Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Perfectivism: Some Rough Ideas

Intro comments: This is from an email I wrote earlier today to fellow eudaemonists who are in academia, in its original (unedited) but copy-pasted form. The subject of the email is "eudaemonism as perfectivism." I consider this to be the absolute state of the art in ethical theory, and encourage anyone reading this to forward this onto anyone that might find it of interest. The terminology and discussion here is somewhat technical and presupposes some familiarity with the ethical tradition (the eudaemonist tradition in particular) and with the academic literature. I'm fairly confident that the basic idea - and most especially the spirit animating these investigations - passes the highest possible philosophical muster, academic or otherwise. (The opposition to Rand is toast, guaranteed.)


I think the term "perfectionism" carries with it a lot of unhelpful baggage, so I've decided to adopt a new term, perfectivism. I think a perfectivist account of eudaemonia or flourishing is the best, most complete, most (ahem) perfect account. Here is it: eudaemonia has gone under wide range of headings, terms, associations, etc. The usual translation of eudaemonia as "happiness" is misleading since happiness refers to the psychological reward associated with eudaemonia. Eudaemonia isn't just a psychological condition but something more comprehensive than that, something I would sum up in the phrase "perfective living." I'm aiming to provide the most complete account of that, something that someone of Aristotle's dialectical sensibilities would aim for (and I think that's the concept he himself was aiming for).

Someone of Aristotle's dialectical sensibilities would look at the tradition and identify the good parts that varying thinkers were aiming for, while discarding the limitations, mistakes, one-sided understandings, etc. So my perfective account by its very nature has to take into account and integrate with it the best in Rand and Norton; I'm also going to be reading Gewirth's Self-Fulfillment shortly (first chapter is here: http://press.princeton.edu/chapters/s6413.pdf ), since one way of rendering eudaemonia might well be "self-fulfillment," a term which is supposed to be more encompassing than self-actualization.

Here's the contribution each of the other thinkers makes to the perfectivist understanding of eudaemonia: Norton does an eminently plausible job of linking the familiar term "self-actualization" to the ancient concept of eudaemonia. At the minimum, eudaemonia incorporates self-actualization into a complete account. The Merriam-Webster definition of "self-actualization" is fitting: to reach one's full potential, which has Greek/Aristotelian accounts of goodness or perfection written all over it. Norton makes his account of eudaemonia as complete as he can by referring to eudaemonia as both a condition and a feeling that attends the satisfaction of right desire. The feeling itself of eudaemonia he doesn't translate into any other term (though I think that feeling is best captured by the term "happiness"), but he does speak of it as its own intrinsic reward; the feeling itself could not be perfected upon; it is the feeling of completeness that comes with the condition of living completely. In thinking through this, I've come to understand eudaemonia as encompassing the condition (the perfective activity of self-actualization) and the feeling (happiness) under something integrating these two into a whole: complete or perfective living, fulfilled living, self-fulfillment. This is an inclusive-end eudaemonia, incorporating, integrating and encompassing as completely as possible the goods that constitute it.

Now, Rand. Rand is most Aristotelian in terms of her identification of the human good with rational activity, that activity expressive of our distinctive mode of excellence or perfection. She comes at eudaemonia from the aspect of our rational natures, based on the identification that the human mode of flourishing (I don't know whether to say "flourishing" is more synonymous with eudaemonia or with the condition-aspect of it, i.e., self-actualization; also, if a feeling is also a condition of sorts, then I think we can speak of eudaemonia and flourishing as synonymous, flourishing referring to all those conditions, including the feeling of happiness, that make up complete living) arises from the perfective application of the characteristic mode of human functioning: rational activity. So we have a eudaemonism that is a virtue-ethics in which the fundamental/primary/basic virtue that explains all the other virtues as applications of this primary virtue, which is the virtue of rationality. I think of rationality in terms of perfective intellectual activity, which (self-referentially?) involves the seeking of the best and most complete explanations of the phenomena in our capacity as philosophers, and involves the practical application of rationality to the specific individuated life-pursuits of each person. (I think that this is to say, perhaps in very Aristotelian fashion, that eudaemonia cannot happen without philosophy integrated into one's life, even if one isn't a philosopher by profession. I know that saying this is in very Randian fashion, if "Philosophy: Who Needs It" is any indicator.) The whole point of Rand's epistemology - a point I think is sorely missed - is a perfective account of rational activity with a supremely practical aim in mind (which she gets to when she talks about concepts as devices to achieve unit-economy, i.e., mental efficiency and, in turn, mental potency), keeping in mind the basic thesis of Atlas Shrugged: the role of the mind in human existence. (Also, the basic thesis of her work: the primacy and supremacy of reason over egoism and capitalism.) It is by perfecting one's cognitive processes through rigorous application of a systematizing-empirical-inductive approach to inquiry that we will be most well-equipped to deal with the challenges of life. Whether this puts Rand and/or Aristotle into the "perfectionist" category in the Hurka-ian sense, I'll leave that for debate.

For philosophers-per-se, this perfective intellectual activity is captured by the term "contemplation," I think. So any eudaemonic life does involve a philosophical or contemplative aspect (you can't have someone who is eudaemon who isn't possessed of wisdom or a love of it). But with a figure like Rand, and I'm assuming like Aristotle, there isn't a dichotomy between theoretical and practical; the ultimate (eudaemonic) purpose of this intellectual activity is practical application to individuated, particular, concrete problem-solving, challenge-meeting, etc. In the Nortonian sense, this involves discovering and actualizing one's distinctive potentialities or excellences; for the person whose eudaemonia consists in philosophizing by profession, this means its own distinctive form of theoretical and practical unity; ideally, the practical life for the philosopher is the theoretical life. The Randian angle here is that the philosopher should aim for accessibility and clarity to the wider public. (I say "aim for"; if you looked at the "dialogue" section of the expanded 2nd edition of ITOE, it involves only specialists and long-time students. Apparently at some point the philosopher ends up spending at least some time communicating/collaborating with only high-level specialists who share the appropriate context.) I'm assuming it's an Aristotelian angle as well, as I'm sure Aristotle's long lost dialogues would have made quite evident.

Okay, I'm tapped out for the moment. Thoughts?

Oh, also, this account of eudamonia incorporates Randian and Nietzschean (and, I'm guessing, Aristotelian) ideas of goodness in terms of "life-affirmingness," where eudaemonia is then understood as the most life-affirming mode of activity. And the most life-affirming activity is synonymous with perfective activity. Something like that. I think Rand subtly though understandably got some concepts confused here: Our understanding of goodness comes, as it does with Foot in Natural Goodness, from life-phenonema, where we can understand life-processes in terms of need-fulfillment (with a Maslow-inspired "hierarchy of needs" analysis applying to the relation between life and flourishing). Where Rand got her terminology mistaken is her definition of "value" as "that which one acts to gain and/or keep," but she implicitly retreats from this in a footnote on goal-directed action. It turns out that by "goal" she didn't mean "goal" in the usual (correct) sense but something more broad than that, i.e., "directed toward a result [telos?]." Here's how I think the value-language applies: Goodness is biocentric; value is dependent upon sentience. (That is to say, plants and amoebae don't pursue values since value-pursuit depends upon at least a basic-level awareness of that which is good for the organism.) Norton's answer to the is-ought problem identifies the relation of "ought" to "is" in terms of potentiality in relation to actuality. Actually, I think that this is an appropriate identification of the relation between goodness and nature, i.e., as instantiated in life-phenomena. The narrower subdivision of that is the "fact-value" relationship, and if value is dependent upon sentience, then we understand the facts (sentient life) that give rise to the concept "value." Then we get the narrower subdivision of the fact-value relation, the "is-ought" relation, that which applies to specifically human goodness, resting upon the ability of human beings to recognize and act for reasons. If the standard of goodness is life-affirmingness and the standard of value a psychological rewardingness, we come to a moral standard that incorporates these two, i.e., a eudaemonic one. I think this is exactly what Rand was aiming for with the best arguments and understanding she had at her avail at the time. For that reason, her argument - or perhaps way better yet, her (systematic-empirical) method of approach, which contains in it means of self-correction for faulty or incomplete arguments - merits a very close second look. (The expensive way of going about studying that approach is to immerse oneself in Peikoff's lecture courses. The inexpensive way I aim to essentialize for a wide audience in Perfectivism. It's Aristotelian-dialectical in its basic orientation, so it definitely has that going for it.)

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