Monday, February 25, 2008

3 Sins of Modernism (the Redefinitions of Happiness, Reason and Virtue) and the Art of Selfish Consumption

I was driving to work on a cold winter's morning when I heard Will Wilkinson's radio commentary arguing that over-consumption in the west makes people happier and, consequently, overconsumption must be a good thing. Wilkinson stands in a long line of modern thinkers that think that pursuing wants is indistinguishable from persuing needs as the defining aspect of happiness is subjective satisfaction. Indeed, in most forms of the modern discipline of economics, wants and needs are indistinguishable as the consequence of redefining rationality from the classical view (the ability to think and reason) to acting in such a fashion as to achieve one's goals. This way of thinking goes back at least as far as Machiavelli who redefined virtue as the ability to achieve one's own goals rather than the classical view that virtue was an objective characteristic illustrating how close to what one ought to be one was.

The crux of Wilkonson's commentary is that no single individual has the right to determine the distinction between wants and needs for any other individual. Having already played up the anecdote where the classical philosopher Diogenes smashed his single material possession (a wooden bowl) after seeing a young, poor child drink from cupped hands, Wilkinson concludes with the following.

Of course, moralizers of all stripes, from officious environmentalists to religious fundamentalists, have strong ideas about what we really need. But the fact that you think you know what's best for me doesn't mean I don't really need my nose hair trimmer or my stuffed armadillo. I have my reasons.

If this wild assortment of stuff was really crushing our souls, then maybe we ought to smash our flatscreens like Diogenes smashed his bowl. But the evidence is clear: People are most likely to be happy, healthy, well-educated and long-lived in places where people consume the most [Wilkinson, Will. Too much consumption? Let me decide. Marketplace Morning Report. 20-Feb-2008. American Public Media.].
Let's politely ignore the fact that Wilkinson is committing the fallacy of the excluded middle and ignore the fact that Wilkinson does not explore if it might not be the case that most people might actually agree that wants have limits. Rather than nitpicking, let's focus on the real assertion that underlies Wilkinson's case, that happiness is something subjective rather than objective.

One of the oldest definitions of happiness is that of Aristotle. He argued that happiness is an ``activity of the soul in accordance with virtue, and if there are more than one virtue, in accordance with the best and most complete'' [Nicomachean Ethics, 1098]. This definition ought to be placed in Aristotle's teleological view of the cosmos. Human existence, according to Aristotle, has meaning. Part of being human is be a certain kind of being and when a particular person becomes the sort of being that a human being ought to be, that person is living a flourishing life, that person is happy. Most importantly to this discussion is the observation that, to some extent, what it means to live a flourishing life is objective. Just as a diseased and shriveled oak tree cannot reach the full potential of what it means to be an oak tree, there are quite a few ways that a particular human being can be perverse, diseased or otherwise distressed and be said to objectively lack a full and abundant life. If this were not the case, so many people wouldn't be seeking a cure for various diseases, fighting to reduce world hunger or apply various moral codes.

One of the most powerful objections to this is offered by Machiavelli who essentially argued that virtue, rationality and happiness are not objective states but subjective ones. Virtue, in this view, isn't something objective and available to all men. Rather, virtue is held to be competence in achieving one's own goals. Likewise, rationality is held to be acting in accordance with one's own interests and desires. Happiness, in this view, is the satisfaction that comes from achieving one's goals. We find here the echo of not only Wilkinson but also of almost every modern economics text book in the western world. Happiness is no longer an objective state of goodness, but the pleasure and satisfaction derived from reaching subjective goals. Rationality is no longer the ability to think and to reason, but to act in a self-interested fashion. Virtue is no longer acting in proper manner but acting competently.

If Machiavelli is correct, then I certainly have no moral standing to condemn Wilkinson and his love of expensive nose hair trimmers and stuffed armadillos as being petty, selfish or excessive. Nor does anyone else. But what if Machiavelli isn't correct? What if there is happiness that is an objective mode of being rather than something subjective? It seems to me that, if this is the case, that unless by some quirk of fate the objective state of being that is happiness consists in the acquisition of nose hair clippers and stuffed armadillos, Wilkinson is doomed to not know happiness. Yet, to be fair, his doom would seem to consist at least in part of something of a blissful ignorance. Wilkinson may not ever know what true happiness, but he'll apparently have a good time being wrong.

And that, to me, is one of the most difficult parts of pursuing the meaning of happiness. On the one hand, it does seem to me that most people will readily agree that happiness is something of an objective state. Not many people would argue that certain objective things aren't part of being happy: a certain amount of freedom, being in good health, being of sufficient means, having good friends. But on the other hand, it also seems fairly intuitive that having a good time is also a part of happiness. I'm not the sort that would argue that the intuitive answer can't be the wrong answer. (No one who has studied logic, statistics or economics is likely to ever make that claim.) But it also seems to me that a rather clear argument is required to reject intuition on most matters. (For two great arguments on this topic, read Aristotle's Nichomachian Ethics and The first book of Thomas Aquinas' Summa Theologiae. As much as I'd love to take the time to actually put forward their arguments, doing so is outside of the scope of the present essay.) After all, can we really say that it is possible for a human being to objectively flourish at the same time as that particular human being is subjectively miserable? If the person in question is mentally defective, I suppose the answer would be `yes.' But what if the person is merely mistaken? I think that in the end I could accept that, that one can enjoy oneself and still not reach the fullness of human existence.

And, for some, that condescension is likely to be good enough. Like Machiavelli and Wilkinson these people who are mistaken about happiness will probably not care that they might fall short of what they might possibly be so long as being more fully human isn't within the realm of their respective desires. And, to directly address Wilkinson's point, what right do others have to place limits on Wilkinson's mistakenness? In some cases, where Wilkinson's behaviors directly or indirectly affect others, a case can certainly be made Wilkinson should be reined in. If Wilkinson's stuffed armadillo collection does indeed unambiguously cause climate change in Africa, it isn't so far fetched that Wilkinson has some amount of moral obligation to reduce his expenditures on the acquisition of stuffed armadillos. Wilkinson's presentation is, in fact, a bit disingenuous. Recall that his is committing the fallacy of the excluded middle by holding out the Diogeneses of the world as if they were the only example of the limitation of consumption as if the only choices one has are between having no possessions at all and living like a dog or gratifying every possible want at one's whim. In truth, the most widely accepted theory of society itself, the social contract, is based on the very premise that people willingly give up the ability to pursue some wants in exchange for the stability and comforts that come with the technical division of labor that arises from even a moderately sized city. It doesn't seem to me to be all that far fetched that society can (and perhaps should) place a good deal of restrictions on the pursuit of wants by individuals so that the society as a whole can prosper.

That argument isn't really restricted to any one theory of morality. But it is contradicted by modernism in its most raw form. If one were to take the reasoning that Wilkinson argues underlies his freedom of consumption seriously and apply it to one's entire manner of living, the end result would a way of life that most people think is morally perverse. While it is true that many people have to tried to build entire philosophies on this modernism (e.g. Ayn Rand) and others have spent enormous amounts of time and energy promoting its application to the economic sphere (e.g. Milton Friedman), it seems to me that relatively few people really embrace this line of reasoning. Being a relatively unpopular theory, of course, doesn't prima facie mean that a theory is wrong. But I am loathe to hold to a theory that is so unintuitive that most few people who consider it, take it up without a strong demonstration of that theory's truth. Wilkinson didn't offer that justification. He just raised his fist to yell ``What right have YOU to take away MY nose hair clippers and stuffed armadillos?'' That doesn't sound happy to me. That sounds ignorant and pathetic.

1 comment:

wumpus said...

Wilkinson is right. Marketeers are amoung the foulest of evil in that they exist to sow confusion in the individual's needs and wants.

I call upon Wilkinson to join me in advocating the banning of advertising.