The Diminishing Marginal Utility of Navel-Polishing

Double D forwards an Aristotelian lament: ‘I would like to be able to improve my ability to apply what I’m learning from the Sweet Talk folks.”

In other words, what good is theory without practice, what good is #phronesis without #eudaimonia, what good is armchair philosophy? How long shall I pick the fluff of justice out of my bellybutton before I cowboy up and act with honor, courage, temperance, wisdom, and professionalism in the world of hockey fights, subway frotteurism, and militarized police?

Boy oh boy, what I wouldn’t give for a nice little nostrum, an inspiring bit of practical advice for the ordinary citizen looking to scale the summit of Maslow’s pyramid. 

I have no such advice. Moreover, it would be presumptuous of me to offer any. Virtue is personal and subjective. This isn’t to say that anything goes, but rather that on the margin, it cannot be up to me to tell you whether you’re acting harmoniously, in accordance with the highest virtues, or if you will be remembered for your good deeds. The voyage towards #arete is mere tourism if you let someone else grip your tiller (lol).

You’re right, David. There are diminishing returns to introspection. But there is some heavy mind lifting to be done in translating the virtue ethics into the applications of economics and the topsy-turvy world of abundance that would have flabbered the gast of Plato and Aristotle. Thank you for helping with that, my friends.

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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:

eudaimonia

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.

 

 

McCloskey, Lawler and Middle Class Virtues

Libertarians can often get left out of some of the more interesting bits of cultural commentary going on today. This is not a fault of libertarianism or more broadly the economic frame of mind per se, even stalwart critics of global market capitalism, like Jacobin’s Mike Beggs, are willing to admit most economists are not positivist boogiemen:

Criticism of the incoherence or unrealistic assumptions of neoclassical economics can be easily deflected – most economists will freely admit they are simply heuristics and would be quite happy to be considered pragmatic “casual empiricists.

But all the same, there can be a tendency to double down on economic consequentialism when criticisms of the market surface. It doesn’t do much to reply to the charge the suburbs are alienating with statistics on how cheap the houses are, and how good the schools. It doesn’t do much to reply that the death of the locally owned bookstore isn’t so bad, because now we can get all the books we want on Amazon Prime with Two Day Shipping. The critic is making a point about flourishing, not optimization. The critic can just point out that you are missing the point and that we are made for eudaimonia, not mammon.

This is why I am happy to be writing under the banner of Sweet Talk as I believe Deirdre McCloskey is a useful corrective to the claim that capitalism gains us the world but rids of our soul. She gives libertarians and market oriented conservatives an account not just of human enrichment but of human flourishing. In particular, I want to put her in conversation with the Postmodern Conservative Peter Lawler at National Review (formerly of First Things).

Central to most center right apologies for the modern era is a simple rapture for the virtue of ordinariness. Ordinary people get a lot detractors no matter who they happen to be or in what era. Marx has unkind things to say of the idiocy of rural life, and Jane Jacobs is one of the earliest critics of those who fled the urban core for the safety, and she would likely say banality, of the suburbs. This is a very common social cycle, what is rising is admired and praised, until it is a little too common, then it is derided as alienating and then as it passes away it is eulogized as a unique social structure that was a ticket to a full and dignified life. So it was with the subsidence farmer, the yeoman farmer, the skilled urban tradesman, the factory worker and on and on it goes.

What is constant is the ordinary people. This type of person who fulfilled many social roles throughout history but remains remarkably constant in its character, and is perhaps best identified with Tolkien’s Hobbits. Unpretentious, respectful of philosophers but suspicious of too much abstraction too far from reality, loyal, friendly, always attempting to be as good as one understands where one is, the hobbit is fondly remembered in his past forms, but frequently chided in his present reality. Today’s hobbits are bourgeois and what unites Peter Lawler and Deirdre McCloskey is a love for ordinary people and a belief that even here and now, in some cases especially here and now, it is possible to have a flourishing purposeful life, even if that life is in a Wal-Mart.

For Lawler human nature is like a tall oak,  our feeling of verticality and our sense that the “best way to feel good is to be good” is not going away anytime soon. He believes that “virtue is alive in the tacky McMansions we find in sprawling exurbs.” We cannot rid ourselves of our nature even when we look toward Singularity. Biotechnology cannot get rid of our human anxiety and neither can our loss of the front porch. We will always want to be good, and always make outlets for that to happen. Lawler notes that the bourgeois man, the free man who must work, in many ways heightens the contradictions of our existential problems. Simple aristocratic complacency and leisure is not open to us and neither is the constant work and unity of purpose of a slave’s life. We are free and bound to labor as bourgeois man, neither master nor slave. This is similar to how man is the rational animal, neither angel nor ape. This middle class of the middle being brings in our constant need for industry and it never satisfies. This should, for Lawler, bring about our Augustinian condition, that “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.”

If Lawler’s account for our current condition constitutes an apology, McCloskey’s constitutes a triumph. Her Bourgeois Era begins with an account of why this form of being good allows for mass human flourishing and enrichment. Not only have we gained the world we have kept our souls. She sees criticism of the bourgeois by the tastemakers of society she has named the “clerisy” as being both self-serving and hypocritical. She makes the following criticism in her book The Bourgeois Virtues:

The left side of the clerisy has never wavered in its 150-year-old campaign against the system that has made its arts and sciences possible. Most educated people in our time, though enriched by bourgeois virtues in themselves and in others, imagine the virtue of their lives as heroic courage or saintly love uncontaminated by bourgeois concerns. They pose as rejecting bourgeois ethics.

The educated and artistic class owes their very existence as a mass of society and not just a narrow Republic of Letters to the mass enrichment of society in the first place. McCloskey is firmly committed to the belief that the good life is also the profitable one in many cases.

Now all this is not to say that the two are identical in their praise of our condition. McCloskey is a progressive Episcopalian who praises modern contraception and the belief that abortion is between a woman and her doctor. This is ground that Lawler, as a conservative Catholic, simply cannot tread. Lawler is more circumspect seeing our heightening of Augustinian restlessness as having plenty of outlets that, while fun, will not alleviate our condition. A man can try many rivers before tripping into the Tiber. But what McCloskey and Lawler share in common is a basic orientation toward the ordinary person rather than away. While Lawler sees mixed goods in modernity, he affirms what is good as being authentically so, even in the exurbs. It is this love of hobbits that must be our starting place if we are to look at the world. We must love what is here, now and not fall into utopianism or nostalgia, and that means loving in part or in whole the tacky, hobbitity bourgeoisie.

We Should, Obv.

Adam asks, “Is a “no” from a private property owner truly different in kind than a “no” from a government official? Why?”

The facile answer is that a private property owner cannot deprive you of life or liberty except perhaps by dint of prior circumstances. Those of you who follow me at Euvoluntary Exchange will recognize the distinction between coercion by force and coercion by circumstance. The government official who says “no” is directly responsible for any bad outcome. The shopkeeper isn’t. 

But that’s facile, since as Bruenig via Gurri correctly notes, it hardly matters to the customer.

The question, at least to me, is one of comparative institutional analysis. Under which system is our hypothetical customer more likely to starve or be beaten: one in which the state retains all veto power, or one in which buyers and sellers are jointly accountable to each other?

The virtue ethicist in me suspects that eudaimonia is at best an unlikely accident that just barely might occur in a totalitarian regime. More likely, if the state is the only entity that is able to say “no”, oppression by scarcely-accountable political elites governing in far mode conforms to both theoretical political economy and the empirical judgement of history. Private dignity isn’t a free lunch, but it is a prerequisite for human flourishing.

But I thank you for the softball question nonetheless, Adam. It’s nice to be fondled with kid gloves once in a while.