Jun 1, 2011

Whose Flourishing Ought We Be Concerned With? (part 1)

A very interesting question was raised recently in one of the LinkedIn groups to which I belong: "Whose flourishing ought we be concerned with?"  Given the nature of group forums -- both that they invite collaboration and dialogue between multiple interlocutors, and that any notions I might work out in detail there would have their readership confined to that group -- I decided the question would provide an excellent blog topic.  I've been working recently on a paper for an upcoming ISME conference on MacIntyre's virtue ethics and prison teaching, so the notion of "flourishing" -- a moral term and goal in virtue ethics -- has been on my mind even more than usual of late.

For those not (yet, or explicitly. . .  one can always hope!) virtue ethicists, here's in a nutshell the significance of what is being talked about in the discussion.  "Flourishing" is one of those somewhat quaint-sounding but actually quite apt terms by which we render a family of teloscertain not-so-easily- translated Greek and Latin terms -- Western virtue ethics goes back to those cultures -- like eu zein / bene vivere (literally "living well") or eudaimonia / beatitudo ("happiness").  Now, why bring up these terminological transformations?  They represent a continuity in a conception of the good for human beings.  In short, for virtue ethics, the Good is not a specific or generic good thing or a possession or enjoyment of such goods.  It consists in a certain way, a kind of pattern and shape, of one's life, one's relationships, one's actions and activities -- put another way, a progressive, ongoing, appropriate, and as full as possible realization of one's potentials as a human being.

When we flourish, we are doing well, not just because we have heaped up possessions, not only because we have bought security casting bread upon waters, not just because we are free of pain and enjoy perhaps ever more refined and appreciated pleasures, but because what makes us ourselves is aligned, working well, developed and perhaps yet developing -- and we do, as the ancients and medievals knew, reap our shares of pleasure from this.  We may even communicate this, whether deliberately or unknowingly -- not just express our condition but in some way impress it upon others -- just as one who is an a genuinely good mood can at times infect others with it, or shape the tone of a room or a party.

Implicit in this type of understanding of the good for human beings -- and there are ever so many different ways philosophers and theologians (and in their own groping way, the psychologists and economists concerned with the "literature of happiness") figure and configure  the varieties of such well-lived modes of being -- implicit in this are several notions: as human beings we come into the world with a set of potentialities woven into the fabric of our determinate being;  actualizing these potentialities requires a number of conditions to be met, choices to be made and remade, a sort of training of the self and its desires; and, the degree of happiness we enjoy depends to a large extent on how far these potentialities are actualized.

Often we do not really understand, sometimes even suspect, the real nature of what will make us happy, until we are partly on our way, have some awakening experience, undergo some development.  Mature sexual attraction and coupling furnishes a good example, for even though children may be precociously brought into the realm of adult desires in a variety of ways ranging from the pervasivity or perversity of bombardive media culture to the horrors of inflicted abuse to largely ignorant whisperings in schoolyard groups, it requires soem maturation, some time, some activity not only to arrive at the fullness of enjoyed intimacy, but even to adequately conceptualize it, to acquire the hallmarks and touchstones that allow telling good from bad, better from worse -- and to acquire the autonomy needed to pursue satisfaction of one's own desires and of one's partner, rather than those of the myriad others clamoring within the social imaginary.

So, all that said -- whose flourishing ought we be concerned with?  Or, teasing out this question further:  whose flourishing ought be we concerned with ?  -- and what counts as the flourishing that we aim to assist or produce for them? -- and why should we be concerned with their flourishing?  There are, you see, many different components to realizing these potentials, so is it not quite possible that one is not entirely responsible for every aspect of another person's  flourishing? (or perhaps even ones own?).  Here, it may be useful to refer directly to the discussion.

Mike Rand first posed the question:
Martin Luther King gave up everything for the flourishing of others. Mandela spend a long time in prison for what he believed in, that he personally flourished later was by no means guaranteed (see Steve Biko).

Aristotle famously proposed 'flourishing' as the purpose of life. After flirtations with other approaches, flourishing has come back in to favour within philosophy. But if we look at the great lives, those steeped in meaning, then perhaps they didn't try to flourish themselves, they tried to create a world where others flourished.

Aristotle also described us as a social animals. Should we be as concerned with the flourishing of our tribe, or society as we are with ourselves, or even more so? Is the ethical balance personal to each of us?
Now, this is a richly outlined way of setting the main question -- and I must say that it is extremely heartening as a (mainly) academic philosopher to see someone outside of academia musing about moral matters in this vein.  I am actually going to set aside the main issue he raises, since it is deserving of another blog post in its own right -- what ought we make of cases like that of Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela, who clearly did make great sacrifices precisely to promote not only the pleasure, the wealth, the possessions, the opportunities (to invoke some of the categories dear to other contemporary moral theories) of other people -- but in fact acted so as to enable others to flourish (for a piece connecting MLK to virtue ethics, see here).

The vociferously posting and controversial Lalit Rao took an interesting tack which I'm going to idiosyncratically label the Bergson stance -- since it reminds me so strongly of Henri Bergson's discussions in The Two Sources of Morality and Religion .  Rao writes:
Ideally,we should be concerned with the flourishing of all living beings which can be found on the entire universe.Such a move would ensure that everybody's flourishing is going to be taken care of.There would not be any discrimination.We would be able to rise above petty considerations of me, myself and my family. Everybody is going to benefit from such a move.
Bergson himself seems to advocate such a position, but realizes that it is not only an ideal, but also rare, since for most human beings, there will be a decided preference for looking to the good of one's own family, one's own groups, one's own tribe, one's own nation even.  Against a universal concern for all, every, and each fellow human being, Bergson contrasts a more natural, and as he terms it "closed," morality:
In the ordinary way we conform to our obligations rather than think of them. . . [S]ociety has made matters very much easier for us by interpolating intermediaries between itself and us: we have a family; we follow a trade or a profession; we belong to our parish, to our district, to our county; and, in cases where the insertion of the group into society is complete, we may content ourselves, if need be, with fulfilling our obligations towards the group and so paying our debts to society. Society occupies the circumference; the individual is at the centre: from the centre to the circumference are arranged, like so many ever-widening concentric
circles, the various groups to which the individual belongs.

From the circumference to the center, as the circles grow smaller, obligations are added to obligations, and the individual ends by finding himself confronted with all of them together. Thus obligation increases as it advances; but, if it is more complicated, it is less abstract, and the more easily accepted. When it has become fully concrete, it coincides with a tendency, so habitual that we find it natural, to play in society the part which our station assigns to us. So long as we yield to this tendency, we scarcely feel it. It only assumes a peremptory aspect, like all deep-seated habits, if we depart from it.
What would be different from, transcend this?  An open morality based on "love of mankind," which is "indirect and acquired":
[F]or it is only through God, in God, that religion bids man love mankind; and likewise it is through reason alone, that Reason in whose communion we are all partakers, that philosophers make us look at humanity in order to show us the preeminent dignity of the human being, the right of all to command respect. Neither in the one case nor the other do we come to humanity by degrees, through the stages of the family and the nation. We must, in a single bound, be carried far beyond it, and, without having made it our goal, reach it by outstripping it. Besides, whether we speak the language of religion or the language of philosophy, whether it be a question of love or respect, a different morality, another kind of obligation supervenes. . . .
Though I distrust it, I like Bergson's stark contrast here precisely because it brings up the key issue -- where do we get our sense about whose flourishing we ought to be promoting, producing, enabling?  Closed morality, though it may seemingly sanction itself by invocation of religion's God or philosophy's Reason, really derives from the needs of society, and consolidates itself within the psyche of the individual through habit, sentiment, emotion, desire.  Open morality is revealed to us disconcertingly by God or Reason -- or through the exemplary function of:
exceptional men, incarnating this morality. Before the saints of Christianity, mankind had known the sages of Greece, the prophets of Israel, the Arahahts of Buddhism, and others besides. It is to them that men have always turned for that complete morality which we had best call absolute morality.
It is really that simple?  Ought we wrest ourselves away from our natural tendencies to confine ourselves to the flourishing of those most proximate to us, those who happen to fit into the concentric circles in which we move (and live and have our. . .  well, social. . .  being).  Or has Bergson perhaps in his turn oversimplified?
This is a very large question, to which I'm only going to contribute one small argument -- clearly not enough to resolve the issue, but perhaps sufficient to point out a feature all too often overlooked. 

But first, I would like to bring up one counterexample, one of those saints who did exemplify and work the concept of love -- a rightly canonized man I greatly admire, Anselm of Canterbury.  In his Prayer for Friends, he tackles a matter made particularly difficult for Christians ever since on the Mount Jesus enjoined to his followers and the gathered crowds that we are to love our enemies, and intimated that loving those who love us is easy enough and perhaps meritless (not the read I give of that passage, but that's another matter. . . )

Anselm certainly cannot be faulted for a narrow partiality, a lack of consciousness of his duties, or ungracious nescience of his gratuitous and creaturely status.  Echoing the prayerful first chapter of Proslogion, he asks: "what return shall I make to him who created and re-created me?"  And, he knows that this return is to love, to not only feel, act out of, bend his will back towards caritas, but to live within the scope of that relationship.  And yet:
I love all men, in you and for your sake, though not so much as I ought or as I desire.  I pray your mercy upon all men, yet there are many  hold more dear since your love has impressed them upon my heart with a closer and more intimate love, so that I desire their live more eagerly -- I would pray more ardently for these.
For Anselm, of course, who believes in the traditional Christian doctrine of the infinitely and intimately complex providential ordering of affairs by a loving God, those with whom one has been placed in what seem to others to be merely accidental arbitrary relationships -- familial, work, neighborly, even those in so-called "intentional" communities, since after all, it could be just chance that one is stuck with these fellow monks -- those with whom one lives, acts, develops, loves (and hates) rejoices (and grieves) -- those are the ones we are called to love all the more.

They are those into whose hands we have put been for better or worse -- and they have been placed in ours as well.  It is with these sorts of cases that the Fleetwood Mac line would possess moral truth: "If you can't be with the one you love" -- that is, the ones a person might rather love (for instance an abstract notion of humanity? or those easily loved because so lovable?) -- "love the one you're with" -- or, better, all of the ones, all of those whom have been impressed upon one's heart.  While one ought to be concerned with many other people's flourishing, and arguably ought also to have a general concern for human flourishing, one ought be concerned in a more intense and sustained way with the flourishing of those with whom one has been placed.

A similar non-theological line of reasoning -- which does not invoke God or providence -- leads me to the same conclusion.  I ask myself:  whose flourishing do I have much of a determinate role in enabling or blocking, in promoting or hampering -- including in assisting or obstructing a well-developing understanding of what flourishing actually consists in? 

One must also consider before answering this that one has limited time, energy and means, and if the goal is to promote or produce as much human flourishing as possible, one has to sink those means into promoting the flourishing of those in whose lives those means will have the greatest likely effect.  Of  course, determining this can be quite complex -- not a simple utility equation -- precisely because life and human beings are so complicated. 

So for instance, in order for my doing what is needed so that my daughter, about whose unfolding talent and bodily imagination dance instructors tell me, might continue developing in that respect -- a component of her flourishing, integrating bodily movement, pains and pleasures, the gradual incorporation into a tradition, permitting artistic expression and play, the interplay of discipline and beauty  -- I must also do what is needed (in my case at a distance, since I am divorced) for both of us to maintain and grow within that  father-daughter relationship whose vital status for general flourishing social scientists have only in the last few decades come to recognize. I must make choices, prioritizations, sacrifices not only of my own desires, but also of opportunities to conduce more to the flourishing of others.

And, I regard that latter genre of sacrifice not only as a necessary evil but as a positive good.  You see, my business is with my daughter -- and my son, and my cousins, uncles, aunts, parents. . . .   and also with my friends and colleagues, though not -- for most of them -- in the same way.  I think there would be something radically wrong with me if I did not recognize that my daughter not only needs me more than these other people (though of course in some conditions, they may at that time need me more), if I did not act on that recognition, and also if I did not recognize that the complexities of the relationship she and I share involves that I also need her, and to do right by her, as a component of my own flourishing -- with which I also ought to be concerned. 

As sadly as the plight of unfortunates worldwide visibly suffering in innumerable and alleviable manners pulls on one's heartstrings, as many contributions as I may make to their possibilities for flourishing, I will still favor my daughter, her life, her needs, her flourishing if and when it comes down to a choice between two mutually excluding alternatives -- and does that not occur, even though we don't think about it, countless times per day? Of course, better would be for the circle of love, the care for flourishing, the enjoyment and actualization of determinate and proper goods between us to extend itself and to include -- even if it can only be extended to one more, who has to be chosen, perhaps at random, out of so many needy others -- others whose flourishing also does matter.

This is a great question to think about, and I plan to write several more entries in a series exploring various aspects of it.  For the moment, I envision one about promotion of one's own flourishing, another about the problem seemingly posed by Martin Luther King and his sacrifice, and another about differing conceptions of flourishing and the role of the imaginary.  If you, reader, have one burning in your own heart, on your tongue, or on your fingertips, write it in return and I'll respond to it.