Thursday, February 04, 2010

Aristotle, Aging and Politics as the "Architectonic" Science

As a political theorist interested in aging and longevity science, I am in a minority among researchers in the field. The literature on distributive justice, multiculturalism, equality, liberty, deliberative democracy etc. is voluminous and detailed. Little has been written on science and justice, let alone a marginal field of scientific inquiry like biogerontology.

And thus I suspect many theorists think my interest in aging is odd, if not frivolous. When there are so many pressing problems in the world today the idea of fixating on aging has little, if any, intuitive appeal. A fews ago I use to think this same way. But after pondering these questions, learning some biology and following the pace of scientific discovery in the field of aging research, I have come to now hold the view that the stakes at risk in these debates are very important indeed. I would go so far as to suggest that tackling global aging is one of this century's most important challenges. And because very few people see aging as a problem the challenge of tackling aging is an even bigger problem than it would otherwise be if we all saw it for the problem it really is.

In this post I hope to convince my fellow political theorists that we should expand our purview and aspire to help narrow the gap between the natural and social sciences. If we are tackling these issues in our research, then, hopefully, we are also engaging our students and society-at-large to consider the impact knowledge and science has on the life prospects of humans today and in the future. And I believe that is vital.

Unfortunately my sense of the current state-of-affairs, having now worked at 6 different universities over the past decade in Scotland, England and Canada, is that our undergraduate students finish University thinking that justice is primarily about the re-distribution of "goods" (typically money), and has nothing to do with the advancement of knowledge and innovation. And I believe this undermines the skill-set political theorists ought to develop (recall this post).

Given that there is no existing literature or debate in contemporary political theory on aging, I have had to give a lot of thought to some methodological issues-- what is political theory? What is it I am trying to accomplish in my research? What are the fundamental questions I am trying to answer? etc.

Looking for an "anchor" to help ground my project, I have turned to the Ancient vision of politics for inspiration. I am most inspired by "the master"- Aristotle- who was the first political scientist.

Politics, argued Aristotle, is a normative, prescriptive science. And politics is the most authoritative of all the sciences as it is concerned with the good of humans. Politics “ordains which of the sciences should be studied in the state, and which each class of citizen should learn and up to what point they should learn them” (NE 1.1.1094).

Aristotle inspires me. And I believe we have lost or forgotten this ancient vision of the discipline of politics. The professionalization of the discipline has brought inward specialization and created a climate that runs counter to Aristotle's vision of the discipline. My research on aging and longevity science is an attempt to revive this ancient conception of the discipline (as is my interest in play and happiness, the other thread of my current research).

Aristotle believed that the student of politics ought to concern themselves with the question of what preserves and destroys a polis. And as any good student of Aristotle knows, the context matters. What threatened the health and economic prospects of Athenians over 2000 years ago is different from what threatens the aging populations of today.

The image above captures the spirit of what I take my project to be. I seek to draw on the insights of different fields of scientific inquiry- like demography, epidemiology, comparative biology, and evolutionary biology- to make the case for investing more public funding, and scientific expertise, towards the goal of modifying the biological clocks we have inherited from our evolutionary history.

My approach runs counter to the trend of "ideal theory" in political theory. Ideal theory ignores the empirical complexities of real life- like the fact that people develop disease and die, that health care costs rise as we age or that our species has an evolutionary history. Instead such idealized theories are guilty of perpetuating what I have called the myth of "Homo Primaeva".

This is a sad state of affairs. Determining what the requirements of good governance are in the 21st century cannot be derived from the "moral intuitions" we might have about what is just or unjust in idealized, abstract hypothetical scenarios. Reviving the Ancient conception of politics and political theory might help our students develop the skill set needed to meet the most pressing challenges their generation will face this century.