27 April 2005

For the Sake Of, For Its Own Sake

As regards actions of the various virtues of character (courage, moderation, justice, etc.), there are three questions:

  1. Why do we do them at all?
  2. Why do we do them, rather than the contrary?
  3. 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.


Anonymous said...

Your examples don’t strike me as representing the likely actions of a man who acts courageously or justly primarily for the sake of protecting his leisure to contemplate.
In your first example, why doesn’t the philosopher just take his sabbatical, or emigrate permanently, to some peaceful country? To hell with fighting for the fatherland. Joining the army and fighting heroically in combat does not seem a prudent choice for a man who values above all his own leisure & work. There are other places to work in peace.
But suppose now that it is impossible for our philosopher to emigrate from the fatherland. He must enlist and fight or be persecuted & imprisoned as an objector. Suppose also that he is an Aristotelian who prides himself on applying in his practical affairs the standards of right reason & careful deliberation that inform his theoretical work. Might he not decide to enlist just because he judges that course of action to be under the circumstances the most rational? He is trying to approximate in his life the ideals of rationality that he studies theoretically.
Approximation, then, is not “ of no use in answering 1. “

Anonymous said...

I grant your points, but I still don't see how 'approximation' helps us with them.

I take it that in para. 1 you're admitting that the philosopher we're presupposing won't enlist unless that's truly necessary, i.e. the alternative is worse. But then 'approximation' is playing no role there.

And, as regards your para. 2, I don't see why it helps, to add to 'the most rational course of action' , that such actions 'approximate' contemplation.

You say, 'He is trying to approximate in his life the ideals of rationality that he studies theoretically'. Why not: 'He is trying to be rational in all circumstances. Now, when he can't but fight, rationality amounts to X.'?

Look, to say that contemplation and moral action are both 'reasonable' is hardly a new idea or a new claim about the Ethics . (Isn't that the main theme of that old warhorse, Veatch's Rational Man?) I don't doubt that it's true. I simply find it problematic and unclear. And my question is: How does the notion of 'approximation' in particular help to clarify it? 

Posted by Michael Pakaluk

Anonymous said...

I think the earlier response might have been trying to say that, since the philosopher can not continue on in contemplation as though nothing had happened, the decisions that he makes will be based on 'standards of right reason and careful deliberation' that, being what they are, approximate the kind of rational activity that he would engage in were he still engaged in contemplation. He cannot exercise theoretical wisdom, but he can exercise practical wisdom, and insofar as the exercise of practical wisdom approximates the exercise of theoretical wisdom, he therefore approximates the activity that he would, if he were able, be engaging in. It becomes the most choiceworthy thing because it is, given his circumstances, the thing which best approximates the kind of activity in which perfect happiness consists.

Now, even if that is clearer than the previous post (it might not be), it still seems unclear what the notion of 'approximation' is really doing. Granted that contemplation is not an option, practical wisdom is the next best thing (this is uncontroversial, I take it). Is the idea of approximation meant to explain how it can be that an activity which is not the highest can still count as happiness, by virtue of the fact that the exercise of practical wisdom involves the application of rational standards that are importantly similar to those used in theoria?

Two problems for my mind: 1) Why, if only theoria counts as the highest activity, should the manifestly lower activity of practical wisdom count as happiness? I recently ran into this problem with Richard Kraut's account, as well (Aristotle on the Human Good). 2) Why exercise those practical virtues if theoria is still available? That is, what if the philosopher can just emigrate? The practical virtues presumably do not lose their value when contemplation is available for a person.

In reading Kraut's account, I was struck that, though he dismisses Ackrill's 'inclusive' reading, he might very profitably characterize the relationship between the virtues and theoretical wisdom in much the way that Ackrill tries to characterize the relationship between eudaimonia and intrinsic goods. Could eudaimonia consist in a composite of virtuous activities, of which contemplation is the 'dominant' activity? Something like that would make the practical virtues a more integral part of eudaimonia than they end up seeming on Kraut's account (where he at times seems to treat their relationship to contemplation as he treats the relationship between 'intrinsic goods' and the practical virtues, i.e., as 'resources' necessary to enable the higher practice) and save Aristotle from the problems that we seem to have gotten him into, namely, of why someone who can engage in contemplation will bother to exercise the practical virtues at all. If the practical virtues are necessary, but insufficient, for perfect happiness, which is only achieved when one engages in both the practical virtues and theoria, then we could say that the philosopher in MP's examples chose his actions for their own sake and for the sake of eudaimonia without choosing them for the sake of theoria.

I may simply be rehearsing old and whithered interpretations of this problem, and if so, I apologize. In any event, I still don't understand how the notion of approximation will get us very far, especially in the case of the philosopher who does have the option of contemplation.

Anonymous said...

Thank you both for your helpful comments. I continue to struggle, as you recognize, with what I believe to be a problem common to NE X and REP V : why should a philosopher, if theoria is his highest good, willingly turn away from it for substantial periods to practice the civic excellences ?
The answer that he must do so, if he is to survive in the world, is surely correct as far as it goes, but it is also unsatisfactory. What sort of happy life will the philosopher enjoy if he is regularly compelled to abandon theoria and practice politics & money-grubbing & the military arts? The idea that such a composite life could be a happy one is a joke. Its parts are at war with one another, theoria forever resenting and despising time lost to playing with swords and coins. The philosopher will at best begrudgingly and minimally endure the roles of citizen and ruler---unless something else motivates him to look upon his practical activities in another, better light.
Lear offers us the suggestion that a philosopher might practice his civic roles in a way that imitates or emulates theoria. A philosopher might make and administer just laws in a way that he sees as a deliberate attempt to realize (as far as one can) perfect justice. If his practical activities, do you see, can be done in a way that consciously imitates his theoretical studies, we have given the philosopher a reason to want to do so, and do so well, (and enjoying living this composite life) , given that he must engage in these practical affairs in any case. He will not despise and misprize his creative statesmanship if it has this clear purpose of actualizing justice in an actual polity.
That is the programme I take from Lear, though I understand she may reject this intrepretation of her work. And I have given only a few vague hints as to how one might actually legislate or lead with the conscious goal of doing so in way that imitates theoria.

Anonymous said...

It seems to me right that 'approximation' would be most useful for effecting a kind of project of reconciliation between contemplation and action. It would be a handy device to use for someone who wanted to be devoted exclusively to philosophy but found that he had to live a 'mixed' life (at best). But: (i) Does Aristotle show signs of being concerned with that project? (ii) If he does, he hardly says anything with enough explicitness as to make us think that he regarded 'approximation' as providing the clue. (Think how much more explicit he could have been --like Plato, as you intimate.) 

Posted by Michael Pakaluk