Is Philosophy Necessary for the Good Life?

Like many of my fellow Sweet Talkers, I’ve got an interest in philosophy, and especially ethics. But as interested as I’ve found it to be, the more I read, the more I have this nagging question:

Is philosophy necessary for a good and virtuous life? If so, then must we write off all of humanity as incapable of achieving the good life, save for the tiny sliver of those that engage in philosophy (never mind getting particular about which philosophy). If not, then what is the purpose of a philosophy of morality in the first place?

In the preface to Fragility of Goodness, Martha Nussbaum writes:

Like Socrates, I think that modern democracies need philosophy, if they are to realize their potential. And they not only need Socratic inquiry and self-examination, they also need engagement with complex ethical theories, prominently including theories of social justice.

If democracy’s potential requires the median voter to have “engagement with complex ethical theories”, then democracy is doomed to never fulfill its potential. Forgive me if that is excessively cynical.

But if philosophy and complex ethical theories are not to play the role that Nussbaum envisions, what role are they to play, if any?

Whence Irrationality?

Spivonomist acknowledges our ship is overcome by a fogbank, declaring, “I irrationally want people to act well of their own accord, to work towards developing excellence in themselves and within their communities without having to be bribed.” We battle-weary sailors are grateful to find our feet upon terra firma, and as soon as our sea-legs can carry us to the saloon, we commence the battle to forget our misery.

One of our crew stumbles to his next stop, and she snares him, saying, “Hello, sailor, I will love you a long time.” She is appealing to his strength, namely that a man who has been, until moments ago, interminably upon the swells, and is now soused, should need a long time for love, that is, if he can, indeed, love. They agree upon a contract for the archetypical euvoluntary exchange, and he goes into her home, emerging after ten minutes of ecstasy, now short a few drachmas and the last few fragments of his soul.

Virtue Ethics is seductive because it appeals to our strength. We sailors heady for the fray damn the torpedoes and the raging seas for a time, but soon we find ourselves under the command of a mysterious captain who is searching, ever searching, ever pursuing eudaimonia, when, all along, she is found ashore, near the saloon. If, indeed, we can love, we cannot love for a long time because we have participated in evil against our best desires, which torments us to exhaustion. A sailor can then acquire eudaimonia for a price, but makarismos is bestowed upon the weak. Not upon the evil-doers, to be sure, but to those whose battle against the seas has overcome them to the extent that they cannot even mutiny against the evil they so much despise. A wise man waits quietly for the wheel of justice to do its grinding.

The logic works, doesn’t it? Even if it’s irrational: with the bestowal of makarismos we are strengthened to raise up our heads, renewed to pursue eudaimonia into the darkest seas and in the darkness of the seashore.

Errata: Honor and Eudaimonia

PV writes:

Could honor have use value sufficient to stimulate optimal social production? Or, are there first mover advantages to an honorable person? Are there network effects to honor? If any of these questions deserves a yes (or even a maybe) then we have an economic theory as to why honor might be something that does not require external reward, i.e. honors. We have an economic theory explaining the Aristotelian intuition—honor is something you do without external reward. There are rewards internal to the behavior—especially in the long term—and no dire public good problem exists.

Important questions deserve serious answers. “Honor is its own reward” sounds nice, and it’s assuredly aspirational, but my training in economics urges me to think on the margin, so to speak. What motivates the next honorable act? So “could honor have use value sufficient to stimulate optimal social production?” For people with a natural propensity to act honorably, I reckon the answer is yes. External incentives are there for otherwise indecisive folks to behave honorably, even if honor isn’t otherwise a part of their character. 

I admit, this sticks in my craw a bit. Honorable behavior spurred by promises of acclaim are pallid, anemic. It ain’t eudaimonia. It’s makarismos. Consider DD‘s closing question ” why bother with all the labor of ethical virtuousness if I can get the same benefits without working?” The reason to bother is because sloth is a vice. It galls the sensibilities to be obliged to pay someone for virtuous behavior, even if the outcomes of the exchange are felicitous. It feels like dirty pool. Or maybe like a dirty pool. Whatever.

My complaint is chiefly aesthetic, I admit. Here I am bathed in the milk of peaceful voluntary exchange and it rankles me that there’s a market in virtue. I irrationally want people to act well of their own accord, to work towards developing excellence in themselves and within their communities without having to be bribed. I want eudaimonia. I have a hunch that the possibilities forwarded by Peter (first mover, network effects) are more likely to exist for eudaimonic honor than for makarismic “honor”, but that’s still just my own sense of right and wrong, and it’s as fallible as the garden of good and evil in which my ethics were cultivated.

Why Eudaimonia?

In an unacknowledged, but award-worthy tweet I asked, “Why is the telos of arete eudaimonia and not makarismos?” Since eudaimonia is the telos of arete (as developed since Classical times as Virtue Ethics), it has a well-known, broadly discussed definition, which you can find all over the place, starting here (I mean, ad fontes, eh?). But why not makarismos? The two words share most of the same semantic field, and any debate about what makarismos is vis-à-vis Virtue Ethics would fall along pretty much the exact same contour. I wonder, then, why the one over the other? Did they flip a drachma? Or does eudaimonia lend something to the Gestalt of Virtue Ethics that gives the term its advantage? Let’s explore just a bit. Consider the following diagram:


Except for the terms “acquired” and “bestowed,” each of the vocables within both semantic fields are read for both (I didn’t run a search on frequency distribution, but this is good enough). I have added the distinguishing terms, basically out of sense. When eudaimonia is read, generally the actor is active; when makarismos is read, generally the actor is passive. Divine beings, or those attributed as being divinities, possess eudaimonia. Naturally, those who are going about the work of ethical virtuousness are pursuing eudaimonia. Ethical virtuousness is not a requirement for the bestowal of makarismos.

A question, then, which I think is obvious: why bother with all the labor of ethical virtuousness if I can get the same benefits without working?

Before I ask, however, I pause: neither did I search for provenance. Perhaps makarismos is just a dirty, stinking, rotten Macedonian word, not fit for the sterile Athenian marketplace.



Dave Brat and Deirdre McCloskey

Something rather remarkable has happened in American politics. An incumbent has been ousted in the primaries. What’s more, it’s house majority leader Eric Cantor. A house majority leader lost… in the primaries. A first time for everything. Needless to say, the press has been in a tizzy.

Quoth Tyler the Cowen: “”Brat loves Deirdre McCloskey” is surely worth a blog post from…someone.”

Challenge accepted.

From Brat’s “Protecting Values” page (here)  (emphasis added):

As our congressman, Dave Brat will oppose any efforts to allow those who entered this country illegally to cut in line, violate the rule of law and take jobs and tax dollars away from hard working Americans who have played by the rules.


Dave will protect the rights of the unborn and the sanctity of marriage, and will oppose any governmental intrusion upon the conscience of people of faith.

Dave Brat cites McCloskey approvingly here. Le quote (emphasis added):

“Economic growth is important. Without economic growth, the entire world was trapped at incomes of $500 per year until about 1800. Today, the average American worker is closer to $50,000.

“What caused this massive increase in human welfare? The basic lecture in economics would tell you the answers are capital investment, education and technological advances.

“However, Deidre McCloskey’s work reveals that virtue may in fact be the one major cause of all causes of economic growth.

“About 1800, some countries in northwestern Europe began to socially validate and value and even praise the innovator class — the geeks. We called them morally good.

“Prior to this virtue story, other economists, such as Doug North and Brad DeLong, were  showing us how important property rights, the rule of law and even Protestant institutions were to economic growth in northern Europe.

“The latest in economic research shows that ethical ideas may matter just as much as traditional economic variables in generating long-run economic growth.”

I assume that given Brat’s interpretation of virtue, he’s not inclined to cite Auntie Deirdre’s most moving work (excerpt here) detailing her transition from Donald to Deirdre.

Look people. I’ve said it elsewhere, and I’ll reckon that if Professor McCloskey herself stops by, she might be inclined to endorse this sentiment, the best heuristic for governance we’ve stumbled on in the history of Western Civilization comes to us from Plato via Aristotle, Solon, and Adam Smith himself: the divine maxim to do no more harm to the nation than you would to your own parents. If you’d be willing to throw your own mother in the slammer because she’d dare fall in love with another woman or hire help from overseas, perhaps you’ve abdicated the moral high ground.

Cue Skwire’s First Law.

Honor = Innovation?

Sam’s characterization of honor (as a personal characteristic–honor type A–rather than a reward–honor type B) is honor as a public good. It’s costly to have honor and the benefits of honorable behavior are not internalized by the honorable individual. It’s a positive externality in need of subsidization. Sam’s subsidies are honors (the reward–honor type B), things like ribbons, monuments, songs etc. Sam finishes his excellent post with a cautionary meditation on the public versus private provision of these subsidies:

Describe quietly to yourself as you reflect on this the likely agency problems of the sovereign awarding honors. Compare that to private honors offered by people unencumbered by a principal-agent problem.

Sam’s right, we should carefully consider whether the public provision of honors is faithful to the stimulation of real honor, whatever we as principals think it to be. The problem Sam is describing neatly mirrors debates about intellectual property law. We have a public good—innovation—and we have a subsidy via signals—patents, copyrights and trademarks. The nut of the debate in IP policy is whether we are faithfully incentivizing science and art, or merely rewarding rent-seekers (the RIAA, MPAA, Big Pharma, etc.). And, just like private honors, we do have private rewards for creativity and innovation. Tenure is the most obvious, but we shouldn’t forget privately-funded contests like the X-prize, or soft rewards like the prestige of being a notable contributor to open-source software libraries or the power of a successful YouTube account. Let me leave that analogy between honor and innovation to percolate for a moment.

Adam chimes in suggesting that honors may not be incentives to honor so much as bits of information necessary to discover what is honorable.

What is honorable is not something we simply know the same way we know how to breathe. We learn what is honorable by, at minimum, using what is honored as a starting point.

In IP policy we often talk of both incentives and coordination. The inventor or artist needs both a goad and a direction. You can think of the subsidy policy as a vector: it has both magnitude (incentive to invent) and direction (coordination of what should be invented). Adam’s saying we may or may not need incentives for honor (and it is intuitive—as well as ancient—to say that honor is something you cultivate without reward) but he’s suggesting that we do need coordination.

Building on my IP analogy, I’d like to disagree (for the sake of conversation) with both Adam and Sam here. There is a school of thought in IP policy that says that most of the work of incentivizing and coordinating innovation is internal to the innovation itself. Von Hippel writes about “user innovators,” who invent and publicly release their inventions—i.e. provide public goods—because the fractional private benefit they obtain from invention-use is sufficient to stimulate the public good’s optimal social production. Similarly, first-mover-advantage and network-effects theories can also explain why innovation may need no external goad or coordination. I innovate because by being the first to do so I will more likely capture temporary monopoly rents (as competitors rush to imitate) or because if my product becomes the standard in a network (the Facebook to your Myspace) I’ll also capture rents.

Could honor have use value sufficient to stimulate optimal social production? Or, are there first mover advantages to an honorable person? Are there network effects to honor? If any of these questions deserves a yes (or even a maybe) then we have an economic theory as to why honor might be something that does not require external reward, i.e. honors. We have an economic theory explaining the Aristotelian intuition—honor is something you do without external reward. There are rewards internal to the behavior—especially in the long term—and no dire public good problem exists.

I’m not certain what exactly honor’s use-value, first mover advantage, or network effects would look like. My intuition tells me it’s basically stoicism or, perhaps, Taleb’s “antifragility.” Honor (or dignity) is a guard against anxiety, rash action, and—cumulatively—monoculture or herd behavior and the madness of crowds. People develop a personal bearing that, as Sam eloquently puts it, is “staid in adversity, durable against insult, and refuses to cower when threatened.” These are the traits that may cost you in the short run, but their use value—perhaps the psychic benefit of avoiding agitation—could be sufficient to warrant their adoption despite benefit spillovers. Or, similarly, they may enable you to reap some long term benefit from anti-fragility. As the crowd of lemmings goes over the cliff your once costly non-conformity has paid off big. Moreover, you cultivate this honor not because you can reasonably predict the realization of any of these rewards. Instead, it’s just something you do. As Taleb says,

Wear your best for your execution and stand dignified. Your last recourse against randomness is how you act — if you can’t control outcomes, you can control the elegance of your behaviour. You will always have the last word.

Beauty grows on trees

I just recently returned from France to my home in Atlantic Canada. It was my first time in the country, and I was glad to have spent it within the lush, rolling pastures of Normandy, made famous through the artwork of impressionist par excellence, Claude Monet, during his years in Giverny, long before the Allied liberation I was there to commemorate.

Impressionism happens to be one of my favourite genres of art due its resonance with my philosophical appreciation for David Hume. Hume believed that our aesthetic standards, much like our moral ones, derive from inner sentiments that project approbations on our “sensory impressions”.  The snap-shot framing common in impressionism even mirrors Hume’s empiricism, with each short, thick brush stroke as a ray of light, a sense datum within our kaleidoscopic perception.


Beauty, Hume maintained, does not realize itself by ideas, but by a conformity between the object and our inner sense. As he wrote in the Standards of Taste, “beauty and deformity, more than sweet and bitter, are not qualities in objects, but belong entirely to the sentiment, internal or external; it must be allowed, that there are certain qualities in objects, which are fitted by nature to produce those particular feelings.” That “nature” we know to be biological evolution, which cross cultural surveys suggest has predisposed us to relish, among other things, the sight of an evergreen landscape, presumably for its signal of hydration and plenty.

Beauty, then, really does grow on trees. But how do we reconcile this with Adam’s point in his discussion with David that all art is a conversation which necessarily requires a group with shared concepts and ideas?

The difference lies in the distinction between aesthetics on the one hand and art on the other, a distinction that leads to an abyss of confusion if not addressed head on. The late David Best gives an excellent example of this in his 1985 book, Feeling and Reason in the Arts. Drawing on Wittgenstein’s argument against the possibility of a private language, Best sees art, unlike aesthetics, as a type of language game, whereby “individual creativity depends upon the existence and grasp of a social practice.” A philosopher of rhythm and movement, he gives the following excellent example, which I’ve pulled from this review:

Some years ago I was privileged to attend a performance by Ram Gopal, the great Indian classical dancer, and I was quite captivated by the exhilarating and exquisite quality of his movements. Yet I was unable to appreciate his dance artistically since I could not understand it. For instance, there is a great and varied range of subtle hand gestures in Indian classical dance, each with a quite precise meaning, of which I knew none. It is clear that my appreciation was aesthetic, not artistic.

This formulation isn’t only applicable to humans. If you’re ambitious, try to imagine the wonderful aesthetic sensations honey bees must experience upon receiving the ultraviolet sense impressions of a pollen laden Golden crocus, before returning to the hive, and transmitting said beauty through the artistic medium of the waggle dance.  While the sentiment produced by the flower may be immediate and personal, the dance only works to communicate because each specie of bee has a genetic understanding of their particular waggle dance rules.

Humans have the capacity to learn the rules of a particular art and then bend them, inventing new forms of artistic media and waggle dances all our own. But it is important to bear in mind that the rules would cease to exist without the aesthetics underlying them. Even in Manga, another captivating form for which I (like Indian classical dance was for Best) have no artistic appreciation, the unique and extremely idiosyncratic iconography Adam highlights are all conspicuously exploiting a Pleistocene aesthetic, in the same way cheesecake exploits our adaptive sweet tooth. Namely, Manga hits on the sentimental fondness for cutesy and wide eye child-like facial features that one would expect in a species that protects and invests as heavily in their kin as humans do.

So in some sense David and Adam are both right. Adam is right that art can never be a private affair — it, by its very nature, is a social practice. Yet David wasn’t deluded when he reported experiencing aesthetic delight upon his introduction to anime, because the latter feeds up into the former. For without that shared evolutionary heritage, the conversation could never begin.

I’m Samuel by the way, and am pleased to be joining the Sweet Talk team. You can follow me on twitter @hamandcheese and I run an independent blog called Abstract Minutiae, where I try to bridge the conceptually near and far from using the ideas of Quine and Hayek. I’m also an economics student, commencing my MA in the fall. Cheers.


Discounting the Uncountable

Those of you who follow me at Euvoluntary Exchange may have noticed this post from yesterday. In it, I claim that if you account for depreciation when reckoning the discounted present costs of sea level change (or most any non-extinction slow disruption), gloomy forecasts of ruin lose quite a bit of their bite, particularly when it seems clear that the best way out of the dilemma is economic growth.

I suspect that this argument is unconvincing for a great many people. A great many people will easily recognize that ocean level changes are but one of a suite of devastating environmental outcomes from global climate change. You can’t depreciate your way out of oceanic acidification or sterility. You can’t use an accounting trick to capture the loss of habitat. You can’t even really properly account for an animal’s own valuation of its life. If there is to be an environmental cataclysm, the critters most likely to survive will be the ones that have some sort of reciprocal (be it predatory, symbiotic, or parasitic) relationship with humans. The only hope that economically useless animals have is to continue to rely upon the tender mercy of caring people.

In other words, if the shit hits the fan, they can kiss their grits goodbye. Perhaps it’s just my far mode speaking, but I find this disquieting. And it’s disquieting mostly because this is a tragedy of the planetary commons, and we’re not quite ready to ditch this planet just yet. 

And how to overcome a tragedy of the commons with no toothsome leviathan? Sweet talk is dandy, but incentives are quicker. Contests to reward innovation in alternative energy sources are a nice start. Carbon taxes are at best a stopgap and at worst a confused brake on economic growth (recall that inter alia, oil field exploration and roads are heavily subsidized). There’s a whole big clowder of cats out there in dire need of being herded. Better to give them a mouse to chase than to lay about a-walloping their flanks with a hickory bough.

Anime is Sacred, Indoctrination is Profane


My bother David is not pleased with the post I wrote about how we appreciate art.

In my very serious response, I’m going to pretend that he was talking about Anime or Manga rather than art in general.

David doesn’t want to buy into any institutional theory of Anime, because he does not believe that Anime’s value is arbitrary. Moreover, he doesn’t like the idea that partaking in the sublime enjoyment of giant sweatdrops indicating embarrassment requires that he be a member of a group. We must not sully the sacredness of Anime with the profaning influence of group indoctrination.

As far as I’m concerned, Protagoras of Abdera has this all figured out thousands of years ago. In the Platonic dialogue that bears his name, Protagoras argues that people spend their whole lives teaching one another right and wrong. He said that if learning to play the flute was the same as learning right and wrong, we would all be prolific flute players, though there would still be variation in talent. Perhaps there would be variation in taste as well—the dialogue does not imply that he thought so.

My question to David is: how did he even discover Anime in the first place? It’s a very strange thing, with a whole iconography of facial expressions and reactions that have nothing to do with how people look or react to things. The answer is that you get introduced to Anime—directly or indirectly—by people. The fact that other people value it and talk about it makes you aware of its existence at all. Part of the joy of watching it is being able to talk to other people about it.

At this point I hear David saying: “Wait a minute. Say Anime just happened to be on the TV when I was a kid and no one actively introduced me to it. Say I never talk to anyone about it ever, I just cherish my private enjoyment of it.”

But you cannot escape community by this means, because the creators are part of a community by necessity! Anime does not spring up in a vacuum.  Artists and writers and voice actors and producers and directors all practice a craft which they learned from other people—either directly through instruction or indirectly through imitation—and by practicing that craft with other people playing the other essential roles. The devoted Anime fan sees every mech series as standing on the shoulders of Mobile Suit Gundam and other predecessors; the devoted fan sees how creators have learned from one another while also trying to do things their own way. They see the conversation.

Anime is a conversation, and conversations by definition require a group of people conversing.

Often denigration of the form is tied to denigration of the people. Anime fans have been denigrated as some version of “abnormal, insane people” for as long as people have watched Anime. That is because Anime is tied to the community of people watching and creating it; it just is.

I cannot help but see David’s attempt to demarcate Anime’s intrinsic value from merely arbirarily valued anime in the context of modern philosophers of science’s attempts to demarcate Science and Truth from mere truths, something Deirdre McCloskey has expended a great deal of energy arguing against. We humans do not experience anything meaningful—in terms of knowledge or aesthetics—without conceptual schemes, and conceptual schemes are built socially. They just are.

Anime doesn’t grow on trees.

Honoring the Honorable

Sam’s post puts me in mind of a problem Julia Annas spells out with Aristotle’s concept of greatness of soul. By Aristotle’s reckoning, someone with greatness of soul does what is honored by people, but does not do it for the sake of being honored. Instead, he does it out of honor, the noun rather than the verb—because it is the right thing to do. But if that’s the case, then what’s the point of the honoring in the first place? Why do we need to make reference to it at all to describe an honorable person, if it comes from within rather than without?

Sam’s answer is the classic economics one—we need honorable people in the world, and if we make them take on all the costs of being honorable without any reward, there will be fewer of them. This, of course, simply casts aside Aristotle’s requirement for greatness of soul in favor of of allowing in external incentives.

There’s a middle ground here, though, I think. Consider that honoring may also serve as information. What is honorable is not something we simply know the same way we know how to breathe. We learn what is honorable by, at minimum, using what is honored as a starting point. Aristotle did—though he and the Hellenistic schools that came after him (and used the same starting point) ultimately revised conventional notions substantially in the course of their inquiries.

Because few of us become truly honorable, and we are naturally drawn to being honored the way that econ 101 would lead us to expect, I do think that Sam’s story plays a big role. The informational honoring and the incentivizing honoring are not mutually exclusive. But I do think Aristotle was correct that those who are most praiseworthy do not do the honorable thing for praise.