Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Doing what it is your thing to do - circa 1270

All right, I admit sometimes I get a little too philosophical on this blog. It just creeps up on me because I read through so much to figure out what is important to me and what matters. And some of it might start to appear a little remote from what I am most interested in, namely how to rethink the economy so it delivers for people, rather than just lurching from crisis to crisis.

So here with a little reservation - and briefly - is a book I read last week: Thomas Aquinas: A Very Short Introductionby Fergus Kerr.

The reason I read it - and it is indeed mercifully short - is my growing interest in virtue ethics, which can be traced through a number of discussions on this blog. The potential value of virtue ethics is it gets around some of the biggest blockages we have in talking about how we should incentivize people, or what purposes individuals or society should have.

Instead of ultimate ends or universal rules or procedural rules, virtue ethics is about cultivation of character and judgment. And it may be the key way out of the trap of liberal neutrality about values and purposes which block us even talking about how to move forward as a society.

Mainstream Economics is based on a shallow Benthamite utilitarianism, after all. Mainstream psychology is only just reemerging from three generations of positivistic narrowness. Mainstream contemporary liberalism cares much more about identiy and redistribution and equality than purpose.

We can't get to the bottom of what has gone wrong with the economy unless we rethink some of our assumptions. Some of the ethical foundations underlying our liberal (in the broad sense) structures that are crumbling under weight they were never meant to bear.

As we saw, virtue ethics starts with Aristotle's Nichomachean Ethics, and it was a predominant way of thinking about ethics in the west for two thousand years.

Aquinas is one of the main figures in that tradition. He was a Dominican monk who reinterpreted Aristotle through a Christian perspective in the 1260s and 1270s. He adds Christian virtues of faith, hope and charity to four older "cardinal virtues" - courage, justice, temperance and prudence, embedded in a huge theological treatise, the Summa Theologica.

Deirdre McCloskey takes Aquinas seriously. I admired her book. So I decided I needed to read a little more about this set of virtues.

Aquinas is a significant extenstion of Aristotle and remains an important part of Catholic teaching to this day. As Kerr says of Aquinas,

What his students should have taken away, and what we might highlight today, is an account of the good life for human beings, including reflections on the ultimate end, action, intention and choice, virtue and character - in short, what philosophers have recently labelled `virtue ethics'.
I'm not a Catholic so this tradition is largely new to me. And the Summa Theologica is a vast edifice of theology which is far beyond the scope of what I want to do.

But I do like the teleological or purposeful focus of what he is saying. To be horribly simplistic, the meaning of life is for people to take action on "what it is their thing to do." According to Kerr,

Creatures most resemble God simply in that they are, and in doing what it is their thing to do, so to speak. In effect, Thomas seems to be recommending a contemplative attitude towards things if we are to know anything about what God is like. ..

The notion of being - of what it means to be - is that being is intrinsically self-communicative and relational through action: `every substance exists for the sake of its operation', as Thomas often says, in some form or another. This runs all through Thomas's thought. Being is not a state but an act, being is dynamic, it's energy, it's act - finite beings are relational because they depend on one another, they lack so much; but also because they have a certain innate drive to self-communication, to enrich others, so to speak.
And in that sense, Aquinas is a prime example of this deeper, older tradition in the West. Once we lost a sense of what people's purpose is - and ruled it out of order as a question in many cases - it became harder to discuss some of the main challenges of society.

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