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Six impossible things before or after breakfast

By Graham Dawson - posted Tuesday, 3 January 2012


In Alice through the Looking Glass, Alice Kingsley: says, 'Sometimes I can believe in as many as six impossible things before breakfast.' Professor Younkins invites us to believe six things which are individually of varying degrees of credibility but whose cumulative believing seems to me to be impossible before or after breakfast.

Younkins aims to construct a natural law-based paradigm from the following elements, which he seeks to show are internally consistent and hence form a synthesis: (1) an objective, realistic, natural-law-oriented metaphysics; (2) a natural rights theory based on the nature of man and the world; (3) an objective epistemology: (4) a biocentric theory of value; (5) praxeology as a tool for understanding how individuals cooperate and compete and for deducing universal principles of economics; (6) an ethic of human flourishing based on reason, free will and individuality.

The Aristotelian foundation of Younkins' political argument is the principle that only a 'reality-based' ethical system can provide an adequate defence of a political and economic system. The relevant constituent of reality is human nature, which is understood to be essentially teleological or goal-seeking. Flourishing is the goal of all the actions we perform and the one thing which we desire for itself. Each person has the goal, and indeed the obligation, of perfecting herself by fulfilling the unique set of potentialities that constitutes her identity as an individual human being. This set of potentialities is objective and not a matter of what the individual believes or desires. It is an objective fact that you are born with a particular set of potentialities and your flourishing consists in realizing your potential.

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This is an egoistic project and Younkins explains how Aristotle and Ayn Rand embed an account of the virtues in it. The virtues are means that guide a person to towards the fulfilment of her potential, in that they are dispositions to act in ways that enable her to surmount obstacles and respond to challenges. For example, justice is rationality in the evaluation of human beings and ensures that the just person gives to each individual what he deserves. A just person follows the 'trader principle', handing out rewards and punishments according to desert. It follows that altruism and mercy as well as egalitarianism and welfare statism are examples of injustice.

Many aspects of flourishing are related to social activities and, according to Aristotle, it is the aim of the polis to promote virtue. The radical ambiguity of Aristotle's account of the polis, as society or as state, is a central issue in the interpretation of Aristotle. Does the individual require society to fulfil her potential or is the state an authoritarian device for enforcing virtue? Younkins acknowledges that 'at times' Aristotle claims that the state should use coercive measures to make people act virtuously.

Austrian economics is the third component of Younkins' synthesis. In unravelling subjectivist and objectivist elements in the development of Austrian economic thought, Younkins argues that they are compatible. His suggested reconciliation deserves more than the cursory treatment it receives. The argument is that Austrian subjectivism and objectivism are not in conflict because they apply to different levels of analysis. Means are subjectively chosen while objectivism offers an account of ends.

Younkins has succeeded in assembling an internally consistent set of propositions which support the ideal of a free society and has shown through careful scholarship how each of these propositions can be derived from one possible interpretation of Aristotle, Ayn Rand or Austrian economics. His argument is expressed in, as he puts it, broad brush form and he hopes that others may wish to develop the paradigm in greater detail. There is no doubt that, in trying to construct a synthesis of such apparently disparate elements, Younkins provokes new ways of thinking about each one of them that less ambitious intellectual journeys might never discover. Of course the arrival also matters, even if it is only a stop-over (Toward…) rather than a destination.

However, Younkins does indicate a destination, envisaging a paradigm or a worldview that will defend individual liberty and 'the American way of life'. For Younkins, this raises the question of what more needs to be to done by other libertarian scholars to convert these notes 'Toward…' into such a paradigm. For me, it raises the question whether there might be a more secure foundation for a defence of liberty than Younkins' Aristotelian objectivism.

It is reasonable for Younkins to select, as his foundation for libertarianism, the interpretation of Aristotle's political thought that is consistent with Randian objectivism and the objectivist strand of Austrian economics only if it can be shown to be preferably authoritative or at least plausible as an interpretation of Aristotle's thought. This is particularly important if the alternative interpretation is associated with an influential application of Aristotelian political thought that is radically at variance with libertarianism.

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Younkins acknowledges that he takes a selective approach to the Aristotelian, Randian and Austrian traditions of thought but claims that his procedure is legitimate because his criteria of selection are not only internal consistency but also 'consistency with reality', which ensures that he takes from the traditions only what is 'true and good'. It seems to me however that Younkins' advocacy of his interpretation of Aristotle as a precursor of libertarianism relies solely upon the criterion of internal consistency. True, on one interpretation Aristotle's political thought exhibits affinities with that of Rand and with an objectivist account of Austrian economics. But we are no nearer a libertarian synthesis unless a case can be made for the supremacy of the preferred interpretation of Aristotle. Younkins acknowledges the radical ambiguity of Aristotle's account of the polis, as civic society or coercive state but he fails to investigate the implications of the interpretation he rejects for contemporary Aristotelian thought and in particular for the issue of 'Aristotelian social democracy'.

The particular difficulty of urgent contemporary relevance is that Aristotle's theory of human flourishing has a close affinity with Amartya Sen's capabilities approach to welfare economics. This has had far-reaching policy implications and indeed practical effects, having been operationalized in the United Nations Human Development Index (HDI), which aims to secure objective measurements of aspects of human development including health and education. The HDI is motivated by a concern for distribution and provides grounds for government intervention in pursuit of redistribution. This seems to me a logical outcome of an objective account of human flourishing, in that it removes the need to consult individual people on what they want and frames policy issues in terms of patterned outcomes at the aggregate level.

It is from the Aristotelian concept of a person that my mistrust of Younkins' projected synthesis flows. For Aristotle the good for each individual human being is to be understood in teleological terms, as the realization of her own good. You have in it you to become a hero or a saint, an entrepreneur or a bureaucrat and you also have the goal of becoming what you are meant to be. This reduces ethics to the writing of school reports. The individual is everything that Iris Murdoch said she is: contingent, accidental, boundless and without a predetermined goal.

Would I want to join in this project and add detail or address the issues of principle that I have raised? No. It seems to that constructing the six-point synthesis denies the diversity and richness of the classical liberal tradition. Is it not a strength of libertarian political philosophy that it can attract the allegiance of individuals who disagree on metaphysical and epistemological and even meta-ethical questions? Such a synthesis looks, for me distressingly, like an orthodoxy. When confronted by an orthodoxy, with its irresistible force towards the requirement of a single right answer to every question, my instinct is to search for heresies.

These misgivings about Younkins' project intensified on reading the final chapter, especially the concluding section 'Education and Persuasion', which takes an over-zealous approach to the dissemination of libertarian ideas. The libertarian more than anyone else must beware any deviation from allegiance to education as the presentation of theories in such a way that each student can make her own choice uncontaminated by the slightest taint of propaganda.

For all my doubts about the objectivist libertarian synthesis, Younkins' book is engaging and I will continue to engage with it as I explore the paradox of finding economic and political conclusions which I share built upon foundations which I reject.

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This is a review of Flourishing and Happiness in a Free Society: Toward a Synthesis of Aristotelianism, Australian Economics and Ayn Rand's Objectivism. Edward W. Younkins (Lanham, Maryland: University Press of America Inc.2011)
 



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About the Author

Graham Dawson is Visiting Fellow in the Max Beloff Centre for the Study of Liberty at The University of Buckingham.

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Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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