Written by: Paul Thompson

Primary Source: Thornapple CSA

Well, I spent a few hours reading Aristotle this week, and you know that spells trouble for both readers of the Thornapple blog. I just couldn’t resist Googling ‘incontinence’. It turns out that Wikipedia has a disambiguation page for ‘incontinence’. Who knew? One link refers to a 1981 album by Fad Gadget. I’m sorry, but even in 1981 I was not hipster enough to be into Fad Gadget. In 1971 I probably would have been attracted to an album entitled ‘Incontinence’, even if I had never heard of the band that put it out. I remember once when I came across an “all whistling” album by Pat Boone in the bargain bin at Peaches. Somehow, I resisted that one, and today I wish I hadn’t. I bet it’s worth a fortune. By 1981 I already had other types of incontinence on my mind.

So I picked the title for this week’s blog to lure my readers into the suspicion that I was going to make some sophomoric observation between food ethics and the link on Wikipedia’s disambiguation page that takes you to ‘fecal incontinence’. But not so fast, Chucko! There are four (count ‘em, four) types of incontinence identified by the astute and inquiring authors of Wikipedia (e.g. you, me and Bill). In addition to the two already discussed there is also urinary incontinence, which might also suggest sophomoric tangents, but is also not where we are headed this Sunday. Today it’s Wikipedia’s fourth possibility which (and I quote) takes us to the Wikipedia page entitled “Incontinence (philosophy)”. Once there one finds an entire three sentences under the heading “Aristotle”. Proving that I’m not the dumb cluck you might have thought I was.

This rather short article in Wikipedia also includes references to St. Augustine, Spenser and Jane Austin. In each case incontinence means allowing oneself to be overcome by a controlling passion, especially with respect to bodily enjoyment. Incontinence is thus a fairly basic problem for ethics and you really shouldn’t be surprised to see it coming up in connection to food. Being overcome by the temptations of sumptuous (or even just physically present) food is a pretty familiar experience in the food rich environment of 21st century post-industrial society. Having the feeling that you really shouldn’t indulge in that blueberry donut, those chili cheese fries or that crème brûlée must have occurred to the majority of people with a readily available Internet connection. Although there are definitions of ethics which would suggest that resisting those feelings is a matter for prudence rather than morality, we’ll just ignore the fine points of that distinction this morning in order to say a thing or two about dietary incontinence.

Incontinence is supposed to be a problem in some quarters of philosophy because the incontinent person knows the right thing to do, but just doesn’t do it. “How is that possible?” ask some of my professorial colleagues, scratching their heads in puzzlement. Now I should add right away that such philosophers are not the dolts that this kind of behavior might lead you expect. Their puzzlement is derived from a reading of Aristotle (or possibly Socrates) which suggests that knowledge of the good normally and naturally inclines one to simply do it. In fact, I don’t think that Aristotle thought that at all. In fact, it’s pretty clear that Aristotle thinks simply following one’s bodily inclinations is pretty normal for an immature consciousness. It’s also clear that he thinks we get enculturated into our understanding of the good through practice and habit. Like with bowling, Sudoku or cake decoration, we can’t abstractly understand the attraction or pleasure that one might take in virtue until we actually learn to practice it. Once you’ve mastered the practice, the enjoyment comes so naturally that one is never tempted to do otherwise. But it’s not clear that Aristotle supposes such mastery to be achieved very often. Incontinence occurs in that middle case where one has enough experience to feel the pull of virtue, but has not yet taken it so thoroughly to heart that no contrary feelings pull in other directions. Maybe that middle case applies to most of us.

If that crème brûlée is still staring you in the face after this somber exercise, take this consolation from William James: “But as I have enough trouble in life already without adding the trouble of carrying these intellectual inconsistencies, I personally just give up the Absolute. I just take my moral holidays; or else as a professional philosopher, I try to justify them by some other principle.”

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Paul Thompson
Paul B. Thompson holds the W. K. Kellogg Chair in Agricultural, Food and Community Ethics at Michigan State University in East Lansing, Michigan. He formerly held positions in philosophy at Texas A&M University and Purdue University. His research has centered on ethical and philosophical questions associated with agriculture and food, and especially concerning the guidance and development of agricultural technoscience.
Paul Thompson

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