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October 04, 2013

Virtue and (or?) Happiness

My old friend Charles Krauthammer, with whom I served on the President's Council on Bioethics in the Bush years, is someone with whom I more often agree than disagree. But here is a recent exchange on which we part ways on some pretty basic ideas about political theory. I should note that both of us were speaking extemporaneously, rather than from prepared texts. (What you have here is a transcript prepared by J.R. Benjamin.) So Charles was responding to my remarks immediately after hearing them, with no tme to prepare his reply. Moreover, as my respondent, I suspect he felt an obligation to offer something of a critical perspective. I'm not sure if the two of us really disagree on the points under discussion quite as much as it appears we do here. What pleased me enormously was that after the exchange (which was at a Bradley Foundation symposium in Washington, D.C.) the great Gertrude Himmelfarb sought me out to say how much she agreed with me.  To me, than whom she has no greater admirer, that was like getting a commendation from Olympus.  Anyway, here is the transcript:

http://jrbenjamin.com/tag/robert-p-george/

Had I been given a chance to reply to Charles' reply to me, I would have struck hard against his contrasting of virtue with the concept of the pursuit of "happiness" in the Declaration of Independence.  The term "happiness" in the 18th century--and, in fact, until quite recently--did not refer simply to a pleasing or desirable psychological state--one that might be induced by virtue, vice, or, for that matter, some pharmacological product. It included the idea of flourishing or all round well-being, which necessarily was understood to involve virtue.  (As in "happy the man who walks the path of justice.") In other words, it was a morally inflected locution. So Charles, I believe, got tripped up a little by an anachronism. Incidentally, I've noticed a similar problem with old translations into English of Aristotle's works on ethics. "Eudaimonia" is translated as happiness.  That used to not mislead people, since the term was understood to mean something like "integral flourishing," not to refer merely to a desirable psychological state. Today, students read the old translations and are easily misled. A better translation of "eudaimonia" in contemporary English, I believe, is "flourishing"--but perhaps this claim will trigger a big debate.

Posted by Robert George on October 4, 2013 at 10:59 PM | Permalink

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