A review of “Ethics—In Education, Business, and Politics”, by Peter F. Drucker and Aristotle for Everybody—Difficult Thought Made Easy, by Mortimer J. Adler and Essays on Aristotle’s Ethics, by Amelie Oksenberg Rorty
That we consciously choose one way of life rather than others would seem to imply that reflection on this choice makes some difference concerning our happiness. Classical philosophy referred to what today are called “lifestyles” as “ethics.” Yet contemporary students, thoroughly abetted by their teachers, believe that individual preference is the core of ethics. One person’s lifestyle or value judgment (as Secretary of State Haig would put it) is as valid as another’s.
The works reviewed here reject this premise of contemporary student and scholarly thought. All can make some contribution toward combating the prevalent relativism; nevertheless, each work is seriously flawed in a way which is typical of virtually all scholarly reflection about ethics since Aristotle. These writings evince once again the failure to take seriously the place of splendor (usually translated as “beautiful” or “noble,” from the Greek kalon) in the way we live our lives.
Let us begin, in Aristotle’s spirit, with a work concerning the immediate political, economic, and educational implications of current ethical teachings. The spring issue, 1981, of The Public Interest contains papers from a symposium on ethics in education, business, and politics. The contributors are Peter F. Drucker, the renowned Clarke Professor of Social Science at the Claremont Graduate School; Public Interest assistant managing editor Mark Lilla; economist and strategic analyst Thomas Schelling; professor of physics and philosophy Martin Eger; and professor of philosophy Andrew Oldenquist. Each makes instructive criticisms of prevailing academic trends in the study of ethics, and the practical application of ethics in the fields of business, public service education, economics, and the new moral education.
It should be kept in mind that The Public Interest, with Commentary, is the leading organ of neo-conservatism. Now the neo-conservatives are critics above all else. An insistence on sobriety and a suspicion of the Utopian or impractical run throughout their writing. Neo-conservatives are superb at disrobing the crackpot beneath the mortarboard. Well acquainted with the academy, they know the true quality of a phony doctor (aka Ph.D.). They know that words and theories about men in society must recognize the old Adam, who will not easily allow himself to be quantified, categorized, or preached to. Not that neo-conservatives have no ideals; theirs are the solid, tested, workable ideals of tradition, constantly brought up to date by cautious practice. Hence the chief neo-conservative ideal is liberty, soberly understood. America they say, was born in a revolution of sober expectations, and it ought to rediscover and honor that tradition. Yet we must never romanticize the past, nor dwell on a rosy pink future: there lies the road to fanaticism and disillusionment. The sober neo-conservative walks a straight line between romantic reactionism and revolutionary utopianism. Having a lump in your throat may get you a bushel full on the head.
Who are these men and women? They include Democrats and Republicans, socialists and supply-side economists, politicians and publicists. They have in common an opposition to the deterioration of American foreign policy in the 60’s. They also believe that many of the political and social programs of that period—e.g., antipoverty programs, affirmative action, and SALT—were muddleheaded and counter productive. Thus neo-conservatives now hold policies that real conservatives advocated in the 60’s, but which they—then liberals—had spurned as reactionary, primitive, or racist. Born again, the neo-conservatives are older and wiser. (By the way, never ever take “neo-conservative” to be a highbrow appellation for “new right,” which is quite, quite different.) Nationally prominent politicians who would be considered neo-conservatives include Senator Daniel P. Moynihan of New York and U.N. Ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick.
Though one finds a great deal of good sense in neo-conservative thought and practice, agreement on a political program does not betoken agreement on ultimate ends, on the most important questions of human life, that is, ethics. Since the most informative debates occur between those who already agree upon much, a focus here on a few fundamental questions will be most illuminating.
It is not possible within the limits of this review to discuss each essay. Let us then focus on the business ethics essay, since so many students today are preoccupied with making a living by going into business. Moreover, such a study gives us an opportunity of discussing one of Claremont’s own, Professor Peter Drucker. No label, such as neo-conservative, appropriately describes this eclectic gentleman. Even eclectic seems a bromide. Drucker has written on a wide variety of subjects—fascism, management, American politics, and Japanese art, among them—throughout his broad-ranging career as a banker, writer, consultant, and teacher. (His Adventures of a Bystander is a series of marvelous essays which constitute a sort of biography.) Drucker’s virtues are apparent once again in his article “What is Business Ethics?” But a major defect of all the articles, and of the neo-conservatism The Public Interest espouses, is evident as well.
“‘Business ethics,'” Drucker declares, “is not ‘ethics’ at all, . . .” and in fact qualifies as “‘ethical chic’ . . . [which is] more a media event than philosophy or morals.” It is gross indulgence in “sophistry and . . . non-questions”(pp. 25, 30, 32). The main problem is that business ethics implies a separate standard for one part of the society: businessmen. Thus, it would appear to be yet another means for its advocates to cleanse the land of its J.R. Ewings. But Drucker points out that maintaining a separate standard for business will “end up as a fig leaf for the shameless and as special pleading for the powerful and the wealthy”(p. 34). (In other words, J.R. is probably bankrolling all those seminars on business ethics.)
Drucker deftly dismisses as fatuous the recent hand-wringing over business payoffs to foreign governments to obtain contracts, as well as the indignation over alleged payments made by the Secretary of Labor’s construction company to union officials who threatened his employees and property. Drucker maintains that under “traditional ethics” the businesses’ actions would be regarded as simple knuckling under to force. Now the new business ethics brands such knuckling under as immoral, when in fact it is no more immoral than being mugged. (Consider what he says in his essay on Alfred P. Sloan, General Motors’ chief executive, in Adventures of a Bystander. There he discusses the Naderites and other critics of the corporations’ failure to accept responsibility. Taken to its extreme—and Drucker does not explicitly carry the argument this far—the Naderites are demanding something like the corporate society envisioned by fascism in its original phases. It is impossible, morally, politically, and economically, to require that a corporation or any other group or individual be responsible without also having authority, which in turn implies power. Thus the argument for corporate responsibility becomes a justification for formally acknowledged corporate power.)
In his survey of western ethical thought Drucker finds that “the ethics of prudence and self-development,” originating in Aristotle and culminating in its “ultimate triumph and its reduction to absurdity in Machiavelli’s Prince,” would restrain society’s leaders (including business executives) from behavior which they would disapprove of in others (p. 27). But, he argues, the ethics of prudence must be supplemented by the Confucian “ethics of interdependence,” which locates moral conduct in the proper behavior of members of organizations to each other. “Right behavior . . . is that individual behavior which is truly appropriate to the specific relationship of mutual dependence because it optimizes benefits for both parties”(p. 30). Drucker was forced to turn to the East because he failed fully to appreciate the wisdom of the West, particularly that of the founder of the ethics of prudence, Aristotle.
Drucker’s and the neo-conservatives’ misunderstanding of Aristotle’s prudence distorts their own comprehension of the relationship between ethics and politics. By prudence Aristotle meant the intellectual excellence which enables men to choose the way to splendor and justice, the two main elements of classical morality. (Prudence must not be simply identified with a quality Aristotle called cleverness, which is the intellectual capacity of men to obtain whatever they happen to want—splendor or baseness, good or evil, justice or injustice.) Following attacks on Aristotle by Machiavelli, Hobbes, and Kant, splendor virtually disappeared in thinking about ethics. (Nietzsche made a desperate, futile attempt to revive it in his notion of the noble.)
What the ancients knew as splendor, which was manifested in great political deeds, has for modern men deteriorated into something soft, sensual, and trivial. Splendor has been reduced to the merely pleasant. Knick-knacks have replaced monuments; aesthetes, students of politics.
For Aristotle splendor was the aim of ethical or moral excellence. Splendor can exist in such grand actions as heroic deeds in battle, generous acts of giving, and proud defiance of foes, as well as in more frequently practicable qualities such as an elegant sense of humor and an amiability which avoids the extremes of surliness and obsequiousness. As diverse as these activities are, a prudent man will see the splendor in each of them and practice them. A common notion of splendor creates a political community, and all political communities require deeds of splendor in order to survive.
And so it should not be surprising that the best examples of prudent men are statesmen. Consider Lincoln in his action in transforming a war to preserve the Union into war against slavery, or Churchill in his efforts to warn England to the dangers of Nazism and his subsequent rallying of the English and the Western spirit against Hitler. The neo-conservatives fail to capture this heroic dimension of prudence. Hence they regard the Constitution as the height of the American nation, whereas an Aristotelian would point to the most splendid part, namely, Lincoln.
Blind to the splendor which is the object of prudence, the neo-conservatives come close to identifying prudence with mere instrumental reason; that is, calculation (with no regard to its object) or what Aristotle called cleverness. They would, of course, criticize the intrusion of such a dangerous, arbitrary instrument into ethics. This criticism underlies Mark Lilla’s attempt to draw a clear distinction between ethics and ethos. The latter, he contends, relies on habit and custom (allegedly according to Aristotle, and more recently Oakeshott) while the former relies on pure reason (Kant and Rawls). But an ethics resting on pure reason alone becomes an intellectual game, a wholly theoretical endeavor. Born of such a theoretical attitude, “applied ethics” or “values clarification” offers a myriad of rationalizations for whatever course of action a body might desire.
But without an intellectual excellence such as prudence, which can discern splendor and separate what is truly splendid from an illusion, the neo-conservatives can provide no basis for their ethics. This comes out most dearly in Andrew Oldenquist’s attempt to defend society’s promulgation of (as he insists on putting it, indoctrination in) the values which will sustain it. This defense is unobjectionable, as far as it goes, but it leaves open the all-important question, to what end ought we to be educating people? What ethic will in fact sustain our society? What do we want society to be like in the future? Neo-conservatives are, again, superb in their critiques of contemporary trends. But their own limited notions of reason and ethics, which result from their inattentiveness to Aristotle’s virtue of prudence, leave their critiques groundless and thus ultimately indefensible. The neo-conservatives do not and cannot truly inspire.
We smile at the ingenuousness of Mortimer Adler’s title, Aristotle for Everybody—Difficult Thought Made Easy. But Adler, dedicated teacher that he is, is quite serious. Adler, who refers to himself as a “philosopher at large,” has dedicated his life to restoring “philosophy to its proper place in our culture.” This endeavor has led him from the associate editorship of the Great Books of the Western World to his current attempts to teach great books to high school students. However, derided as a huckster of higher education and even made the butt of academic jokes, Adler once observed, “I’ve been run out of the academy.”
Aristotle for Everybody is written for everybody from twelve years old on up, “except professional philosophers.” This Bantam Paperback features brief chapters and simple language. The aim of this fine introduction to the spirit of Aristotle is to portray Aristotle’s “uncommon common sense.” For its section on “Man the Doer,” which we will focus on here, this book can justly claim a place beside C.S. Lewis’s Abolition of Man in the current attempts to combat the mindless, facile relativism regnant on college campuses today. (In academic jargon Adler would be classified as a Neo-Thomist.)
Most of “Man the Doer” can be read as a gloss on the first few sentences of Aristotle’s Ethics. Adler emphasizes man’s capacity for choice, his need to devise a plan for living a happy or good life. In a truly good life, one chooses the real as opposed to the apparent goods. “The things that are really good for you are the things that satisfy your natural needs. . . . real goods are things we need, whether we are conscious of the need or not. Their goodness consists in their satisfying a desire inherent in human nature” (pp. 80-81). Adler explains that we need some things as means to others, such as money. Other things we prize in themselves, such as knowledge and friends. In order to choose well among both types of goods, men need moral excellences such as temperance, courage, and justice. Aristotle believed that human life should be consciously spent in the “pursuit of happiness,” as Jefferson would put it 2200 years later. The author of the Declaration would agree with the philosopher, that the political community exists to promote the pursuit of happiness.
By his own admission Adler oversimplifies. He has never allowed himself “to be drawn off the main path by the qualifications, the complications, and the subtleties that Aristotle himself introduces. . .”(p. 175). But Adler also errs drastically when he claims that Aristotle favored the Greek practice of slavery, when he actually condemned the prevalent, conventional slavery. A more important flaw is that Adler’s focus on needs, in his explanation of Aristotle’s view of human life as a set of choices, excludes splendor as an object. Thus, in the discussion of the moral excellences, Adler reverses the order of Aristotle’s treatment of courage and of temperance. Adler commences his discussion of excellence with temperance, whereas Aristotle begins with courage, the courage of a soldier on a battlefield. Above all the other virtues, courage raises the questions of whether the life one is living is indeed worth living, and for what causes one ought to risk that life. By contrast, Adler, while not incorrect, is prosaic. He explains that “pains may be involved in doing what we ought to do for the sake of a good life” (p. 95). Thus courage enables us to see that, say, to play a musical instrument well we may have to practice hard. However, to gain credibility for his argument, Adler has to sacrifice even mentioning the end of morality, splendor. And it is the goal of splendor which attracts and inspires men of spirit (thumos),who long to possess it. The moral man we discover in Adler’s Aristotle is a sober democrat, and certainly American democracy today is in great need of such citizens. But it is problematic (at best) whether American democracy or the best way of living can be understood through an Aristotle devoid of splendor and the spiritedness which wants to possess it.
Amelie Oksenberg Rorty’s compilation of recent articles on Aristotle’s Ethics consists of twenty-one essays by seventeen different authors, including such well-known figures in Anglo-American philosophy departments as J.L. Ackrill, John M. Cooper, Thomas Nagel, and Bernard Williams. Rorty has organized the selections into a running commentary on the text of the Ethics. Although the essays are clearly intended for a scholarly audience, Rorty claims, “What attracts contemporary classical philosophers to Aristotle’s ethics is . . . the investigation of a self-contained, enormously illuminating theory, rich in practical consequences as well as in theoretical insights” (p. 3). Like Adler, she wishes to educate her readers in their conduct. But the editor’s own illuminating essay on the contemplative life and a few other exceptions aside, this volume will not have the desired effects on practice or theory—and happily so. This is a book for scholars, not for students interested in ethics, that is, living better lives.
Virtually all of the essays here bear the ponderous traits of the school of linguistic analysis currently dominating Anglo-American departments of philosophy. Several of the contributors are at times unbearably smug. They assume superiority to Aristotle, hence, they fail to realize that he may be making an argument quite different from their own. For example, they do not take seriously Aristotle’s description of the Ethics as an outline, nor that his procedure is the refinement of the phenomena under investigation. Most of the essays are dry and spiritless. For linguistic analysts philosophy is puzzle-solving. They treat arguments as tiles of a Rubik’s Cube to be manipulated into place, rather than as alternatives concerning the way one lives.
The contributors to this volume may best be denominated intellectuals. Evidently they would justify their scholarship on the grounds that they live a version of the theoretical or contemplative life, which Aristotle regarded as the highest and the happiest. But the Rorty intellectuals’ implicit claim to do so is highly questionable. Consider for a moment the meaning of contemplation or theorizing (theorein); it means simply to look at or observe. The contemplative life is the life of observation. Taking contemplation in this strict sense one might surmise that the many Americans who spend hours staring at television are leading the highest life according to Aristotle. Now this is of course a terrible misconstruction of contemplation, because contemplation discriminates in its objects. Do we dare say that the contemporary academy makes a similar error in believing it partakes of the heights of human existence and happiness, when in fact it leads a slavish, bestial life? Like Aristotle’s incontinent man, the Rorty intellectuals know the words of the arguments but lack comprehension. The arguments have no more meaning for them than do the mere words of an argument for men who are asleep, mad, drunk, or beginning students (Ethics, VII. 3). They lack understanding because they lack spirit and a regard for splendor, the splendor found in political life. It is not that they never mention splendor; they simply do not take it very seriously.
The most prominent instance of their denigration of splendor occurs in the omission of an essay on pride (literally, “great-souledness,” megalopsuchia), “a crown of the excellences. . . all-perfect excellence” (IV. 3). An exegesis of this virtue would have required political examples, and linguistic analysts tend to be apolitical. (Consider the Tom Stoppard film,Professional Foul, in which a British linguistic analyst visits Prague for a philosophy conference and then gradually discovers that he cannot abide by the conventions of Communism.) The Rorty intellectuals suffer from the vice affiliated with pride, not arrogance but humility (“small-souledness,” mikropsuchia). The small-souled do not regard themselves as worthy of great accomplishments, so they shrink from striving for splendor. Aristotle regarded this vice as the worst, for it is at root of all the others. The Rorty intellectuals have failed to take to heart Aristotle’s teaching. Lacking spirit themselves, they cannot inspirit their students about the virtues.
Finally, their failure to acknowledge the proper place of splendor in human life prevents them from rising above linguistic analysis to philosophy. Rorty describes Aristotle’s prudent man as seeming “to resemble a stodgy well brought-up gentleman” (p. 386). The slightest recollection of the statesman’s virtue, prudence, with its aim of splendor, would have allayed this thought. Indeed, by denying splendor as one of the objects of prudence, modern ethical thought shrinks not only the scope of ethics but of reason itself. The ultimate effect of slighting splendor is to make philosophy, the highest exercise of reason, impossible. In order to philosophize, ancient philosophy contended, men must confront their political element. This in turn means serious reflection on splendor and the deeds which citizens regard as splendid. One cannot fully exercise reason, the ancients maintained, unless one reflects on splendor. This is why in Aristotle’s Politics the two great descriptions of man follow so closely on one another: man is by nature a political animal, and man is the being possessing logos, “rational speech.”
Those who seek to reflect intelligently on ethics—and thus to read Aristotle in the proper spirit (and especially those who wish to teach Aristotle)—need to combine the political concerns of the neo-conservatives, the popular appeal and pedagogical passion of Adler, and the scholarship of the Rorty intellectuals with a true appreciation of splendor. True students of the liberal arts can find such a discipline in political philosophy which, among other inquiries, examines the splendor of political actions. Now Adler maintains that the last thing he would recommend to a beginning student is to read the works of Aristotle, and in this he may well be correct. A beginning student would surely be better off examining the speeches and deeds of statesmen such as Lincoln and Churchill, or the writings of the most prominent Aristotelian of our time, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. Such an Aristotelian approach to the study of human life is needed now more than ever. For not only living a good life but simply surviving may depend on our understanding of these matters. Recall what Solzhenitsyn once said about courage: “A decline in courage may be the most striking feature which an outside observer notices in the West in our days. . . . from ancient times a decline in courage has been considered the beginning of the end.” As Senator Moynihan once put it, in concluding an argument against social science foolishness, “It is curious how often we end where Aristotle began.”