The Nouveau Old

(Warning: Broad generalizations ahead.)

David’s parable frightened me. How many of the older adults in my life may be writing their life to a similar script? Surely the details would be different: some other, more Baby Boomer-associated value running unchecked?

I recalled parts of this Long Now talk from a few years ago. The speaker, Ken Dychtwarld, claimed that Americans effectively “vote their age”: 30% of 30 year olds vote, as do 50% of 50 year olds and 70% of 70 year olds. The United States is enduring a gerontocratic lurch as the Baby Boomers age. Our culture and our institutions are still accustomed to treating the elderly as weaker and scarcer than they actually are (or will be).

Dychtwarld notes:  “In the US, the old used to be the poorest segment of society. Now they’re the richest. For instance, they buy 80% of luxury travel. So why are they still getting discounts? […] The old do the least volunteering of any age group, and for every 11 cents that children get from government, the old demand and get a dollar.”

The Baby Boomers have enjoyed a special kind of primacy in our politics and culture due largely to their sheer mass.  One Randall Munroe quote that stuck in my mind was that “An ‘American Tradition’ is anything that happened to a Baby Boomer twice”.  Their childhoods are immortalized as the idyllic ’50s in the public imagination. Their adolescent rebellion was the tremendous social phenomenon of the 60’s. As the decades wore on, Superbowl’s were hosted primarily by beer companies, and then increasingly by Viagra. Last year the Boomers were dethroned as the largest age group in the civilian population, though if Ray Kurzweil has his way the Boomer story never really ends. But of course it will.

It mostly remains to be seen what kind of “Elderly” the Boomers will become, but I don’t suspect it will fit the current cultural mold of what the elderly are like, how they behave, or what they value.

Internal Goods, External Goods

I’ve argued in a few places that MacIntyre’s take on goods internal to a practice is highly appealing, but lacking in some way.

Here’s my latest attempt to wrestle with the tension he presents between internal and external goods, drawing on a McCloskeyan sacred/profane dichotomy I used in this post.

For MacIntyre, practices include a set of values that new practitioners must be inculcated into before they can hone their craft. A crucial part of those values is a notion of goodness internal to that practice. External goods are things like public honoring, payment, and prizes, and are used to entice apprentices who have yet to internalize the notion of goodness within the practice. Institutions are the bodies of practice and knowledge devoted to using those external goods to bring people into particular practices. MacIntyre identifies a tension between the purpose of the institution, which is ostensibly to teach acceptance of internal goods, and the tools at its disposal, external goods, which could have a corrupting influence. A potter can fail to judge the quality of his pots by the standards of pottery if, for example, he cares only about what he can sell and for how much.

An economist scoffs at this analysis, for surely pots that easily break or are aesthetically unpleasing (to purchasers) will not sell well, especially over the long run. But craftsmen and practitioners themselves are quite familiar with this distinction, though often employing different terminology. See Bill Watterson on the newspaper comics business:

The comics are a collaborative effort on the part of the cartoonists who draw them, the syndicates that distribute them, and the newspapers that buy and publish them. Each needs the other, and all haves common interest in providing comics features of a quality that attracts a devoted readership. But business and art almost always have a rocky marriage, and in comic strips today the interests of business are undermining the concerns of the art.

It is easy to see in this passage MacIntyre’s internal goods in “the concerns of art” and external goods in “the interests of business.”

I made the following argument before I had read any MacIntyre:

Art, like virtue, is a balancing act—you must balance internal considerations for what you desire to accomplish with the plot, how you want your characters to develop, what sort of visual impacts you want to create, and so on. These are as much a “rocky marriage” as the marriage between them and more external considerations—who your implied audience is, whether there are enough such people to pay your bills, and if so, whether your agent or the syndicate or a publisher can be persuaded as such. To name but a few.

Art is the balance that is struck across all of these factors, not just the internal ones. Sometimes this means taking the Austin Kleon approach (or the one I recommend here) and keeping a day job unrelated to your art, so that what you actually create focuses primarily on striking the internal balance. That is ultimately where Watterson ended up, after he left the public limelight at the end of Calvin and Hobbes’ run.

Often, though, the things we think of as truly great were created by striking the best balance creators were capable of out in the marketplace—in partnership with the many merchants and middlemen who operate in that space.

My McCloskeyan take on the tension between internal and external goods goes as follows: actual practices require us to internalize the external goods to a great extent. All practices in history only survive because there is some material way of supporting them. Sometimes this is through direct purchase, sometimes it is patronage, and sometimes we take the Austin Kleon path. But the practitioner will have some notion of the good that is informed by but not subservient to what consumers or patrons or audiences signal their beliefs to be on the subject.

Focusing on the internal goods makes us more reliable, and better at our craft. But part of that focus involves reshaping our relationship to the external goods—for instance, working to make money in order to participate in MacIntyre’s networks of uncalculated giving, or taking consumer preferences as an input but not the only one, and hardly a given.

In any case full inculcation into a practice is not merely casting off caring about external goods in order to favor internal goods; a process of internalizing those external goods in relationship to the practice is a crucial part of the internal goods themselves.

Feedback extremely welcome on this.

Ethics is Tied to the Question of Living Well

David’s parable of the lonely nonagenarian is a sad reminder of the importance of the unity of the virtues, as well as the inextricable link between becoming virtuous and living well. Coming of age during the Great Depression, the elderly grandmother was inculcated with an extreme reverence for the virtue of frugality. Yet unbalanced by other virtues, frugality can become self-defeating and miserly. If one is going to have a house custom built—itself a remarkable departure from frugality—the place to cut corners is not in the quality of the craftsmanship, especially if one is living alone!

Moreover, having a home custom made, at the age of 79, in an area where one does not have any friends or family, does not seem to me to be wise.

My biggest takeaway from the story is that the clearest sign that she had deviated from the path of virtue and practical wisdom is that she had pursued frugality beyond the point where it hindered her ability to flourish.

The idea that ethics has anything to do with flourishing, or living well, remains puzzling to most people in modern societies with modern moral instincts. The fact that the ancients emphasized this connection has led many to conclude that theirs was an egoistic philosophy.

But this is plainly not true. Flourishing can involve living your life primarily for others—your children or grandchildren, your community, your country. As Nussbaum emphasizes, Aristotelian ethics has a view of living well which may include a great deal of unpleasantry and even giving your own life. But one thing is clear—flourishing does not involve being miserably isolated and alone in a run-down house that no one wants to buy from you.