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.