What do great thinkers say about fairness?

Growing old has to be learned. Philosophy has something to say about age, thinks Otfried Höffe

For centuries, great thinkers have dealt with old age and growing old. Unfortunately, philosophy hardly cares about the topic these days. She has to develop an art of aging again.

Aging is part of every living being and ultimately leads to death. Humans are no exception here, nevertheless they occupy a special position in nature. Because they know about aging, experience it in their youth in parents, teachers and grandparents, later in themselves, which is why they think about it sooner or later.

Aging and old age are therefore biological phenomena for humans, which are experienced and suffered at the same time, sometimes accelerated, sometimes also slowed down and in any case have an existential weight. Since they affect the professional and working world, they also have an economic side, and because they influence the health system, both a political and a medical, pharmaceutical and medical-technical side. Because older people live age-appropriately and want to get into buildings and apartments without barriers, the topic also has an architectural side, ultimately because it influences people in their social relationships, a social side.

For all these facets a high art of old age and aging, consequently also a theory of the art of old age, is required. "Art" does not mean an artistic activity, but a skill, a know-how that includes a knowledge and knowledge, a know-that and does not exclude both legal and moral obligations. Here as elsewhere, philosophy does not claim any special ability. Because accessible to every citizen, it is essentially a democratic undertaking that makes use of the common sense of all people and draws on an experience that is also accessible to all.

Of course, in addition to its ability to proceed methodically, philosophy also brings with it the knowledge of a tradition rich in terms, arguments and awareness of problems. Compared to age, this ranges from Plato and Aristotle to the Stoa, Cicero and European moral studies, for example with Bacon and Schopenhauer, to modern authors such as Ernst Bloch.

Against the overwhelming power of the economy

The philosophical art of old age, which is to be renewed, begins with the veto against a narrowing that is threatening today: Society and politics are considering how to integrate the elderly as effectively as possible, first into the professional and social world, and later into the world of old people's and nursing homes. You carry out benefit-cost analyzes. How do people stay involved in working life for as long as possible? And: How can the costs of subsequent support be minimized?

The objection to this thematic shortening starts with the observation of increasingly economic thinking. Economists are expanding into fields of activity that were previously managed by lawyers or corresponding specialists. Commercial directors are becoming more and more important in the management of nursing homes and hospitals. The power of economic language, emptied of emotions, grows, the bad German of which betrays its origins in the English-speaking management language. The expression “efficiency pact” is whitewashed for “freeze costs” and “make redundant” for “terminate”.

Retirement homes and hospitals are considered to be businesses that no longer deal with residents or patients, but with customers. Even more serious than the "economy-poisoned" language is the underlying mentality. It begins with the fragmentation of complex tasks, continues with the dictation of the red pencil and ends cynically with the talk of “socially acceptable early death”. The result is predictable: The omnipresent pressure to save worsens what is particularly important in geriatric medicine, geriatrics and in old people's homes: personal attention.

These observations are by no means intended to make economic questions irrelevant. Of course, they are alien to the nature of medical and nursing work, helping and healing. Nevertheless, doctors and home administrators have to find a livelihood. They cannot afford to be in the red in the long run. The fact that questions of economic efficiency are necessary does not justify their superiority. A counter-power is needed against the economization, a counterculture against the culture of profitability that denies economic thinking the right to primacy.

Three philosophical age discourses

Our society gives its members the right to develop in all phases of their biography, consequently also in old age, and to look for a successful and happy life. For its possibly enforceable framework, it has even committed itself to basic and human rights and, as their guiding principle, to human dignity. Therefore one need not give up functional considerations - in the case of a thorough discussion they may be called “functional age discourses” - especially not if one can avoid reducing them to working life.

However, functional age discourses are largely foreign to those affected. If one therefore opens oneself to the perspective of the elderly, normative questions come to the fore on the part of philosophy, which is why philosophical discourses on age belong primarily to ethics.

For them, philosophy has developed four basic models in the course of its rich history: an ethic of a happy and successful life, an ethic of moral requirements, an ethic of “collective well-being”, and last but not least, moral criticism. For each of these models there is an outstanding figure: for the first pattern, eudaimonism (“happiness” means “eudaimonia” in Greek), Aristotle with his Nicomachean ethics is decisive.

For the second model, ethics of duty, often called deontology, namely the "doctrine of what is appropriate and what is ought", Immanuel Kant provides the model with his foundation for the metaphysics of morals. For the ethics of the maximum common good (collective good), for the "greatest happiness of the greatest number", the utilitarianism, John Stuart Mill has developed the greatest influence with his eponymous book. Finally, the most important representative of moral criticism is Friedrich Nietzsche, for example with the pamphlet "On the Genealogy of Morals".

An ethic of old age and aging can fall back on all four models. There are fundamental concerns about the third pattern, utilitarianism, because the principle of the maximum common good contradicts the inner view of the individual and their inalienable rights. Nevertheless, it can be important, for example when it comes to compulsory vaccination. But the three other models are more important:

A eudaimonistic old age ethic examines how to age in a good, happily successful way. There are significant historical models for this. A considerable part of the classical, especially ancient philosophy saw itself as an art of living. What is meant is not that ability of refined egoists to get advantages out of every situation, but the ability and well-practiced willingness to seek their own well-being within the framework of justice and fairness.

The considerations responsible for this expand the economic and otherwise functional age discourse to include a first philosophical and, overall, a second type, a eudaimonological or eudaimonistic age discourse with the question: Is there an art to be developed by the individual and ultimately to be practiced within the framework of the art of living to cope with old age, even the inevitable death?

The second philosophical pattern, the deontological ethics of old age, deals with the question of how older people should be treated by others and what a society and politics friendly to old age look like.

The eudaimonological age discourse belongs to personal, the deontological not exclusively, but primarily to social ethics; there advice for one's own well-being is given, here commandments and prohibitions against others are set up. Finally, the third discourse, moral criticism, is needed, for example, when criticizing primarily negative images of old age.

For all three discourses that are no longer functional, life experience contributes essential things. For this reason, one needs neither philosophers nor social scientists, certainly not a guru, a spiritual teacher or a Zen master for the art of old age as an art of living. But it is advisable to consult philosophical texts such as evidence of the wisdom of many cultures and epochs. Philosophy still hardly speaks out. The keyword "age" does not even appear in her multi-volume reference works.

Otfried Höffe is head of the Tübingen Research Center for Political Philosophy and honorary professor at Tsinghua University in Beijing. The text is a preprint from his new book «The high art of aging. Little Philosophy of the Good Life ”, published by C. H. Beck at the end of August.