408. How universal is the good life?
The great power of economic thought is five-fold. It is simple and parsimonious, it is amenable to technocratic calculation, satisfying urges towards rational choice and design, it is purported to be universal, applying always and everywhere, it conveniently avoids difficult ethical questions, and it supposedly promotes freedom. As argued earlier, concerning capitalism, in item 406, this makes economics virtually invincible, and its corrosive effects on the good life may be inevitable.
An approach from an Aristotelian consideration of the good life has corresponding weaknesses. It is complicated, discursive rather than calculative, difficult to universalize, and hence complicated and expensive, and it is to a greater or lesser extent paternalistic. It reigns in opportunities for further economic growth and concentration of wealth. As a result it can expect powerful opposition from an unholy alliance of the wealthy, established interests of industry and commerce, libertarians, technocrats, gluttons and consumption zombies.
Dare we proceed? Let us take it bit by bit.
One serious drawback to consideration of the good life is that it seems subjective and relativistic, flying off in all directions, depending on the identities, preferences and positions of individuals and the social and economic environments they are in.
In their book ‘How much is enough’ (2012), Robert and Edward Skidelsky try to remedy this. They first specify what conditions elements of the good life should satisfy, and then proceed to give their list of the good things. Much as I sympathise with their endeavour, I think they go wrong at the first condition they specify, that the good things should be universal. I disagree: the list of goods depends on taste and conditions.
This immediately shows up in their list, which next to health, respect, personality (autonomy), friendship, and leisure (absence of external compulsion, intrinsic value of activity), includes security (especially in income). I disagree with an unqualified good of security, which to me smacks too much of avoidance of risk. In the vein of Nietzsche I value the taking of risk for a flourishing life, at the pain of pain and loss that it involves.
Incidentally, in an attempt to regain voters in upcoming elections, he Dutch labour party recently launched a guiding motto of ‘security’. I think that is a bad choice. Insecurity is un uneliminable part of life. Such a promise cannot be fulfilled and evokes a further fall of trust when it turns out not to be fulfilled. And it is counter to the interest of citizens. It would be better to help them accept insecurity and deal with it.
For Aristotle the good life consists in development of the potential one has, especially spiritual potential, and the striving for excellence in the realization of potential. I fully endorse that. Material conditions and pleasure are also part the good life, but in moderation. Aristotle’s list included courage, moderation, generosity, justice, and wisdom, and the external goods necessary to realize them.
So how relativistic is the good life? Between the extremes of universalism and individualism there are intermediate forms of unity in diversity. There can be community without equality or any shared essence.
Music varies enormously but it always uses tone and pitch. The variety of gables along canals in Amsterdam is unified in the use of the golden ratio between the heights of windows on successive floors. Why could humanity not have a similar variety in views of the good life and yet have some form of resemblance in common?
Wittgenstein offered the notion of family resemblance: A has features in common with B who has features in common with C while A and C have nothing in common. What families share is chains or networks of resemblance without any clear familiar essence. Views of the good life might be like that.
But the most important thing, I think, is this. For Aristotle the overarching virtue, in common between all lists of goods, was prudence as the ability to deal with the variety and frequent contrariness of the other goods, in trying to find a good ‘middle’. For example, courage as a ‘middle’ between recklessness and cowardice. One can seek some middle between risk and security, self-interest and altruism, spiritual and material goods, between work for money and for its intrinsic worth (of enjoyment, social relations, value to society, …..).
The kind of economy, and of politics, we should be looking for is one that caters to this.