Tying Together Some Loose Ends

loose ends

I have a very interesting dream last night, clearly triggered by what I had been thinking about during the day. I was writing a blog post about what I discovered in doing some background research: my use of flourishing to describe successful human life falls into the philosophic domain of “virtue ethics.” My specific focus on flourishing is the central topic in a subdivision of that discipline called, Eudaimonism, the Greek word Aristotle used to describe the outcome of living a virtuous (or good) life. The equivalent English word that comes closest is flourishing; happiness is perhaps more commonly used, but philosophers (and I) prefer the more ontologically relevant one, flourishing.

I have written about this before on many occasions, but my dream pointed me in a new direction. I was struck by this sentence I found in a Wikipedia article on virtue ethics. For those interested in the topic, itself, here are a few opening lines from that article.

Virtue ethics is a broad term for theories that emphasize the role of character and virtue in moral philosophy rather than either doing one’s duty or acting in order to bring about good consequences. A virtue ethicist is likely to give you this kind of moral advice: “Act as a virtuous person would act in your situation.” …Most virtue ethics theories take their inspiration from Aristotle who declared that a virtuous person is someone who has ideal character traits. These traits derive from natural internal tendencies, but need to be nurtured; however, once established, they will become stable. For example, a virtuous person is someone who is kind across many situations over a lifetime because that is her character and not because she wants to maximize utility or gain favors or simply do her duty. Unlike deontological and consequentialist theories, theories of virtue ethics do not aim primarily to identify universal principles that can be applied in any moral situation. And virtue ethics theories deal with wider questions—“How should I live?” and “What is the good life?” and “What are proper family and social values?”

Later in the article, the author writes about Aristotle’s work on ethics.

Aristotle then observes that where a thing has a function the good of the thing is when it performs its function well. For example, the knife has a function, to cut, and it performs its function well when it cuts well. This argument is applied to man: man has a function and the good man is the man who performs his function well. Man’s function is what is peculiar to him and sets him aside from other beings—-reason. Therefore, the function of man is reason and the life that is distinctive of humans is the life in accordance with reason. If the function of man is reason, then the good man is the man who reasons well. This is the life of excellence or of eudaimonia. Eudaimonia is the life of virtue—-activity in accordance with reason, man’s highest function.

The bolded sentence jumped off the page and grabbed me by the corners of my mind because it made much instantly clear that has been cloudy for me. I suspect Heidegger may have had the same kind of thought since he has said one main purposes of his magnum opus, Being and Time, was to set Aristotle on his head and start from scratch to discover the “function” of human being. I am using function in a sense that characterizes the most fundamental character of any entity, one that makes it distinct from others. Aristotle saw reason as the most fundamental, and created the model on which Western thought and societal development has evolved ever since. Flourishing (eudaimonia) comes as an individual lives life virtuously, that is, living a life through reasoning.

Now, compressing Heidegger into a few words (if that is indeed possible), simply substitute care for reason. Heidegger thought the “function” of human Being is care. What made us distinct as an entity that is distinct in a world of infinite other phenomena (our ontology) is that human life is built around care for the world we inhabit. We are able to perceive that world, make sense of it, and act intentionally within it. Sounds straight-forward, but you should then ask, “How do we determine how to put our intentions into play in a meaningful way? Isn’t there another necessary step? What rules ought we invoke to make the right choice among an infinite set of possibilities?” The historical response is some form of ethics or standards of rightness of our subsequent acts. But any such criterion of rightness would have been determined by reason, taking us right back to the place we started without shedding any light.

A virtue ethic built on care neatly by-passes that problem, but needs another missing link. That link is language. Language is a necessary prerequisite to sense-making. Things make sense to us and others only if and when we can describe them in language. The distinctiveness explicitness of the world is created through language. Heidegger said “Language is the house of being.” Taken by itself, it is difficult to make sense of this sentence, but, if you replace “being” by “care,” it becomes clearer. In order to care, one must be able to bring meaning to the immediate world of phenomena, the middle step in the sequence above. Being is a very difficult word to understand, especially as Heidegger uses it; its verbal form suggests it is about doing something, that is, functioning in some way peculiar to it. Human are human because they care; knives are knives because they cut, rocks are rocks because they are hard, and so on. Such ontological statements quickly get fuzzy when entities have multiple functions.

Now to another aha moment for me. One of my major criticisms about the way modern cultures plan ahead and solve problems that arise in implementing those plans is that all of our processes involved in these two steps are based on abstractions: images and rules that have been constituted by taking them out of the context from which they relate to. But the meaning of language in practice is inherently context dependent. The same words may take on different meanings in different contexts. Although I cannot prove it, it seems to me that language itself is an abstraction from a complex world; every word we use originated in a particular context, some instantaneous, unique configuration of the world out there and in the course of some action being performed that related to that context. What I just wrote describes “caring.” It was invented and had a meaning that came from its particular context, but, of course, that context changes from instant to instant. Once the words were invented and settled into the (metaphorical) collective memory, they could be used in the process of caring by both individuals and groups, at another moment.

Language, thus, is inherently an abstraction. When ever we use it, we simultaneously create a world of meaning, but not the real, complex, highly interconnected world that is always out there and in which we exist. When Descartes codified the reductionist method of science, he merely circumscribed a particular kind of abstraction, one that was explicitly valid only within its own bounded, known context. One core of reductionist scientific methodology is control over experiments, another way of providing a singular context. Language, then, cannot fully describe the actual world in which we humans act, that is, exercise our fundamental function of caring. It only can reflect a part of it, usually that which is most familiar to us based on our life experience up to that point. Gregory Bateson must have understood this when he wrote, “The major problems in the world are the result of the difference between how nature works and the way people think.”

I hope you will begin to connect the dots, as I am trying to do. My major thesis for quite a while has been that unsustainability or any other way of talking about the unintended consequences of our policies and societal structure in terms of both bad outcomes and failures to achieve our goals, is due to a faulty set of beliefs about the world; beliefs that have come from thinkers as far back as Aristotle and even farther. One is the failure to hold phenomenal complexity, rather than analytic simplicity, as our basic way of giving meaning to the world. It’s tough to do otherwise, given the abstract nature of the elements of our analytic systems that are built on numbers and words. The other is manifest in Aristotle’s virtue of reason as the fundamental nature of humans. Reason is bounded by the language used to construct sentences and cannot, thus, be an accurate and complete picture of what is means to be a human being. Care seems to be closer to our real, that is, fundamental, mode of existence.

A few last thoughts. Another sentence in the Wikipedia article also got my attention. It reads, “Judgments of virtue are judgments of a whole life rather than of one isolated action.” It’s another way to point to the necessity of finding meaning in a holistic way, some way that does the best possible job of illuminating the context in which action has taken place. One caring action does not make a caring human, but a lifetime of care might. Care is not just any old virtue. There is a strong normative, pragmatic sense to it. Humans have become the highly evolved species we are by effectively caring for ourselves and for the surrounding world over millennia.

The language we use has mirrored that effectiveness and, in a way, contains the combined experience of human life on the planet. If we can learn to put it back into its complex worldly context, we should be able to cope much better that we seem to be doing lately. If we do, human life will almost certainly be different from that of our modern world, but may support a lasting existence as the caring creatures we are. If that should happen, we will have reached the state of eudaimonia that Aristotle foresaw as the most desirable way of human existence. I would use a different, more familiar term and say that we would have found a way to flourish. By noticing that such a state is to determined over sufficiently long times to smooth the momentary vagaries of context, it also implies that the world itself must then flourish as well.