Phronesis

At the Mont Pelerin Society General Meeting in Sydney this week, enjoying a feast of ideas and insights from some of the world’s leading classical liberal thinkers.  The broad theme of the meeting is to stimulate new ideas to promote a 21st Century liberal enlightenment. The Society’s president, Professor Deepak Lal, who will be speaking at Business Roundtable functions in New Zealand in late October, introduced the meeting:

At a time when many of the ideas of the Enlightenment that inspired classical liberalism are under threat, it is fitting that we should discuss how these ideas and ideals still retain their relevance, and how they are being refurbished by notable advances in the human sciences, particularly in neuroscience and socio-biology. This is one major theme at this meeting.

Ironically,  just as economic liberalism came to be adopted across much of the globe, the dirigiste impulse was transferred to the personal sphere.  The resultant abrogation of Mill’s “principle of liberty’” poses a serious and growing threat to personal freedom.  This ‘new dirigisme’ is being given succour by new-fangled economic theories, as well as the abrogation of Humean scepticism by many scientists committed to political causes. 

And:

We will be following on from the Society’s special meeting in New York in 2009 by taking stock of the aftermath of the Great Recession.  In particular, the rise of the emerging giants China and India which are now becoming the torchbearers of that economic liberalism which many in the West are abandoning.  This along with the remarkable economic performance of our host country – Australia – will also be a major theme of this meeting.

In one of the opening sessions yesterday on Lessons from the Scottish Enlightenment,  presented by Professor James R Otteson from New York’s Yeshiva University, I learned a fine new word: phronesis, used by Aristotle to describe judgement – the skill of knowing what to do. He affirmed Aristotle’s view that:

 …one develops good judgement by, and only by, using it, which requires the freedom to make choices.  Developing judgement in good directions requires receiving  feedback when one makes choices: good feedback when one makes good choices, bad feedback when one makes bad choices. This accountability is the other side of the ‘freedom’ coin, and its development of good judgement is what can enable not only Kantian dignity but also Aristotelian happiness. The most attractive conception of human morality, I believe, is the one that endorses and protects these two aspects of humanity – freedom and its partner accountability, as well as independent judgement.

Otteson went on to describe political and economic institutions consistent with this conception and one which

…would be a system in which third-party oversight, second-guessing, and – as I see it at any rate – self actualising infantilisation is reduced to an absolute minimum. It would be a system in which we do not bail out unsuccessful enterprises, but rather let natural corrections encourage different enterprises. Such a system would have the triple benefits of (1) respecting people’s dignity as free and responsible agents, (2) enabling them to develop their own good judgement, and (3) leading to economic growth.  Moreover, if the Scots were right, such a system of institutions might also enable human happiness. The entrepreneurial opportunities that commercial societies provide might satisfy the need the Scots believed humans have to struggle and contend, and perhaps their “bourgeois virtues” might substitute for the martial virtues of bygone eras.

I’d happily settle for that.

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