Sunday, August 19, 2007

Human essence, human flourishing and liberal rights.

The most important questions of ethics are, arguably, what is a virtuous behavior, and what counts as a good life.
According to a philosophy inspired by Aristotle, the answer to this question depends largely from our answer to another question, namely: what is human nature? This is because in order to live well or flourish one must exercise those activities that are characteristic of human nature to a high degree.

Many people think that human nature cannot be defined.

Other people think that, even if human nature can be defined, it has no importance for moral questions whatsoever, and even for the question "how should I live?", "how can I flourish?".

Those people are usually political liberals, who think that a human being should be free to give his life the shape he or she prefers, provided that they do not provoke serious harm in others. They also believe that if we take seriously the idea that human beings have a nature, and that questions concerning flourishing depend on them, we will sooner or later abandon liberalism, the idea that certain basic individual freedoms should be protected by the institutional arrangements of a just polity.

You will now see that illiberal consequences do not follow necessarily from thinking that the idea of human flourishing is partly determined by the idea of human nature . I shall now try to present what, in my view, was the biggest discovery of Ancient Greek reflection, and how this discovery puts us in the right direction to solve the question about the human good and the nature of the virtues, a direction that does not undermine, but on the contrary supports, the idea of a liberal community.

According to Aristotle the highest good is what is always wanted for its own sake and is never wanted for the sake of something else. This is widely agreed to be happiness. (Nicomachean Ethis, book I). But everybody can agree about this, and still disagree with anybody else about what happiness consists in. According to Aristotle, in order to answer this question we must ask ourselves what is the proper activity (function/ergon) of a human being. And this cannot be anything but that of living a certain kind of life. What kind of life? Since living is an activity, it must be the life that comprises the highest activity a human being is capable of. But what is this?

Aristotle's answer to this question was: rational activity, that is, the activity of the rational part of the soul. Aristotle, like Plato, identified the three most basic types of activity which are characteristic of a human living thing with the three parts of the human soul: the vegetative part (or activity) concerning growth and reproduction, the perceptual part or activity, and the rational part or activity. The reason why he picked up the rational part of the soul as the one in whose activity the proper business of a human being consisted is easy to see: while we share the vegetative and the perceptual function with other living things, only man (and women) can be said to be properly rational. Hence the proper function of a human being is the exercise of the rational part of the soul, and happiness consists in the excellent exercise of this function i.e. thinking and acting according to the excellence of the rational part of one's soul. (Nicomachean Ethics Book I, 7).

As an account of human happiness, this formulation, as Aristotle recognized, leaves still a lot of ambiguity. We still do not know, for example, what is the most excellent way of using the rational part of the soul consists in. As he himself put it, this is only "an outline of the good; for we must presumably first sketch it roughly, and then later fill in the details."

I think that we can follow Aristotle and start from the assumption that rationality is so characteristic of our own picture of ourselves as a species, that we should not accept any account of human flourishing which does not include the exercise of rationality understood in some way. I will now take some further ideas from other Greek authors and try to spell out a view of human nature and of human flourishing that fits most naturally with these Aristotelian foundations, and - as I hope it will be clear - can be appropriated by contemporary liberals. The view that I am laying forward - I believe - can fill some of the gaps that Aristotle's account left open, while remaining in substantial agreement with his way of conceiving the nature of such fundamental problems.

How do we know what it means to exercise the rational part of the soul well? In order to start this question, let us come back to the idea that the ideal of excellence which applies to a human being must have some connection to his nature. But what is human nature? In a way, we have already answered this question, by saying that human nature consists in the exercise of his rational activity. This is in fact what characterizes human beings in opposition to other living beings. But "rational activity" is very vague. It seems that rational activity can be the feature of a life that is very evil, and even of a life that is full of sorrow for the person who is living it.

It seems that in order to account well for the idea of human flourishing, we cannot simply identify it with the excercise of rationality. We need a thicker characterization of our object. Following Aristotle, it is natural to try to develop this thicker characterization taking it from an examination of human nature.

But here a fundamental difficulty arises: it seems that - beside human nature - human beings live in too many different ways - think about the life of an opera singer, a fisherman, a priest, the member of an aboriginal tribe, a computer programmer, a thief, a womanizer, an Islamic fundamentalist attempting to bring out some political change by means of violent means (e.g. terrorism), so that to identify one of these ways of living with human nature means to either deny the fact of human diversity, or to express some arbitrary preference for one way of life and against some other.

I believe that, at this stage of the inquiry, we cannot reject or close our eyes in front of this fundamental truth of human existence. This means, in a way, that there is no way to circumvent the problem the diversity of human ways of life presents us with. On the other hand, we should ask us whether this is really a problem for our account. Some philosophers have reached this stage and have concluded from it that the whole Aristotelian project of understanding the virtues in terms of human flourishing, itself understood in terms of the perfection of human nature is bound to fail.

On the contrary, I believe that what we have found at this stage is simply the beginning of a plausible answer. What we should do is simply to examine what is common and irrenunciable in all those ways of life for which the question whether they are valuable or worth pursuing arises at all. I shall assume at the outset that all ways of life for which the previous question can be sensibly asked.

What all these ways or project of life have in common is their being projects. By this I mean, that the way of life of the an opera singer, a fisherman, a priest, the member of an aboriginal tribe, a computer programmer, a thief, a womanizer, an Islamic fundamentalist are all ways of life in which we can presume that the subject whose life it is in question sees something in that life as good or worth pursuing, and does some short term (or even long term) planning of her actions in such a way as to achieve the desired result.

But what does it imply that one regards some goal of life as worth pursuing? It implies, at least, that one asks oneself the question whether that goal is valuable in the first place. For what distinguishes a human being from an animal, and what clearly applies to all the people which we have described, is that the main aims around which their life is adopted as an aim in virtue of the implicit or explicit recognition of its worth. The life the an opera singer, a fisherman, a priest, the member of an aboriginal tribe, a computer programmer, a thief, a womanizer, an Islamic fundamentalist is something more than a sum of instinctual responses or automatic reactions. It is a life which, even when it is not fully autonomously chosen, is still chosen in some minimal sense or at least endorsed and valued.

I believe that the following transcendental principle is true: we cannot regard a way of life or one of our life's structuring goals as good or worth pursuing if we are not able to entertain the question whether they are good or worth pursuing. A person who is not able to conceive what it would mean that his own life goal is worthless cannot be said to be able to appreciate its worth. This is not to say that a person must often or at least more than seldomly actively doubt the worth of her own life project, an attitude that certain historically minded philosophers identify with the rise of "modernity". In some extreme cases it may only mean that one is able to regard other goals as worthless or less worth, and has therefore the conceptual resources to understand what it would mean for his own life project to be worthless or to have less worth than she currently ascribes to it. (That is to say, he is able to conceive a goal as viewed, from a subject's point of view, as an unworthy goal.) Without this capacities, a person could not be said to value a life goal or project at all.

But if we concede this, we must also concede that such a person must have the capacity to question the worth of his or her own project- if only in a way that is emotionally superficial and practically ineffective. And if this must is conceded, it is not so difficult to conclude that human beings are at the most fundamental level beings whose nature is that of asking themselves the question concerning what is good and worth pursuing. For if I am not able to ask this question, I cannot have the conceptual capacity of distinguishing worthy from worthless activities, and therefore - in virtue of the former reasoning - of regarding anything as worthy at all, and of having a life which is a human life in the fullest sense.

It follows from this, that whatever goal a man or a woman has, it must also have the goal of discovering what human flourishing or happiness is.

The activity of looking for an answer for the question "what is the good life" is - I believe - the most certain among the characteristic or essential features of human nature. If this is true, we can understand why some philosophers believe in the existence of an unsurmontable "is-ought" gap. It is true that there is no direct connection between how most people live and how one ought to live. (This the only way in which there is an is-ought gap.) But this is true only because human nature is not defined by a statistical generalization about human behavior. The truth about human nature is that human beings are not born with knowledge of what is they ought to become, and that they need to conquer this knowledge, because they cannot have lives that are fully human without it.

This is, I believe, the deepest truth which was expressed in the philosophy of Socrates, and - to a lesser degree - in that of the philosophers which viewed themselves as his followers. For the ever lasting heritage of Socrate's thought was, beside the idea that a good life is a virtuous life, an even more revolutionary principle, namely, the importance of an examined life.

Someone wrote that the essence of man is that of not having an essence. This sentence is a truth hidden by a contradictory form. For we can ascribe an essence to a human being, which is, as the former statement suggests, that we need to discover what truly defines our flourishing, perfection as human beings. So we both have and do not have knowledge about the human essence, since what we know is that its essence is that of needing to discovery what its essence is.

Aristotelian philosophers believe that the notion of human flourishing is connected to the notion of human nature. Therefore, if flourishing consists in acting according to the excellence of one's nature, and a man or woman's nature is that of having to discover what flourishing is, human flourishing includes the activity of discovering what a good life is (and the virtues that are necessary for it).

Let us finally come to the question of what are the virtues. If flourishing consists in acting according to the excellence of one's nature, and a man or woman's nature is - most deeply- that one has to discover what flourishing is, a man or woman cannot reach perfection or flourish in the fullest sense without those virtues which are required for the possibility of this discovery. We can therefore conclude that the following principle is plausibly true:
If x is a stable disposition, required for leading a life which has among its goals that of discovering what human flourishing is, x is a virtue.

This account includes traits which are related to the characteristic ways in which human beings, as a species, learn to find answers about human flourishing, namely, by joint activity and dialogue. (This is clearly an anthropological universal if there is any.) It therefore includes traditional virtues such as honesty, but also patience, perseverance, tact, openness towards others, open-mindedness, trust, intelligence, respect for established traditions, etc.

Moreover, the Aristotelian conception of flourishing which is conceived as an excellent development of one's being, leads to view the virtues are not only means but also aspects of human flourishing, because virtues can be conceived as aspect of the mind or aspects of rational activity. They are both conditions of flourishing and aspects of that which flourishes.

Notice that in this reasoning I have started from the life of a person whose actions are structured around a goal to which he or she ascribes some worth. Of course, there might be someone who spends her own life sitting in front of tv eating chips without finding anything good or worthwhile in what she is doing, keeping on on that kind of life just out of inertia, just out of lack of or inability to desire to do anything different from that. But these lives enter in our account of the diversity of human ways of living in a different way from the former ones. The life of such a couch potato is not even a "way of life" in the fullest sense, by which I mean a way of living which might challenge our beliefs about the good life and the virtues, in the same way as we might feel challenged by the other ways of life I quoted. Alternative ways of life are not cases in which action, thinking, control and meaningfulness are reduced to some minumum, but lives which are built around a goal that are different and sometimes unconciliable. They are actualized by people who are able to take that goal as a premise for action and as a source of meaning for his daily movements and actions.

We can now finally see why there is no real contradiction between this sort of Aristotelian moral theory, which grounds statements about the good in statements about human nature, and liberal institutions. For this moral theory clearly supports in its own way liberal institution: it contributes to what Rawls calls an "overlapping consensus" over the way our polities have to be ruled.

If you are an Aristotelian in political theory, you will think that that one of the goals of the community and of the government it express is that of fostering the good life of the individual which compose it, and that the "good life" in this sense is also a virtuous life. Or more succinctly, a government must not only protect the life or the interest of its members but also (and for that reason) attempt to make them more virtuous.

Many philosophers think that if you believe this, you cannot favor liberal institution. But if my account of human nature, flourishing and of the virtues is right, this is wrong. For only an institution which guarantees certain basic liberties, such as freedom of thought, freedom of conscience, freedom of religion, and freedom of political partecipation and activity does not preclude its members the most fundamental opportunities to flourish and develop the virtues, as they are conceived here. Without basic liberal rights there cannot be the soil in which flourishing human beings, who possess virtues such honesty and open-mindedness, can grow.

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