Monday, December 23, 2013

The Eudaimonia of Eusocial Euvoluntary Exchange

Ethics tend to crumble when you scrutinize them too closely. Kant's categorical imperatives are left wanting unless you're blithely willing to beg the question about the meta-origins of what counts as an imperative. Naked utilitarianism is monstrous when subjected to a few simple thought experiments (and in practice has been used to justify some pretty horrible public policies). Nihilism is fine and dandy for flushing corrupted, dysfunctional institutions down the crapper, but offers few useful tips on what it takes to live a fulfilling life, unless you happen to be fortunate enough to find the atmosphere of Twilight of the Idols more appealing than, say, an Ozu triptych.

But what tends to be buried behind philosophical veneers in other ethical approaches is splatched wide open on the dissection table in whatever flavor of Aristotelian eudaimonia tickles your taste buds. Namely, the pointed absence of unimpeachable exogenous moral guidance. And boy, oh boy, who doesn't like Augustine's "proof" of God's existence as an umbrella poked through the roof thatch on this point, amirite? Write your own Upworthy-style headline. Whether Epicurean or Stoic, Anselmite or good ol' Nicomachean, living well and doing well is a living, evolving, dynamic process of individuals embedded in a world not of their choosing.


The fluffy-bunny pure euvoluntary exchanges that neither poke eye nor tread foot spin invisible strands that bind together the grand web of human cooperation. Consider your lunch. Consider the heady coordination needed just to put a slice of meat onto two pieces of bread. For you to cram a ham sandwich into your piehole, men with mechanized shovels had to bend the course of rivers in their beds onto the dusty plains where other men driving mighty threshers claim the seed of the earth from its chaff. These threshers in their turn were assembled in factories from refined rocks hauled from a dark slumber in the bones of the world. Each of these euvoluntary transactions and countless others, the result of human action but not human design, meet in something delicious wrapped in wax paper to be eagerly, perhaps dismissively devoured along with a miraculous bag of chips and a magically divine bottle of diet soda.

But like the web of a spider, you can count on a wandering moose to sneeze on it once in a while, disrupting the natural flow of basic commodities, vital services, and end consumer goods. It is here where the flexibility of the euvoluntary web is tested that we discover to what extent our capacity for building a good private life and a good public society can weather duress. Under autarky-only conditions, exogenous shocks meant death. And in many parts of the world they still do. Contrast the magnitude 7.0 earthquake in Haiti in 2010 with the magnitude 9.0 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami the following year. It's been 3 years since Port au Prince was devastated and it's still not rebuilt. Still. The Japanese earthquake was 100 times as powerful and though the Haitian casualty estimates are sketchy, probably somewhere around four times as many Haitians died as a result of the earthquake. The Japanese web is stronger. And it isn't just from a narrow self-interest that cleanup and rebuilding proceeded so adroitly. The eusocial urge to tidy up after a blustery day cannot be anything but part of eudaimonia. Living a good life means living in harmony with your surroundings. Building good surroundings happens quite naturally as a result of vigorous, widespread euvoluntary production and exchange.

It's a bit cliche to exhort folks to be the change they want to see in the world, but it's not bad advice. Trust, honesty, justice, peace, temperance, courage, all the virtues, both joint and several help us to navigate the social topography, to spin, weave, and reinforce these gossamer connections against the inevitable insults slung by nature and the wicked men of the world. Pursuing your own aretē at the very least won't torch our own little portion of the web and at best might help encourage others to do the same. And those yahoos who seem to thrive on attention by flaunting virtuous behavior? DFTT. Unsubscribe. Unfollow. Or at least disengage. And assume that those who seek dominion over others are knaves first and foremost. Never trust a [political] junkie.

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