Tuesday, 11 October 2016

Can Socrates Flourish Without Philosophizing?

The Perfectionist Turn
Douglas J. Den Uyl and Douglas B. Rasmussen
Edinburgh University Press 

“Could Socrates not obtain well-being or human flourishing by taking up some other activity with pleasurable and satisfying dimensions, even if they are not philosophical activities?” ask Douglas J. Den Uyl and Douglas B. Rasmussen in The Perfectionist Turn’s eponymous 5th chapter.

The context for the question is the scenario that the authors want the readers to consider: Socrates is in jail. Condemned to death by an Athenian court, he has been given hemlock. But he does not die. Instead, a messenger rushes in to inform that Socrates is pardoned. The messenger has an antidote which he administers to Socrates. But there is a catch— Socrates is “no longer allowed to practice philosophy in any way or form.”

In another scenario the Athenian court not only pardons Socrates, it also regrets its decision to keep him from philosophizing. “Athens wants Socrates, given his great gifts in this area, to actively pursue philosophy as often as and wherever possible. The only problem is that because of either something in the antidote or the ordeal that Socrates had to endure, Socrates no longer has any interest in doing philosophy. He would rather take up gardening.”

The search for the answers to the critical questions regarding the fate of Socrates inevitably leads to the idea of individualistic perfectionism. There is a relationship between an individual’s well-being or flourishing and his or her capacities or nature. "It is the life-form of a being, not its mere existence, that provides the basis for understanding its good; and for living beings such as ourselves, that can choose and reason, it is the basis for any obligation we might have."

In The Perfectionist Turn the aim of authors is to provide a defense of individualistic perfectionism, and conduct an appraisal of the ethical and political theories proposed by several non-individualistic thinkers. The book is divided into two parts. In the first part, the authors show that how “individualistic perfectionism” can be employed as “both an alternative ethical theory and as a basis for criticism of other political and ethical approaches.” In the second part, the focus is on defending the foundations that have been employed in the first part and deriving some indication of their meaning in practice.

The authors posit that being a good human being involves the actualization of one’s basic human potential, and that what is good for an individual is somehow linked to being a good human being. The idea of ethics that they propose is fundamentally eudaemonistic.

They point out that “what lies at the heart of ethics is the issue of what is worthy of being valued, which for us is ultimately an individual human being’s own self-perfection; and this requires that ethics be primarily concerned with persons determining for themselves in what their individual human good concretely consists.”

Den Uyl and Rasmussen employ novel terminology in the book. For instance, they have proposed two categories for analyzing ethical theory—the template of respect, and the template of responsibility. Also, to describe the idea that ethical and political theories must be firmly integrated with the overall philosophical system, they have used the word “tethering.”

The ideas of the “template of respect,” and “template of responsibility” are introduced at the very outset in the book: “where the source of all norms—even those concerning our life among others—derives from the existential fact that we must make something of our lives, we shall designate as the template of responsibility.”

The eudaemonistic ethical ideas of the Den Uyl and Rasmussen come in the category of the template of responsibility. But the ethical ideas of non-individualist philosophers that have been critiqued in the book fall in the category of template of respect, which relates to the concern that the necessity of living among persons is the principal reason for developing norms of conduct.

In the two chapters—“Tethering I” and “Tethering II”—there is a look at the ideas of the non-individualist thinkers like John Rawls, Martha Nassbaum, Amartya Sen, and few others. Den Uyl and Rasmussen point out that over the last few decades it has become a norm for political philosophers to untether political philosophy in particular from the rest of the philosophy. “Following John Rawls, the current practice often involves a rejection of what is called “comprehensive philosophy,” in favor of a self-contained domain of political theorizing.”

The analysis of the ideas of the non-individualist philosophers reveals several lacunae in their ethical and political doctrines, but this facilitates a better understanding of the individualistic perfectionism or eudaemonistic ethics that Den Uyl and Rasmussen are proposing. The authors point out that their ideas are connected to Aristotle who has noted that “for an action to be ethical, it must be chosen, chosen for the right reason, and chosen out of a fixed disposition.” Aristotle has viewed human flourishing as being a fundamentally self directed activity.

In the chapter, “The entrepreneur as moral hero,” the authors have drawn a connection between the market entrepreneur and the ethical actor. “The market entrepreneur confronts a world of diverse activities and investment possibilities which carry with them a social value in terms of relative prices which must be evaluated. Similarly, the ethical actor is confronted with myriad of choices whose “prices” are the cost to be paid in maintaining his or her “value universe,” when investing in any possible alternative.”

In making his choices the ethical actor can rely on the ethical principles, but the principles must be successfully integrated through the process of application of practical wisdom by the agent.

On the issue of socialism in economics and ethics, the authors make this interesting comment:

Socialism is no more successful in ethics than in economics, and for similar reasons: it sacrifices the future to the present by discouraging innovation and inverts the source of positive marginal change by moving it from the individual to society. Ethical wealth, like economic wealth, will be a function of the degree to which individuals take upon themselves to produce good lives.

Overall, The Perfectionist Turn is an absorbing scholarly study of ethical theory. It makes a convincing case for individualistic perfectionism, while giving a broad overview of the ethical and political ideas that have been proposed by several important philosophers. 

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