Aristotle and Freedom

Plato developed his concept of freedom in a perfect society – describing an ideal way to structure our society. Aristotle approaches the problem from an individualistic point of view – freedom depends on people’s ability to communicate freely and effectively. He conceives freedom as the capacity to direct oneself to those ends which one’s reason recognizes as choice worthy.  A morally virtuous action requires an individual to be able to choose how to respond to his or her own thoughts and feelings. Thus the concept of moral responsibility implies that an individual has some freedom to choose his or her own actions.

For Aristotle the goal of human life was happiness, Richard Tarnas observed, the necessary precondition for this was virtue. But virtue itself had to be defined in terms of rational choice in a concrete situation where virtue lay in the mean of two extremes. “Good is always a balance between two opposite evils, the midpoint between excesses and deficits…” The virtue of courage, for example, lies between the vices of rashness and cowardice. The coward has too much fear, or fear when he should have none. The rash person has too little fear and excessive confidence. The courageous person has the right amount.1

For Aristotle self-love was a virtue, and the most important aspect was to find the correct balance between the extremes of excess and deficiency. A person with the right balance of self-love will seek what is best for himself or herself, which will be consistent with what is best for all. It also helps us to truly know and recognize ourselves – both the good parts and the bad parts. Finally it allows us to act rationally in our own best interest, or better, allows us to reach our potential. That means making intelligent decisions rather that being driven by emotions, and having regard for long-term interests rather than acting on impulse. Such a person seeks to become the best that he can be – to reach their full potential.

At one extreme too little self-love results in self-loathing in which one does not pursue actions to support one’s well being (with respect to relationships, habits, vices). At the other extreme, too much self-love results in selfishness, self-centeredness, and a personal sense of entitlement and narcissism. Virtue gives us the strength of character needed for us (and those around us) to flourish. It also includes the practical wisdom to when and how to best apply moral knowledge. In addition it moves away from a world in which individual rights are constantly pitted against each other and acknowledges a place for feeling and emotion.

Ayn Rand described her philosophy of objectivism as the blending of free markets, reason and individualism. Rand adopted Aristotle’s self-love in which we love ourselves in the proper sense when we pursue our own true good. This means using reason to make intelligent decisions and not being buffeted by desires – having regard for long-term interests rather than acting on impulse. Rand spoke of the importance of self-esteem, meaning justifiable pride in one’s accomplishments. Self-esteem was deemed a necessary defense against altruists who wanted people to give up their liberty or property for the sake of an alleged greater good.

Established in 1985, over 15 years Enron grew into the seventh largest company in the US with over 21,000 employees worldwide. The company developed a unique hiring format. They brought in a stream of the best college MBA graduates they could find, who became (star) performers, who did what ever they wanted. This created a milieu for extreme individualism and narcissism. Enron became a narcissistic company in which workers did not need to acknowledge their faults and deception, and a declining sense of responsibility became part of their culture. Enron created cash flow through various methods that included creating a phony California electricity crisis, as well as novel methods of keeping liabilities off the books. The company collapsed and was delisted from the stock market in 2002.2

Five years after the collapse of Enron the International Monetary Fund declared the bursting of the housing bubble in the US and its worldwide consequences, the largest financial shock since the great depression. The sense of entitlement allowed Wall Street to create the milieu for the greed and corruption, which led from one crisis to the next, where on each occasion the actions were consistent with the excess self-love of Aristotle that one associates with narcissism.

Aristotle attacks the bad effects of self-love, arguing that a virtuous person should love justice rather than himself. Aristotle notes that the cause of all errors arises in each occasion for each person because of extreme love of oneself. This love makes us slow to correct our ignorance, and prone to claim knowledge when we know nothing. In the end the truly great man should love just things [where justice is fairness], whether done by himself or someone else.  The highest good is happiness, not material goods or intellectual knowledge, which involves proper function of a life balanced between reason and desires.3

Income inequality damages health outcomes in two ways. Health follows a social gradient, the lower down the gradient the poorer the health outcomes. Also income inequality is detrimental to the more affluent members of society since members of these citizens experience psychosocial stress from the inequality and loss of social adhesion.  Countries that minimize economic inequalities are societies where children are most likely to be able to develop their full potential. These factors secure the fairness [ensuring that social policies, social systems, institutions and environments are beneficial to all individuals] that gives everyone the equal opportunity and freedom to make the choices to reach their full potential, and achieve happiness.

1Horsman, Greg.  Objectivism Lost and the Age of Disillusionment p. 45

2Horsman, Greg.  Evolutionary Economics and Equality: An Age of Enlightenment p. 179.

3Heinaman, Robert.  Plato and Aristotle’s Ethics, p. 96

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