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.