The title of this post is inspired by Harold Prichard’s 1912 article (justly famous in its day) “was moral philosophy founded upon a mistake?” where Prichard attacks the founding principle of Classical moral philosophy that ethics is based upon our search for happiness, a happy life – an assumption that followers of Plato and Aristotle, the Cynics and the Stoics, and the Epicurians (in their various ways) all shared.
Harold Prichard argued that is was all a mistake, that the good man might lead a life of unhappiness, indeed of torment. He did not draw the conclusion that some of the “Sophists” are supposed to have done, that justice and so on should be rejected and wickedness followed instead in order to achieve a happy life. Prichard’s position was more radical – i.e. that happiness need not be the objective of one’s life, that misery and torment might be a price worth paying for doing the right thing (I am not going to get into the distinctions between “the right” and “the good” here).
Now, of course, what the classical philosophers meant by what we use the English language word “happiness” to describe, was not what is normally meant by the word “happiness”. The good man to, for example, Aristotle need not be some smiling person dancing about singing a happy song. The person who is being the best man – following what it truly is to be human (rationality and, contra Hume, the ethics that go with rationality) might be screaming in agony with tears of torment running down his face, before finally dying (coated in his own excrement – and with the insults of his enemies being the last thing he hears) knowing that all his family and friends, indeed everything he cares about, has already been destroyed.
This is why modern defenders of the Classical tradition (such as Randian Objectivtists) are careful to say “human flourishing” or “man as man” rather than “happiness”. Although dying in a torture chamber (and so on) is not what is normally meant by the word “flourishing”. But, before they jump in, I know that even a torture chamber can not be built (or maintained) without some degree of rationality – and where reason has not just been (let alone “ought” to have been – it is the word “ought” that makes Hume’s position not a cry of despair, but a profoundly anti-moral one) the “slave of the passions”, to use building materials (and so on) correctly, someone, somewhere, must have had some respect for the laws of objective reality – and, yes, to some extent independently of how they can be made to serve the “passions”.
However, it is not my purpose to take sides in this debate (and there are strong arguments on both sides). It is my purpose to draw attention to a related mistake in political philosophy. Aristotle is critical of Plato is many things – but in this mistake he follows him. So what is this mistake?
The belief that state laws can make people “just and good” and thus “happy”, so that the use of force by the state is justified because it produces a happy life even for the individuals the force is used against.
The young philosophers among you (whose brains are far less damaged by time and combat than mine is) will have noticed there are two assumptions here.
Firstly the assumption that being just and good is the happy life (the assumption that Prichard, amonst others, attacked) and the assumption that state laws (in the sense of orders – edicts, threats of force) can make people just and good.
This assumption is famously in those collection of lecture notes we cal the “Politics” of Aristotle. Aristotle attacks the”sophist” Lycrophon for argueing that “law” is a contract to neither commit or suffer aggression (Lycrophon limits law to what we would agree is justice – i.e. the nonaggression principle) - no says Aristotle, law is also about molding character, about making people just and good. And it is about promoting the various virtures and fighting against the various vices.
The very first name I chose for myself on the internet (back in 1989 at the University of York when university systems were starting to be connected to what was to become the internet) was “Lycrophon” as Aristotle is clearly wrong (radically wrong) about this. But it is worth nothing that this goes back before the “Politics” and need have nothing to with a feud with Lycrophon.
For example, in the Nicomachean Ethics (the set of Aristotle lecture notes put together by his son Nicomachus) Aristotle makes the same point – and without reference to Lycrophon.
For example, we are told in Book Ten of the Nicomachean Ethics that is the job of the state to mold character to promote goodness (which will promote happiness) and to undermine all vices, to make us better (and more happy) people. However, we are also told, only the Spartan state seems to have had a real good go at this – the other Greek city states (alas!) have not really tried to control human lives, and to a great extent just leave (free) people to live as they wish – how terrible!
In this Aristotle is following Plato – the problem with places like Athens is not that the state orders people about too much, but that it does so too little. And people would be more moral, and more happy, if the state controlled and molded them.
And the teachings of the philosophers do seem to have had an effect. Over time more and more state legislation covered more and more aspects of human life in various Greek states. Also the doctrine of state influence on education (almost unknown, outside of Sparta, in the Greek world in the time of Plato) becomes the norm.
Indeed later Greek thinkers and Roman thinkers (such as Polybius and Cicero) accepted that the central difference between the Roman Republic and Greek states was that in the latter the state was in charge of molding character (especially among the young) whereas in Rome families were in charge of their own affairs including the education of children.
Indeed the “anti Greek” Cato the Elder is actually importing the very Greek political philosophy he claimed to despise, into Rome. By seeking to promote virtue and undermine vice (to make better people) by state edicts – Cato the Elder (the “Censor”) was acting like a Greek “lawgiver” (seeking to “plan” a society) rather than a Roman Praetor seeking to find justice in a particular case (a dispute over who rightly owned what, or whether or not someone had aggressed against someone else). Cato the Elder’s efforts were, of course, a farcical failure (indeed they aided the very corruption of morals they were supposed to fight – by adding deceit and hypocrisy to the mix). And they would have been even if he had not be an utterly vile man himself (for example counseling treachery against Carthage – demanding they disarm and then attacking them, and discarding slaves that had grown old in his service to die of starvation, a practice of his that disgusted other public figures even in his own time). As Gladstone said so many centuries later (but with a deep understanding of the Classical world as well as his own – and of “reformers” who were, unlike Cato the Elder, men of honour) “of one thing I am certain, one can not promote virtue in society by state action”1.
For all my dislike of Pericles (his policy of plundering the allies of Athens, thus turning them into enemies, to get money to buy votes at home with building schemes and welfare payments) such a distinction (between Roman Civil Society and Greek collectivism) would have made no sense in his time.
The Athens of the time of Pericles did not seek to mold the character of the young or to regulate every aspect of adult human life (“Nudge” style – to make people “better” and “more truly happy” as I am sure Cas Sustein would agree with Plato and Aristotle). The young undertook two years of military service (18 to 20 if my memory serves) and adults could be called to arms at any time to defend the city – but that was the point, service was to defend the city, not to make “better people” who would be “more happy”.
The decline of Greek civilisation occurred long before the conquest by Rome. It was a basic intellectual error that led to various fundamentally mistaken policies. Indeed by the time of Roman rule independence was not really left as an option for the degenerate Greek states – only rule by one of the regional powers, of whom Republican Rome was perhaps the least bad. And the Greek states were degenerate because of the very policy to make them “better”, by making their citizens “better” people.
The very writers who accept that the Greek states had become degenerate, such as Polybius, never seem to question the policies that had made them degenerate – indeed they regard it as very odd that the Roman Republic did not control the lives of its citizens and attempt to control the education of the young. Such was the grip of mistaken ideology upon the educated Greek classes.
However, what was the mistake? Or rather the source of it…..
F.A. Hayek (in various works) stressed the difference between “taxis” (planned order) and “cosmos” (evolved order). Once it had been a common enough Greek assumption that cultural institutions evolve over time by the interactions of human beings (this later came to be seen as Roman attitude – the view of Cicero and so on) - but the attitude of the great philosophers (Plato and so on – including Aristotle) that a planned order (with the planer as the state – the “legislator”) become more and more dominant – and this attitude had more and more effects on practical politics. For no matter how corrupt politicians (and so on) may be – in the end ideas do have an effect, and bad ideas have bad effects. Fleeing the statism of one Greek city-state one would simply come upon the statism of other Greek city states – and the endless growth of regulations (“laws”) and so on, had a common root (bad political philosophy, based upon bad general philosophy).
However, there is a different (and more traditional) way of putting this. In the Greek world the distinction between state and society was lost (as it has largely been lost in the modern world).
Some blame language – pointing to the Greek word “polity” (from which the word “politics”) meaning both state and society. Whereas in the Latin world the idea of “civil society” was stronger – because such words as “civitas” existed.
But this is too simple – for the Greeks had (to a great extent) understood the difference between state and society (citizens were left to “live how they liked” in many Greek cities as long as they did not aggress against others – and the state was there to protect against criminals and invaders not to mold the character of the citizens), and then had lost that understanding. So it can not be the Greek language that is to blame.
And to stress (Hayek style) the unintended consequences of human actions as opposed to human designs, ignores the fact that the difference between state and society (between the state and community) was once understood, and that people (both friends of this distinction and enemies of it) argued from principle.
To ignore principles and to place one’s trust in unexamined inherited customs and practices is (as Hayek himself elsewhere accepts – for example in “Why I Am Not A Conservative” at the end of the “Constitution Of Liberty”) to drop the ball, it is to basically lose the contest of ideas (and thus, in the end, the contest of politics) before one even starts.
For critics of the limitation of state power, such as Plato, will come – and if one’s only answer to them is “state power has always been limited, because…… well because it has” then defeat is inevitable.
The central mistake of confusing state and society (state and community) can only be fought with understanding, not with Colonel Blimp like bafflement (although it is often forgotten that Colonel Blimp is a noble character – when George Orwell noted that his Progressive friends had fallen away in 1939 leaving only “Colonel Blimp to step forward to defend civilisation” he was only half mocking the “Colonel Blimps” he knew their intellectual limitations, but he also accepted that they were brave and good people).
It is true that no one planned (or could plan) the development of modern society (even at the level of Classical Civilisation). But it is not true that the conscious belief in freedom (the “reasoning I”) did not exist or was unimportant. Such things as private property rights and the right of an individual not to obey majority opinion (pack opinion) were real and depended on beliefs - principles. Which were held as real principles – not just unthinking practices. In this Mises and Rand have more to teach us than Hayek (whose general philosophy downplays, if not outright denies, the existence of the reasoning “I” - the individual moral agent morally responsible for his or her actions because he or she CHOOSES these actions and could have done otherwise), and thus his political and historical thinking downplays the importance of the individual free will mind, the individual agent.
By undermining the distinction between society (i.e. the voluntary interactions of human agents – reasoning beings) and the state (i.e. commands – backed up by the threat of violence) the Classical philosophers did great harm. But it did not stop there…..
Later thinkers (especially in the revolt against Classical political thought) did further harm. For example, such thinkers as Boden and Hobbes understood that the state is NOT the community – that the state is essentially a military concept, but to them this simply meant that the idea of “society” or “community” was meaningless.
One looks in vain for such concepts (or even the individual moral agent who can CHOOSE to do the right thing) in the work of, for example, Thomas Hobbes.
In the work of Hobbes there is just the state (the ruler or rulers) and a lot of individuals – brutish and cruel individuals who tear at each other in their “nasty, brutish and short” lives.
How such scum (for they are scum) could possibly have come together to form a social contract is something that Hobbes does not explain – because he can not explain it. Such vermin could not have done so.
The political philosophy of Hobbes and others does indeed not make the central mistake of Classical political philosophy of confusing civil society and state – but only because it does not really understand the existence of society at all. It is not better than Classical philosophy, it is worse. For the only moral society it can understand is that of the state – so once it concludes (quite correctly) that the state is not based upon morality (but upon force) it jumps to the conclusion that civil society (that community) does not exist at all – that all that exists are individuals (brutish, savage, non-rational individuals) and the state.
Contrary to the hopes of M.J. Oakeshott and many other good people, following the ideas of Hobbes will not lead to protection for civil society, it will lead to the tyranny of such regimes as that of Frederick the Great (who many 19th century, and later, liberals admired – but were profoundly wrong to do so).
In the words of David Cameron (not a person I normally agree with) “there is such a thing as society – it just is not the same thing as the state” (if only he acted in line with those words). Contra the implications of Hobbes and co, Civil Society does exist – but it is not the state (as both Plato and Aristotle implied it was).
And nor is civil society the same thing as the hunter-gatherer pack (indeed it is the result of the pack not remaining in total charge of human lives). Communal “anarchists” make the same mistake as Plato (and so on – for Rousseau and Karl Marx are in the same tradition) for they define “community” as some form of central planning where the people get together and decide ……
Getting rid of Plato’s or Rousseau’s “lawgiver” does not alter the fundamentally folly of this. As a democratic vote by a “local community” on the price of milk is no more sane than Lenin style “scientific experts” deciding the price of milk.
Only the choices of buyers and sellers (which is what a “market” really is) is actually a rational way to decide the price of milk, and it is also the only rational basis for freedom – indeed it is freedom.
Individual human reason is not hostile to community (not community – rightly understood). Nor is community the same thing as the state – indeed they are fundamentally different.
Civil society exists, but it is based on people being civil – on respecting the nonaggression principle (private property) and allowing interaction (co-operation) on this basis.
This is neither the savage communal pack, not the modern state – it is something quite different. A distinction the Classical political philosophers obscured and which is still obscured in the thought of most political philosophers to this day.
“But Paul – you have not dealt with the question of whether the state is needed at all. Can not free rational human agents, in voluntary interaction with each other, defend civil society without a need for a state?”
I have not tackled this issue deliberately. I have made a choice not to tackle it here and now – because it is too big a question.