News that the soon-to-be-ex-Tory MP Brooks Newmark has sent pictures of his genitals to a second (presumed female) contact has centred yawningly around ‘rights’, ‘exploitation’, ‘power’ and so on. Aristotle can take us back to basics.
The ancients did not do ‘rights’ anyway: they did the law. If there was no law against what you were doing, go ahead. But that did not mean that your action was therefore praiseworthy. How, then, should a man, especially one in the public eye, judge his actions? Aristotle suggested there were four main criteria: whether the actions in question were legal, advantageous, honourable and appropriately motivated.
That Newmark’s action was ‘legal’ is undeniable. That it was advantageous to him was conditional on the secrecy of the encounter he was hoping to set up. That might just possibly have suggested to him that his action was not honourable, let alone appropriately motivated. But clearly ‘honour’ and ‘appropriateness’ never crossed the mind of this minister for ‘civil society’.
In other words, he consciously chose a course of action that he knew to be wrong, as he made perfectly clear by resigning when he was found out. Here again, Aristotle has the last word. You can wish for whatever end you like, good or bad, but it is what you actually do about it that counts; and while ‘a worthless man wishes for anything that takes his fancy’, he says, an honourable man will wish for what is good, and choose appropriate means to achieve that end. But at every choice, Aristotle insists, ‘We have the power to act, or not to act, to say “yes” or “no”.’ As a result, he concludes, virtue and vice are up to us, while to absolve bad men of blame for wrongdoing automatically deprives good men of praise for virtue.
By talking the language of ‘rights’, ‘power’, ‘exploitation’ (etc.), one shifts the explanation of behaviour away from the individual to mysterious ‘forces’ within society. In fact, when it comes to choosing between right and wrong, the only force is oneself.
Subscribe to The Spectator today for a quality of argument not found in any other publication. Get more Spectator for less – just £12 for 12 issues.