Aristotle on Economics and the Flourishing Life
BY HARVEY C. MANSFIELD
Harvard University and the Hoover Institution
To introduce this large topic, it is fitting to consider Aristotle, for centuries “the master of those who know” (as Dante called him). By contrast to our thinking, Aristotle wrote comprehensively on both economics and the flourishing life. Modern economics makes its way without study of the “flourishing life,” which is one translation of what Aristotle meant by happiness. For him, as for common sense, happiness is the goal of ethics and politics, and ultimately of economics. At present, however, economics contents itself with the “pursuit of happiness” (to borrow from the Declaration of Independence), a catchall category that specifies at great length how to pursue but hardly at all what to pursue.
If we follow Aristotle’s method of beginning from what is familiar, we must begin from modern economics, which is more familiar to us than Aristotle. Every college student has taken, or should have taken, Economics 101, and those who have been deprived of this advantage have to learn what is taught in that course, perhaps more cheaply, perhaps not, in the School of Hard Knocks. Whether the study of economics is worth its cost is an example of a typical economic calculation, for economics is about calculation. A calculation is a deliberation that focuses on a number, a “metric,” of more, of a greater quantity. It avoids the question of how much more is needed before one can decide that one can stop acquiring and turn to enjoyment. Originally—and this is in Aristotle as well as in the founders of modern economics—economics supposed that it could define needs or necessities as opposed to surplus or superfluities. But necessities have a way of expanding from survival to comfort and from comfort to perfect assurance, so that it seems safer, and scientifically more exact, to consider them infinite and thus decline to define them.
Aristotle maintains that virtue is the core of happiness
Economics becomes the science of getting more without ever saying how much more. It is because of its exactness that science requires this vagueness. Economics must either be exact or fall silent; it disdains and rejects the possibility of an inexact statement that is merely probable and better than nothing. It may attempt to evade the difficulty by defining “probability” exactly. The result would be either a vague definition of exact or an exact definition of vague— which leaves the common sense “probable” in charge. So the science of more, of “growth,” drops the utilitarian posture that requires a definition of utility—possibly contestable—and turns to “preferences” that are admittedly quite subjective. Thus does the objectivity of economics require that it surrender totally to human subjectivity. And as the measuring of preferences becomes increasingly sophisticated, which means increasingly mathematical, economics becomes increasingly vague as to its end and continually further from defining the “flourishing life.”
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