Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Edward Skidelsky - The Return of Goodness

I suspect there is some serious pre/trans fallacy going on here, but the premise that we need virtues to inform our morality is not without merit -- however, I suggest we look forward as much (or more) as we look backward.

This is a clearly conservative viewpoint, but as part of an integral approach to morality it needs to be included in the discussion. The failure of liberals to grasp these ideas is why liberals so seldom seem able to win elections.

Morality and virtues (from whatever source) are important to the average person.
The Return of Goodness

Contemporary liberalism's insistence that morality is a mere matter of rights and obligations empties life of its ethical meaning. We need a return to the virtue ethics of the pre-moderns, and a renewed conception of the good life

Edward Skidelsky

Morality is once again on the lips of politicians and commentators. David Cameron has warned that we are "becoming quite literally a de-moralised society, where nobody will tell the truth any more about what is good and bad." He is echoed by Richard Reeves, new director of Demos, who argued in last month's Prospect that Britain's poor lack not only the material but also the moral resources to better their lot in life.

Behind these comments lies a flickering recognition that our nation's central problems are moral, not economic. But any deeper reflection runs up against a principle entrenched in the liberal mind—that individuals are sovereign in their own sphere, and that only when someone infringes on others may he be rebuked or punished. "Neither one person, nor any number of persons," declared John Stuart Mill, the originator of this principle, "is warranted in saying to another human creature of ripe years, that he shall not do with his life for his own benefit what he chooses to do with it."

Mill's principle has come to shape western public doctrine. It lies behind the social legislation of the 1960s and the anti-discriminatory legislation of the past four decades. Neither left nor right dares reject it openly. Yet in historical terms, it is an anomaly, a departure from the common sense of our species.

The ethical traditions of the pre-modern world focused on those qualities of character making for a good and happy life—the virtues. The exact nature of these virtues was open to dispute. The ancient Greeks singled out courage, temperance, prudence and justice. Christians added faith, hope and charity to the list, and downgraded pride (for the pagans a virtue) to a vice. Other virtues have had a more temporary vogue. The Renaissance favoured boldness, the Puritans thrift and industry. The east has traditions of its own. Confucius stressed filial piety, Lao Tse spontaneity. But all agreed that the virtues—some virtues—must lie at the heart of the moral life.

The virtues, for these pre-modern traditions, are the natural excellences of the species. They are to us what speed is to the leopard or strength to the lion; they are not matters of choice or self-expression. This is not to say that they develop unaided. They require years of training—you cannot possess the virtue of gratitude unless you have first been taught your Ps and Qs. And this training does not end with childhood. Throughout life, the virtues can be encouraged, if not compelled, through legal arrangements designed to minimise temptation. Law is part of morality, and not, as in Friedrich Hayek's metaphor, a set of traffic rules for avoiding collisions. The state is an association of people come together to lead the good life, and not a night watchman or boundary patrolman.

These various pre-modern traditions, eastern and western, represent a style of thinking about ethics that has become almost unintelligible to us. Under the influence of Mill and others, we have come to think of morality as a system of rights and obligations, and the philosophical problem as one of defining these rights and obligations. But where there is no right or obligation, morality is silent. A man who, having fulfilled his obligations to others, settles down with a six-pack to watch porn on television all day may be foolish, disgusting, vulgar and so forth, but he is not strictly speaking immoral. For he is, as the saying goes, "within his rights."

Virtue clearly has no place in morality so conceived, for virtue is what calls forth love and admiration, not what may be demanded. Unlike obligation, virtue is never "fulfilled"; it suffuses the whole of life. This explains much that seems to us bizarre in pre-modern ethical systems. Take the sin of gluttony, analysed by medieval scholastics into the five vices of eating praepropere, nimis, ardenter, laute and studiose (too quickly, too much, too keenly, extravagantly and fussily). This strikes us today as insultingly intrusive. Surely if someone eats quickly or fussily, that is his business. It may be bad for his health, and bad manners, but it has nothing to do with morality.

Or take again the two classical virtues of prudence and temperance. We do not think of these as moral qualities, but as useful skills or habits. And what about courage? We might describe this as a contingently moral quality, in that it can help a person fulfil his obligations to others, but not, surely, as an essentially moral quality. For courage can be exercised in a self-regarding fashion, or indeed wickedly (a "brave, bad man" was how Cromwell was described by his contemporary Lord Clarendon). In fact, of the four classical Greek virtues listed earlier, only justice appears to modern eyes an unambiguously moral quality, for only justice is concerned essentially with rights and obligations. The characteristically modern tendency is, then, to reduce the whole of morality to justice, leaving the rest a matter of sensibility and taste.

But the pre-modern traditions remain alive under the surface. We cannot but admire feats of courage and self-denial; we cannot but feel disgusted by greed and sloth. Nor are such reactions merely snobbish or aesthetic; they are closely connected to the more strictly moral reactions of respect and indignation. Yet our public language forbids us to acknowledge this connection, forcing us to disguise what are at root ethical responses as something altogether different. For instance, hostility to smoking—clearly at heart a moral aversion to intemperance—must masquerade as a concern for public health or the rights of innocent third parties. Hence the stress placed on the (spurious) concept of passive smoking.

But surely, a liberal might respond, there is no real opposition between liberty and virtue. On the contrary, true virtue as opposed to mechanical obedience, flourishes only under liberty. "The human faculties of perception, judgment, discriminative feeling… and even moral preference," writes Mill, "are exercised only in making a choice. He who does anything because it is the custom, makes no choice." This argument has been used to justify every increase in personal liberty over the last 50 years. "Give us more choice," we clamour, "and we will become rounder, more self-directed, happier people." How often was that cry heard in the 1960s, and again (with a more materialistic inflection) in the 1980s?

Yet it hasn't happened like that. Modern Britain, for all its profusion of choice, is hardly a showcase of fully developed personalities. Why not? Mill's error was to think of morality in atomistic terms. His vision—a trimmed-down, Anglicised version of German romanticism—was of a row of suburban gardens, separated by fences, within which little Goethes could air their individuality. But that is a travesty. Morality is embodied in language, and language is social. By enshrining individual choice, liberalism has eroded the public language of morality, leaving nothing but a set of rules for frictionless co-existence. The romantic ideal of self-development has collapsed into mere consumerism. Far from rising upwards, we are sinking slowly downwards.

Moral language in Britain today bears out this diagnosis. The old idiom of the virtues ("honourable," "gentlemanly," "indecent") has been replaced by the neutralised jargon of the social services ("challenged," "vulnerable," "inappropriate," "disadvantaged"). Such moral language as does survive is crude and bullying. It consists of what the philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre has called "fragments"—disconnected shards of a once coherent tradition. Words such as "evil," "perverted" and "racist" have lost any exact meaning they once had and now serve simply to mesmerise and coerce. We have become a nation of relativists on the one side and ranters on the other. What has vanished is the cool, exact appraisal of conduct we find in, say, the sermons of Bishop Butler, or the novels of Jane Austen.

Let me give a concrete example. Big Brother is now in its eighth year. It panders to the greed and vanity of its participants and to the voyeurism of its viewers. It encourages scheming, backbiting and infidelity. It brings out the worst in everyone. Yet from a liberal standpoint, there is nothing to be said against it. The participants are there of their own accord and may leave any time they please. They are, to use Mill's words, "doing with their life for their own benefit what they choose to do with it." Who are we to criticise them? Big Brother illustrates, then, the way in which the liberal focus on rights shuts off a whole dimension of moral thought and feeling. On some level we know that it is vile, yet we lack the authority and words to say so. Hence the tone of evasive irony with which we (superior, educated people) greet such phenomena of popular culture.
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