30 April 2005

How Would Approximation Work Here?

I think many of us regard ourselves as floundering in trying to grasp this notion of 'approximation'. I don't take that itself to cast suspicion on the notion. Rather, I think it's extremely difficult to understand what it means to say that ethical action is reasonable (as I do believe).

Here's the sort of thing about which Aristotle says something fairly definite. Can we say with some confidence whether or not approximation works here?

I go to the store and make a purchase. Say, I buy a box of candies for $6. I give the cashier a $10 bill. The cashier mistakenly believes I've used a $20 bill and gives me $14 in change. I don't count my change until later, when I'm in another store and take out money to pay for something else. Then I discover the extra money and realize that the cashier had made a mistake.

There's no issue of getting caught or being found out. It was an 'honest mistake' and the sum is relatively small. Nonetheless I decide that I'll go back and return the extra $10. Let's suppose that I don't think that "I should" go back, or that "it would be wrong" if I didn't. Let's just say that this strikes me as a good thing to do. Maybe I remember the story of Honest Abe Lincoln from my youth, and I remember, too, that I've often thought that I'd like to do something similarly admirable.

So I return the money. Now, in doing so, I part with $10 that I didn't need to part with. But Aristotle would regard this as a quasi-exchange (see NE 9.8). I part with the $10, and in that respect lose something, but the action which I did was 'noble' (kalon), and I somehow gain this kalon aspect of the action in doing it. Since what is kalon is better than what is useful or chresimon (always or for the most part--it doesn't matter which, because it doesn't matter here) I'm actually better off (Aristotle thinks) having gone back to the store to return the money than if I had pocketed the extra money and returned home, or bought something with it.

I'm fairly confident this way of looking at this 'just' action is Aristotelian in spirit. Now the question is: Does it make sense (does it help, does it seem correct) to say that my returning the money is an 'approximation' to philosophical contemplation?

Another question (which is like one I raised in one of my first posts on the book): Is it that (i) my returning the money is similar to philosophical contemplation, or that (ii) my returning the money is similar to objects of philosophical contemplation (in being kalon)? If the latter, then perhaps we'd want to say: the object of philosophical contemplation and virtuous action is the same, the kalon, but one obtains the kalon in action by doing a kalon action, whereas one obtains the kalon in thinking by thinking about something kalon.

This would make virtuous actions similar to philosophical contemplation, yet I don't see that we should say that the former 'approximates' the latter, unless we held that the kalon of virtuous action approximated the kalon which we contemplate in philosophical contemplation. And yet it would seem bizarre to hold that the sort of kalon produced by the just action described above, which involves (as Aristotle thinks) simple equalities, such as that 6 = (10 - 14) +10 , approximate the kalon of those objects that a philosopher would want to contemplate. (It hardly seems, too, that the great worth of virtuous actions is captured in the reflection: "True enough, 5=5 is a fairly boring truth, but, given that you're in no position to contemplate now, and you need to buy food, that's the best you can achieve for now.")

Btw, Lear deals with courage, moderation, and magnanimity in Happy Lives, but not justice (for space limitations, she explains). But isn't this unfortunate?--because it would seem that justice (as Aristotle understands it, as involving equalities) would likely provide the most promising examples for a theory of 'approximation'.


sean kelsey said...

Michael asks: "Now the question is: Does it make sense (does it help, does it seem correct) to say that my returning the money is an 'approximation' to philosophical contemplation?"

It matters a lot, I think, what we are imagining that saying such a thing might be helpful with. If we ask: does it help us make sense of why I returned the extra change, rather than spending it on a year's supply of jujubes, the answer is probably "no." But if we ask, on the assumption that "living well" is and must be a monistic final end, how it is that all our actions are for such an end--well, here to me at least it is not so clear that the answer is "no." But this much is clear, that it will be from a fairly abstract and theoretical point of view that we are asking whether or not the idea seems correct or helpful (as opposed to: whether or not it seems correct or helpful in interpreting for everyday purposes the decisions and choices of ourselves and others).

In sum: if the idea of approximation is supposed to be "helpful," there is presumably something it is supposed to be helpful with. In thinking about whether it is helpful then we shd. try to get clear on what (if anything) that something is supposed to be. That will matter to our verdict.

Anonymous said...

Is it useful to think of approximation as a familiar kind of Platonic mimesis?
Imagine, first, an artist blessed with a noesis of the Beautiful and moved by it to try to express that vision by making or doing something humanly beautiful ( a statue, a play, a ballet ). The statue of course can at best imitate some formal harmonies or ratios that he intuits in the Beautiful. But the artist is moved to this artful poeisis as a natural response to his noesis/vision, which is the cause of it if you wish.
Just so, the philosopher contemplates Justice and is inspired by it to make just laws and administer justice in a fashion that resembles perfect justice as far as this is possible. The philosopher sees himself as artfully creating a just state as a natural response to his vision of Justice.
We should appreciate this sort of statue, or statute, making as art that aims deliberately to realize a sensible imitation of Beauty or Justice. Arguably, this is the best kind of art, the highest form of poeisis a human can aspire to, directly inspired by a noesis of the transcendent verities.
Michael’s example of returning the $10 is a little too pedestrian an act of honesty to quickly connect with this account , but the rule of returning what is not yours is intuitively a good law to enact in the just state.

Anonymous said...

The comparison with Plato would work, it seems to me, if Aristotle counted ethical ideals (even stories, paradigms, exemplars, heros) as among the things one would want to contemplate. But he doesn't seem to think that. He doesn't even say (which would make the whole problem a lot easier, I think) that the Nicomachean Ethics  gives material for contemplation. (If it did, then, again, we could say that in acting rightly we were merely doing what we had previously been contemplating.) He seems to count the Ethics as an expression of phronesis, not theoria

Posted by Michael Pakaluk

Anonymous said...

Sean Kelsay writes:

"But this much is clear, that it will be from a fairly abstract and theoretical point of view that we are asking whether or not the idea seems correct or helpful."

Okay, but then doesn't this expose Lear to the objection that an account involving 'approximation' belongs to natural science or metaphysics, that it's not proper (oikeion ) to ethics--and that's why we don't find it discussed in NE!

Annas complained that, if approximation were at work in NE, then large portions of Aristotle's natural philosophy and metaphysics would have to be presupposed. Now add: approximation is not explicitly stated in NE; approximation makes sense, if at all, from a fairly abstract and theoretical point of view. And it begins to seem best to conclude that the doctrine is somewhere else, not in the Ethics!


Posted by Michael Pakaluk

sean kelsey said...

Certainly the fact that approximation is not discussed in NE wants explanation, if Lear's account is correct. However, I don't think that the fairly abstract and theoretical considerations I was thinking of are of a sort to invite the concern you mention. They are of a piece with the sorts of topics considered in NE I.

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