Friday, April 26, 2024

Why do I consider myself to be a neo-Aristotelian classical liberal?


I pondered the above question as I read Fred D Miller’s book, Nature, Justice, and Rights in Aristotle’s Politics (published in 1995). Although some of Aristotle’s politics is challenging to classical liberals, Miller mounts a strong case that it is not anachronistic to attribute to Aristotle a concept of individual rights and support for a moderate degree of individualism.

Neo-Aristotelian classical liberals are not overly interested in defending Aristotle’s politics. They seek to have their own ideas assessed on their merits rather than in terms of the extent to which they agree with Aristotle's writings. Nevertheless, they have good reasons to label themselves as neo-Aristotelian – they draw inspiration from Aristotle.

Neo-Aristotelian classical liberals certainly appreciate Aristotle’s recognition of reality and his approach of attempting to understand the nature of the world in which we live. However, it is not necessary to be any kind of Aristotelian to follow Aristotle in that regard. In an earlier essay I argued that John Sellars had adopted an excessively broad view of what it means to be an Aristotelian by suggesting that all who join Aristotle in attempting to understand the nature of the world are Aristotelians. I argued that Aristotelians seek guidance from Aristotle’s ethics.

In my view it is Aristotle’s views on the nature of humans and individual flourishing that offer greatest inspiration for classical liberals. I think neo-Aristotelian classical liberals obtain inspiration from Aristotle mainly because they perceive him to have embraced an important role for individual self-direction. In what follows I draw upon Fred Miller’s book to explain why that is justified.

Aristotle’s account of individual flourishing

Aristotle identifies human flourishing with actualization of the potential of individuals. Miller suggests:

“Aristotle’s theory is perfectionist in the sense that it presupposes a theory of human nature and identifies the good with the fullest possible development of this nature.”

Aristotle identifies the good as “that for which everyone strives” but is not a perfectionist in the sense of insisting that anything short of perfection is unacceptable. For Aristotle, perfection provides an objective standard against which we can judge which of the things we might wish for are more choice-worthy. The good is both desirable and choice-worthy.

Aristotle maintains that rationality is the essential function of a human. He sees this function as stemming from the nature of human beings as a particular kind of organism. He argues that it is good for individuals to promote this function.

Miller notes Aristotle’s claims that virtuous acts must be chosen by the agent for their own sakes, that true self-love is embodied in persons who act according to their own judgement, and that the exercise of reason, in contrast to perception, is voluntary and up to the agent. He summarises:

“Those claims together seem to imply that rationality, virtue, and happiness are essentially free and voluntary”.

Miller also notes that Aristotle “relegated liberty to the status of a mere external good” and “prescribed frequent intrusions on individual freedom of choice in the pursuit of liberty”. However, he observes:

“None the less, it has been argued that Aristotle provided the theoretical basis for a more central role for self-directedness or autonomy”.

The references he cites of authors taking that position include some works by Douglas Rasmussen and Douglas Den Uyl. With the benefit of advances in knowledge, it seems to me that the foundations for Aristotle’s views supporting individual self-direction are much stronger than the foundations for his views supporting slavery, a subordinate role for women, and a role for the state in moral development of adult citizens.  

Neo-Aristotelian classical liberalism

 In The Perfectionist Turn (2016) Douglas Rasmussen and Douglas Den Uyl write:

“Succinctly stated, human flourishing is understood by us to mean the exercise of one’s own practical wisdom.”

They argue that “human flourishing and the goods and virtues that constitute it” cannot “be adequately understood apart from the actualization of human nature”. They assert that “holding that human flourishing is the ultimate end and good for human beings is compatible with there being many diverse forms of human flourishing and with self-direction being vital to the very actuality of human flourishing”.

Rasmussen and Den Uyl state that they “seek to advance a neo-Aristotelian account of human flourishing”.

My views on human flourishing have been strongly influenced by Rasmussen and Den Uyl, as well as Aristotle. The following passage is from my book, Freedom, Progress, and Human Flourishing:

“Wise and well-informed self-direction is integral to the process of human flourishing. The nature of humans is such that when individuals mature, they normally have potential to exercise the practical wisdom and integrity required to direct their own flourishing in accordance with goals they choose and values they endorse. Individuals cannot fully flourish if they are unable to exercise their potential for self-direction.”

The views presented in that passage were inspired by my reading of Aristotle.    

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