Monday, December 07, 2009

Aristotle and Prodigality

In the Nicomachean Ethics (IV:1), Aristotle talks about the vice of prodigality, a vice that seems particularly dominant in today’s economic world, if not pretty much inescapable. If you’re spending money that you don’t have via a credit card, it could be argued that you’re already a prodigal, and most of us are doing that. I’m not even sure that most of us really see prodigality as a vice, although traditional societies all seem to have agreed on this point. You can find similar discussions in the Confucian classics, for example.

So, what is prodigality? Aristotle describes it as the extreme version of liberality. In general, he sees most virtues as dispositions of the soul in between two seriously flawed extremes. Courage, for example, is a virtue that lies between the extremes of cowardice and belligerence. If I am very open in giving to others, this is the virtue of liberality; taken too far in one direction, it becomes prodigality- squandering my wealth; taken too far in the other direction and it becomes illiberality or stinginess. The idea of a mean, or of moderate behavior, occurs often in classical thinking. In general, man is supposed to be moderate and know his limits. All good things in moderation. Prodigality is excessive and immoderate behavior and it leads to later problems. That said, Aristotle agrees that it is less of a vice than stinginess; particularly because it’s a vice that doesn’t last long. As Nicholas Cage can attest, when you’re out of money, your career as a prodigal is done.

There is some difference between excessive consumption, which Aristotle associates with vulgarity, and excessive spending, which is associated with profligacy. The real problem with the profligate is that he doesn’t care where his money comes from, good or ill, and he doesn’t care if it’s spent for good or ill. Giving money to a beggar or a whore is the same for him. And, because he spends so much money, he gets himself into trouble and often into more trouble trying to get more money. Aristotle writes: “Hence most of them are licentious as well; because spending freely as they do, they squander their money on forms of self-indulgence, and as they do not direct their lives towards an honorable end, they fall into self-indulgence.” Of course, in a culture largely defined by consumer capitalism, it’s hard to see how any of this still registers as a vice.

Aristotle, of course, talks in terms of vice, and not sin. Thomas Aquinas, however, does call prodigality a sin in the Summa Theologica, largely borrowing from Aristotle. Aquinas took great pains to reconcile Aristotle with Christianity, and here he basically repeats his pagan predecessor’s arguments through a Christian framework. But I see little reason though to think Aquinas was unsuccessful. It works for me.

Of course, Christ talks about the prodigal son who squanders his wealth and finds himself reduced to tending to swine (particularly humbling for a Jew), before returning home to his father’s care. However, the story is a parable, dealing with sin and redemption and God’s forgiveness. I don’t think it should be read as a specific commandment about prodigality. In general though, Jesus wants his followers to give up their worldly possessions; I don’t see too many ways around that. But, again, I’m not a Christian.

Christians, at least traditionally, had more of a problem with simony, lending money with interest; which is most often associated with prodigality in today’s world. Many people, including me, take out money that they don’t have in order to spend it on things they can’t afford. In fact, studies seem to show that a majority of Americans are in debt, which would seem to suggest that a majority of them are prodigals, having necessarily already ‘squandered’ their wealth. Given the very real stagnation in wages, but not costs, over the last three decades in the US, it’s hard to see how a middle class family could avoid this vice. Maybe, though, we’re talking more about “investing” than “squandering”- the end result is that you have no money; but it’s understood that you will in the future. The main problem is that thrift in not particularly widespread by most accounts.

In fact, we’re often told that the overall economy cannot function if thrift is too widespread. This is not a recent argument. Adam Smith, in fact, says as much at one point: thrift is good for the individual, but it’s disastrous for the economy. A consumer economy needs consumers, not tightwads. A more recent argument has been that the economy will not return to full health until consumer spending returns to what it was before- that is spending into individual debt. Conversely, these record levels of debt will make a lot of us into swine herders.

All of this is to say that industrial consumer capitalism is only a few centuries old and thus at odds with many of the traditional values of western civilization. A system that requires spending instead of thrift in order to satisfy manufactured needs in perpetuity; and which makes those fleeting desires, and therefore the individual will, the sole measure of our behavior, will therefore always be somewhat at odds with traditional ethical systems, which generally seek to limit the behavior of the individual vis-à-vis the family, the community, or the godhead. Moderation is good for the individual, but of ambivalent, if not negative value for the economy.

Of course, Aristotle and Aquinas don’t want us to live as ascetics either. (At least, not Aristotle) It is theoretically possible to reconcile the view of prodigality as a sin and the consumer capitalist economy if we agree that liberality is a virtue. One could spend a reasonable amount of their income, and give a reasonable amount to others; and satisfy both Aristotle and the chamber of commerce. The problem is that if a great number of us did this, the economy would have to seriously shrink. And so, the key to getting the western economies out of recession is promoting prodigality in a time of thrift. That is, promoting vice in a time of increasing virtue. Strength through shopping.

If I have to choose though, I’m going with Aristotle over Adam Smith.


Gavin Kennedy said...

Out of interest - where does Adam Smith say: "thrift is good for the individual, but it’s disastrous for the economy."

Rufus said...

Since you're a professor of the history of economics with an Adam Smith blog, I take it you're saying he does not say that. Duly noted.