23 April 2005

Mid-Level Goods

Some goods, Aristotle says, are reasonably sought both for their own sake and also for the sake of happiness (eudaimonia). G. Lear calls these 'mid-level' goods. Aristotle holds that the actions of particular virtues of character (moderation, courage, generosity) and friendships are 'mid-level goods'.

What is the relationship between mid-level goods and happiness? Some interpreters have held that mid-level goods are instrumentally related to happiness; others, that mid-level goods are constituents of happiness. The former usually propose an 'Intellectualist' reading of the Nicomachean Ethics; the latter, an 'Inclusivist' reading.

Lear regards neither of these relationships as quite correct and argues, instead, that mid-level goods are meant by Aristotle to be 'approximations' (imitations) of happiness, which is philosophical contemplation. Lear can therefore claim to steer a middle course between Intellectualism and Inclusivism: Intellectualism is correct in holding that happiness is just one activity, philosophical contemplation; Inclusivism is correct in holding that happiness includes other activities within its scope, because activities which suitably 'approximate' philosophical contemplation can also be counted as happiness, in a derivative and secondary sense.

But although Lear's interpretation finds a middle-path between common interpretations, and is attractive for that reason, it's not clear to me that it helps resolve any of the difficulties that gave rise those interpretations in the first place.

Lear typically writes as though there is just one 'problem of mid-level goods'. Yet there are at least three, and (as I'll explain in subsequent posts) I don't see how 'approximation' contributes to the resolution of any of these. Given that 'approximation', it seems, is not explicitly affirmed in the Ethics, this then counts as a large reason against relying on it in an interpretation.


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