical reasoning must come to one end, because if we pursued any good—and every action, remember, pursues some good—only for the sake of another good, which itself was pursued for the sake of another good, we would have no motive to do anything at all, because we could never arrive at a particular good that could serve to motivate us in and of itself. This implies, to directly quote Oderberg, “that there is a single end of all human action, i.e that every human action aims at the good.” When Aristotle says “everything else being desired for the sake of this,” he means “there is at least one end, and at most one end [so exactly one end] at which all human actions aim.”

Oderberg and Aristotle’s belief that there cannot be an infinite regress of goods, that is to say, at some point you have to postulate an end or target desired for its own sake rather than anything else, is no challenge to this way of thinking. Why can there not be a variety of different goods sought for their own sake, just as there are a variety of different colors which nonetheless all instantiate the property? For instance, we can simply say that doctors work for the sake of producing health in their patients (the particular good doctors pursue), and engineers work for the sake of constructing strong buildings (building safety being the particular good engineers pursue). Does the fact that these are two separate things mean both these types of good are pursued for the sake of something else? Not really—most people would consider personal health to be just plainly desirable in and of itself, and they would also consider living in safe, non-risky buildings to also be desirable in and of itself. Or, in other words, the fact that the determinate instantiations of the determinable property of “goodness” are all separate, does not mean they are “subsumed by larger goods,” any more than each individual color being a determinate instantiation of the determinable “colored” means there is some further criterion they have to meet to be truly considered color.

Now, all throughout this video essay I’ve been granting a lot to both Oderberg and Aristotle, generally behaving as if I were sympathetic to their premises. I think it’s time to point out a pretty major flaw in Aristotle’s first argument. I’m not sure if this this is a quantifier shift fallacy, exactly, but it seems to me to be a pretty big one.

The exact quote from Aristotle, which Oderberg uses, is that “every action and pursuit, is thought to aim at some good; and for this reason the good has rightly been declared to be that at which all things aim.” Aristotle seems to have committed a very sloppy elision here: The fact that every action and pursuit aims at some good does not mean that all things – objects and animals, to take two examples of things that aren’t actions or pursuits—aim at a good, some good, or any good at all.

Oderberg’s color example helps us see why this is a fallacy. Oderberg’s original statement, quoting directly from his paper, is that: “Every material object has some color. Therefore, there is some property, namely being colored, which every material object has.” However, Oderberg’s statement is less wrong than something Aristotle might have come up with. If it was really written to match Aristotle’s original argument, it would read:

“Every material object has some color. Therefore, there is some property, namely being colored, which all things have.”

Now, this is obviously false, because plenty of things in the universe that are not material objects do not have color. Invisible gases like air aren’t colored, fundamental forces like gravity don’t have color, emotions and concepts like love or justice don’t have colors, and so on, and so forth.

We can see now the problems for Aristotle’s argument, and by extension Oderberg’s defense of it. “The good” or “goodness” might truly be a determinable when speaking of actions and pursuits, each of which possesses a determinate ‘shade’ of goodness. However, it doesn’t seem to be applicable to objects that simply exist on their own, which can carry out actions or pursuits but which are not themselves actions or pursuits. A human being, of course, would be one such object.

The analogy here is that a material object like a red shirt would have a determinate (red) that entails it expresses a determinable (the property of being colored), but many other things that relate to it, such as the forces of gravity that keep it from floating off into space, do not possess that determinable. By the same token, any given action or pursuit a human being does—whether studying medicine or engineering or whatever—results in a determinate good that expresses the determinable “aiming at goodness,” but the human being, who is an animal that can take action but is not an action himself, does not inherently aim at any particular good. This means he does not possess the determinable Aristotle and Oderberg were interested in (though his actions might).

And since Aristotle’s aim in the Nicomachean ethics is to determine what a good man or what a good life might be, in order to determine what sorts of actions we should take, if “good” isn’t a determinable whose determinates can apply to anything that isn’t an action, his arguments do not validly lead us to any conclusions about what “human goodness” might be, which makes them a non-starter in terms of “practical reasoning.”

Phew! That about does it for this essay, my friends. I mentioned making more videos on Aristotle, but I’m kinda busy, and sort of losing interest in philosophy, aside from a project I’ve been progressing on and off for a couple years now, and which has to remain under wraps for now. This little critique of a defense is probably gonna be the last philosophy video I do for a while, on Aristotle or otherwise. See ya around!

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