Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Aristotle & Nussbaum II: Luck and the Good Life

Aristotle thinks that while we do have control over ourselves, luck does play some role in "the good life".  He presents a moderate position between two extreme views.  The first extreme view is the "Luck is All" view, which states that luck is the only thing that determines whether someone lives a good life. Effort does not matter.  The second extreme view is that "Effort is All", which states that only effort determines whether a person lives a good life.  Luck does not matter.  Aristotle thinks that both luck and effort play a role in determinism whether a person lives a good life.

According to Aristotle, the "luck is all" view is obviously wrong.  First, living well is a kind of activity that we perform.  Since living well is an activity that we perform, then we must be active and must give effort.  If effort did not matter, then we'd all be as well off as babies, comatose folks and inanimate objects.  Second, the good life requires not just attempting activities but it also requires success at those activities.  A person who can play tennis well will not achieve a good life by playing tennis unless he or she actually gets onto the tennis court and play tennis.  Likewise, a person cannot live a good life if he or she is always asleep.  Aristotle thinks that evidence for whether a person lives a good life is whether a person receives praise and congratulations.  For example, a tennis star who plays often gets praise whereas the tennis player who is too afraid to play does not receive praise.  Third, the good life must be available to most people.  People who are ethically "maimed" or scarred or people who have extreme trauma that has made them bitter, dark and suspicious may not have a good life available to them because they cannot be morally good.  Sometimes people are abused as children or experience terrible things when young and this keeps them from developing a virtuous moral character.  Fourth and finally, the good life must be stable.  While you can lose the good life, this only happens if there are "big and numerous misfortunes".  Once you have a good life, it is yours and it is hard to take that away from you.  For these reasons, Aristotle thinks that effort does matter for a good life.

According to Aristotle, the "effort is all" view is also wrong.  First, one cannot do good things without resources.  Having access to resources is a matter of luck.  For example, Tiger Woods could not have been good at golf if he never played golf.  That he was able to have access to golf courses and golf coaches is a matter of luck.  Second, being successful at activities is also subject to luck.  While my effort controls how well I can rock climb, luck does impact whether I succeed at a climb.  If I am rained on in the middle of my climb or if a butterfly flies in my face, this may be a bit of bad luck that means that I fail.  Third, fortune and luck can also be reversed.  Even a good person can have his or her life turned upside down.  Aristotle thought that young people are more likely to live well because they have not yet been corrupted by seeing wicked and evil events.  Old people, who have had many bad experiences, are more likely to be suspicious, wishy-washy, too humble, stingy and cowardly.  For these reasons, Aristotle thinks that luck does matter for a good life.

Plato, the famous tutor of Aristotle, thought that living a good life required trying to be as self-sufficient as possible.  Plato thought that we should live well by pursuing activities that are as stable as possible and that are invulnerable to chance.  For example, a person is better off pursuing a life of studying in school rather than playing games of chance, including some sports.  Performing tasks excellently requires external conditions.  Some activities, like personal relationships, are less self-sufficient and are easily disrupted.  Friends and lovers can always leave you and all of them will eventually die;  these activities make you very vulnerable.  Other activities, such as writing poetry or doing philosophy, only seem to require thoughts and imagination.  While you may need something to think about or write about, you do not need to have actual things, people or places to think about or write about;  these activities do not make you vulnerable.  This is why Plato thought that the philosopher lives the best life.  

Aristotle disagrees with Plato.  Whereas Plato thinks that reducing vulnerability is the key to a good life, Aristotle thinks that the vulnerability that comes with relationships are worth it.  Aristotle thinks that the best human life is communal, not solitary (Nussbaum, 344). First, having good character requires a good upbringing.  Education is necessarily social.  Second, educated adults must be politically active.  Man is "by nature a political animal" (351).  Third, a solitary life is not choiceworthy for humans.  Aristotle thought that we naturally want to live with other people.  He also thought that a person without a city or community is not quite human; such a person is either greater to or inferior to humans.  Either way, it's not human to be solitary. Aristotle thought that non-romantic friendship was the best external good.  Friendship includes loving another person for his or her own sake.  In other words, a person is loved simply for being who he or she is.  Friendship also includes a reciprocity of love.  Friends have an ongoing mutual exchange of love.  

All in all, Aristotle thought that we can and should manage the risks and vulnerability of social relationships.  Mutual dependency does not mean mutual destruction.  There can be mutual thriving.  In order to manage the risks, we should also make sure that we do not have too many close relationships or close friends, since that spreads us too thin.  If you have too many friends, you spend too much effort on too many people.  It is better to focus your effort on a few close friends.

While Aristotle and Plato may disagree about a lot of things, they both admit that happiness is ultimately beyond our total control.  Epictetus, on the other hand, thought that happiness is entirely in our control.  So long as we have the right attitude and exert control over ourselves, we will be happy.   Epictetus himself was born a slave and then went on to be a leader among stoic philosophers.  Stoic philosophers believe in stoicism, the view that a person should do his best or her best to adapt to nature, not to control nature  

No comments:

Post a Comment