Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Aristotle: Virtue and Happiness

I'm going to conclude a series of posts about Aristotle's The Politics , which start here.

He warns again against simply doling out surplus, as in a welfare state - which apparently happened at the time, and notoriously so later in antiquity in the form of Roman bread and circuses.

On the other hand if revenues are available, one should not do what popular leaders today do - make a free distribution of the surplus. (When people get it, they want the same again: this sort of assistance to the poor is like the proverbial jug with a hole in it.) .. Every effort therefore must be made to perpetuate prosperity. And since that is to the advantage of the rich as well as the poor, all that accrues from the revenues should be collected into a single fund and distributed in block grants to those in need, if possible in lump sums large enough for the acquisition of a small piece of land, but if not, enough to start a business, or work in agriculture. p375

Independence is preferable to simply handing out revenues, he thinks. It is a timeless thought. Often we think we are the first generation to confront a problem, or we are wonderfully modern and sophisticated. But it is just as often because we don't know how often it has been confronted in the past. We forget lessons which were already manifest in 350 B.C.


A constitution needs a view of the most desirable life

However, he comes back to his main point. We have to know what the good life is to design political institutions to achieve it.

If we wish to investigate the best constitution appropriately, we must first decide what is the most desirable life; for if we do not know that, then the best constitution is also bound to elude us. p391

He believes that virtue is the precursor to prosperity and happiness.

Thus people suppose that it is sufficient to have a certain amount of virtue; but they set no limit to the pursuit of wealth, power , prosperty, reputation and the like. {But} it is not by means of external goods that men acquire and keep the virtues, but the other way around; and to live happily, whether men suppose it to consist in enjoyment or in virtue or in both, does in fact accrue more to those who are outstandingly well-equipped in character and intellect, and only moderately so in the possesion of externally-acquired goods. p392

Of course, one of the more difficult issues in life is that sometimes character and virtue are not rewarded, of course. Time and chance happen to everyone. But it is still probable that as a rule people who are prudent and temperate and courageous and honest will do better. Parents generally teach their children to be honest rather than lie, after all. And living happily has only a tenuous connection with wealth and material goods beyond a certain threshold, as we know from the Easterlin paradox.

So Aristotle may overstate the point when he says

Let this then be agreed upon at the start: to each man there comes just so much happiness as he has of virtue and of practical wisdom, and performs actions dependent thereon. p392

But we would like it to be true. And in the long run, on average, it probably is true - and, like Pascal's bet, it is probably better to act as if we believe it is true.


Defining the Good Life

So what's the good life, or the best life? Not asceticism or denial or honor/shame or material success.

For the present, let this be our fundamental basis: the life which is best for men, both separately, as individuals, and in the mass, as states, is the life which has virtue sufficiently supported by material resources to facilitate participation in the actions that virtue calls for. p393

Although this is open to all, some avenues attract the most ambitious.

Both in earlier and in modern times men most ambitious for virtue seem generally to have preferred these two kinds of life, the statesman's or the philosopher's. p395

We have to have some purpose, or target.

The well-being of all men depends on two things; one is the right choice of target, of the end to which actions should tend, the other lies in finding the actions that lead to that end. p427

Aristotle is very teleological, of course. I often complain about liberal neutrality. But there is a liberal teleological tradition as well, and a leftist one stemming from Marx and Hegel. The problem is the good life they aim at is a vague abstract equality without much substance.

I would add another element. We need a choice of target, if nothing else because the economy and society naturally evolve regardless of whether we choose to perceive it. We can and ought to at least choose the fitness and selection criteria for the kind of change we experience.

So was it worth looking in such detail at a classic work, from a world in which a trireme or a horsecart was high technology? Yes. While looking up the Easterlin reference above, I came across this previous quote from Deirdre McCloskey in this blog post:

The great economist Simon Kuznets, notes his student Richard Easterlin, believed that "the `givens' of economics- technology, tastes, and institutions- are the key actors in historical change, and hence most economic theory has, at best, only limited relevance to understanding long-term change.

The technology has changed since Aristotle's day, of course. But tastes and institutions are still the key actors which we need to understand in a much less superficial way than our own parochial view allows.

And that is why stepping far outside our own parochial view , right back to first principles at the origin of many of our conceptions about ethics and politics, can give us a fresh perspective on our current challenges.

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