24 April 2005

Three Problems in Mid-Level Goods

I claimed there are at least three problems of mid-level (or 'middle-level') goods in Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics. Or, to be more precise, there are at least three problems which arise once one holds, as Lear does (and as I think correct), that happiness (eudaimonia) for Aristotle is a particular sort of activity, namely, the sort of activity we are capable of once we have acquired the virtue of sophia, philosophical wisdom. These problems are:

1. How is it possible for mid-level goods to be worth choosing both for themselves and for the sake of happiness?

2. Why, if contemplation is the ultimate goal, does Aristotle devote the bulk of the Ethics to discussing something else? Or, better: Aristotle seems to take it for granted that happiness is philosophical contemplation as carried out by someone who has all-round virtue. Why?

3. If mid-level goods are for the sake of philosophical contemplation, and therefore they are subordinate or lesser goods, then how do we explain those cases, not uncommon, in which both a mid-level good and philosophical contemplation are available to an agent, and yet it seems that the agent should prefer the mid-level good?

I’ll say more about these later. For now, I want to observe that Lear proposes the theory of ‘approximation’ as an answer largely to 1., and perhaps also to 2., and yet it seems that 3. is the greatest difficulty, but it is unclear how ‘approximation’ could help to resolve it. (It’s unclear why one would ever choose an imitation or approximation of a good, if that good itself were directly available.)