Saturday, March 28, 2009

Murray and Philosophy

Well, that was a rant. What can I say? While, as a liberal, I am uncomfortable with thick theories of The Good and collectivists' inclinations to impose them on those of us insufficiently enlightened to realize what is good for us, I accept this as an important tradition in socio-political thought. But, when someone wants to impose their vision of The Good only on others, I become suspicious. And when, as in Murray's case, the reality of the vision will cause suffering for those on whom it is imposed, I begin to get downright angry. Hence, the rant. (How Bette Davis got in there is another question.)

Leaving ranting behind, let's think about Murray's reference to Aristotelian 'happiness' - eudaimonia, presumably. Murray's choice of Aristotle as an authority for his own view of human flourishing is odd, because Aristotle quite famously denied the possibility of true flourishing for those who must labor and toil for a living. Indeed, Aristotle was confident that only those favored with enough wealth to pursue higher intellectual pursuits could be truly 'happy;' working for one's living meant too little leisure time for philosophy and political activity.

Furthermore, unlike -arguably - the Roman Stoics, Aristotle did not hold that suffering or misfortune make one a better person. He certainly did not think them conducive to well-being. To fully flourish as a human, according to Aristotle, one must achieve excellence (arĂȘte) in all modes of human functioning: intellectual activities, physical health and attractiveness, and what we would call psychological or emotional well-being.
Murray seems to be conflating Aristotelian virtue ethics not only with Roman Stoicism, as noted, but also with Nietzschean transcendence through struggle. The latter element explains Murray's concern for 'transcendence' over ordinary comforts and pleasures. But this is not an Aristotelian notion. Aristotle was very much a thinker of the here-and-now, of this world and of living well in this world.

In fact, if Murray wants the average American to have a chance at Aristotelian flourishing, he should advocate for social structures that would provide the average person with a life of comfort and leisure comparable to that enjoyed by Aristotle and other Greek males of his class - absent the slaves, of course. Such a life would be the envy even of those nanny-state-coddled upper-middle class Europeans. But, to offer that chance for happiness to most of our population would require extending our 'safety-net' far beyond what we currently have - far beyond what the Europeans have.

And this is why Murray is not really calling for our society to enable Aristotelian lives of flourishing for all. It is the elite classes he addresses who will have the opportunity for Aristotelian eudaimonia; the rest of us will get Nietzschean suffering and struggle.

Which brings us back to hypocrisy. You go first, Dr. Murray. After all, what does not kill you will make you stronger.

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