Wednesday, April 07, 2010

Aristotelian Liberalism (6): The Morality of Commercial Friendship

In his zoological writings, Aristotle distinguishes solitary animals and gregarious animals. Of the gregarious animals, some are political. Some of the political animals have leaders, but others do not. The political animals cooperate for some some work or function (koinon ergon). Humans, bees, ants, wasps, and cranes are all political animals in this sense (History of Animals, 488a7-14).

Human beings are more political, however, than these animals because of the uniquely human capacity for speech (logos). Other animals can share their perceptions of pleasure and pain. But human beings can use speech to share their conceptions of the advantageous, the just, and the good (Politics, 1253a1-18). Human beings are the most political animals, it seems, because through speech human beings cooperate for common ends in ways that are more complex, more flexible, and more extensive than is possible for other political animals. Through speech, human beings can deliberate about the "common advantage" (koinon sumpheron) as the criterion of justice (Rhetoric, 1362a15-63b5). A just political community can be judged to be one that serves the common advantage of all of its members, as contrasted with an unjust political community that serves only the private advantage of its rulers (Nicomachean Ethics, 1160a13-14; Pol., 1279a17-19).

But how is it possible for a large-scale political community (like the United States, for example) to be organized around a common end or purpose? The problem in achieving a common end in such a community arises not just from the size of the population but also from the diversity of ends in the individual lives of human beings.

Ancient political philosophers like Plato and Aristotle seemed to argue that the only solution to this problem was for a government to impose a single moral end or way of life on the whole community. This required severe limits on the size of the community, and so it would not work for large political communities like modern nation-states. This imposition of a single moral end also required a coercive enforcement of morality that would deny individual liberty. For such a regime, statecraft would be soulcraft.

By contrast, modern liberal political philosophers have argued that coercive enforcement of a single moral end cannot work, and the attempt to make it work brings about a tyrannical suppression of individual liberty. As an alternative, liberal thinkers have argued for defining the common good of a political community as securing the liberty of individuals to pursue their diverse moral ends. But the critics of liberalism have charged that this promotes a hedonistic atomism that dissolves the communitarian conditions necessary for moral excellence.

In their defense of Aristotelian liberalism, Rasmussen and Den Uyl claim that this debate is misconceived, because there is a failure here to make some crucial distinctions. We need to distinguish state and society. And we need to distinguish procedural ends and determinate ends.

When Aristotle says that our nature as political animals is fulfilled in the "city" (polis), he doesn't distinguish between the "city" as a state or government and the "city" as a society. The social life of human beings requires not only a legal/political order of the state, but also a social order of civil society. Once we see this, we can see how the social cultivation of morality might be carried out in civil society--in families and various kinds of social groups--without any need for the legal/political order to coercively impose a single moral order. The legal/political order can be understood as limited to securing the conditions for moral order to arise in diverse forms in civil society.

Rasmussen and Den Uyl also distinguish between procedural and determinate ends:

"A procedural end is the object of a human purpose, the function of which is to define the conditions under which the pursuit of other (determinate) ends will occur but which does not specify what those ends will be or when and how they will be realized. A determinate end, on the other hand, is a the object of a human purpose with identifiable characteristics which can be used to help specify appropriate and inappropriate courses of action for the realization of that end. The procedural ends that characterize a political community represent the conditions under which any and all specific forms of human activity can take place. They must, therefore, be as open as possible with respect to the determinate ends they will allow" (LAN, 163).

So, Rasmussen and Den Uyl explain, while a liberal political community like the United States does not have one determinate conception of the human good, it does have procedural norms of legal conduct that secure the conditions in which individuals are free to form families and social groups based upon determinate conceptions of the human good. Such a liberal regime can be understood as promoting the Aristotelian idea of actualizing the natural human potential for moral and intellectual virtue. But it does this through the procedural protections of a legal/political order within which civil society flourishes as a social realm of moral education.

Another way of seeing this fusion of Aristotelian ethics and liberal politics, Rasmussen and Den Uyl suggest, is to see how liberalism fosters social cooperation through Aristotelian friendship.

The longest section of the Nicomachean Ethics is Aristotle's study of "friendship" (philia), which is the word that Aristotle uses for any kind of social bond. He distinguishes three kinds of friendship as based on virtue, pleasure, or advantage. Friendships of virtue are the highest kind, and they are based on the friends resembling one another in their virtuous character. Such friendships are the most intimate and the most enduring. Friendships of pleasure last only as long as people find some pleasure in one another. Friendships of advantage arise when people find one another useful in some way.

If one believes that statecraft is soulcraft, then one might assume that "political friendship"--the friendship that binds together citizens in a political community--would be a friendship of virtue based on sharing a single moral end. But, in fact, Aristotle indicates that friendships of virtue are possible only with a few people, because such friendships require knowing one another intimately over a long life. Political friendships are actually friendships of advantage, because citizens should be held together by some conception of their political life as mutually advantageous (NE, 1155a23-27, 1160a11-15, 1167a27-30). A liberal regime could be founded on such political friendships of common advantage.

Moreover, in modern liberal commercial societies, Rasmussen and Den Uyl argue, commercial relationships can foster advantage-friendships and thus contribute to the moral order of civil society. In explaining how commercial exchanges can sustain friendship, they quote the following passage from Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations:

"Man has almost constant occasion for the help of his brethren, and it is in vain for him to expect it from their benevolence only. He will be more likely to prevail if he can interest their self-love in his favor, and shew them that it is for their own advantage to do for him what he requires of them . . . and it is in this manner that we obtain from one another the far greater part of those good offices which we stand in need of."

They observe:

"What this passage shows is that market transactions require an interest in others. It is true that this interest is a means of satisfying one's own interest, but it is an interest in others nonetheless. Suppose then . . . that what all friendships have in common is an interest in others. Some of these (the highest types) have this interest in an unself-interested sense. Other types, however, carry a genuine interest in others, but not for their own sake. Market exchanges require a genuine interest in others, because one's own success depends upon getting others to see one's interest as their interest; in other words, sharing an interest.

"Oddly enough, command economies do not require an interest in others, for obedience, and not persuasion, is their mode of eliciting cooperation. Command structures can, and often do, embody selfishness (understood as a lack of concern for the interests of others) in a pure form, since those issuing the commands need pay no heed to anyone's interests but their own. Voluntary market transactions, on the other hand, will not occur if both parties do not see the relationship as mutually advantageous. This shared interest and advantage, at least for the duration of the transaction, embodies several features that can be found in higher forms of friendship: mutual advantage, mutual interest, cooperation, unity of purpose, and even good will" (LAN, 179).

It's worth noting that in appropriating Smith's account of commercial friendships as supporting moral cooperation, Rasmussen and Den Uyl accept Smith's moral psychology of social life, which they reject later in their book when they denigrate Smith's "moral sociology" (LAN, 214-19).

This Smithian understanding of how commercial exchanges promote friendships of advantage and thus social norms of cooperation has been confirmed by studies in the evolution of cooperation of how "market integration" fosters social norms of fairness in cooperation. Some of this research is surveyed in Joseph Heinrich's recent article in Science and in the book Moral Markets (2008), edited by Paul Zak.

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