A month or so ago I started reading Julia Annas‘s excellent The Morality of Happiness – while visiting family in New York City. Because of the New York setting, I was particularly drawn to this passage:
It is also not surprising that ancient ethics, with one marginal exception, never develops anything like the related consequentialist idea of a maximizing model of rationality. If my ethical aim is to produce a good, or the best, state of affairs, then it is only rational to produce as much as possible of it. But ancient ethics does not aim at the production of good states of affairs, and so is not tempted to think that rationality should take the form of maximizing them. Rather, what I aim at is my living in a certain way, my making the best use of goods, and acting in some ways rather than others. None of these things can sensibly be maximized by the agent. Why would I want to maximize my acting courageously, for example? I aim at acting courageously when it is required. I have no need, normally, to produce as many dangerous situations as possible, in order to act bravely in them.
Why is this passage particularly striking in New York? Because as I discussed before, New York life is all about maximizing. You go to New York because you want the best of everything – for indeed, in New York you get the best of everything, at least if you can afford it. I like to talk about the great Thai food at a couple of restaurants back home in Boston, being as good as it is in Thailand, but these were blown away by a truly stunning Northeastern Thai restaurant that recently opened up in the East Village neighbourhood – the sauce on their laap was pure perfection. The Boston places are very good, but they can’t keep up. Nor is the Boston subway nearly as fast or as extensive; nor does a brand-new store selling cheap, quality, high-tech Japanese clothing open up all around the city. Nor are there browseable bookstores four storeys tall – one of which was the place where I purchased Annas’s book. And these are just examples I experienced on a four-day trip, with relatively limited funds – no attempt to, say, see Jon Stewart live.
But as I noted before, all this is just the problem. You go to New York because you want to have the best of everything – and that means you will always be wanting more. I remember, on one of my first trips to New York years ago, speaking to the New Yorker closest to me, who was already making an income likely higher than anything I’ll ever make – but spoke of his frustration that this was less than his MBA classmates. You don’t go to the place that has the best of everything if you’re the kind of person who is likely to be satisfied with the life you have. In the terms of Herbert Simon and Barry Schwartz, New Yorkers are maximizers rather than satisficers. And this, in turn, is probably why the people in this wonderland are the unhappiest in the United States.
Which brings me back to Julia Annas’s quote. Like Simon and Schwartz, she uses the language of “maximizing” – in her case, to describe what it is that “ancient philosophy” does not advocate. You can maximize your variety of food choices, but you can’t maximize courage. John Rawls popularized the highly unfortunate term perfectionism to describe virtue-focused ethical theories; it is an awful term, since virtue theories are in this respect the opposite of perfectionism in the usual sense of that word. Perfectionists, as we normally understand the term, are the consummate maximizers, never satisfied because they strive to make everything perfect, including themselves. But Annas is pointing out that the ancient Greeks and Romans from Aristotle onwards are very different from this: their philosophy cannot be put in terms of maximizing, not even the maximizing of virtue. Rather, try to live a flourishing life – a life with which you can be satisfied.
I think it’s important to stress and illustrate Annas’s point because it helps illustrate an alternative to consequentialism, the widespread view according to which the best actions can be defined in terms of bringing about the best total consequences. Consequentialism is the philosophy of maximizing, the worldview that built New York. (Philosophical utilitarianism, the most common variant of consequentialism, is a direct ancestor of modern economics.) The “ancient” view offers us something quite different, in a way that Rawls’s “perfectionism” concept obscures.
It’s important to have this alternative because consequentialism is so filled with problems. I think Schwartz and Simon point us to a paradox at the heart of consequentialism – at least of hedonistic forms of consequentialism, which is most of them. I’ve attempted to note this before: trying to maximize our own happiness is like trying to get to sleep; thinking about it gets in the way. But the same is true about maximizing others’ happiness. Happiness is there in the moment. At some point, you have to be happy with what you have now, and even with what others have now. Eventually, you are going to die; and if you keep trying to maximize, you are going to die unsatisfied. This was the point behind my rejection of utilitarianism: there’s a fundamental problem behind a life devoted to making others happy as possible, when doing so makes you unhappy yourself. If everybody lived the way you did, they would all fail at their goal.
It is true, as commenter Ethan C-F pointed out before, that we can realize a good for others that will come about after we’re gone, even if it too will eventually perish in the cosmos. But it seems to me that if we’re going to strive to benefit others, we need to see a good in the striving itself, in the doing of good works for others, and not in their consequences – successful or not. It is that attitude that allows us to be happy satisficers rather than miserable maximizers. I think that this point is what underlies the enduring popularity of the Bhagavad Gītā, the reason the pacifist Gandhi drew his inspiration from a text that advocates war: if you tie your happiness to the consequences of your actions, you will not be happy, and neither will anyone else who does so. I suspect that Jack Layton had figured out this lesson, which is why he was as inspiring as he was.
The Gītā’s worldview, to be sure, is quite different from Aristotle’s – all about adherence to an externally defined duty rather than the cultivation of flourishing. But they share the rejection of consequentialist maximizing; they are willing to let virtue be its own reward.