Areté and Selection

12 January 2012

Thursday


Aristotle as depicted in a medieval woodcut. Aristotle was a central influence shaping the intellectual life of the Middle Ages, the direct ancestor to our own civilization.

In several posts I have written about the Aristotelian conception of excellence, i.e., Areté (ἀρετή in the original Greek, and sometimes translated as “virtue,” just like Machiavelli’s Virtù). Throughout Aristotle’s ethics there is a clear implication that human beings take pleasure in achieving excellence, and in so doing experience a proper sense of pride in their accomplishment. Here is Aristotle’s take on this:

“…the Good of man is the active exercise of his soul’s faculties in conformity with excellence or virtue, or if there be several human excellences or virtues, in conformity with the best and most perfect among them…”

Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, Rackham translation of I.7.1098a

Excellence is not only a virtue, and the good for man, but is also desirable:

“…the activities of the part of the soul that is by nature superior must be preferable for those persons who are capable of attaining either all the soul’s activities or two out of the three; since that thing is always most desirable for each person which is the highest to which it is possible for him to attain.”

In regard to the “two out of three” reference in the above, the Aristotle text at Perseus Digital Library has this footnote:

i.e. the two lower ones, the three being the activities of the theoretic reason, of the practical reason, and of the passions that although irrational are amenable to reason.

Aristotle, Politics, Book 7, 1333a

This has been called Aristotle’s principle of perfection by Fred Miller, who cites a different translation of this same passage. Fred Miller in his Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article on Aristotle’s Political Theory, includes a list of Presuppositions of Aristotle’s Politics, which names the Principle of teleology as the first of Aristotle’s presuppositions:

Principle of teleology Aristotle begins the Politics by invoking the concept of nature (see Political Naturalism). In the Physics Aristotle identifies the nature of a thing above all with its end or final cause (Physics II.2.194a28–9, 8.199b15–18). The end of a thing is also its function (Eudemian Ethics II.1.1219a8), which is its defining principle (Meteorology IV.12.390a10–11). On Aristotle’s view plants and animals are paradigm cases of natural existents, because they have a nature in the sense of an internal causal principle which explains how it comes into being and behaves (Phys. II.1.192b32–3). For example, an acorn has an inherent tendency to grow into an oak tree, so that the tree exists by nature rather than by craft or by chance. The thesis that human beings have a natural function has a fundamental place in the Eudemian Ethics II.1, Nicomachean Ethics I.7, and Politics I.2. The Politics further argues that it is part of the nature of human beings that they are political or adapted for life in the city-state. Thus teleology is crucial for the political naturalism which is at the foundation of Aristotle’s political philosophy. (For discussion of teleology see the entry on Aristotle’s biology.)

Now, there is no question that Aristotle was as Greek as any other Greek, and was very much a man of his time, even while being one of the greatest philosophers who ever lived. I make this obvious statement only because I must follow it with the observation that Aristotle’s very Greek philosophy was eventually appropriated by medieval European philosophers, and there it took on a second life, providing the theoretical framework for Scholasticism.

When we consider the role of Aristotle in medieval scholastic theology, and the ongoing role of medieval civilization in the constitution of our own industrial-technological civilization, we can see how hard it has been for us to overcome teleological thinking. Medieval civilization is the direct ancestor to our civilization; there was no catastrophic break between the Middle Ages and Modernity, but rather a smooth and continuous tradition that left many aspects of medievalism intact well into modern times.

Because of Aristotle’s pervasive teleology, he formulated his ethics and his politics teleologically, and transmitted them into this form to posterity, and it was in this form that medieval philosophers received them. In a Greek context I don’t think that Aristotle’s teleology had quite the meaning that it came to have, and indeed scholastic philosopher’s developed Aristotle’s distinction between potency and act into an entire metaphysics in its own right. In the context of a civilization almost entirely constructed upon an eschatological basis, Aristotle’s teleology and his conception of potential take on a meaning that they did not have for Ancient Greeks.

Medieval philosophers more or less ran wild with Aristotle, and I think it is this potent admixture of Aristotelian teleology and medieval eschatology that gives us that Arthur Lovejoy famously called the Great Chain of Being — the metaphysical idea of an exhaustive hierarchy in which there is a place for everything, and everything is to be found in its proper place. Linnaeus eventually naturalized the great chain of being as a system of taxonomy, and the Linnaean system continues to be used today, with evolutionary phylogeny only gradually forcing revisions to cladistic systematics.

There was no need for Aristotle to look for any alternative formulation for this ethical and political views, and his metaphysics were adequate to the scientific knowledge of his time. But since Aristotle’s time we have learned a lot, and one of the most important things we have learned is how to explain the natural world, and our place within it, without recourse to teleology. Now, I really believe that if Aristotle himself could see the naturalistic account of the world produced by contemporary science he would be enthusiastic beyond words. But the Aristotle read through Scholastic spectacles might well be horrified. There is nothing in Aristotle that suggests to me that he was committed to any anti-naturatlistic mode of thought, but Aristotelian doctrines do become anti-naturalistic in the hands of the Schoolmen.

Thus it is no surprise that Aristotle did not recognize that his conception of Areté has strongly selective connotations. If human beings find it desirable to engage in activities that are, “the highest to which it is possible for him to attain,” I think you will find that people truly enjoy doing these things. You will also find that people generally don’t much enjoy doing things that they are not at all good at doing (acknowledging important recreational exceptions — I enjoy swimming but am in no sense good at it). On the whole, then, individuals will be attracted to activities at which they excel, while they will be indifferent to, or perhaps even distance themselves from, activities at which they do not excel.

Moreover, when you become highly competent in some activity, you want to engage in this activity with others who are also highly competent. For example, if you are really good at tennis, you will want to find other really good tennis players in order to play a really satisfying game. You would not be able to have a really good game with someone who knew nothing about tennis. And so there is an elaborate system of rating tennis players that can be used to pair players of a similar skill level. I once read a quote from an institutionalized philosopher (I think it was Richard Cartwright, but I’m not certain; I’ll look up the quote later) saying that he did not like to discuss philosophy with those who had not studied the subject. Same idea as the tennis ratings. An institutionalized philosopher is a like a seeded tennis player.

The preference of the individual for activities at which the individual excels, further escalated by the preference of groups of individuals for others who have attained a similar level of excellence, produces a strong selective effect in human communities. This is one source — one source among many — of what has been called “the great sort.” People sort themselves into communities by temperament and inclination. Individual temperament and inclination tend to lead a person toward a particular community. One of the characteristics of a community is that it tends to be good at something, like Switzerland is good at clock and watch making. Something as large as a nation-state will contain considerable diversity, so there are probably many Swiss who have never assembled a watch in their life, but something as small as an academic or sports clique can be aggressively exclusive to a particular interest or talent.

There is something essentially anti-democratic — or, at least, non-egalitarian — about cliques, and, by extension, Aristotelian Areté. In its best exemplification it produces most of what is valuable in human civilization; in its worst exemplification it is insufferably aristocratic in the worst sense: ossified and unimaginative. Thus it has become one of the great problems of the age of popular sovereignty to understand and to cultivate excellence for its own sake. Popular culture is littered with failed examples of the cultivation of excellence in democratic societies. There are pathetic attempts to identify the talented when they are young, but this is almost always distorted by family connections and prejudice. And there are the monetary rewards that have created the contemporary “culture industry” and its “commodity music” (as well as “commodity painting” and commodity arts of all kinds), which is without any true cultural value. And there is the population culture fascination with fame. The potent mixture of fame of money has meant that people become involved in cinema because wnat to be rich and famous, and not because they can make great movies.

This is a problem, and it is an admittedly unresolved problem. Egalitarianism subordinates excellence to the lowest common denominator, and leaves us with the civilization not worthy of the name; aristocracy at times manages to advance excellence, but much more often it declines into mere inherited privilege, as bereft of cultural value as civilization today.

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North Korea and Areté

18 December 2011

Sunday


Aristotle as depicted by Raphael in the Vatican stanze.

Aristotle said that excellence is not an act, but a habit.

Aristotle is famous for saying, among other things, that excellence is not an act, but a habit. The Greek word for excellence — areté, ἀρετή — is also translated as “virtue,” so the same Aristotelian quote is sometimes rendered virtue is not an act but a habit. These variant translations are justified, as they point to the close interrelationship between excellence and virtue in Aristotle.

Kim Jong-il impoverished his people and left the world a worse place than he found it.

Aristotle was a common sense philosopher before there was any such thing as common sense philosophy, and his moral psychology is equally commonsensical. Aristotle maintained that people enjoy doing the things that they are good at doing, and so people make an effort at getting good at doing certain things so that they can enjoy these activities all the more. I think that this is largely correct.

The elder Kim looking frail a few months before dying; the younger Kim Jong-un, heir apparent, looking scared.

It would not be overstating the case to say that many individuals actively seek out opportunities for cultivating excellence. These opportunities can vary dramatically from place to place and time to time. Certain socio-economic systems will be richer in opportunities for certain kinds of excellence, so we find excellence unevenly distributed across history and geography.

The blackout of North Korea is both literal and metaphorical. If it was not the Hermit Kingdom in the past, under its communist autocrats it certainly has become a Hermit Kingdom today.

If Aristotle’s moral psychology is more or less correct, it would then stand to reason that we will find excellence-seeking individuals at all times and places, so that these efforts toward excellence are likely to be directed into whatever channels happen to be available.

They know how to goosestep in the DPRK.

Today the news has brought word that Kim Jong-il, the North Korean despot, has died. I have written repeatedly about Kim Jong-il and North Korea, as these provide a radical example of state failure. Even while North Korea is the paradigm case of a failed state, there is a sense in which its rulers have chosen to rule over just such a failed state, though we usually think of failure as an accident. This is failure by design. But what then is the design? In a word: the military.

While the Kim family has been the despotic focus of attention in North Korea, the country is really ruled by the military. And while it is often reported that North Korea maintains an enormous military of a million men under arms, it is rarely reported how the North Korean military is not merely large, but is also an innovative, aggressive, and essentially meritocratic institution (assuming you also know to say the right thing and not say the wrong thing).

Sometimes dictators will create a bloated military of conscripts for bragging rights, but this does not accurately describe the North Korean military. People who study such things say that the North Korean military is an impressive institution in terms of its discipline, organization, and training. While they cannot count on having the most advanced technology and the most sophisticated weapons systems, they can train relentlessly and by all reports they do.

Knowing this to be the case, I would guess that one of the few opportunities to pursue excellence in North Korea would be by way of entering the military. Another opportunity would be to be a gymnast, dancer, or other performer in the enormous spectacles that were staged for the “Dear Leader.” Those are narrow options, but in the nation-state in which saying the wrong thing can mean a life sentence to the gulag for you and your family, it is best not to even try to pursue excellence in literature, art, entertainment, or anything else that might “send a message” and therefore be considered dangerous or subversive. Sports are relatively safe, and we all recall how the Eastern Bloc Warsaw Pact nation-states cultivated extensive sports training programs during the Cold War.

If the only (safe) outlets for a people’s pursuit of excellence is the military or sports, this is going to profoundly affect the cultural life of a country. It is also going to channel a lot of very clever and innovative people into the military who would not, under other circumstances, choose a career in the military. The talents of these intelligent men and women, indirectly conscripted through the suppression of other activities by which they might have pursued other forms of excellence, are in North Korea at the service of the military and therefore at the service of the state. These are the people who rule North Korea.

How will the military rule North Korea after the death of Kim Jong-il? Will they allow his inexperienced son, Kim Jong-un, to assume his place as a figurehead, and continue to rule the country to the greater glory of the DPRK military at the expense of all else? Some self-perpetuating institutions do exactly this; they have an overriding incentive to maintain the system that has put them in control and which disproportionately benefits them at the expense of their countrymen.

There are problems, however. A military establishment of more than a million soldiers is a sufficiently large organization for factions to emerge, and for those factions to be quite large. If, say, each son of Kim Jong-il could command the loyalty of a third of the army, each would still have military forces far larger than those of most nation-states. Internal power struggles have almost certainly already begun, and the issue of these struggles is not likely to be decided for months, if not years. Kim Jong-un is still quite young, and much could happen before he has any opportunity to exercise control (or for others to exercise control in his name).

Internal power struggles in the DPRK could be an opportunity for outside powers to intervene, or to use whatever levers they have available to influence the outcome in North Korea. But China and South Korea, the geographical neighbors, will be most concerned about stability and avoiding a flood of refugees should a crisis emerge. Furthermore, China will not want to take any action that might be interpreted as condoning either interference in internal affairs or questioning the legitimacy of a one-party state, since either action could be turned around and used against China in turn.

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Friday


Should risk management consist of three steps?

I have never thought of myself as a person who takes risks. On the contrary, I view my actions as cautious and calculated, since I am not likely to engage in some activity until I judge it to be a sure thing. But others see things otherwise. Some years ago I was talking to a financial adviser and I was taken up short when he characterized me as a risk taker. I think this was primarily because of my attitude to insurance. I have a personal distaste for insurance, probably from a mixture of instinct and experience. This may sound odd, but it is accurate.

Should risk management consist of four steps?

As I see it, the attempt to manage risk is illusory. I act upon this view by minimizing my insurance coverage. (This is what struck my financial adviser as risky.) About the only regrets I have in life are when I paid for an insurance policy when I didn’t strictly have to do so under legal compulsion. It felt a lot like flushing money down a toilet, and this latter exercise would probably be more fun than sending a check to an insurance company. Buying insurance does not give me peace of mind, it only makes me angry.

Should risk management consist of five steps?

One of the reasons I view the attempt to manage risk as illusory is because of my personal experiences with insurance policies that do not pay when you most need them. There are countless stories in the news, some of them tragic, about people who thought they were covered for some eventuality but found out in their hour of need that they were not. Whether it is someone who lost their home to a flood and later found a waiver in the homeowner’s policy for flood damage, or someone who cannot convince their HMO to pay for some particular medical procedure and who is dying as a result, there is almost always something in the fine print that makes it possible for an insurance company to deny coverage. These episodes are not accidental. Insurance companies have many lawyers who write up policies precisely to minimize the losses of the insurance companies for whom they work, and insurance adjusters can be even more creative in their interpretation of events.

Should risk management consist of six steps?

The state of Oregon requires that Oregon residents maintain insurance on their motor vehicles. I always buy the legal minimum, which means that I get liability insurance, but no collision or comprehensive coverage. I have no life insurance policy, but I have no wife or children so the only beneficiaries could be my sisters or parents or a charity. Also, life insurance feels like blood money to me. I wouldn’t want to receive a payoff, and I wouldn’t want someone to profit from my demise. I think it is a good policy to be worth more alive than dead; it gives others an incentive to keep you around. The moorage where I live requires residents to have fire insurance, and this seems reasonable to me as a fire could easily spread, so again I get the minimum coverage required, which is to say that I have the structure covered but not the contents. How could one replace the contents of one’s home? If you have picked up irreplaceable items throughout your life, and received gifts from family and friends, your possessions are more than widgets that can be replaced. Being paid for their loss would, to me, feel like getting blood money for objects.

Should risk management consist of seven steps?

I also have no health insurance. That’s right, I’m one of those people who make up the statistic of 47 million Americans without health insurance. And I am fully prepared to accept the consequences of my actions (and inaction). I have emergency instructions in my mobile phone that state that I have no health insurance and that no special measures are to be taken to preserve my life, because I can’t afford them. I suppose if I were taken to an emergency room contrary to my wishes, and I died despite any efforts made to save my life, that a diligent collector for the hospital might come after my assets to pay the bill, so they might eventually get their pound of flesh.

Should risk management consist of eight steps?

What would I do if I were diagnosed with a serious condition that required major surgery or some expensive treatment like chemotherapy? One thing I can tell you is what I would not do, and what I would definitely not do is to seek treatment in the US. Policies and litigation have so distorted the market for health care that no ordinary working class person in the US can afford to be sick, but this is not the case everywhere in the world. Since I know people all over the world, if I required major medical treatment, I would send out e-mails to friends in other countries and ask them to find a doctor who speaks English and to get an estimate for the procedure needed. I would without hesitation seek treatment in Korea or Peru, Indonesia or Argentina, before I would seek treatment in the US.

Should risk management consist of nine steps?

Perhaps you think this is odd, and perhaps even odd enough to be pathological. I have had many disagreements with others over insurance. None of the arguments that have been advanced to try to convince me of the folly of my position have changed my mind; they certainly have not changed how I feel about insurance. Then could we at least, at the very minimum, agree that it is rational to minimize risk, and to not take any unnecessary risks? Alas, we cannot even agree on the rational minimization of risk. As I see it, risk (like pain) is a good thing that forces us to think through our course of action carefully, so that the minimization of risk by way of insurance is a moral hazard that lures people unnecessarily into braving risks they would otherwise avoid.

Should risk management consist of n or more steps?

Allow me to relate a little story about the philosophical dimensions of risk. Contemporary legal and political philosophy is dominated (utterly dominated) by the work of John Rawls. Rawls’ claim to fame is a thought experiment. According to Rawls, a just society is a society that would be chosen behind a “veil of ignorance,” that is to say, if we would choose a social system not knowing what place we would be born into it, then that is a just social system (by our lights). The assumption here is that, if you don’t know the position in which you will be born into in a society, you will choose a thoroughly egalitarian system so that the birth lottery does not relegate you to a irremediably marginal role. It has been observed that this thought experiment and its presumed outcome assumes that the individual choosing a society from behind a veil of ignorance is risk averse. Of course, not everyone is risk averse, and there may be individuals — perhaps many of them — who might prefer inequitable social arrangements and be willing to take the risk that they will either end up in a privileged position or that they can manipulate the social system in question sufficiently to their benefit that the initial inequity will not be a liability that they cannot overcome.

John Rawls formulated one of the most influential thought experiments of our time, such that a just social order would be chosen from behind a veil of ignorance.

I don’t take the Rawlsian thought experiment too seriously, partly because almost no one believes in their own impoverishment and immiserization before they have hit rock bottom, and partly because the Rawlsian emphasis upon fairness seems so vulgar that it might have been explicitly conceived in contradistinction to the Aristotelian conception of areté. How would Aristotle’s Great Souled Man judge a society from behind a veil of ignorance? He would value most highly that society in which the highest virtues would attain their highest development. This would not necessarily be an egalitarian society, and it would not be a society without risk.

Great accomplishments, great deeds, and great undertakings are all won in the face of adversity and risk. To eliminate risk from the world would be to eliminate the possibility of greatness and excellence (areté); to minimize risk would be to minimize the possibility of greatness and excellence (areté). There is a sense, then — an Aristotelian sense — in which virtue is predicated upon risk. Even the great works of art, literature, poetry, science, mathematics, and philosophy all enjoin risk and entail risk. It is a risk to entertain a radical new idea or to present a radically new vision to the world. One risks one’s career, one’s reputation, one’s ability to make a living, one’s friends — in a word, one risks everything in attempting any authentic innovation. And yet almost everything of value in the world comes from such efforts, and from such willingness to court risk, all in the pursuit of being true to oneself.

This is perhaps a somewhat grandiose if not histrionic characterization of risk, but even if we reduce our scope and scale to the most intimate and personal perspective, risk cannot be eradicated from life. To be alive is to be at risk of dying. Whether we choose to think in terms of our legacy we leave in the world or our immediate personal circumstances, in remains true that we cannot control the world, we cannot control our circumstances, we cannot control what others say, think, do, or feel, and sometimes we cannot even control ourselves. The world is an unpredictable place, and, as I have argued many times in several posts, we ought to expect to be blindsided by history. And if we are blindsided by history to our misfortune, we ought also expect that our insurance policy is not going to cover the loss or make us whole again.

Perhaps risk management need only consist of a single step, and that is the recognition of inescapable risk.

I hope that this personal view of risk management has managed to convince you of one thing. I do not expect to have convinced you that the attempt to manage risk is illusory, but I may have been able to successfully make the point that an individual’s attitude to risk management is deeply embedded in the way that a given individual sees the world. A conception of risk management is predicated upon a particular Weltanschauung. Two individuals with distinct outlooks on life are also likely to have distinct ideas on how to best manage risk — or, as the case may be, to live with risk and not attempt to wish it away. The point is that there is not a single rational and pragmatic way to manage risk, but that the management of risk will be relative to the criteria of reasonableness and pragmatism that follows from a given Weltanschauung.

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Note added 03 March 2011: There was a great article in Financial Times by John Kay, Don’t blame luck when your models misfire, which includes the following:

“Like practitioners of alchemy and quack medicine, these modellers thrive on our desire to believe impossible things. But the search for objective means of controlling risks that can reliably be monitored externally is as fruitless as the quest to turn base metal into gold. Like the alchemists and the quacks, the risk modellers have created an industry whose intense technical debates with each other lead gullible outsiders to believe that this is a profession with genuine expertise.”

What can I say other than that I agree? This isn’t quite as blunt as my contention that, “the attempt to manage risk is illusory,” but it is not far from it. If the technical debates of risk modellers constitute a profession without genuine expertise, as implied by Kay, it is high time that we declared our independence from technocrats who would presume to control us all for our own good.

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