As regards actions of the various virtues of character (courage, moderation, justice, etc.), there are three questions:
- Why do we do them at all?
- Why do we do them, rather than the contrary?
- Why do we do them, when doing the contrary would enable us to spend more time in contemplation?
For instance: a philosopher looks forward to his sabbatical year; but just that year an enemy attacks his country: (a) he joins in the defense of his country; (b) in battles he acts courageously rather than as a coward; and (c) when doing something particularly courageous, he is killed, when, he if he had acted then as a coward, he would have lived (affording him the chance to return to philosophy later).
(a) raises question 1.
(b) raises question 2.
(c) raises question 3.
It’s easy to devise similar examples for the other virtues. For instance, as regards justice: a philosopher looks forward to his sabbatical year; but just that year his father falls seriously ill: (a) he spends the year caring for him; (b) he does so with devotion and refinement, rather than badly and with coarseness; and (c) if he had provided care in a perfunctory way, or in some respects had neglected this care, he would have had more time for philosophical thought. (Note: this is a case of justice for Aristotle.)
Now here’s a puzzle: one might wish to answer 1. and 2. in a way that suggests a ‘for the sake of happiness, for its own sake’ structure to our actions, but in that case it becomes difficult to answer 3.
We answer 1. and 2. in this way. Actions of the various virtues of character are actions that we do on the supposition, or condition, that we already need to do something other than contemplate. We need to eat, to engage in business to procure clothing and shelter, to defend against an attacker. We are going to do these things anyway, so we might as well do them appropriately and well. Thus: in doing them at all, we are doing something (‘instrumentally’) for the sake of leisure and contemplation; in doing them well, we are doing something for its own sake. So the answer to 1. is that we do these actions of the various virtues of character because they are ways of doing things that we would have been doing anyway, and the answer to 2. is that these actions are worth choosing (they are ‘appropriate’, ‘due’, ‘fitting’, prepon) whereas actions of the contrary vices are not.
But if this is so, then it is difficult to see why we choose [taking care of necessities well + not contemplating] over [taking care of necessities poorly + contemplating] (question 3). It looks as though this is a mistake: it’s as if we forget that the morally virtuous actions were done in the first place only on the supposition that actions necessary for leisure had to be done.
If we granted that the notion of ‘approximation’ was in play in Aristotle’s Ethics, what help could it give in these matters? It’s of no use in answering 1. (that’s answered by an appeal to necessity). It’s also clearly of no use in answering 3. (because there is no reason why we’d accept an approximation if the real thing were available). The only help it can give is in 2. And yet there an appeal to approximation seems either unnecessary or inapt. For instance: justice is frequently backward-looking, not forward-looking. The reason (Aristotle thinks) a grown child should, in justice, care for his infirm parent, is that in the past the parent conferred goods upon the child that the child can never fully repay. The child’s care of his parent is in response to that, not apparently with a view to any contemplation to which the action tends or contributes.