Human flourishing vs. self-actualization
A blog that escapes these traps is the one that an energetic and intellectually gifted citizen of San Francisco maintains under the name of Gay Species. The rubric above his personal profile states his central theme: “human flourishing.”
This concept is seductive: after all, who of us does not wish to flourish? Consider the alternative!
Defining the term proves tricky, though. Gay Species cherishes the concept as the inseparable companion of his preferred political philosophy of liberalism. “Liberalism is the set of principles which endeavors to maximize individual and social flourishing by promoting the individual good by social cohesion and the common good--or general welfare--in which BOTH the individual and the common good are maximized.” (Gayspecies.blogspot.com, posting for Sept. 1, 2009).
Presently we will return to that “BOTH.” I would start, though, by observing that the term “human flourishing” is not textual (as constitutional lawyers say), for it is absent from the founding documents of the American Republic, not to mention the classical statements of liberalism.
Still the term “human flourishing” has gained a certain purchase in Anglophone academic discourse of the second half of the twentieth century. It seems to have arisen in the following way. Book I of Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics contains an influential discussion of the philosopher’s concept of "eudaimonia." The conventional rendering of this Greek word is “happiness,” which still seems to be preferred in translations today. However, some latter-day interpreters have found the H-word inadequate. A half century ago the English philosopher Elizabeth Anscombe proposed a substitute, arguing that eudaimonia be translated as “human flourishing.”
Let us set aside her proposal for the moment and stick to the Greek. Eudaimonia (εὐδαιμονία) is a classical Greek word made up of the prefix "eu-" ("good" or "well being") and the noun "daimōn" ("spirit" or "minor deity”; by extension, one's lot or fortune), with the final suffix -ia serving to designate an abstract idea.
The gravamen of this Greek expression resides in the six letters making up the word's center: daimon. In this context a daimon is a guardian or tutelary spirit. Yet this supernatural element is uncongenial to modern interpreters who seek to downplay the feature by asserting that the ancient Greeks did not expatiate on it. Of course not, because they took the existence of such spirits for granted; no gloss was needed to affirm their reality, regarded as self-evident. Polytheism suffused the very air the ancients breathed. It no longer does so. Since ancient times we have seen the relentless advance of what Max Weber termed the Entzäuberung der Welt, the disenchantment of the world, whereby the principle of animation that formerly personalized nature and our conceptual tools has been banished. Thereby we gain in rationality, perhaps, but we sacrifice a whole vast range of life-giving metaphors.
There are it seems spirits that bring eudaimonia to life. What are the consequences of accepting that our personal happiness must be achieved with the beneficent collaboration of some power or powers outside ourselves? First, we must set aside the Renaissance reliance on self-fashioning: the confidence that we are, or can be the s o l e authors of our being. Contemporary parallels are scarce. Making a fairly big leap, though, we could regard eudaimonia as a precursor of the “good karma” of todays’ New Age speculation.
A collaboration of the personal and the external, eudaimonia involves an element of striving. It is not simply delivered to us to enjoy in perpetuity as some steady-state bliss, what the Greeks called makaria. Eudaimonia must be ceaselessly attained and affirmed.
There is more, for a full understanding of the resonances of the term in ancient Greek cannot be obtained by limiting ourselves to Aristotle, who gives it a particular spin. From Homer onwards the most common meaning of eudaimonia was “prosperity, opulence.” In later usage, which emphasized personal well-being, this somewhat crass emphasis was not entirely lost. And perhaps it was right that it should linger, for the achievement of a rewarding life depends in part (whether we choose to acknowledge the fact or not) on having been given or having attained a certain level of earthly prosperity. Thus a broad account of eudaimonia should be compatible not only with Aristotle's concept but also with more mundane theories which identify eudaimonia with a life of pleasant amusements, a life devoted to the acquisition of wealth, a life devoted to the pursuit of honor, a life of public service in which one exercises civic virtues, and so forth.
Yet Aristotle clings to a kind of ethical monism. Eudaimonia is that for the sake of which human beings do everything that they do; it is not pursued for the sake of some further goal. Aristotle further holds that the only style of life that is fully conducive to eudaimonia is the contemplative one (bios theoretikos). Some would say that this choice reflects the typical bias of the intellectual.
We need not follow Aristotle in every detail--and much has been omitted here--to acknowledge that it is worth asking what conditions will foster a satisfying and prosperous existence.
In this quest the term “human flourishing” strikes me as a somewhat unhappy choice. The word “flourishing” derives from the French fleurissant, both meaning flowering. To be candid, the allusion to flowers seems precious. As plants, flowers are sessile and vulnerable. Should one seek to go through life as a potted plant? Moreover, the noun “flourish” (a flourish of trumpets, a literary flourish) connotes an ornamental enhancement, commonly an ostentatious one. Strictly speaking, a flourish is superfluous.
Perhaps the term “human thriving,” or simply “thriving,” would be preferable. Still, none of these terms capture the full sense of eudaimonia, which has the advantage of stressing the beneficial interaction of human effort and what might be termed luck. The best choice might be to retain the Greek word.
For the purposes of further argument let us adopt the expression “human flourishing” pro tem.
The nub of the matter is that this project has two radically distinct forms: individual human flourishing, and collective human flourishing. These cannot be reconciled by simply invoking that little word “both.” The former, the individual variety, may entail various forms of selfishness and even ruthlessness. Try this thought experiment. In order to obtain the position and money that I feel I require, I may need to employ devious means to become head of the marketing division of my company. This promotion--the foundation of my flourishing as I see it--will require the forced retirement or dismissal of the current head of marketing whom I will supplant. In this way the increase of my store of human flourishing requires the decrease of someone else’s flourishing. I flourish to the extent that the other does not: a zero-sum game.
Such is the bitter truth that realism counsels. Individual human flourishing can manifest itself simply as self-assertion and greed. No wonder the concept has proved appealing to some followers of Ayn Rand. But maybe we can get round this difficulty by transposing the idea onto the plane of some larger aggregate: c o l l e c t i v e human flourishing.
That sounds appealing, but how this goal is to be reached? One answer is John Rawls’ well-known difference principle, which permits inequalities in the distribution of goods only if those inequalities benefit the worst-off members of society. In this sense collective flourishing means that individual flourishing can only be pursued as a means to an end. That end is social leveling.
I must be frank. Neither of these types of flourishing seems very attractive. In the last analysis the first mode may come down simply to the conniving of a Gordon Gecko. I'll get mine, and screw everybody else. The second version seems to correct the deficiencies of the first. But at a price, for it spells the restriction of individual freedom in the interests of the community. Inclusive flourishing, if you will, requires significant limitations on individual flourishing. At all events the two concepts are incompatible: one must chose one or the other.
All this may seem so much quibbling. Surely there must be some useful framework in which we can discuss the very important matter of leading a fulfilling life. Despair not, for I have found that there is; the key is the term “self-actualization.”
The classic formulation of this concept is due to Abraham Maslow. Maslow (1908-1970) was an American academic psychologist whose ideas have proved to be widely influential. Following an earlier tentative formulation by Kurt Goldstein, Maslow developed his key concept of self-actualization. This he advocated in his article,”A Theory of Human Motivation” (1943), and subsequently in a series of books.
Maslow defined self-actualization as "the desire for self-fulfillment, namely the tendency for him [the individual] to become actualized in what he is potentially. This tendency might be phrased as the desire to become more and more what one is, to become everything that one is capable of becoming." Maslow used the term self-actualization to describe a desire--not a driving force--that could foster realizing one's capabilities. He doubted that self-actualization determined one's life in any simplistic way; rather, he held that it endowed the individual with a desire or motivation to achieve budding ambitions. A more explicit definition of self-actualization according to Maslow is "intrinsic growth of what is already in the organism, or more accurately of what is the organism itself . . . self-actualization is growth-motivated rather than deficiency-motivated."
The American psychologist detected certain factors that he regarded as conducive to the path of self-actualization. Some common traits found among individuals who have reached self-actualization are that they embrace reality and facts rather than denying truth; that they are spontaneous; that they are drawn to solving problems; and that they are accepting of themselves and others. Certain particular qualities are required, among them independence, autonomy, a tendency to form few but deep friendships, a "philosophical" sense of humor, a tendency to resist outside pressures, and a general transcendence of the environment rather than simply taking each thing as it comes.
In addition, Maslow assumed a hierarchy of needs. Self-actualization cannot normally be reached until other lower-order necessities are satisfied. Maslow's hierarchy of needs is often depicted as a pyramid consisting of five levels: with the lowermost level comprising physiological or bodily needs, while the upper levels are growth needs stemming from the psychological realm.
One need not subscribe to all of the details (only a few of them are sketched here) to recognize the fruitfulness of Maslow’s concepts, which are intended to clarify the ways in which successful people navigate in the world.
Some critics hold that Maslow’s scheme is too rigid; in reality, our lives unfold according to many different patterns, and not just on a single track, as he suggests. Point taken, but suitable modifications may be made.
Another possible drawback is the intimation that the basic ingredients already lie within us. All that is necessary is that, under favorable conditions, we nurture them so as to realize our potential. While this self-sufficiency is an attractive prospect, it glosses over the fact that we may need to access additional elements that are external. That is, self-actualization is not simply a matter of enhancing what we have, but may require the incorporation of positive features stemming from outside our own realm. With this emendation, I believe that Maslow’s general approach is fully serviceable.
However one may pinpoint the source of the resources that are deployed, self-actualization is an essentially internal process. For this reason it lacks the element of acquisitive striving and competition that taints the concept of human flourishing, That is so because of the heritage of eudaimonia, stemming ultimately from Greek ideas alluding to material prosperity and opulence. These are advantages that in a context of scarcity must be secured by appropriating them from others, as we saw in the hypothetical instance of the individual who seeks to become head of his department by displacing the existing occupant.
[NB. My thanks to Kathy D. Schnapper, who rightly suggested two years ago that I take a good look at Maslow’s ideas.]
ADDITIONAL NOTE. In writing the above, I was of course aware that it could be argued that the familiar phrase "pursuit of happiness" could be summoned as a kind of equivalent of Anscombe's neoteric "human flourishing." We are all acquainted with the story of how Jefferson took John Locke’s triad of “life, liberty, and property” and replaced the third term with "pursuit of happiness," thought by some to be distinctly American. The source of the expression has been sought in Samuel Johnson, who used it several times. However, Jefferson does not seem to have read Johnson.
In a 2007 article in the History News Network, Carol V. Hamilton seems to have found the correct solution. Once again it is John Locke.
Here are Hamilton's pertinent observations:
"Jefferson’s intellectual heroes were Newton, Bacon, and Locke, and it was actually in Locke that he must have found the phrase. It appears not in the Two Treatises on Government but in the 1690 essay Concerning Human Understanding. There, in a long and thorny passage, Locke wrote:
'The necessity of pursuing happiness [is] the foundation of liberty. As therefore the highest perfection of intellectual nature lies in a careful and constant pursuit of true and solid happiness; so the care of ourselves, that we mistake not imaginary for real happiness, is the necessary foundation of our liberty. The stronger ties we have to an unalterable pursuit of happiness in general, which is our greatest good, and which, as such, our desires always follow, the more are we free from any necessary determination of our will to any particular action, and from a necessary compliance with our desire, set upon any particular, and then appearing preferable good, till we have duly examined whether it has a tendency to, or be inconsistent with, our real happiness: and therefore, till we are as much informed upon this inquiry as the weight of the matter, and the nature of the case demands, we are, by the necessity of preferring and pursuing true happiness as our greatest good, obliged to suspend the satisfaction of our desires in particular cases.'"
Hamilton goes on to connect the idea with Greek and Roman thought. This may be so, but her arguments are inconclusive. Later in life Jefferson acknowledged an indebtedness to Epicurus, but there is no evidence that he derived the particular phrase from that source, nor from Lucretius, a special favorite.
At all events Jefferson did not obtain the phrase by channeling Elizabeth Anscombe. Her "human flourishing" is an artefact, with no particularly distinguished pedigree.