Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Was Aristotle a Euvoluntary Exchangeur? NE Bk 1

How do each of the classical virtues inform and support euvoluntary exchange? It's philosophy amateur hour here at EE as I review first Nicomachean Ethics and later Aquinas on the relationships between virtue and purposeful human action. I don't plan to reinvent the wheel, but perhaps it's wise to check the foundations of the canon from time to time to see if and where modern moral intuitions disagree. Let's start with Book 1.

In NE Bk 1, section 5, we find the following, a point perhaps insufficiently stressed by economists when speaking to the public:
The life of money-making is one undertaken under compulsion, and wealth is evidently not the good we are seeking; for it is merely useful and for the sake of something else. And so one might rather take the aforenamed objects to be ends; for they are loved for themselves.
In econo-speak, our lectures (and our equations) are full of what we call "derived utility." This is simply to say that with a few oddball exceptions, people don't collect wealth simply to have access to an idle vault full of gold bullion or stacks of paper bills. Even Walter White collected that storage locker full of Benjamins for his family (NO SPOILERS IN THE COMMENTS PLEASE). Measured wealth is an idle claim on something that we actually value like happiness, satisfaction, fun, pleasure, joy, or the abatement of discomfort. For economists, this is a wholly unremarkable point. For the pundit class and for the income inequality agitator, this point is often casually ignored. To Aristotle, as to your garden-variety economist, the value generated by a voluntary exchange is prima facie evidence that the fruits of the trade are to be "loved for themselves," and the money-making part of it is mere chaff.

nb: you can't bake bread without chaff.

An unexpected upshot of this is that analytical tools like the Gini coefficient misstate the underlying value generated by economic activity, relying on the imperfect proxies of wealth or income (and I urge you to pay close attention to which version of the Lorenz Curve is being peddled) to estimate how much better off some are than others.

As I'm a little strapped for leisure time today, I'll leave you with this passage:
Presumably, however, to say that happiness is the chief good seems a platitude, and a clearer account of what it is still desired. This might perhaps be given, if we could first ascertain the function of man. For just as for a flute-player, a sculptor, or an artist, and, in general, for all things that have a function or activity, the good and the 'well' is thought to reside in the function, so would it seem to be for man, if he has a function. Have the carpenter, then, and the tanner certain functions or activities, and has man none? Is he born without a function? Or as eye, hand, foot, and in general each of the parts evidently has a function, may one lay it down that man similarly has a function apart from all these? What then can this be? Life seems to be common even to plants, but we are seeking what is peculiar to man. Let us exclude, therefore, the life of nutrition and growth. Next there would be a life of perception, but it also seems to be common even to the horse, the ox, and every animal. There remains, then, an active life of the element that has a rational principle; of this, one part has such a principle in the sense of being obedient to one, the other in the sense of possessing one and exercising thought. And, as 'life of the rational element' also has two meanings, we must state that life in the sense of activity is what we mean; for this seems to be the more proper sense of the term. Now if the function of man is an activity of soul which follows or implies a rational principle, and if we say 'so-and-so-and 'a good so-and-so' have a function which is the same in kind, e.g. a lyre, and a good lyre-player, and so without qualification in all cases, eminence in respect of goodness being idded to the name of the function (for the function of a lyre-player is to play the lyre, and that of a good lyre-player is to do so well): if this is the case, and we state the function of man to be a certain kind of life, and this to be an activity or actions of the soul implying a rational principle, and the function of a good man to be the good and noble performance of these, and if any action is well performed when it is performed in accordance with the appropriate excellence: if this is the case, human good turns out to be activity of soul in accordance with virtue, and if there are more than one virtue, in accordance with the best and most complete.
This, my dear readers, is a sketch of the first mainstay of Aristotelian virtue: arete (ἀρετή), roughly translated as "excellence", though it's a particular flavor of excellence, devoted to ends that are consonant with the other limbs of a virtuous life. Of course, Andrea's Question again occurs to me: knowing that virtuous euvoluntary exchange is fine and dandy, but is there anything practical to do with this knowledge? The idea of mounting a soapbox to proclaim the superiority of a life lived in harmony with classical virtue is just absurd enough that people like me would find it appealing. I guess there's some hope to be found earlier on in Book1:
To judge from the lives that men lead, most men, and men of the most vulgar type, seem (not without some ground) to identify the good, or happiness, with pleasure; which is the reason why they love the life of enjoyment.
Even vulgar types can enjoy life. Remember this the next time you find yourself inclined to badmouth crap TV reality programming or ban sugar.

You got to know there's fun to be had.

I like this song, but I genuinely had no idea how silly the video is. This is the first time I've seen it.

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Do you have suggestions on where we could find more examples of this phenomenon?