18 September 2008

The Virtues & "Morality"

Edward Skidelsky on our enfeebled contemporary notions of and about morality:
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.

Here's the whole thing.
Via Arts & Letters Daily.


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