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Eudaimonia and Culture: The Anthropology of Virtue

Part of the International Handbooks of Quality-of-Life book series (IHQL)

Abstract

There have been roughly two general stages in the theorization of eudaimonia. The first is found in the long history of virtue ethics in Western philosophy, the second in recent research in economics and cognitive science on the topic of subjective well-being. In the transition from philosophical virtue ethics to the quantitative study of subjective well-being, however, an important idea has been overlooked, namely, the role of culture as an essential foundation for the realization of eudaimonia. In this paper, I therefore argue for a third phase in eudaimonic well-being research, what I call a “critical eudaimonics.” This approach reintroduces culturally situated understandings of eudaimonia through thick historical and ethnographic descriptions of virtue, wisdom, and flourishing well-being to highlight the conditions in which people actually cultivate eudaimonia in everyday life. In order to argue this, I begin with a comparison of Aristotle and Alasdair MacIntyre’s theories of virtue to provide a brief intellectual history for how modern moral philosophers came to see eudaimonia as necessarily possessing a cultural history. I then turn to recent understandings of virtue in anthropology—and my own ethnographic research on compassion—to offer a definition of eudaimonia fit for the qualitative social sciences.

Keywords

  • Eudaimonia
  • Anthropology
  • Culture
  • Virtue ethics
  • Contemplation
  • Mindfulness

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Notes

  1. 1.

    There are many reasons cited for the apparent decline in virtue ethics in the modern period (see Frede, 2013; MacIntyre, 2007; Schneewind, 1990; Slote, 2015 for important contributions). Regardless of the causes, however, it is generally recognized that Aristotelian ethics played a less obvious role in the modern period until its reemergence in the twentieth century. This resurgence of virtue was largely credited to Anscombe’s classic paper “Modern Moral Philosophy” (1958), but her views were developed, challenged, and extended by a range of philosophers from the 1970s onwards, for instance, Geach (1977), Foot (1978), Williams (1981, 1985), Nussbaum (1986, 1994), Taylor (1989), Slote (1992), Annas (1993), McDowell (1998), and Hursthouse (1999).

  2. 2.

    For an early summary of works in this area see, for instance, Ryan and Deci (2001). For more recent examples, see Huppert and So (2013), Lewis, Kanai, Rees, and Bates (2014), and Vittersø and Søholt (2011).

  3. 3.

    A good example here is Peterson and Seligman’s Character Strengths and Virtues: A Handbook and Classification (2004). This alternative DSM offers a taxonomy of virtues, which although developed initially from historical accounts of the virtues, abstracts from that to provide a universal framework that applies cross-culturally.

  4. 4.

    I owe my thanks to John Tresch for suggesting this term to me.

  5. 5.

    In regards to self-sufficiency, if one thinks a life of pleasure is the ultimate good, but one also thinks such a life would be better if one was also wise, then pleasure cannot have been that good, since it would not be self-sufficient, i.e., it would be improved by the other good of wisdom.

  6. 6.

    In his later writings, MacIntyre defends a biological and metaphysical conception of teleology. I will not address those arguments here, but for those interested see Dependent Rational Animals (1999).

  7. 7.

    It is hard to say what a moral tradition is beyond this. As Porter acknowledges, “even though MacIntyre discusses tradition extensively, he never defines the term… nor does he situate his account of tradition in the context of other recent discussions” (2003, p. 36).

  8. 8.

    See Martha Nussbaum (1999) for an exception to this view.

  9. 9.

    I have not discussed Foucault in this essay as his role has been discussed extensively elsewhere (cf. Laidlaw, 2014; Mattingly, 2014).

  10. 10.

    Thus, as Asad points out, in the tradition of Christianity, there is the institution of the medieval monastery or the Church itself (as well as the ritual practices that occur within those institutions: sermons, liturgies, etc.); the moral exemplar of Jesus Christ and the authority figures of the Church Fathers; the canonical texts (the Bible or the Rule of St. Benedict); commentaries written about these foundational texts; and the practices of faith, hope, charity, humility, prudence, obedience, and so on, that allow one to embody the virtues of that tradition.

  11. 11.

    A similar point is made by Lambek when he says: “Practice theory needs to attend to more than power, habit, or competitions of honor and taste and should attend to reasoned judgment as developed in recent accounts of Aristotle’s Ethics” (2000, p. 310).

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Mckay, F. (2016). Eudaimonia and Culture: The Anthropology of Virtue. In: Vittersø, J. (eds) Handbook of Eudaimonic Well-Being. International Handbooks of Quality-of-Life. Springer, Cham. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-42445-3_27

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