09 November 2016

He Said It: Hatch

This is Wake Forest University's President Hatch's message to the university community today, November 9, 2016, the morning after the election. It is well worth reading and remembering:

Dear Wake Forest students, faculty and staff,
What we have experienced in the last several months has been one of the most divisive periods in recent American history. It has brought out some of the least admirable traits of leaders and citizens alike.
But today we have as much of a decision as we had yesterday. Whether you were greeted with joy or despair this morning, we have a choice in how we treat one another. We are a community that profoundly values intellectual discourse and diverse viewpoints. Even more important, we are people who profoundly value one another.
Today and in the weeks and months ahead, we must live up to our ideals as a community. We are a community in which everyone needs to feel safe and welcome. Our words and behavior affect those around us. We can use them to encourage and lift up others, or we can use them to harm and tear down. Our Wake Forest community is built on the foundation of mutual respect, kindness and honor. Essential to further building that foundation is mutual exchanges: curiosity, weighing ideas, talking out opinions, and listening to a variety of perspectives are all a vital part of education. So we will all join in asking questions and having conversations, and as we do so, we carry the spirit of Pro Humanitate in our hearts.

Nathan Hatch

11 October 2016

Wake Forest University's Position on the 'Vital' Importance of Diversity of Thought

"Wake Forest embraces the value of each individual and rejects any form of bigotry, discrimination or hatred directed against members of our institution. We seek to cultivate an environment which fosters the inclusion and engagement of everyone, regardless of individual differences. Embracing diversity of thought will remain a priority in the strategic principles of the collegiate university, for doing so is instrumental to our University’s ability to maintain a competitive advantage. As a liberal arts institution, our purpose is to facilitate academic diversity by maintaining an atmosphere in which mutual respect and intellectual pluralism flourish. Moreover, understanding the importance of including different perspectives and experiences is a vital component of our motto, Pro Humanitate."

Central excerpt from "Dear Fellow Members of the Wake Forest Community" letter from Barbee Myers Oakes, Ph.D., Chief Diversity Officer and Assistant Provost for Diversity and Inclusion, Wake Forest University Office of Diversity and Inclusion (n.d.; italics in original)

04 October 2016

He Said It: Smith

"In other universities the teacher is prohibited from receiving any honorary or fee from his pupils, and his salary constitutes the whole of the revenue which he derives from his office. His interest is, in this case, set as directly in opposition to his duty as it is possible to set it. It is the interest of every man to live as much at his ease as he can; and if his emoluments are to be precisely the same, whether he does, or does not perform some very laborious duty, it is certainly his interest, at least as interest is vulgarly understood, either to neglect it altogether, or, if he is subject to some authority which will not suffer him to do this, to perform it in as careless and slovenly a manner as that authority will permit. If he is naturally active and a lover of labour, it is his interest to employ that activity in any way, from which he can derive some advantage, rather than in the performance of his duty, from which he can derive none."

--Adam Smith, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations (1776), V.i.f.7

09 September 2016

Aristotle on Eudaimonia

"The chief good is something complete. Therefore, if there is only one complete end, this will be what we are seeking, and if there are more than one, the most complete of these will be what we are seeking. Now we call that which is in itself worthy of pursuit more complete than that which is worthy of pursuit for the sake of something else, and that which is never desirable for the sake of something else more complete than the things that are desirable both in themselves and for the sake of that other thing, and therefore we call complete without qualification that which is always desirable in itself and never for the sake of something else.

"Now such a thing happiness [eudaimonia], above all else, is held to be; for this we choose always for itself and never for the sake of something else, but honor, pleasure, reason, and every excellence we choose indeed for themselves (for if nothing resulted from them we should still choose each of them), but we choose them also for the sake of happiness, judging that through them we shall be happy. Happiness, on the other hand, no one chooses for the sake of these, nor, in general, for anything other than itself."

--Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, bk. 1, chap. 7, 1097a27-1097b7.

25 June 2016

Apologia Pro Vita Litterata Sua

It is sometimes said that you’re not doing anything interesting if no one’s complaining. If so, I suppose you’re really doing something interesting if people are making things up about you to complain.

As I have written before, I have been interested in eudaimonia for a long time. “Eudaimonia” is Aristotle’s word for the highest good for human beings; it’s our ultimate end, the end for the sake of which we do everything else, something that itself is pursued only for its own sake and not for the sake of anything else. So what is it, exactly? The word is often translated as “happiness,” though perhaps “flourishing” is a better English word. In my conception, eudaimonia is the full exercise of one’s abilities in worthy activities; it is the cognizance that one’s life is worth having been lived, that one made full use of one’s capacities and one’s opportunities and lived virtuously while doing so. If at the end of one’s life one can look back and believe that one lived well and fully, then one led a eudaimonic life.

Achieving a eudaimonic life requires that one be deliberate about what one’s life purposes are, that one think deeply about what a state of eudaimonia would constitute for oneself, and one then reverse engineers one’s activities from that final state through the intermediate stages of one’s life to one’s actions today. Am I doing the things today that will lead to the medium-term goals that will conduce to my ultimate goal of eudaimonia? We might make mistakes or change our minds over time, but a rationally ordered moral life is one in which we work out these plans—subject, of course, to regular reexamination—and order our activities accordingly.

In my scholarly field of political economy, the ultimate goal of eudaimonia translates into a desire to live in a humane and just society. A humane and just society depends on a variety of properly ordered institutions—political, economic, moral, cultural. One part of those institutions is, I believe, a properly functioning market economy that enables and encourages honorable business, which is characterized by mutually voluntary cooperation that creates genuine value—that is, that makes people’s lives better off. But the nature of value and betterment, the nature of honorable business, the nature of a properly functioning market economy, and the nature of a humane and just society are all ultimately informed by eudaimonia: all of them must be in the service of enabling people to lead lives of virtue and purpose, to construct for themselves lives of dignity and fulfillment, lives that enable and constitute deep human happiness.

The study of eudaimonia and the institutions that enable it does not line up well with partisan politics. And this is where the complaining begins. 

My desire to study eudaimonia, and even to create an interdisciplinary community of scholars studying it, has been criticized as being in fact partisan. One recent critic called it “hard right market fundamentalist ideology,” a claim that is difficult to square with the open and skeptical nature of the inquiry itself. Another critic has portrayed my concern for eudaimonia as merely a subterfuge, a pleasant-sounding veneer meant to cloak hidden political agendas. For these critics, the fact that the Koch brothers also talk about well-being means that anyone else who talks about well-being (or eudaimonia)—or who has spoken about eudaimonia in a venue that was sponsored by the Charles Koch Institute—must therefore really be, despite outward appearances, part of a conspiracy to fool the public. Thus my interest in eudaimonia must be a ruse to allow me to “penetrate” academia, so that, once in, I can let my true corporate toady flags fly.

It is hard to take such fevered conspiracy theories seriously, and if the critics who had written such things had spoken to me before writing them, I could have disabused them of the silliness of such claims. Or at least I like to think I could have, but perhaps not. People who view the world in us-versus-them terms, who believe everything is really about politics, who believe they are already in possession of all political truths, or who think that everyone is really just engaging in Machiavellian power struggles have a hard time believing that political-economic scholarship could actually be open and skeptical, driven by a search for the truth wherever it lies, without regard for allegiances to parties or political agendas.

When I recently explained my goals and interests to one such critic, he said, “Well, then I look forward to seeing progressive studies coming out of your Center.” That statement entirely misses the point. I am not interested in publishing “progressive” studies, any more than I am interested in publishing “conservative” studies. I am interested in publishing work that enhances our understanding of the world—regardless of whether it lines up with progressive, conservative, or any other political agendas. No political litmus tests, no ideological priors, no work that already knows the conclusions it wants to reach. That would be partisanship, not scholarship. It would be inconsistent with the purpose of scholarly inquiry, not to mention inconsistent with the purpose of a university. And I hold eudaimonia to be too important to be limited to petty political allegiances.

Now, do I think that markets are part of the political-economic institutions that enable eudaimonia? Yes. I could be wrong about that, but I’ve been studying it for some time and I find the evidence compelling. To dissuade me, you would have to do more than tell me that the Koch brothers (or Bono) also think so: you’d have to show me your evidence to the contrary. Do I believe that individual human freedom is necessary for eudaimonia? Yes. Again, I could be wrong, but, again, I’d have to hear your argument or see your evidence. Do I believe that a government that protects every individual’s life, property, and voluntary promises, but does little else, enhances people’s prosperity and thus plays a part in enabling eudaimonia? Yes, but I come to that conclusion based on long study of arguments and evidence, not because of ideological priors. Do my conclusions align with Republican party politics? Partly. Do my conclusions align with Democratic party politics? Partly. (I note, for example, that way back in 2006 I argued that same-sex marriage should be legalized—long before, say, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton changed their minds and decided they agreed.) 

As far as I’m concerned, however, any coincidence between my conclusions and the positions political parties take is accidental and, even more, irrelevant to what I’m interested in. It’s not that I have no interest in politics—though Bas van der Vossen has made what I think is a plausible argument that philosophers should not concern themselves with politics—it’s rather that in my professional capacity as a scholar and teacher, my interests simply lie elsewhere.

Scholarship should be about seeking the truth, not confirming of one’s prejudices; and teaching should be about education, not indoctrination. One’s published work should be evaluated on its merits, not on whether it aligns with one’s prior political allegiances. If that offends the sensibilities of those whose primary goal is political victory, of whatever sort, then so be it. If that leads some particularly ideological people to try to discredit, not one’s work, but one’s character, in the hopes that doing so will enhance the chance of political victory for their own team, well, that is, while unfortunate and even dispiriting, nevertheless the price one apparently must pay when attempting to conduct open and nonideological inquiry.

The first duty of a scholar is to seek the truth, however through a glass darkly we see it and without regard for what pretenses or prejudices it might offend. It is a duty I accept, even cherish, and it constitutes the first plank of the professional oath I take as a scholar and teacher. Alignment with partisan political positions is no part of that professional oath, and is indeed inconsistent with it. If that invites the wrath of some narrowly partisan creatures of our political landscape, so be it.

On the other hand, if people who come to conclusions different from my own about what constitutes eudaimonia or what the institutions are that enable or encourage it wish to join the conversation, welcome! It is only in the crucible of open and spirited debate that we stand a chance of progressing toward truth. Honest disagreement is not something to be avoided. On the contrary, it is to be welcomed as an embodiment of the noble millennia-long tradition inaugurated by Socrates of scrutiny, questioning, and skepticism that serve the highest aims of human inquiry.

11 March 2016

He Said It: Darwin

From his 1871 The Descent of Man (pt. 1, chap. 5), Charles Darwin's explanation for why we seem to instinctively like the ideas of "giving back" and sacrifice for the common good: 
"There can be no doubt that [during 'primeval' times] a tribe including many members who, from possessing in a high degree the spirit of patriotism, fidelity, obedience, courage, and sympathy, were always ready to give aid to each other and to sacrifice themselves for the common good, would be victorious over most other tribes; and this would be natural selection."  

08 March 2016

The Prodigal Son Reconsidered

Jesus's parable of the Prodigal Son has always bothered me. Here it is, in case you don't remember it (Luke 15:11-32):
Then [Jesus] said, "There was a man who had two sons. The younger one said to his father, 'Father, let me have the share of the estate that will come to me.' So the father divided the property between them.
A few days later, the younger son got together everything he had and left for a distant country where he squandered his money on a life of debauchery. When he had spent it all, that country experienced a severe famine, and now he began to feel the pinch; so he hired himself out to one of the local inhabitants who put him on his farm to feed the pigs. And he would willingly have filled himself with the husks the pigs were eating but no one would let him have them. Then he came to his senses and said, 'How many of my father's hired men have all the food they want and more, and here am I dying of hunger! I will leave this place and go to my father and say: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you; I no longer deserve to be called your son; treat me as one of your hired men.'
So he left the place and went back to his father. While he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was moved with pity. He ran to the boy, clasped him in his arms and kissed him. Then his son said, 'Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I no longer deserve to be called your son.' But the father said to his servants, 'Quick! Bring out the best robe and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Bring the calf we have been fattening, and kill it; we will celebrate by having a feast, because this son of mine was dead and has come back to life; he was lost and is found.' And they began to celebrate. 
Now the elder son was out in the fields, and on his way back, as he drew near the house, he could hear music and dancing. Calling one of the servants he asked what it was all about. The servant told him, 'Your brother has come, and your father has killed the calf we had been fattening because he has got him back safe and sound.' He was angry then and refused to go in, and his father came out and began to urge him to come in; but he retorted to his father, 'All these years I have slaved for you and never once disobeyed any orders of yours, yet you never offered me so much as a kid for me to celebrate with my friends. But, for this son of yours, when he comes back after swallowing up your property--he and his loose women--you kill the calf we had been fattening.'
The father said, 'My son, you are with me always and all I have is yours. But it was only right we should celebrate and rejoice, because your brother here was dead and has come to life; he was lost and is found.'"

This parable has always bothered me because I felt for the elder son. He had done everything right, and yet his father had never thrown a party for him. And now his younger brother comes along, after wasting everything in vice and licentiousness, and he gets a party? I would be angry too!

It does seem unfair, doesn't it? The reason I've always thought it was unfair is because I imagined myself as the elder brother. I am the one who's always done the right thing, obeyed the rules, and lived virtuously. I felt like William Graham Sumner's "Forgotten Man," the man who works hard and well, who takes responsibility for himself and his obligations--and is rewarded by being forgotten by the world, which pays attention instead to the person who's lived a dissolute life.

But then I realized: I am the prodigal son. Indeed, we are all prodigal sons. There is not one of us who has not sinned against heaven and his father, least of all me. It was my pride and hubris that led me to fancy myself as blameless and without fault. In fact, however, I too have failed, erred, and sinned. (Haven't we all?) So when I resent the father in the parable for welcoming his prodigal son with open arms, with mercy and forgiveness, and with a party celebrating his return, I was actually asking that I not be welcomed with mercy and forgiveness. 

What a mistake that was. The parable is not about the other person who sins and yet is forgiven, but about me who has sinned and seeks forgiveness. I am the prodigal son, and I hope and pray that, no matter how many mistakes I have made, I too can be forgiven and welcomed with open arms when I return.

There is one other aspect of this parable that had escaped me. Just as I hope that I as a prodigal son can be forgiven for my failings, often I am in the position of the father who has been sinned against. How do I treat people who have lived in ways I disapprove or have wronged me? Just as I hope to be forgiven, so too should I forgive others. 

One does not need to be a Christian to see the beauty and power of this parable. It is a model not only for how we should treat others' failings with mercy and forgiveness, but also for how we should hope for forgiveness from others, even when we are not entitled to it.

05 February 2016

He Said It: Hatch

Here is Nathan O. Hatch, president of Wake Forest University, in the Spring 2016 issue of Wake Forest Magazine:

"That was an age [the 1970s] in which students tried to generate controversy and the resisters were patrons of the University. The whole climate on campuses today is markedly different. You can see the developments examined in major articles such as 'The Coddling of the American Mind' in The Atlantic and Todd Gitlin's 'You Are Here to Be Disturbed' in The Chronicle of Higher Education, which laments 'a plague of hypersensitivity.'

"Today, students are much more sensitive. That's one major difference between now and the 1970s. In my view, a university is a place of ideas, and, as a student, you should be disturbed. You should confront differences. College should not conform to your expectations. We talk nationally about trigger warnings about anything that is uncomfortable. We need to return to the university as a place for the free exchange of ideas.

"We want to make this a place where people can disagree but do so with great respect. We have not had blatant attempts on either side to limit speech, but one can see the climate nationally where people have a harder time hearing, listening to and even imaginatively empathizing with those different from them. We need a panoply of speakers across the spectrum. We will have very progressive speakers and very conservative speakers. That's good and healthy. Campus should be that way.

"At Wake Forest, our values are unwavering: we stand for freedom of expression, serious intellectual engagement and building a community in which the art of conversation is paramount." 

Well said, Sir. 

14 January 2016

Eudaimonia and the Academy

I have been thinking about eudaimonia for some time.

I first became interested in the idea as an undergraduate student when I read Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, and saw that Aristotle argued that human beings are not only purposive creatures but have a hierarchy of purpose: proximate ends lead to intermediate ends, which lead in turn to an ultimate end. Aristotle called the ultimate end—that is, the end for the sake of which we do everything else but that is itself pursued only for its own sake—eudaimonia. That word is hard to translate. It is often rendered as “happiness,” but perhaps “flourishing” is better. I think of it as the cognizance that one is living a life worth living, that one is using all one’s capacities in the course of a life that matters.

In graduate school I became interested in the political and economic institutions that enable people to lead eudaimonic lives. I was inspired by the example of Adam Smith, who, it seemed to me, was genuinely interested in both sets of questions—namely, what a life of virtue was, as well as what the institutions were that could enable and even encourage such lives.

My thinking and reading about these topics led to an interest in the liberalism that grew out of the work of eighteenth-century thinkers like Adam Smith, as well as David Hume and others. I also became interested in the moral and political philosophy of Immanuel Kant, who had read and been influenced by both Smith and Hume, as well as nineteenth-century figures like Mill and Darwin. (Darwin too read and was influenced by Smith.) I thought long and hard about whether I could integrate my chief intellectual influences—Aristotle, Smith, and Kant—into a coherent framework that would answer, or at least plausibly address, my twin questions of the moral life and the institutions supporting it. The result was my 2006 book, Actual Ethics, which offered an examination and defense of a liberalism based on the ideas of Aristotle, Smith, and Kant (among others).

My interest in the nature and conditions of eudaimonia has continued since then. Indeed, it has deepened, especially with the rise of evolutionary accounts of morality, with advances in evolutionary psychology, with burgeoning empirical investigation into comparative political economy, with experimental economics, and with increased philosophical, psychological, biological, social scientific, and even medical investigation into what constitutes human happiness.

When I came to Wake Forest University in 2013, one of my hopes was that I could continue this investigation, in the context of an intellectual community constituted by a broad range of discipline, expertise, and perspective that was nevertheless united in its contention that understanding what eudaimonia is and how it can be enabled is one of the most important contributions we might make to the republic of human knowledge.

We are in the early stages of trying to create such a community at Wake Forest, and I hope the efforts will continue. We hope to have a broad range of voices, from across the political and economic spectrum, from many different perspectives on culture and morality, and informed by advances from many different disciplines, including philosophy, psychology, politics, economics, religion, the arts, history, literature, business, and classics.

I am deeply gratified that many of my colleagues from many different perspectives and disciplines have seen merit in the idea of studying eudaimonia, and I am excited to see what might be the results of our investigations. I hope not only that we can shed light on these questions that I believe are so important for understanding the human condition, but also that pursuing them can perhaps in itself constitute an element of eudaimonic life.