What’s the next big idea? Neo-Aristotelianism.

People keep asking what’s the next ‘big idea’. The philosophy festival How The Light Gets In, in Hay-On-Wye next month, has a whole session devoted to ‘the end of big ideas’ (well..for you maybe!)  The philosopher Bryan Appleyard likewise opined on Twitter: ‘The centre left dream of Europe is dead, neo-liberalism is dead, neo-conservatism is dead. Anybody got any ideas?’ I suggest that neo-liberalism and neo-conservatism have both been replaced by neo-Aristotelianism and the politics of well-being (or eudaimonia, if you want to be properly Aristotelian).

Very briefly, neo-Aristotelianism grew out of the revival of virtue ethics from the 1950s, in the work of Anglo-Saxon philosophers including GEM Anscombe, Iris Murdoch, Alasdair MacIntyre, Philippa Foot, and more recently Martha Nussbaum and the current philosophe-du-jour, Michael Sandel. From Anscombe on, virtue ethicists tried to construct an Aristotelian ethics founded on a functional psychology of intention, will, emotion, habit and capacities. The good life, Aristotle argued, is the life that develops our nature to its fullest potential, so that it achieves flourishing or eudaimonia. Ethics, therefore, needs to be based on good solid psychology. The Ought of the good life needs to be based on a solid Is of empirical research.

GEM Anscombe

At the same time that Anscombe called for a ‘philosophy of psychology’, cognitive psychologists were also coming back to the Greeks and their cognitive theory of the emotions, which is basically the idea that emotions are value judgements about the world and how it should be. We can change these judgements, and thereby change our emotions, even chronic emotional habits like depression or anxiety. This Socratic idea was taken up in the 1950s by the pioneers of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, Aaron Beck and Albert Ellis. Later, it fed into Positive Psychology, which was described by one of its leaders, Christopher Peterson, as ‘the social science equivalent of virtue ethics’.

So you have this useful dialogue emerging from the 1950s onwards between virtue ethics and cognitive psychology, and a renewed optimism in the power of reason to change the self and achieve flourishing. You see this dialogue in the works of Martha Nussbaum, for example, or Robert Solomon, or Jerome Bruner.  It’s also something I try to explore in my book, in my own middle-brow journalistic fashion. You also get a renewed optimism in the power of public policy to cultivate eudaimonia among citizens. From around the mid-1990s, around the same time as Positive Psychology was appearing, you start to see Neo-Aristotelians influencing and steering public policy. If you ever hear a politician or policy wonk talk about flourishing, character, civic virtue or the common good, the chances are they’re a Neo-Aristotelian.

The Neo-Aristotelians on the Left include Geoff Mulgan, formerly director of policy at Number 10 under Tony Blair, then founder of Demos, now at Nesta – who I think has really driven this policy shift forward and shaped public policy in the last 20 years. If you read his essay in the Demos collection, The Good Life, back in 1998, it starts with a quote from Aristotle, and an insistence that there exist ‘eternal values’ which public policy and social entrepreneurship can promote. They also include Leftist communitarians like John Cruddas , Liam Byrne and Lord Maurice Glasman, who often cite Aristotle as a key influence on their politics of virtue; Richard Reeves, formerly head of Demos and now chief advisor to Nick Clegg, who edited a Demos report on character; Matthew Taylor, head of the RSA and another head of the Number 10 policy unit; Anthony Seldon, headmaster of Wellington and champion of ‘character education’, who I put on the Left because he’s a biographer of Blair and Brown; and Lord Richard Layard, who is really an out-and-out Benthamite but who nonetheless has done a lot to promote the politics of eudaimonia, particularly through the expansion of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy.

Oliver Letwin, who wrote his PhD thesis on Aristotlean ethics, emotions and the ‘unity of the self’

The Neo-Aristotelians on the Right include James O’Shaughnessy, another former head of the Number 10 policy unit (in fact he just left it), who is a big believer in the fusion of virtue ethics, empirical psychology and public policy – I interviewed James this week and will hopefully get the interview up here soon; Philip Blond, who invented the concept of the Big Society, and Max Wind-Cowie, both of whom work or worked at Demos on its Progressive Conservatism project; David Goodhart of Prospect Magazine, who also now works at Demos; Danny Kruger, formerly David Cameron’s speech-writer who now runs a charity (he’s very much a Christian Aristotelian); Steve Hilton (he’s not into Aristotle as far as I’m aware but is very into Positive Psychology, good business and so forth); and, in government, universities minister David ‘two brains’ Willetts and Cabinet Office minister Oliver Letwin – who actually wrote his PhD thesis on Aristotle, the emotions, and philosophical optimism, as we shall see shortly. It was Letwin and Hilton who encouraged David Cameron to launch national well-being measurements.

Now clearly this is quite a broad movement. The figures within it might disagree about the means of government – some are more pro-market, some are local communitarians, others believe in more centralised or national public policy – but they agree to some extent about the end of government – eudaimonia – and they are all trying to promote a virtue-based politics. Their similarities are greater than their differences. Unlike the previous neo-liberal generation, they look to Aristotle, not Hayek or Friedman. Unlike Thatcher, they believe in society. They believe in economic growth as a means to virtue and flourishing rather than an end in itself. They believe in putting moral values back into economics, in a way quite different to the laissez faire ‘private vice, public virtue’ economics of Adam Smith. They believe in moral limits to the market-place, as Michael Sandel puts it in his new best-seller.

As Richard Reeves writes in the Demos pamphlet on character that I linked to above, a ‘Neo-Aristotelian consensus’ exists in policy circles. And, crucially, there is power there – the Neo-Aristotelians include two serving ministers, and three former heads of the Number 10 policy unit. They also include five British think-tanks on the right and left – Demos, the Young Foundation, the new economics foundation, the Policy Exchange and Respublica -  who agree on the end of eudaimonia even if they disageee on the means.

It is a politics of optimism, as Anthony Seldon recently wrote, infused by Aristotle’s optimistic belief in the power of human rationality to lead the self to flourishing, and the power of government to guide humans on this journey. It can be contrasted to the politics of pessimism, as seen in Augustine, or Hobbes, or Sir Isaiah Berlin, Sigmund Freud or John Gray – which suggests that humans are inherently divided beings, torn between incompatible ends, separated from their fellow beings by incompatible world-views, who must maturely accept that this is ‘as good as life gets’. The Neo-Aristotelians believe that life, for the individual and for society, can get better. The individual can achieve coherence,  flourishing and wholeness. And so theoretically can society. We can all join together in the search for the common good, and get closer to it.

I next want to examine Oliver Letwin’s PhD thesis, which I have actually read  - never let it be said I don’t work for my readers! It’s actually not too long and a good read, and helps us to look closer at the Neo-Aristotelian position and its implications for politics. He’s interesting partly because he came from a family of Thatcherite academics and policy-wonks, and he shows the shift from that position. I’ll do it in a separate post as this is already quite long.

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