How Aristotle Helps Us Study Human Flourishing

By Meghan Sullivan
November 19, 2020
When philosophy and science converge to tackle real world problems, breakthroughs are possible.

Templeton World Charity Foundation has recently launched a new five year strategy to discover, develop, and launch innovations for human flourishing. As part of this, we are reaching out to leading scholars in a range of fields to learn how they think about and understand a concept as complex and multifaceted as human flourishing. Articles in this series are not intended to be definitive or limiting, rather, their purpose is to explore some of the many possible approaches to human flourishing. We invite readers to suggest additional perspectives as well.

 

Part of what makes it hard to define human flourishing is that, on a certain level, everything in life is about human flourishing. There is nothing we do in life that’s not about flourishing and living a better life on some level. And the drive to do research is a result of this. Aristotle sums it up: “All men by nature desire to know.” A key principle from the Catholic intellectual tradition holds that this desire to know the truth about every question is one of the features that unites us. I am a philosopher at the University of Notre Dame, and I also run a major interdisciplinary research institute (the Notre Dame Institute for Advanced Study) that is guided by this principle: Ultimately, our drive to know the truth will converge on something that will be good for us collectively as human beings.

Any ethical theory that purports to define what is good for human beings but doesn’t speak to concrete questions is useless.

That all sounds great if you are a philosopher or a theologian. But if you work around major universities you know how difficult it can be to connect the dots. A theologian wants to know what exactly Tertullian’s standards were when it came to editing theological texts. A team of cancer scientists are trying to find a signaling mechanism that will stop ovarian cancer cells from metastasizing. A sociologist is conducting a meta-analysis of effective secondary teacher education programs. What on earth could all of this work have in common? Why think the research roads will ever converge?

Here is where a theory of human flourishing really helps. First, every one of these scholars is trying to answer an essential human need — the need to know about the cosmos, or to stay healthy, or to learn in community. Second, every one of the scholars behind those projects is animated by the idea that there is something out there we don’t yet know but are responsible for discovering. This “we don’t know” feeling framed one way can be frustrating and alienating — especially if you think of research as just a way of advancing a career. But we also know that there is a great joy in working on puzzles together, knowing that you aren’t alone. And there is a tremendous payoff if you do happen to find a piece of your puzzle in an unexpected place.

We can design institutions to better meet this human need to know together. This involves picking the questions that are likely to unite us and giving scholars the tools and inspiration to speak to one another. Each year my institute picks a discrete, cross-disciplinary topic that we believe we can make concrete for people and on which we can make progress for the common good. For instance, this year we are studying what exactly we mean when we say that a person, institution or system is worthy of trust. We have a computer scientist working on the puzzle of why obviously fake information spreads so virally on online platforms. We have a historian uncovering why democratic governments have had a complicated relationship with journalists and the truth for the last 300 years. We have a psychologist trying to explain why social trust seems to be plummeting, and a politician trying to understand what kinds of interventions on the government’s end might reverse this trend. A major science fiction writer is working on imagining all of the ways new technologies might throw our future social relationships for a loop. What unites them? The thought that we have an essential human need to live in trustworthy social systems and that research from all corners helps us build better versions of these.

When tackling a new subject, I am thoroughly Aristotelian in my methods, in two somewhat specific ways. First, our big theories come from concrete cases. Aristotle argues that theories about goodness and truth must be brought up against “facts and life”: You must develop your philosophical theory in conversation with concrete cases. Any ethical theory that purports to define what is good for human beings but doesn’t speak to concrete questions is useless. And every generation has to interrogate its theories in light of the specific challenges it is facing. We shouldn’t just assume that some theory established in the 1700s is going to directly apply to our problems today or can adequately define what it means to live well in the present. Philosophy and theology really need to be right up there with what we are learning from the other disciplines. And we must learn how to talk to each other. We spend a lot of time in our institute on translational work — training historians to ask questions about AI and computer scientists to feel the weight of history.

The other thing I take quite seriously from Aristotle is that if we want to know what the “good” is and what virtues are for human beings — even as we must constantly be feeding in real world cases as evidence — we must also still believe at the end that there is some sort of timeless good that unites human beings across history and cultures. We could go around and survey as many people as possible asking “How important is trust to your good life?” but be no closer to understanding what trust is. We might all at the moment be quite off-base in what we think trust is (indeed, the historians are great at demonstrating this). Like Aristotle and his forefathers Plato and Socrates, we want to understand the nature of things. This underlying good, of course, is not usually very obvious. Trying to get closer to it requires rigor, imagination, a bit of contrarianism, and a willingness to encourage philosophical thinking in each other.

 

Meghan Sullivan is the Wilsey Family College Chair and Professor of Philosophy at the University of Notre Dame. She directs the Notre Dame Institute for Advanced Study, which every year convenes a group of faculty researchers, PhD students, and undergraduates to tackle a big, discipline-crossing ethical issue. Sullivan is the author of two books, Time Biases (OUP, 2018) and God and the Good Life (Penguin Press, forthcoming).

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