Thursday, February 24, 2011

David L. Norton's Personal Destinies

My current book project was initially conceived as something somewhat less ambitious (although the logic of it eventually led me to what it is now), and that was more or less a comparison between Ayn Rand's normative ethics and the ethics of David L. Norton's masterful Personal Destinies: A Philosophy of Ethical Individualism. I ended up making it my own personal destiny to write an ultimate book with the ideas of these two still at the substantive core, just teasing out the implications.

The very idea of connecting Rand to Norton in a close way seemingly hadn't occurred to anyone before, but you'd think it might have since the parallels are so compelling. They're both ethical individualists. They're both eudaemonists. They both have a compelling normative ethics - so darned compelling that were they widely known, understood, adopted and implemented, utopia would be automatic. So perhaps you can say that the mission of Toward Utopia is to make this normative-ethical vision so obviously compelling, so indisputable, so undeniable that a helluva lot of people ought to get on board right quick so that we fast-track right toward utopia.

Here's the gist of the program: We understand Ayn Rand's normative ethics as, in essence, a self-actualization ethics. The ground of virtue is the need to self-actualize, and we recognize self-actualization to be an inherently desirable thing. Rand and Norton conceive of the fundamental virtue in distinct but complementary ways (which can be integrated): Norton conceives of virtue as integrity to the self to be actualized; Rand conceives of virtue as rationality, or the optimal exercise of the human cognitive faculty, reason being the basic human mode of functioning. Rand's epistemology comes into play here because her entire philosophy is built toward a practical end, which is living our lives to the utmost. This is best achieved through mental unit-economy, which stems from following proper cognitive guidelines; the perfection of our cognitive faculty leads to optimal cognitive efficiency, effectively raising our IQ. (There is a genius, i.e., daemon, in all of us, see.) That fast-tracks us toward self-actualization, and when people cooperatively pool their now-enhanced cognitive resources, things get fast-tracked even more, which frees up yet more cognitive resources to enhance, and so forth. So I'm just playing my part in getting this avalanche started. After that, there is just no room for the cycnicism, pessimism, and defeatism (in addition to all that cognitive inefficiency and irrationality) currently holding us back from achieving a better world.

So this posting is about Personal Destinies. I don't intend it to be a review so much as a brief exposition and commentary in which I can barely hold back my fawning. If I had to name a single favorite philosophy book, it would be this one. There's a good reason why this is. First, my philosophical specialty is ethics, and ethics has a certain centrality in philosophy that the other branches of philosophy don't have. (Epistemology has a centrality of its own. Perhaps the contrast here is this: epistemology is more basic, while ethics is more central.) Second, it's expertly and beautifully crafted. Just brilliant. It also has the "cred" of coming from a leading university press, so there's no reason, no fucking reason, for academics to (continue to) overlook it. Third, it's true - chock full of true.

There's one downside: it is obscure. That is to say, it is written in an obscure style. I say this because some years ago, as I was in college and then in grad school, I tried on two occasions to venture into the book, and barely followed what Norton was saying. Now, when a graduate student in philosophy specializing in ethics reads this book and doesn't get what's going on, that's pretty good evidence that it's obscure. And I still say it's obscure. In fact, while there are parts of the book that I understand - and like a lot - there are still parts of the book quite hard for me to follow even on the basis of two recent readings. I'll get to that in a bit. But first, another tidbit as to how I re-encountered this book, if this is any clue as to the completist-perfectionist nature of the mental process involved.

See, when I first delved into the book way back when in school, I noticed that some chapters were devoted to critics of "recent eudaemonisms," including that of Nietzsche. The idea of Nietzsche as a eudaemonist struck me as odd and/or intriguing, which is why it stuck in the back of my mind for later retrieval. It was then a discussion in early 2010 on the SOLO forum in which Rand commentator Jennifer Burns and Rand-defender James Valliant were participating, where links between Rand and Nietzsche were discussed - I think it was about their respective celebrations of human excellence - and that's when it clicked. I had to go back and scrounge up my Norton book. Then I "got it." The first chapter (the most accessible) had me hooked.

(To even think of drawing the connection between Rand, Nietzsche and Norton requires a context of knowledge that only a few people possess. Hell, how did I even know about Norton to begin with? Only because he was mentioned in the works of Machan, Rasmussen and Den Uyl. And how many people have read them indepth? That demographic is limited to people interested in Rand, in ethics, and in academic-style philosophy. A small group to begin with. So what are the odds Norton's book would have fallen into total obscurity were it not for the works of these Rand-influenced philosophers? [Insert angry rant about Rand and the academy here.])

Now, about the book. I mentioned the first chapter. The first chapter is enough to sell a reader on the basic idea. I knew just from reading the first chapter that there was a book project in the making. The chapter's title is "The Ethical Priority of Self-Actualization." Norton here is doing an ambitious integration of his own here: in a manner hardly at all accomplished in any of the other literature, Norton ties the ancient concept of eudaemonia to the 20th century concept of self-actualization popularized first and foremost by Abraham Maslow. I mean, how was that connection so badly missed outside of Norton's work? To top that, Norton mentions in his first footnote (in the Preface) that he uses the terms "eudaimonism" (his spelling) and "self-actualization ethics" and "perfectionism" interchangeably, and that "formally and inclusively" he he employs the term "normative individualism." It just all comes together!

Norton, in characteristically beautiful style, illustrates the concept of the "daimon" by analogy to the hollow clay busts of the semi-deity Silenus fashioned by ancient Greek sculptors, which contained inside them a golden figurine to be revealed when the bust is broken open. The golden figurine is akin to our inner daimon, i.e., the inner self. Our ethical task, in short, is to bring this self to outward actuality, so that (citing the passage from the Phaedrus which Norton quotes at the very beginning, before the Preface) the inward and the outward self may be at one. I mean, already you can tell this is an awesome ethical system. This is where the virtue of integrity comes in - you act so as to harmonize the inward and outward self. The parallels to Howard Roark are obvious to anyone in the habit of drawing integrations. Going back to the title of the first chapter: self-actualization has ethical priority. It is the chief and fundamental concern of ethics, from which other ethical considerations follow. Rand again! (How did so many miss this connection, again? HOW????!!!)

Norton is careful to distinguish self-actualization from self-realization. His claim is that the inward self is real whether actualized or not. It exists as potentiality. Moreover, Norton expands upon both Aristotle and Rand by emphasizing more than just the generic human potentiality of rationality; he uses the phrase (among the many wonderful phrase-coinings in this book) "innate distinct potentiality," which is the self. Each individual has his own "unique and irreplaceable potential worth" in virtue of his unique innate nature. Dougs Rasmussen and Den Uyl would later distinguish generic and individuative potentialities, the actualization of both of which are necessary to self-actualization or eudaemonia. The normative enterprise consists, then, in self-knowledge or self-discovery and engaging in the work to progressively actualize that potentiality.

That's the basic idea, upon which the rest of the book builds. Chapters 2-4 critique "recent eudaemonisms," in turn: British Absolute Idealism, Kierkegaard and Nietzsche, and then the Existentialism of Sartre. I assume these chapters would be of interest to those who are reasonably well-versed in these thinkers, which admittedly I am not (for the moment, only for the moment). I do have a basic idea as to the differences between Existentialism and a Grecophile eudaemonism, namely, as to whether "existence precedes essence." Norton (and Aristotle, and Rand) affirm that we do have an essence or nature from the onset of our existence; this defines our potentialities to be actualized.

Chapter 5, titled "The Metaphysics of Individualism," is perhaps the most difficult chapter in the book; not having specialized in metaphysics, a lot of his discussion here goes over my head. (I should mention here that there's a silver lining to the difficult parts of Norton's book: it affords the opportunity to come back for subsequent readings and get something out of it. How many books can one say that about?) One very intriguing thing Norton does in this chapter is to address the meta-ethical question of goodness and "ought" in relation to natural facts. The gist of Norton's answer here consists in conceiving "ought" as potentiality in relation to actuality (thereby answering Hume, who treats fact in terms of actuality without discussing such concepts as potentiality), and in describing the basic promissory nature of human actions. (I think this latter aspect may correspond to Rand's "initial choice" upon which obligation is grounded, in connection with facts about, essentially, our potentialities.)

Chapter 6, "The Stages of Life," provides Norton's conception of the person as informed by developmental psychology, starting with childhood, then adolescence, and then maturation, and, finally, old age. There are distinctive principles of behavior applying to each stage, while the transition between stages involves what Norton refers to as "world-exchange" by the person. Childhood essentially involves dependency; the stage of adolescence is characterized by creative exploration of potentialities; maturation or adulthood is the "main phase" for which eudaemonistic principles see their application; old age is . . . well, it sounds kinda drab the way Norton describes it. I don't want to think about old age until I approach it.

Chapter 7, "Eudaimonia: The Quality of Moral Life in the Stage of Maturation," describes the condition of "living in truth to oneself," or "being where one wants to be, doing what one wants to do." That sounds like a rare phenomenon in the present-day world, but the whole point is that we all have this daimon in us that can in principle be actualized under the right conditions. Norton refers to eudaemonia as a feeling and a condition; in the first chapter, he describes it as both a feeling and condition attendant upon the satisfaction of right desire, which distinguishes it from many prevailing conceptions of happiness (though in line with the ancient Greek conception of happiness). Eudaemonia is "marked by a distinctive feeling that constitutes its intrinsic reward and therefore bears the same name as the condition itself." My favorite part of this chapter - a fascinating one, at least - is the last part, where Norton discusses the "post-mortem life." To wit:

"...It follows that the individual who is living in truth to himself is ready to die at any time. The sense of this is conveyed in a report by Abraham Maslow of his feelings upon completion of what he identifies only as an 'important' piece of work. 'I had really spent myself. This was the best I could do, and here was not only a good time to die but I was even willing to die . . . It was what David M. Levy called the "completion of the act." It was a good ending, a good close.' What follows the good close is termed by Maslow 'post-mortem life.' He says, 'I could just as easily have died so that my living constitutes a kind of extra, a bonus. It's all gravy. Therefore I might just as well live as if I had already died.' What comes next in Maslow's account sounds a new note. 'One very important aspect of the post-mortem life,' he says, 'is that everything gets doubly precious, gets piercingly important. You get stabbed by things, by flowers and by babies and by beautiful things -- just the very act of living, of walking and breathing and eating and having friends and chatting. Everything seems to look more beautiful rather than less, and one gets the much-intensified sense of miracles.'

"For myself, I cannot imagine a better evocation of the wonder that must have filled Adam in the moment when he first opened his eyes upon the world. . . .

"By the eudaimonic individual death is not feared as the 'period' by which a tragic fate cuts short the unfinished sentence. In the biography of the good life every sentence is a fitting epitaph and is the epitaph until it is succeeded by the next sentence. . . .

"Therefore to the good life death is no stranger, no alien event opposed to life, and death does not 'take us by surprise, as Sartre says, nor 'alienate us wholly in our own life.' Death is life in its consummation, and because consummation is perpetually within the well-lived life, so likewise death is within that life. The conception of death as alien to life is the product of a death-aversion which, by attempting to banish death from the sphere of life, precludes to life its consummation and its worth." (p. 239-240)

(This reminds me of Lester Burnham's final monologue in American Beauty.)

Chapter 8, "Our Knowledge of Other Persons," is also rather technical and difficult; he describes the process of "participatory enactment" in which we recognize in ourselves a world of possibilities only one of which is actualized in our own person, but this set of possibilities enables us to see those within others that are or can be actualized. I think the basic concept here is an explanation of how a self-actualizing individual recognizes and adopts a principle of universalizability, respect for persons, and taking an interest in the self-actualization of others.

This leads into chapter 9, "Social Entailments of Self-Actualization: Love and 'Congeniality of Excellences.'" Norton explains at length the distinction between love ("the aspiration to higher value"), passion, eros, and friendship, and brings up another wonderful phraseology, "diverse and complementary excellences," which is fairly self-explanatory. Chapter 10, "Intrinsic Justice and Division of Labor in Consequent Sociality" applies the social-entailment idea to the concept of justice. Here Norton brings up a principle of justice that I can't exactly describe as capitalistic, since he describes principles of justice in terms of what an individual is entitled to in virtue of his own distinctive excellence; this is presented as an alternative to the theories of justice advanced by Rawls and Nozick. Since I take the Nozickian principle to be the correct one, that has priority over what Norton says. Norton does have interesting things to say about what use a philosopher has for a sports car, though he seems to rule out that a philosopher can't also be interested in possessing sports cars. But it is plausible in the sense that philosophers, especially, aren't inclined toward seeking enrichment via material possessions such as sports cars. That idea is hardly new, and it may need modification (and certainly some kind of resolution with Rand's celebration of money-making).

Minor note: Norton uses the term "egoism" in a fairly standard sense, which is not Rand's, and rejects egoism in the standard sense as being morally inadequate. He does, however, commend the "egoistic" flavor of the ancient eudaemonists for rightly recognizing the priority of self (for which interest in others' self-actualization is an expression).

It is my hope that, in time, Personal Destinies will be mass-published and easily affordable; did I already mention that I think the world would be a better place if this book (or, say, a popularization of its ideas) were widely read? One thing's for sure: it has been a chief source of inspiration for me philosophically, as an example of how good a book can be.

1 comment:

  1. The writer argues that for Rand "the ground of virtue is the need to self-actualize, and we recognize self-actualization to be an inherently desirable thing." Well, not really. She regards the requirements of survival as the ground of virtue. Any organism has a specific nature, and to survive must "actualize" itself, if you want to call it that, applying the means available to it to achieve the end of survival. In the case of human beings, the means are not enacted automatically. It's not that we don't develop skills and virtues in the process of pursuing life, but that life is the ultimate end, not "actualization." Whether any particular mode of actualization is justified can only be properly assessed in light of the impact on the valuer's life.

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