Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Aristotelian Liberalism (2): The Virtue of Prudence

In making their case for Aristotelian liberalism, Douglas Rasmussen and Douglas Den Uyl revive Aristotle's claim that prudence or practical wisdom (phronesis) is the supreme virtue. Prudence is the intellectual faculty for judging conduct, for judging the best course of action for particular individuals in particular circumstances. From what we know about human nature, we can see that human beings generally pursue certain generic goods--for example, health, wealth, beauty, friendship, honor, and knowledge. But this general knowledge of the generic goods of human life cannot tell us how best to organize and integrate the pursuit of these goods in a manner that is appropriate for particular individuals. To do that, individuals must exercise prudence in deciding for themselves what form of life is best for them as most conducive to their happiness or flourishing (eudaimonia). The primary purpose of a liberal regime as favored by Rasumussen and Den Uyl is to protect the liberty of individuals to exercise the intellectual virtue of prudence in their pursuit of moral virtue understood as their flourishing or self-perfection.

Rasmussen and Den Uyl take their account of prudence from Den Uyl's book The Virtue of Prudence (1991). This book has not received the attention it deserves. I don't know of any other book that covers so well the logic of prudence and the history of how prudence fell from being the preeminent virtue (for Aristotle) to being hardly a virtue at all (for Kant and many contemporary moral philosophers).

In the first part of his book, Den Uyl summarizes the logic of prudence. In the second part, he surveys the history of prudence in moral philosophy, concentrating on Aristotle, Aquinas, Hobbes, Adam Smith, and Kant. In the final part, he argues for reviving an Aristotelian conception of prudence.

Although I generally agree with him, I disagree on a couple of points. But with some slight modifications, Den Uyl's framing of the argument for prudence would be compatible with my argument for Darwinian natural right.

Den Uyl summarizes the main points in his reasoning in five "negative" theses on the positions that deny the importance of prudence and five "positive" theses on the positions that favor prudence (pp. 50-51).

Here are the five "negative" theses:

"Thesis I: The Polarity Thesis: When ethics is considered to be fundamentally concerned with the conflict between duty and self-interest, prudence will be unlikely to surface as a significant virtue.

"Thesis II: The Hedonic Thesis: Any moral theory which takes desire alone to be either motivationally or axiologically foundational will thereby fail to accord prudence the status of a virtue.

"Thesis III: The Impersonalist Thesis: A moral theory which understands duty in essentially impersonalist or agent-neutral terms will be inimical to the development of prudence as a virtue.

"Thesis IV: The Non-teleological Thesis: Prudence does not thrive in non-teleological contexts.

"Thesis V: The Communitarian Thesis: If our relations with others are given foundational importance in ethics, the virtue of prudence will, to the extent that the individual self is given secondary or derivative status, diminish in importance as a virtue."

Here are Den Uyl's five "positive" theses:

"Thesis I: The Self-Perfective Thesis: When the first concern of ethics is conceived to be the individual agent's own well-being or perfection, then prudence will flourish as a virtue.

"Thesis II: The Non-Hedonic Thesis: Any moral theory open to the possibility that desires alone are not motivationally or axiologically foundational will, ceteris paribus, also be open to the possibility of prudence being a virtue.

"Thesis III: The Personalist Thesis: A moral theory which takes agent-centeredness to be essential and foundational to moral obligation and moral propriety will, to the extent of its focus upon individual flourishing and well- being, encourage the virtue of prudence.

"Thesis IV: The Teleological Thesis: Prudence thrives in teleological contexts.

"Thesis V: The Individualist Thesis: Prudence maintains significance as a virtue when relations with others are grounded in principles that are either directly derived from, or shown to be compatible with, those principles or conditions that contribute to the agent's own well-being or self-perfection."

While I agree with these theses, I think some of them are stated in misleading ways that lead to some mistakes in Den Uyl's line of argument.

First, the "Hedonic" and "Non-Hedonic" theses are misleading in suggesting a false dichotomy as to whether "desires alone" motivate moral conduct. While "desire alone" is not sufficient, we need to see how conduct combines desire and reason, and so "reason alone" is not sufficient either.

Second, the "Communitarian" and "Individualist" theses are misleading in suggesting a false dichotomy between community and individuality. As Den Uyl indicates, human individuals are naturally social animals, and therefore one's individual good includes the social good.

Third, I agree with Den Uyl's "Impersonalist" and "Personalist" theses, but I don't agree with how he applies them to the case of Adam Smith. I don't agree with his criticism of Smith's appeal to the "impartial spectator" as "impersonalism."

Den Uyl (like Rasmussen) has been influenced by the exaggerated rationalism of Ayn Rand, and consequently he is inclined to play down the importance of desire or emotion in moral life. Den Uyl comes close to making Kant's mistake of insisting on an absolute separation of reason and desire (147-57, 246).

No serious thinker (not even Hume) believes that "desire alone" is "motivationally or axiologically foundational" for moral conduct. Surely, "reason alone" is not a sensible position either, despite Kant's insistence that morality is a matter of pure reason. Rather, what we need is a combination of reason and desire.

This is Aristotle's position. Oddly, Den Uyl is almost completely silent about this. But in two passages, he does very briefly acknowledge this. So, for Aristotle, the good life was "equally affective and rational" (155). Moreover, "Kant always found it 'risky' to allow emotions to creep into motivations, whereas Aristotle did not" (298).

As I argued in Darwinian Natural Right (chap. 2), Aristotle thought that in the striving for a good human life, reason and desire were mutually dependent. "Thought by itself moves nothing," Aristotle insisted, because any human action that is deliberately chosen requires a union of reason and desire. A deliberate choice manifests either "desiring reason" or "reasoning desire" (NE, 1139a36-b6).

I use the word "desire" to translate the Greek word orexis. Aristotle coined the Greek noun orexis from the Greek verb orego, which means "to reach out." Orexis is the soul's "reaching out" for something in the world. For Aristotle, it is a general term for all kinds of longing or striving, including physical appetites, social emotions, and intellectual yearnings (DA, 433a9-b31). I use the word "desire" in the same way as a general term for all kinds of psychic impulse or inclination. With that sense in mind, I defend an ethics of desire: the good is the desirable, and reason judges how best to satisfy the desires in a manner that is coherent and harmonious over a whole life, which is the work of prudence.

Den Uyl obscures this point by sometimes suggesting that prudential reason somehow works without desire, but then at other times he says that reason "expresses itself through desire" or "directs" desire (64-65).

Den Uyl rightly argues that the primary purpose of prudential reasoning is to integrate the generic goods of human life in a way that is appropriate to an individual life. Den Uyl takes his list of generic goods from Aristotle's Rhetoric. This list corresponds closely to my list of twenty natural desires, which supports my idea that the good is the desirable. But Den Uyl is reluctant to identify these goods as desires. He says that while prudence manages the mixture of the goods, the goods themselves are "essentially givens" (81). "Aristotle says that practical wisdom deliberates about means and not about ends, for the ends are given" (284). Given by what? I would say they are "given" by desire.

Den Uyl speaks of the generic human goods as "basic attractions" or "natural inclinations," as objects of human "aspiration" or "longing" that exert "teleological pull" (168-70, 188). As far as I can tell, such language is circumlocution for desires.

In Norms of Liberty, Den Uyl and Rasmussen are more open in acknowledging the generic goods as desires. They write: "Human flourishing is an object of desire. Yet, in terms similar to Socrates' question to Euthyphro, flourishing is an object of desire because it is desirable and choice-worthy, not simply because it is desired or chosen. In other words, it is desired because of what it is" (127). The desirable is an objective fact of human existence because it is rooted in human nature. But the right mix of these generic goods for an individual human being requires prudential judgment. "The desirable and choice-worthy elements of flourishing need to be achieved, maintained, and enjoyed in a coherent manner, and this involves a consideration of generic, individuative, and circumstantial factors" (147).

This moves towards my position. The good is the desirable. The generic goods of human life correspond to the natural desires of human biological nature. But prudence is required to judge how best to manage those desires in the life of any individual human being (Darwinian Natural Right, 17-49).

Because of the influence of Ayn Rand, Den Uyl (as well as Rasmussen) tends to play up "the virtue of selfishness"--that is, understanding ethics as self-perfection. So the good is always good for someone. Although we can by abstraction see the generic goods of human nature, we should see that the actualization of the human good is always the individualized good of particular human beings.

As a consequence, Den Uyl is suspicious of modern moral philosophers who define ethics as other-regarding conduct, and who therefore dismiss self-regarding conduct as non-moral. I agree with Den Uyl about this. But I don't agree with him that Adam Smith is guilty of this mistake.

Den Uyl rightly sees that if we understand the human good as self-perfection or self-regarding conduct, we can then recognize that insofar as we are naturally social animals, we extend ourselves into others. We love our families, our friends, and our fellow citizens. We can even see a friend as "another self."

I think this is Smith's position. Den Uyl criticizes Smith for appealing too much to social sentiments as a foundation for morality, because he thinks Smith thus denigrates the self-regarding character of morality. I disagree, because it seems clear to me that Smith's moral sentiments are simply expressions of the social nature of human beings by which their self-regarding concerns extend to a concern for others who are attached to them. As individuals who are social animals, we can extend our sympathy outward from ourselves to embrace an ever wider circle of people. But our attachments will tend to be stronger to those near the center of the circle than those farther out.

Den Uyl seems to acknowledge this when he writes that "the moral virtues are largely social in character," and therefore "a type of theory of moral sentiments, which Adam Smith analyzed perhaps better than anyone else, comes into play. For the particular manner in which one's liberality or magnificence is demonstrated will largely be a function of the social sentiments present in one's society" (205-206).

It would be good if Den Uyl noted that much of what Smith and Hume said about the moral sentiments or emotions comes out of the rhetorical tradition begun by Aristotle, particularly in Book 2 of the Rhetoric.

Moreover, as I have often argued on this blog, the importance of the moral emotions for moral experience has been confirmed by research in biological moral psychology, particularly in neuroscience.

Den Uyl criticizes Smith for his idea of the "impartial spectator"--the idea that we adjust our moral sentiments to conform to what we imagine would be felt by an impartial observer. This can look like the sort of "impersonalism" evident in the moral philosophy of Kant and others in this tradition, in which the universal rules of morality require a "view from nowhere."

But in fact, as I have already suggested, Smith's "impartial spectator" is not absolutely impartial, if that means a total denial of any individual self-regarding perspective. What Smith has in mind, I think, is close to what Den Uyl suggests when he speaks of the "detached perspective" as a "necessary tool of prudence" by which we see ourselves as others see us, or as some fully informed spectator might see us (222-23). This does not deny the primacy of the individual. Rather, it's a way by which an individual satisfies his social desires for interpersonal life.

The discovery of "mirror neurons"--a subject of some posts on this blog--indicates how the evolution of the brains of social mammals has shaped cognitive abilities for entering into the thoughts and feelings of others in order to better satisfy natural desires for social engagement.

Ultimately, then, I see Den Uyl's account of prudence as fully compatible with my account of how a naturalistic view of morality can be rooted in human biological nature.

A couple of my posts on Ayn Rand can be found here and here.


Troy Camplin said...

It occurred to me that I would love to see a recommended reading list from you. Perhaps imagine what you would put on the reading list of your ideal Ph.D. student studying for qualifying exams and planning to write your ideal dissertation.

Larry Arnhart said...

That's a hard one, because I have Ph.D. students writing dissertations on a wide variety of topics.

Today, for example, I'm going to a dissertation defense for a dissertation on agrarian political thought from Aristotle to the present. Another student is finishing a dissertation on American political sermons during the Founding period.

What do you have in mind? Perhaps a general reading list on the history of political philosophy?

Troy Camplin said...

Let's imagine that I'm your grad student. I'm a libertarian, Aristotlean, Nietzschean, Austrian economist, Darwinian, evolutionary psychologist, network/systems/spontaneous orders theorist, information theorist, game theorist, chaos/fractal theorist who writes plays and poems in formal verse. My publications include an article on the application of game theory to the study of literature, and I have two upcoming articles, one applying Hayek's spontaneous order theory to understanding the creation of art and literature, the other using evolutionary psychology to reconcile Hayek's spontaneous order theory of the brain and his sp. order theory of moral evolution. What would you recommend I read with the goal of my writing some sort of dissertation using my background and strengths?

Larry Arnhart said...

If you were a graduate student asking about a dissertation topic?

I would encourage you to continue pursuing your wide-ranging interests.

Then, I would encourage you to narrow down your dissertation topic to something you could realistically complete in one year.

Once you had formulated that narrowly specified dissertation topic, then we could talk about an appropriate reading list.

Troy Camplin said...

Well, I think we're getting somewhere. How about a dissertation focusing on the relationship among our evolved psychology, social organization, virtue, and libertarian political organization?

Larry Arnhart said...


Most of what I would recommend is cited in DARWINIAN NATURAL RIGHT and DARWINIAN CONSERVATISM.

But I would stress the importance of Rasmussen and Den Uyl, as indicated by my continuing series of posts on them. They indicate the importance of biological teleology for their Aristotelian libertarianism. Much of this comes from the influence of Ayn Rand and those writing in Rand's shadow, like Allan Gotthelf and Harry Binswanger. Although Rand was not a rigorous thinker, she inspired others who were more rigorous in developing some ideas that she threw out--incluing the biological basis of ethics and liberty.

Unfortunately, Rassmussen and Den Uyl as Randian rationalists are so put off by the "sentimentalism" of Hume and Smith that they can't see the underlying continuity of biological naturalism that links Aristotle, Hume, Smith, and Darwin.

Paul Rubin's book DARWINIAN POLITICS: THE EVOLUTIONARY ORIGIN OF FREEDOM is good, although it's not as good as it should be.

As you know, there are strands of evolutionary psychology in Hayek. But, as I argue in DARWINIAN CONSERVATISM (19-26), his insistance on elevating cultural tradition over natural instinct and deliberate choice weakens his argument by failing to see the need for three sources of order--nature, custom, and judgment.

Anonymous said...

I'd recommend Troy read Arnhart.


Troy Camplin said...

An excellent beginning. Thanks. I appreciate it.