Is Eudaimonism Fundamental, or Is It Just False?

So I harshed on Edward Tverdek for his justification of statist liberalism by prioritizing the needs of social groups over those of the people who compose them.

But coming up with good, solid philosophical justifications for your instinctive political hunches is notoriously difficult.

The other day I stumbled on Will Wilkinson’s “Eudaimonism is False,” which he wrote in response to a couple of libertarian sorts who were trying to figure out what the best philosophical grounding for their political instincts might be:

Kevin Vallier argues, correctly in my view, that “Utilitarianism is too consequence-sensitive and self-ownership is too consequence-insensitive.” Contractualism, he suggests, offers a third way that gets it just right in the consequence-sensitivity department.

Roderick Long replies by offering an alternative third way: an interesting version of eudaimonism that includes a not-overly consequence-insensitive version of the self-ownership thesis. Vallier responds by embracing eudaimonism himself, while countering that “the content of the virtue of justice is best specified by a contractualist principle rather than the self-ownership principle.”

If you’ve been in my bloggy neighborhood a while, you’ll know that I devoted several posts to a chapter-by-chapter close reading of Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, the granddaddy of the virtue ethics / eudaimonism school of thought.

Roderick Long makes the case that the various virtues that Aristotle mostly treated independently from each other are actually mutually dependent, and to some extent justify each other:

For example (to simplify somewhat), if courage is the virtue of responding appropriately to danger, and generosity is the virtue of responding appropriately to others’ needs, then when meeting other people’s needs is dangerous, there is no way to define what course of action generosity requires independently of defining what course of action courage requires, and vice versa. The final contents of the virtues are thus constructed out of their prima facie contents, subject to the constraint of mutual determination.

(Interestingly, Alisdair MacIntyre, in After Virtue, considered this “unity of virtue” idea to be a major symptom of the decadence of modern ethics relative to Aristotle’s.)

In Long’s framework, the virtues sort of pull each other up by each others’ bootstraps into a mutually-justificatory foundation that leans both on consequentialism and deontology in a satisfying way.

Interesting. Wilkinson, though, goes for the jugular by noting that an important foundation for Aristotle’s remarkable and interesting ethics is a theory of human nature that nobody takes seriously anymore. Aristotle believed that everything had a purpose, and that you could discern its purpose by figuring out what it was uniquely designed to do, and that something was “good” to the extent that it fulfilled this purpose well. He then determined that human beings were uniquely designed for intellectual contemplation, and so we were most flourishing — most eudaimon — when we were philosophizing well.

But now we understand more about the origin of species than Aristotle did, and we know that individual species are not uniquely designed to do anything, but are all designed to compete well in the contest of natural selection, and can only be said to be uniquely designed to fit some environmental niche or other.

But while Aristotle’s idea of man’s purpose was suspiciously like Aristotle’s idea of a good time; Darwin’s insight into man’s purpose is disappointingly banal and doesn’t seem very helpful as a guide. As Wilkinson puts it: “Making copies of your genome is, in an important sense, what you are for. But it has next to nothing to do what what you ought to try to do with yourself.”

He concludes, then, that contra Aristotle, “there is no non-stupid natural fact of the matter about what it would mean for you to realize or fulfill your potential, or to function most excellently as the kind of thing you are.”

This is what attracts me to the existentialists, I think. They came to the same conclusion that you cannot discover the meaning of life in human nature, and most of them also believed the supernatural was no help either. The ethical programs they wrestled with hinted at a number of other approaches, but focused on the reminder that we (must) create our own values in order to decide how to live.