Rational Animals, Productivity, and Constitutive Virtues

I find much both to agree and to disagree with in Greg Salmieri’s latest post (as he says he did in mine). As the present installment of Cato Unbound is winding down, time doesn’t permit me as full a response as I’d like – especially since what I do have to say doesn’t have much to do with Kant. (I hope Salmieri and I can return to these topics in some future venue.) In particular, to say as much as I’d like about how I see the role of concepts in knowledge would take us too far afield – though I can point in the relevant direction in a footnote.[1] So I’ll make just a few points about the ethical and political side of things.

I. Concerning the illiberal aspects of Aristotle’s philosophy, Salmieri says “it’s not obvious to me that Aristotle had a method or thesis that would or could have prevented these flaws if it were more expertly applied.” In response, let me quote myself from another context:

On an Aristotelian virtue-ethical account, right action is action that expresses the attitudes and dispositions appropriate to a flourishing human life, where the latter is conceived as a life that gives primacy to the exercise of distinctively human capacities. A life aiming primarily at sensual pleasure, or at mere survival, is rejected as subhuman, since it focuses on capacities that humans share with the lower animals, rather than being organized around the exercise of distinctively human traits. But superhuman lives are ruled out as well. Aristotle does urge us to strive for as godlike an existence as possible, but he makes clear that our human nature places constraints on this goal, and that actually becoming a god would not be a benefit for a human. Hence, the best life for a human being is one that navigates between the extremes of subhuman and superhuman ….

The Aristotelian virtues, too, can be seen as a mean between the subhuman vice of overvaluing, and the superhuman vice of undervaluing, our vulnerable embodiedness. To err on the side of the beasts is to be excessively concerned with our animal nature, our physical desires and physical security; this is the error of the common people, whom Aristotle regards as all too prone to take pleasure and material advantage as their primary goals, and to neglect the possibility of higher values that may require us to sacrifice comfort or even continued existence. To err on the side of the gods, by contrast, is to treat human beings as disembodied intellects for whom the animal nature is irrelevant; this is the error of philosophers like Socrates who see knowledge and virtue as sufficient for happiness, and dismiss external goods as unnecessary, aiming for a transcendent self-sufficiency that is not an option for embodied beings like us. …

Aristotle identifies the distinctively human capacity for reason and speech as the basis of our being naturally political animals, for it enables us to pursue our goals through discussion with one another. Moreover, Aristotle famously regards logos, reason or speech, as the essential trait around which a flourishing human life must be organized. This, it seems, is why Aristotle regards it as an essential component of a truly human life to deal with others politically, i.e., through reason and discourse – i.e., as conversation partners. But such an ideal creates a strong presumption against the use of force, and in favor of relying on persuasion as far as possible. Aristotle indeed affirms that it is unjust to rule by force rather than persuasion, insisting that statesmen should be as dependent on the consent of their subjects as doctors and pilots are on the consent of their patients and passengers respectively. I think, however, that Aristotle’s insight points in the direction of a more radical critique of force than he is likely to have recognized. To deal with others by force is to act in a subhuman manner, like a beast of prey; we live a more human life (and therefore, in Aristotelian terms, a better life) to the extent that our relations with other people embody reason and persuasion rather than coercion. Therefore, the need to avoid the bestial type of vice gives the virtuous agent reason to accept an obligation to respect other people as ends in themselves, rather than to treat them as mere means to her own ends. If this high-level human end places a constraint on the pursuit of lower-level, animal ends, so be it.[2]

In short, then, I do think some very foundational Aristotelean principles in fact provide the basis for an approach to politics much more libertarian than his own.[3]

II. Salmieri points to Aristotle’s view that “the value of productive activity is extrinsic to it” as the root of many of the illiberal features of his politics. I think that’s mostly right – though the contrary mistake, the Puritan overvaluation of labor, can lead to illiberal results too (a technophobic disapproval of labor-saving devices, for example). Surely productive work is sometimes merely instrumentally valuable and sometimes not.

In any case, I just want to point out that Aristotle is sometimes willing to entertain a more nuanced view of productive activity. He writes, for example:

Each person cherishes his own work more than he would be cherished by the work if it became ensouled. This happens most of all, like as not, in the case of poets; for they cherish their own poems excessively, holding them dear as offspring. … Now the cause of this is that existence is choiceworthy and lovable for all, and we exist in virtue of activity (for we exist in virtue of living and acting) and the work is, in a way, the producer in activity. He holds the work dear, then, because he holds existence dear as well. And this is natural, since what he is potentially, the work manifests in activity.[4]

Aristotle’s suggestion that we love the products of our labor because they are, “in a way, the producer [i.e.. ourselves] in activity” certainly comes close to the idea that activity can be valued for its own sake because it is productive of products beyond itself. 

III. This same idea – that a means can acquire constitutive value in virtue of its instrumental value – seems to be at the root of Salmieri’s suggestion that for Rand, “moral values and virtues are essential constituents of the ultimate end that is a person’s life, and they owe their status as constituents to the causal contribution they make to the sustenance of this life.” Salmieri offers this formulation as a way of avoiding the choice between treating virtues as instrumental and treating them as constitutive. But while I like the idea of basing virtues’ constitutive value on their instrumental value – also a common move in Stoicism and Epicureanism, as I read them – I don’t think it succeeds as a way of avoiding the choice I mentioned.

If virtues are constitutive elements of the ultimate end because of their causal contribution to that end, then their instrumental role must be logically prior to their constitutive role. In other words, the end to which virtues make a causal contribution cannot already be characterized as having those virtues as constituents. It would be circular to say that this is valuable because it contributes to that, if that is already conceptualized as including this. Hence the life to which virtues are constitutive means must be a more richly and thickly characterized version of life than the life to which virtues are initially identified as instrumental means – leaving Rand with the problem of deciding which of these two versions of life to identify with the ultimate end. 

I think, of course, that the richer version is the way to go; but if one takes that route, one then has to abandon the earlier, narrower conception as merely provisional – a passing “moment” in the conceptual construction of the ultimate end. Rand’s view, reaching forward to grasp the richer version while refusing to let go of the narrower version, strikes me as a case of wanting to eat one’s cake and have it too.[5]




[1] In fact, this footnote: Roderick T. Long, “Anti-Psychologism in Economics: Wittgenstein and Mises,” Review of Austrian Economics 17:4 (2004), pp. 345-369: http://praxeology.net/antipsych.pdf

and Long, “Praxeology: Who Needs It,” Journal of Ayn Rand Studies 6.2 (Spring 2005), pp. 299-316: http://praxeology.net/praxwho-x.pdf

[2] Roderick T. Long, “The Irrelevance of Responsibility,” pp. 122-124, in Social Philosophy and Policy 16.2 (Summer 1999), pp. 118-145: http://praxeology.net/RTL-irrelevance.pdf

See the original article for citations to Aristotle’s texts.

[3] For more on the libertarian implications of Aristotle’s principles, see Long, “Aristotle’s Conception of Freedom,” Review of Metaphysics 49 (June 1996), pp. 775-802: http://praxeology.net/AriConcFree.pdf

and Long, “Aristotle’s Egalitarian Utopia: the polis kat’ euchen,” in Mogens Herman Hansen, ed. The Imaginary Polis: Symposium, January 7-10, 2004. Acts of the Copenhagen Polis Centre 7 (Copenhagen: Det Kongelige Danske Videnskabernes Selskab, 2005), pp. 164-196: http://praxeology.net/AriEgalUtop.pdf

[4] Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics 1167b31-1168a15; translation mine.

[5] See Roderick T. Long, Reason and Value: Aristotle versus Rand (Poughkeepsie: Objectivist Center, 2000): http://atlassociety.org/sites/default/files/Reason_Value.pdf

Also from this issue

Lead Essay

  • Mark D. White praises Immanuel Kant’s political philosophy and recommends it to modern classical liberals. Kant’s ethics has often been caricatured as one of rigid, unthinking duty, and also of absolute altruism; White rebuts both of these claims and insists that Kantian ethics gives individuals the space to exercise mature, thoughtful, contextually appropriate judgments. Kant’s politics held that they should have the liberty to act on the products of their deliberation; political liberty, then, is a natural outgrowth of individual autonomy, or the capacity for reasoned self-rule.

Response Essays

  • Gregory Salmieri argues that Kant’s duty-based ethics leaves no room for the pursuit of happiness considered as a good - and thus it leaves no room for individual rights. Moreover, an ethics of duty can coexist quite happily with an authoritarian regime, in that individual duties may still be observed even under authoritarianism. Salmieri also questions the cohesion of the classical liberal tradition overall, for while that includes many people with common interests and influences, their diverse philosophical foundations should not be forgotten, and it may prove that many of us are more adversaries of one another than we realize. Salmieri holds that while liberalism after Kant has accomplished a good deal, its work has been on flawed foundations.

  • Stephen R. C. Hicks argues that if our case for liberty comes from a mysterious other realm, then perhaps we have no case at all. He describes how this was true of Kant’s idea of freedom, which proceeded from the noumenal realm — a realm whose very existence Hicks, like most others, denies. It should be little surprise, then, that Kant himself was a racist, a sexist, a foe of the “commercial spirit,” an enemy of smallpox vaccines, and in many other key respects a proponent of human bondage. Kant’s idea of freedom was otherworldly, and as a result, he held that freedom in this world can be restricted without doing any injury to the “true” freedom of the individuals in question. Beginning from this foundation and proceeding to classical liberalism is arbitrary and unwarranted.

  • Roderick Long offers a complex view of Immanuel Kant, who emerges as more often liberal in principle than in practice. Kant approved of taxation, a welfare state, and even forced conscription; he opposed the right of revolution, opposed women’s civic equality, and warmly supported capital punishment. One might always say that a person with Kant’s fundamental principles should not have approved of these things, but the fact remains that Kant did. In Long’s typology, liberalism can be imminent, in which it is concerned with the freedom of action in everyday life; or it can be vicarious, in which it is concerned with abstract social theory. He argues that Kant shows the influence of both Rousseau and Hobbes in tending toward vicarious liberalism, which makes him insensitive to the realities of state action and other forms of coercion.