BMCR 2004.07.34

Response: Lear on Almeida on Lear

Response to 2004.06.46

I was glad to read Joseph A. Almeida’s (A.) review of my Happy Lives and the Highest Good. He is quite right that an important and, perhaps, controversial claim of my book is that Aristotle’s use of “for the sake of” in the NE can be illuminated by his discussion of final causation in the Physics and other scientific works. But allow me to clarify what accepting my thesis does not require: it does not require accepting “the removal of awareness from final ethical causality” nor that “the moral agent as such pursues his ultimate human happiness unconsciously.” Aristotle believes that human beings (as well as animals) achieve their ends in part by desiring them (p.35). A fortiori, this holds for the moral agent as well. My point was that, according to Aristotle, something does not become a genuine end for us simply because we desire it or because it would maximize our desire satisfaction. On the contrary, the fact that an end is independently proper to us — loosely, that it is what our human nature is for — is what makes the desiring of it appropriate. So it is not correct to say that, in my interpretation of Aristotle, moral agency does not involve awareness. In particular, I argue in my final chapter that the philosopher qua moral agent will desire his actions as, among other things, worth choosing for the sake of contemplative happiness.

However, it is true that in my interpretation I leave room for the possibility that, to use A.’s colorful example, a soldier taking a bullet pro patria may display practical wisdom even if he doesn’t know that philosophical contemplation is the highest human good for the sake of which his action is worth choosing. Again, let me clarify. What I think is that a person can be morally virtuous and practically wise in Aristotle’s sense without having the fullest possible understanding of what makes morally virtuous actions worth choosing. But I am not suggesting that such a person could choose his action for any reason at all and still be courageous. On the contrary, he must choose his action as being for the sake of the best rational activity. In doing so, he displays his understanding of the truth that the most excellent rational activity is what makes human life in general, and this action in particular, worth choosing. This “awareness” is central to what makes his action genuinely virtuous. What such a person does not see is that excellent practical reasoning gets its value — and thus its ability to confer value — from excellent contemplation. It is worth choosing for this reason, even if it is not chosen for this reason.

A. apparently finds this suggestion nonsensical, but there is nothing odd in the thought that, in general, agents may knowingly succeed in achieving an end without intending or even understanding the further good/end that makes the intermediate end worth choosing. (For instance, a bridle-maker’s success is not tainted if he fails to understand the nature and value of the end his bridles must ultimately serve — military victory, so Aristotle thinks, NE I.1, p. 36.) And whether the thought is odd or not, it is Aristotle’s.

Of course, as A. rightly points out, it is more controversial to claim that, in Aristotle’s view, a morally virtuous agent may have something less than a complete understanding of the human good. Perhaps the idea causes A. to despair on behalf of his less philosophical friends. But I think it gives them more hope than they’ll get from the inclusivists. After all, if contemplation is a necessary component of happiness (as inclusivists would have it), then no one without philosophy can be happy, and, unless they understand the value of what they are missing, it is doubtful whether they can be practically wise either.