Friday, June 20, 2008

Light Bulb Passage

Sometimes you read a passage, sometimes one you've read before, and suddenly a light bulb goes on. I had that experience reading the following this evening:

Aristotle's presupposed social context is one in which evaluation is primarily in terms of the achievement of the ends of activity; Hume's is one in which evaluation is primarily in terms of the satisfaction of consumers.

Alasdair MacIntyre, Whose Justice? Which Rationality?, p. 298.

Given that we live in a society that is more or less Humean (any modern capitalist society will be more or less Humean), a number of things suddenly make a great deal of sense. Take happiness, which is always understood at least partly in terms of a social context. For an Aristotelian, happiness is understood in terms of excellent achievement. This is why, for instance, Aristotle seriously entertains the idea that your life, otherwise happy, can be made unhappy by something that happens after you die. But someone who thinks of happiness as a matter of a matter of satisfying consumption will scarcely be able to make sense of the notion of being made unhappy by something after your death. A person who focuses on achievement won't be able to make much sense of a man being happy even though, unbeknownst to him, his wife and love of his life is cheating on him with his best friend. That sort of life is not an excellent achievement. But a person who focuses on consumption will take the 'unbeknownst to him' clause as crucially important: what he doesn't know doesn't affect him. He's still a highly satisfied consumer. Happiness in terms of excellent achievement requires virtues of some sort; happiness in terms of satisfying consumption just requires something, anything, that pleases you greatly and keeps pleasing you greatly. To put it at the limit case, in light of one you would treat the bliss of heaven as the full perfection of the best things you do, e.g., understanding and love of what is most important. In light of the other you would treat it as a never-ending succession of satisfying things you get, e.g., the pleasures of the company of family and friends with all the unsatisfying parts removed. Examples could be multiplied elsewhere. (It also puts in quite clear terms just how massive the obstacles facing those of us with Aristotelian inclinations really are.)

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