Thursday, March 08, 2018

Race and Gender - Or Aristotle?

The New York Times recently had an article about a program that conservatives funded at Arizona State University to counter the influence of liberals in academia. The program focuses on the classics: in one class (the Times tells us), students "pondered the concept of happiness as defined by Aristotle." In addition to hiring six conservative professors, it has acquired rare books, including a first edition of Adam Smith's The Wealth of Nations.

It is easy to predict the objection that liberals raised: the Times quotes a professor who complained, “They don’t seem to be interested in looking at diverse political theorists in this country, Booker T. Washington, W.E.B. DuBois ...."

You would think that university professors would be interested in ideas, but both the conservatives and the liberals seem to think of Aristotle and Adam Smith purely as symbols in today's identity wars, just a pair of dead white males.

Anyone who has read the classics seriously would know that Aristotle's ideas are very different from Adam Smiths - and are a fundamental challenge to today's economy and society, a much deeper challenge than anything Booker T. Washington ever wrote.

Aristotle's concept of happiness - or eudaimonia - is that the good life involves using your capabilities as fully as possible. And this view extends to his theory of economics, which holds that we should gain wealth to the extent that it helps us to live a good life, and we should not have the goal of accumulating unlimited wealth.

Aristotle says that, for some people, "the whole idea of their lives is that they ought either to increase their money without limit, or at any rate not to lose it. The origin of this disposition in men is that they are intent upon living only, and not upon living well; and, as their desires are unlimited they also desire that the means of gratifying them should be without limit." (Politics I:9)

Adam Smith, of course, believed the opposite: desires are unlimited and the goal of economics is to gratify as many of these desires as possible.

And this same belief is at the root of our contemporary fetish of the gross domestic product and of economic growth. Every politician promises faster economic growth, and no one says that we should aim at the level of consumption that is needed to live a good life.

This is a key economic issue as we move from the scarcity economy that existed all through human history and prehistory toward a surplus economy. International surveys have shown that economic growth stops increasing happiness at about one-half the per capita GDP that we now have in the United States.

Universities are supposed to broaden students' minds by challenging their conventional ideas. Yet most academic liberals are so fixated on race and gender that they do not go beyond the most conventional wisdom of our society. Most students have been taught all their lives that racism and sexism are immoral, and most academic liberals devote their careers to repeating this conventional morality endlessly.

Of course, it is important to counter racism and sexism, and it is fine for students to read books by a variety of authors, including W.E.B. DuBois and Jane Austen.  But if you really want to broaden students' perspectives by introducing them to ideas that challenge the conventional wisdom of contemporary society, you should begin by reading Aristotle.

See the New York Times article here.