Recently I’ve returned to Martha Nussbaum’s Therapy of Desire as part of my bedtime reading. I had forgotten just how good this book is. Nussbaum’s book is devoted to Hellenistic philosophy, focusing on the thought of the Greek and Roman Skeptics, Epicureans, and Stoics. There she conceives philosophy as a sort of therapy or medicine aimed at producing the good life and healthy souls. The key question is “what is the good life?” This medicine requires an attentiveness to our affects (which are always partially based on our beliefs and judgments), what goals and aims are worth pursuing, questions of how to navigate the arrows that fate throws our way, how to transform our social world to render human flourishing more possible, and so on. The greatest thing about Nussbaum’s book is that it is squarely situated in life and living and questions of what it would mean to attain eudaimonia or live a life characterized by human flourishing. How do we diminish our own suffering and human suffering and live an active life characterized by excellence. These, I think, are the sorts of questions that ethical, social, and political philosophy should focus on.
For years now I’ve had a fascination with the Stoics and the Epicureans. Lucretius, for example, is a key figure for me, as is Epictetus in many respects (I’m just now discovering Cicero and Seneca). Returning to the endless debates surrounding normativity, I suspect this is part of the reason I find myself thoroughly turned off by these discussions. Those who are all lit up by issues surrounding normativity sometimes ask questions like “why does anyone desire the truth?” or “why do people desire a life characterized by flourishing and the absence, so far as possible, of suffering?” These questions strike me as both perverse and bizarre. At the beginning of the Nichomachean Ethics Aristotle distinguishes between relative goods and absolute goods. A relative good is a good that is good because of how it is conducive to some other end. Money, for example, is a relative good in that it serves the end of promoting other ends. By contrast, things such as eudaimonia, happiness, or human flourishing, health, and so on are desired for their own sake. If someone asks you “why do you desire happiness?” you just look at them quizzically and respond “because I desire happiness.” The desire for happiness, flourishing, health and so on are things that require no reason to be desired.
The only folks I ever hear use the word “normativity” are folks who focus on rule based models of norms (this, I think, has a lot to do with the deep influence of Kantian moral philosophy on these thinkers). However, it seems to me that a focus on rules is already to situate the question of ethics in the wrong way. The question of ethics is not a question of what sort of rules we use in deciding between right and wrong, but rather the question of what form of life, what sort of practices, what ways of relating to others, and so on produce the good life, human flourishing. As Nussbaum argues, the issue here is closer to that of medicine than law. Answering these questions involve forays into psychology to determine the causes of various forms of affective suffering and how they might be alleviated. It involves forays into sociology to determine what forms of society produce human suffering and human flourishing. It involves forays into political theory to determine what forms of action might produce social change. It even involves forays into nutrition and diet to determine the various ways in which food effects us.
In suggesting this alternative model of ethical thought, heavily influenced by the Stoics, Epicureans, Spinoza, Hume, Nietzsche, Freud, and so on, the champions of normativity are likely to respond with the declaration that we require some sort of norm, some sort of rule that allows us to distinguish between good social institutions and bad social institutions, good ways of thinking and feeling and bad ways of thinking and feeling, and so on. “By what criteria”, they will ask, “are you are able to conclude that one sort of social institution is superior to another?” They are not wrong to demand such a norm, but once again I think they think about these norms in the wrong way. These norms are similar to how health functions in medicine. I require no “rule” to determine that health is superior to the flu. I feel like hell when I have the flu, I feel good when I am in a state of health. Having experienced both I am able to easily choose between the two. The same is similar with psychological states, ways of thinking, affects or the difference between passions that perpetually disturb me and those that fill me with joy, and social institutions that are wretched and fill life with drudgery, monotonous repetition, and tremendous suffering and worry and those that allow me to pursue my own goals and aims in peace and with positive collective relations. Having experienced both we can distinguish between them. Having the record of human history we can distinguish between them. Through literature and art we learn about different lives. We are witness to the beautiful lives of others. The issues here are closer to psychotherapy and sociology than law. Moreover, they are empirical, not matters of a priori rules that precede engagement. Hellenistic ethics is where it’s at.