Ancient and modern

What Aristotle would have made of Brooks Newmark's selfies

The language of rights and exploitation ignores true responsibility

11 October 2014

9:00 AM

11 October 2014

9:00 AM

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.

You might disagree with half of it, but you’ll enjoy reading all of it. Try your first 10 weeks for just $10

Show comments
  • dalai guevara

    Is the Paisley pattern considered “beautiful” amongst Aristotelian philosophers?
    It is time to expand on his teachings and add the virtue of *good taste*.

    de gustibus aut bene, aut nihil

    • Ed  

      The beauty of paisley, among ancient philosophers? They might well have liked paisley; after all, they were men in sandals.

  • Don Berry

    Nice made up quote. I don’t think this represents Aristotle’s thought at all.

    • Robert Maxwell

      Does Nicomachean Ethics ring any bells?. First paragraph of book 3 chapter 5? The quote is a truncated/brutal translation, but the meaning is still there.

  • Bonkim

    Silly idiot in male menopause – poor judgement – unfit to be a Minister.

  • Wojtek Godzisz

    Really rather excellent. Well done.

  • hdb

    Is this going to be a regular feature? What Aristotle would say about major events in this week’s politics? Because I really can’t say all in all he would be pretty pleased with anything that is going on in British politics this last long good while.

  • Peter Stroud

    I’m very sorry, but the idiot made a fool of himself and ruined a good political career. But it will not matter as he is well connected and will, no doubt, find another lucrative job p d q. Forget him, he is not worth discussing.

  • rtj1211

    I note that UK journalists are never so hardline when challenging the legality, advantageousness, appropriateness nor levels of honorable motivation when holding the foreign- and/or tax-avoiding media moguls of this country to account……

    Perish the thought that Rupert Murdoch was a fornicator in BOTH his first two marriages, has deeply embedded global electronic surveillance networks in place, is a flagrant tax avoider (helped no doubt by threatening previous generations of politicians if they did not bend the laws to his self-serving advantage) and an absolutely avowed hater of the BBC.

    I wouldn’t want to draw up similar lists for Richard Desmond, the Barclay Brothers, Viscount Rothermere etc etc, but it really is about time that they were on the front page of every national newspaper, at the top of every high-traffic media blog and at the top of the in-tray of every single politician in this country from the most lowly to the Prime Minister…….

    At least then, we would operating on a level playing field………

    What did Aristotle have to say about: ‘who will adjudicate the adjudicators?’

    If the answer is: ‘nothing’, then perhaps he wasn’t the great statesman that you would like to make out??

  • mandelson

    “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.” Couldnt agree more. One notices this tendency by the media, politicians and police by constantly using the word “tragedy” after some heinous crime instead of robustly denouncing the perpetrator. I can only assume that our liberal society wishes to avoid being judgmental by accepting that people are capable of evil and can merit severe retribution.