As Mel and I explore the space of eudaimonistic ethical models, one of the issues she keeps bringing up is that they risk bringing about a bad sort of relativism. This worry seems to arise from loose talk about flourishing or connotations that might accompany the term “flourishing”. Along these lines, Mel has brought up three examples of bad “flourishing” to underline these worries: The pedophile, the methamphetamine user, and the petite bourgeois. In each case, the question is something like “what if one’s ‘flourishing’ requires x (the molestation of children, the use of methamphetamines, or the exploitation of workers so as to produce cheap goods) so as to ‘flourish’.” In other words, under this model, flourishing is equated with whatever we happen to like, such that the good is treated as equivalent to what we like.
In my view, the fact that one is immediately led to these sorts of thoughts whenever encountering eudaimonistic models of ethics is a testament to just how impoverished our thought on virtue or the good life has become. Yet virtues and “what we like” are not necessarily identical to one another. As Ronald Sandler puts it in his excellent Character and Environment: A Virtue-Oriented Approach to Environmental Ethics (thank you, Jeremy!),
A character trait is a virtue to the extent that it is conducive to promoting eudaimonistic and noneudaimonistic ends grounded in agent-relative and agent-independent goods and values.
Eudaimonistic ends are agent-relative goods and values that promote the goods and values (flourishing) of the agent in question. Ample sunshine and water is an example of eudaimonistic end for many plants in that such water and sunlight promote the flourishing growth and health of the plant. Non-eudaimonistic ends would be goods and values that are virtues but which don’t necessarily contribute to the flourishing of the being that values them. For example, a person might value the continued woodland existing of spotted owls, even though spotted owls don’t necessarily promote their flourishing in any particular way and despite the fact that promoting that existence even limits their ability to log a particular forest where these owls live. In other words, we can value things that don’t contribute to our own flourishing.
Setting aside non-eudaimonistic virtues in this post (though clearly they’re at the heart of object-oriented ethics), virtues are those dispositions that tend to produce flourishing. Yet this is very different than claiming that virtues are identical to what we like. Let’s take the example of health. Health is a virtue. It is very difficult to have anything like flourishing without health. Now a person might like eating fast food three times a day, they might like smoking two packs of cigarettes a day, and they might like drinking a couple bottles of wine each night, but this liking, despite all the pleasure that accompanies it, does not entail that these activities are virtuous or conducive to flourishing. The reasons for this are, of course, obvious: these activities destroy health, thereby undermining the possibility of flourishing. While clearly we couldn’t describe a life as flourishing without that life also being accompanied by liking or some form of enjoyment, this enjoyment ought to be the right sort of enjoyment. These are not the right sorts of enjoyment.
This brings us to an important point about eudaimonistic ethical orientations: I can be mistaken about what constitutes a virtue or good. Eudaimonistic ethical orientations require us to know things about ourselves, about our bodies, about the world, about others, and about society in order to achieve flourishing. I might be absolutely convinced that cigarettes, wine, and fast food are goods because they give me pleasure, yet as I begin to learn a bit about physiology, medicine, and diet, I learn otherwise. I have to know something about my body and foods in order to determine what forms of pleasure where food are concerned to achieve flourishing. Judging by remarks from my students whenever abstinence only sex education comes up, it seems “obvious” that if we teach kids not to have sex before marriage, then teen pregnancies as well as the proliferation of STDs will be reduced. However, when you discover that certain portions of the brain devoted to reasoning and decision making literally shut down in states of sexual arousal, when you see the statistics on the effectiveness of these programs, and when you learn something of the biology and psychology of sexual orientation (prohibitions against premarital sex are necessarily heterosexist in a culture that doesn’t allow gay marriage) this issue looks very different.
Eudaimonism broaches all sorts of questions that we don’t ordinarily associate with ethical thought. As I argued in my last post, when we begin to raise questions about flourishing one of the very first things we notice is the relational nature of our existence. Our ability to flourish resides not simply in ourselves, but in our relations to the environment, other people, the sort of society we live in, and so on. This is why questions of ethics can’t be neatly separated from questions of politics. Part of my ability to live an ethical life and to attain flourishing will depend on factors external to me. This is one reason we can say categorically that the life of a pedophile is wrong. Not only does the pedophile violate the autonomy of another being (the child), but pedophilia tends to undermine the possibility of the pedophile achieving flourishing because of the way in which it disturbs his social relations. It is likely that in order to pursue his pedophiliac aims, the pedophile must engage in all sorts of deceptions, hide his actions, find ways to insure the child doesn’t talk, etc., etc., etc. As a result of these aims and actions, the pedophile lives in a constant state of fear and anxiety at the prospect of being discovered. And, of course, in those instances (hopefully common) where the pedophile is discovered, all sorts of terrible things ensue for him.
While clearly the pedophile gets pleasure from his activities it’s difficult to see how this life could in any way be characterized by flourishing. And this is part of the point. Our actions don’t unfold in a vacuum, nor does our flourishing exist in a vacuum, but rather we are embedded in all sorts of relations– social and environmental –that play a key role in whether we attain flourishing. We can’t isolate these acts from the fabric of those relations, but must look at the total life, the fabric of the life, and how each proposed action contributes or does not contribute towards producing that flourishing. A similar point can be made with respect to the “flourishing” of the petite bourgeois that Melanie raises when playing devil’s advocate. The petite bourgeois might think he is living the good life because he is able to buy all sorts of cheap goods at Wal-Mart, because he can send his kids to college, because he can “own” a house, etc., etc., etc.; yet when he learns about the system of commodity capitalism that this system enslaves him in, how it limits his freedom, all the sorts of negative psychological, social, and health issues that arise from commodity materialism and so on, that perspective can change significantly. Again, we need to know something about the world in which we live to have a true picture of what counts as a good and a virtue.
Nor can we simply decide these things from our armchair. When, in a previous post, I argued that juridical models of normativity tend to generate a rather unsavory form of subjectivity that 1) causes psychological suffering for the person bound up within it, and 2) tends to produce people who exercise cruelty on others for a variety of reasons, I was accused of making an ad hominem argument. However, insofar as one of the key components of virtue-ethics is flourishing, insofar as it is the potential to produce flourishing that, in part, determines whether something is good or bad, it is entirely appropriate to raise questions of whether or not various forms of thought are psychologically healthy and conducive of harmonious and rewarding social relations. These questions are not incidental, secondary, or outside of ethical questions, but are central to ethical thought. Once again, we have to know something about brains, psychology, and society to properly pose these questions and cannot raise them from our armchair.
As the example of diet and commodity capitalism reveals, it also follows that what we take to be a virtue is not set in stone. As Spinoza pointed out, we are born ignorant of causes. We can be mistaken about ourselves, the world around us, the social world, and so on. Through reflection and critical analysis we can come to discover that things we took to be virtues are not really virtuous or conducive to flourishing at all. Back in the fifties people thought that a good diet consisted of a big hunk of meat and a potato dripping in butter. Such a meal was thought as a way of actualizing virtue. As we’ve learned more about our physiology and diet, we’ve come to see things differently. Many believe that being able to buy all sorts of cheap commodities at Wal-Mart is a form of flourishing and that it’s worthwhile to submit ourselves to the sorts of jobs that would allow us to purchase these goods. As we learn more about how capitalism systematically enslaves us, it’s psychological and social effects, the manner in which it degrades the environment, the way it generates war, and so on, we might discover that these aren’t such commendable ends after all. We might then set about trying to formulate alternative forms of social life and satisfying our needs. Moreover, because we are beings of reason and because of shifts in technology, we can set ends for ourselves that aren’t strictly biological (such as accumulating knowledge of the stars) and new forms of life can become available to us with changes in technology. While there are, no doubt, core virtues such as compassion, generosity, charity, love, survival, curiosity, etc., others can emerge. They aren’t set in stone forever.
In my last post I spoke about eudaimonism and experimentalism. The point is not that “we should try everything”. Fortunately we inherit culture and the experiments of others. I don’t need to try methamphetamines because there has been enough experimentation with these drugs to show me that my body won’t combine well with them and that whatever brief pleasure I might get from them they are likely to undermine the possibility of my flourishing. The point of experimentalism is that 1) people are different such that each of us needs to discover what the good life is for us (for one person the good life requires being a pianist, while for another a philosopher, while for yet another a builder). There are many different lives that can be virtuous, so we each need to discover for ourselves what life is best for us. Again, that is in a deeply ecological framework that takes into account our social and environmental relations. 2) By virtue of being the sorts of beings we are, new ends can arise for us. We need to avoid the tendency to see questions of ethics as fixed once and for all. It could be, for example, that nanotechnologies might open our brains to capacities and possibilities so far only known to science fiction, such as the possibility of me directly porting into Mel’s mind and vice versa. These are experiments worth trying to see if they contribute to a flourishing life. Adventure, curiosity, wonder, enchantment, invention, and creativity are all virtues. Life, it seems, is less without them. We see the truth of this in everyone who has a workbench that they fiddle with on the weekends, in the crafts stores all over the place, in people’s obsessions with gardening and making models and painting and playing games, etc. Experimentalism, it seems, is a key feature of what it means to live a flourishing life.