People who visit this blog sometimes ask for more signposts to help them find my answers to the most important questions about freedom and flourishing. In the past my response has been to suggest that they read my Kindle ebook, Free to Flourish, which is available for an extremely modest price. However, my thinking has moved on in some respects since that book was published in 2012. So, this post identifies what I see as the most important questions and provides some links to indicate where answers can be found.
- What is the purpose of life? The answer that Aristotle gave around 350 BC sets us on the right track. Happiness (human flourishing) is the purpose of human existence. Individuals flourish as they actualize potentials, including the potential for self-direction, that are specific to the kinds of creatures that humans are. The best summary of my views on the nature of happiness and human flourishing is still to be found in Chapter 2 of Free to Flourish.
- Is there an ethical proposition that is relevant to all aspects of our lives? I agree with the view of Douglas Den Uyl and Douglas Rasmussen in The Perfectionist Turn, that “the existential fact that we must make something of our lives” is of fundamental importance. Interpersonal relations are also important, but don’t enter all aspects of our lives. See: Does the I-You relation enter into every aspect of the moral life?
- How can you become a better person? To bring some abstract philosophical ideas down to earth, I have considered how a hypothetical person attempting to make something of his life might answer if asked whether he is a good person. A central part of his answer is that becoming a good person is like playing cards well: “He says that rather than bemoaning the fact that you have not been dealt a better hand, it is better to maintain good humour and focus on how best to play the cards you have been dealt. You never think of cheating and you avoid playing with people who cheat. You like to win, but you participate mainly to enjoy the social interaction. Playing the game is also a learning experience. You learn how to perceive opportunities, develop strategies, cooperate with others, and to win and lose graciously. As you learn to play well you become a better person”. See: How can we know what we ought to do?
- Should we be motivated by mutual benefit in our interactions with others? Robert Sugden observes in The Community of Advantage that when individuals participate in market transactions it is possible for them to be motivated by mutual benefit. They may see virtue in voluntary transactions that enable people to get what they want by benefiting others, rather than purely personal benefit, or the potential to use proceeds for altruistic purposes. Sugden points out that being motivated by mutual benefit is consistent with Adam Smith’s famous observation that we do not rely on the benevolence of shopkeepers to provide us with the goods we need. The shop keepers don’t sacrifice their own interests to provide us with goods, but they may act with the intention of playing their part in mutually beneficial practices. See: Do you acknowledge a personal responsibility to seek mutual benefit?
- Is human flourishing primarily about psychological health, capability or opportunity? In a post addressing that question argue that all three aspects of flourishing are relevant if we are considering the extent to which particular individuals – our relatives, friends and acquaintances - are flourishing. However, from a public policy perspective, attention should focus primarily on the opportunities available for people to live the lives they aspire to, because government policies impinge greatly – often negatively – on growth of opportunity.
- Why do you consider freedom to be integral to human flourishing? There are two reasons: a) Individual humans have potential for self-direction and cannot fully flourish unless they are free to manage their own lives and accept responsibility for their actions. As Douglas Rasmussen and Douglas Den Uyl point out, recognition of individual liberty is necessary to ensure that individuals can flourish in diverse ways without coming into conflict. Chapter 3 of Free to Flourish still provides a reasonable summary of my views. b) Good societies that provide conditions favourable to individual flourishing are characterised by individual freedom. As discussed in Chapter 6 of Free to Flourish, freedom provides the basis for peacefulness and individual opportunity, which in turn enable a greater degree of economic security to be sustained. As discussed in Chapter 7, economic progress – the growth of economic opportunities supporting individual flourishing – is attributable to advances in technology and innovations that were made possible by economic freedom and supporting beliefs, ideologies and social norms.
- What is the greatest threat to the ongoing expansion of opportunities for individual flourishing in coming decades? In Free to Flourish I argued that the failure of democratic governments to cope with their expanding responsibilities poses the greatest threat to the ongoing expansion of opportunities for human flourishing in coming decades. I maintain that view. It seems to me that, over the next 20 years or so, people in Western democracies are likely to suffer to a greater extent from the consequences of an explosion in public debt than from climate change. See: How can we compare climate change and public debt risks? Nevertheless, I acknowledge that climate change could possibly pose a serious threat to civilization and argue that we should not ignore the risk of catastrophe even if we think the most likely outcome is benign. I have argued that climate change policies should focus to a greater extent on choosing the lowest cost methods of reducing the risk of catastrophe. See: What is the appropriate discount rate to use in assessingclimate change mitigation policies?
- Will it be possible to avert democratic failure, and if not, is there a basis to hope ongoing human flourishing will be possible? Since writing Free to Flourish I have become more pessimistic about the potential for citizens to unite to restore better norms of political behaviour in the western democracies. However, I now see a basis for hope that the faltering institutions of representative government could one day be replaced by superior institutions. Blockchain technology and smart contracts may have potential to enable people to act together to produce some public goods cooperatively without central government involvement. See: Where did I go wrong in writing about the greatest threat to human flourishing?