Saturday, November 16, 2013

The Pursuit Of Happiness

At the risk of over-simplifying, two of the great stumbling blocks in modern thought fall under the following categories:

1)      Rousseau’s erroneous anthropology (as argued for in “Discourse on the Origin of Inequality”). 

      Here he makes an explicit and self-conscious argument against the naturalist tradition.  He argues directly against Aristotle’s biological understanding of man, in addition to the obvious argument against Locke’s Second Treatise view of man in the state of Nature.  Rousseau’s “natural man” is a sort of solitary great ape, not a social creature at all.  The transition to civil society reflects the uniquely malleable nature of humans, and stresses in turn the uniqueness of human cultural evolution, and history, compared to that of other species.  Upon entering civil society, human kind is changed, fundamentally transformed, in this view. 

      And as civil society continues to change, so does mankind – fundamentally and fully.  Many of the left’s utopian assumptions about the lack of human nature, or about its infinite malleability over the intervening two centuries, rest implicitly on this argument, more or less.  It is, however, an argument that – I write this without in any way denying the significance and power of human culture and history - suffers from that fact that it is simply biologically, anthropologically, and historically undeniably false. 

2)      The “positivist,” or scientific view, that radically separates “facts” from “values.” 

     This is the familiar brand of nihilism that no longer feels it possible to use human nature as a guide for judgments about better and worse.  In addition to “Fact/Value” distinction, one sometimes here finds formulations such as “naturalist fallacy” or “is/ought” distinction.  Time permitting, I will return to this at a later date. 

     That said, there have been attempts to escape the nihilistic conclusion without taking the bull - head on - by the horns.  One such attempt is the kind of radical utilitarianism associated with Bentham.  In short, this takes simple cost/benefit analyses and extrapolates them to all human goods, including “the good” overall, and then sums the results across populations. 

     Now, of course, one cannot just assume what is good for humans, without an analysis that uses some standard, or in its own language, without making a “value judgment.”  So the attempt to sidestep the central problem fails from the beginning – before even getting started. 

     This sort of error – one that stems from failing to tackle the issue head on – I have read referred to as “the Dizzy Dean effect.”  (Dean, of course, was a standout baseball pitcher.  He fractured his toe in the 1937 All Star game [“fractured, hell, the damn thing’s broken!” he is said to have replied].  Coming back too soon, he favored the foot in question, resulting in a long-standing injury to his pitching arm – due to the changed mechanics).  A well-known example of the Dizzy Dean effect in constitutional law would be the Brown v. Board of Education decision, where the justices feel compelled to cite psychology studies, etc., so that they can overturn Plessy v. Ferguson while still showing some respect for stare decisis.  The better argument for the same, correct decision was Justice Harlan’s famous dissent in Plessy: “But in view of the constitution, in the eye of the law, there is in this country no superior, dominant, ruling class of citizens. There is no caste here. Our constitution is color-blind, and neither knows nor tolerates classes among citizens. In respect of civil rights, all citizens are equal before the law.”  And, so, it should have been after the Civil War ammendments.  Sometimes, you need to either stop pitching for awhile, or step on the damn toe. 

     To return to the errors of an ungrounded utilitarianism, I finally get to the point of this rambling post:  The economics/psycholology so-called “happiness” literature.  You have no doubt seen these referecnes to countries graded not by GDP/capita, or economic freedom indices, etc. but by some “happiness” scale.  Here is a link to a delightful article from 2012 by “Deirdre McCloskey” that pays back the time spent reading with a little wisdom:

I will leave the article to speak for itself. 

Suffice it to say, that it raises several questions, including:  What is happiness?  What is human nature?  What is this Aristotlean concept of “eudaimonia.”  Is an Aristotlean (teleologic) ethics consistent with modern science? 

In addition, there is, as an aside, a jab placed squarely on the jaw of the “cult of statistical significance.”  This points to broader epistemologic questions, and gives me a chance to post one of my favorite quotes:

“Our discussion will be adequate if it has as much clearness as the subject-matter admits of, for precision is not to be sought for alike in all discussions, any more than in all the products of the crafts. Now fine and just actions, which political science investigates, admit of much variety and fluctuation of opinion, so that they may be thought to exist only by convention, and not by nature. And goods also give rise to a similar fluctuation because they bring harm to many people; for before now men have been undone by reason of their wealth, and others by reason of their courage. We must be content, then, in speaking of such subjects and with such premises to indicate the truth roughly and in outline, and in speaking about things which are only for the most part true and with premises of the same kind to reach conclusions that are no better. In the same spirit, therefore, should each type of statement be received; for it is the mark of an educated man to look for precision in each class of things just so far as the nature of the subject admits;” 

Aristotle Nicomachean ethics, I.iii.1-4.

(emphasis mine)

Credit for "Dizzy Dean" effect:  George Anastaplo's writings.  I am not certain that he ever uses it specifically to refer to Brown v. Board, however.

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