Virtuous People Unite!

(The Origin of Principles, 25 Mar 2013)

Tobias Schaffner ·

The crisis through which the Western world is currently passing is misleadingly spoken of as “a financial crisis”. We are first and foremost in a moral and cultural crisis. The misleading characterisation of the current situation as an economic or financial crisis prevents us from identifying the right remedies to overcome it. We do not just need new institutional mechanisms — these affect only the symptoms of the crisis. We also need to tackle the root cause of the crisis: the lack of belief in ethical principles and the lack of the qualities of character or virtue that allow us to act upon these principles.

Yet, acknowledging the moral dimension of the crisis places our liberal states in a serious dilemma. For it is becoming increasingly apparent that these liberal states we have inherited from the nineteenth century are incapable of fostering the very foundations on which the state and the market are grounded: it cannot inculcate in citizens the virtues necessary to preserve a liberal order and at the same time remain liberal. Most Western states see themselves forced to step in with illiberal legislation concerning as diverse matters as smoking, fast food, youth drinking culture, environmental pollution, or the bonus culture of companies listed on the stock exchange, to mention only a few examples. All this after having tolerated for decades not only these activities themselves, but sometimes even their aggressive advertisement.

In the nineteenth century, the state could refrain from such illiberal legislation because it could rely on at least two other institutions that inculcated (amongst others) those virtues that sustain the liberal order. I am thinking of course of the institutions of the family and the church. If not the church, at least the institution of the family remained strong everywhere in Europe until after the Second World War. It was only in the wake of the war that education became more “liberal” (note the change of meaning!). Mostly in the urban centres, parents in the 80s and 90s started to adopt the educational “principle” that their children could do whatever they pleased, which really is no principle at all.

Especially the generations born after, say, 1970 should appreciate that this type of education is a social experiment that has never before been undertaken. We cannot take for granted that the experiment will be successful in the long run. Outside orthodox religious circles few will deplore the liberation from philistine morality, especially sexual morality, but the question is: have the generation of 1968 and those who came after them pushed things too far? Are they not living after an ideal of autonomy without principles, an ideal that they seek to justify by appealing to a mere illusion: that societies flourish best if their members are granted boundless freedom? These questions are not a hidden attempt to glorify older forms of family life, but an invitation for a critical assessment of the current culture. Any such criticism has to start from an identification of principles.

The premise for any talk about principles of action is free will. If we had no free will, that is to say, if all our actions were determined by our nature and/or external influences, it would make little sense to attempt to identify principles of action. Only if we are able to act on or pursue principles in a self-directed way does it make sense to try to identify moral principles. Let me inquire first into the origins of the recent doubts about free will before coming to speak of the principles themselves.

From about the 1980s onwards, it became popular to think of human, animal, and plant life as being determined by genes. In many respects the reliance on the newly discovered genetic fabric was merely a more sophisticated version of Darwinism. Perhaps today most people have a more nuanced view about the role of genes for human life, but there are new ‘hopes’ that neuroscientists can uncover the chemical processes in our brains and that it can be established that these processes determine — in a strong sense of ‘determine’ — our actions. Moreover, many sociologists and historians are still in the grip of a mechanistic explanation of social life. They think that a gifted social scientist can explain the action of an individual or group as a necessary consequence of the person’s or group’s individual and social situation. What all three groups of scientists have in common is their hope that, for instance, wars and crimes can be explained as the inevitable result of biological, chemical, and/or social causes.

Such exaggerated hopes to offer a scientific explanation of human action may serve to attract research funding and to exalt one branch of science at the cost of the others, but they really are offering just a partial and distorted picture of human nature and action. It is one thing to acknowledge biological and social influences on our behaviour; it is an altogether different thing to pretend that our actions are fully determined by such influences. Any scientist who thinks that he or she is able to provide a complete explanation of human action manifests that he or she fails to take seriously what distinguishes human beings from other animals and plants: free will and reason.

What is needed is a comprehensive approach to human action. Luckily, some moral philosophers – mostly those sympathetic to Aristotle – have started to recover just such an approach. This should not surprise us: social and natural scientists developed accounts of human nature in the eighteenth and nineteenth century as an attempt to side step older (Aristotelian) accounts of reason, free will and the virtues. The inadequacy of these scientific explanations becomes ever more apparent.

Having highlighted the importance of free will and pointed to the importance of reason and the virtues, we must ask about the relationship between the virtues and moral principles. In moral matters, the term “principle” (Latin principium; Greek archē) once meant “end” or “goal of action”, rather than “abstract rule” as we now use the term. For an older tradition, going back to Aristotle, the principles of action are the goals that we pursue and the virtues are the qualities that enable us to pursue these goals. “Principles” in the modern sense of “abstract rules” can never be more than guidelines on how to realise or achieve “principles” in the sense of “goals”. Moreover, Aristotelians deal with virtues together with goals because they are painfully aware that our capacity to realise most goods is not naturally given by birth, but requires a certain disposition acquired by education and training. Thus they acknowledge free will, but they also acknowledge the difficulty to use our free will in order to pursue most goods.

But which ends or goals do we pursue and who is to count as virtuous? In seeking to answer this question, I suggest to use an insight whose most prominent contemporary proponent is Alasdair MacIntyre. MacIntyre, following Aristotle, notes that “the virtues are precisely those qualities the possession of which will enable an individual to achieve eudaimonia” (After Virtue, 2007, 148). Now, eudaimonia or “happiness” is the name that the different factions in Aristotle’s city-state give to the ultimate end of life. Aristotle identifies four factions which respectively take happiness to consist in one of the following goods: pleasure, wealth, honour, and virtue (in the focal, moral sense). Given that there are four different conceptions of happiness there must be four different conceptions of virtue as well. For what counts as virtue depends on what happiness is. In my view, this provides a key for a critique of current mainstream culture and at the same time sharpens our understanding of the virtues which we need to cultivate in order to secure the liberal character of our states.

I will illustrate this by focusing on the twenty-first century faction that propounds happiness to consist in wealth or, as the economists call it, “economic growth”. If I earlier criticised social and natural science for their neglect of free will and reason, I turn now to a critique of the concept of rationality used by many economists: the rationality of the homo economicus. Economists are social scientists who accept that human beings have free will and act rationally, but many (not all!) work with a (narrowly) self-interested rationality. Obviously the homo economicus is not used in economic models as an ideal of moral conduct, but as so often the model initially used for a specific question has been transferred onto new fields and eventually has come to shape our self-conception.

I would argue that the model of the homo economicus was bound to do so. The homo economicus describes the virtues one must have in order to achieve a special type of eudaimonia: wealth or economic growth. Just as older accounts of ethics, the economists’ model works with different social roles. Painting with a broad brush, we can distinguish roughly between three roles. As an employee or manager the homo economicus is hard working, efficient, profit-oriented, skilled, etc. As a shareholder, the homo economicus seeks to maximise profits regardless of other considerations such as environmental protection, labour rights, etc. As a consumer, the homo economicus buys as many goods as possible, if need be by taking up a loan, in order to make a private contribution to the growth of the economy. The economists preach the dogma of growth and wealth to politicians and managers and promise the hope of possible future wealth to the masses. The need for more immediate justification is met by advertisement: those who are not rich can at least experience the pleasure of material comfort bestowed on us by goods and services.

Although this analysis is admittedly grossly simplistic, it brings out the point at issue: the ultimate end determines what counts as virtuous; if eudaimonia is taken to consist in wealth or economic growth this ultimate end calls for a special set of virtues. To acquire these virtues then becomes an intermediary end or principle in one’s pursuit of happiness. Of course talk about virtues is so unpopular now that jobs advertisements do not require virtues, but diplomas and skills, but this is merely a matter of terminology. Similarly, it is rare that anyone (including parents) exposes wealth as the ultimate end of life; it is more common to refer to acquisition of skills as a precondition for happiness, but this merely proves Aristotle’s point that the different factions call the ultimate end “happiness”.

All too often economic growth is simply presented not as one option among many options of life, but as the only option, or, as I recently read in an article by Botho Strauss, brief TINA: “There Is No Alternative”. To convey such an impression of necessity allows economists to dictate our ends and hence the skills needed to achieve them, and ultimately our form of life. In my view, it is only once we become aware of the different ultimate ends and the possibility of choice that we can start to think of alternatives. I will focus on the alternative of a virtuous life.

Someone taking virtue (in the moral sense of “virtue”) to be the ultimate end of life needs goods such as food, clothing, and shelter, and so forth. It is undisputable that a certain degree of wealth can help as a means to being virtuous. But the virtuous person will never regard these external goods as ends in themselves. Wealth is to be used for the sake of true goods such as peace, social justice, generosity, friendship, the arts, and so forth. What, you may wonder, has all this to do with my initial concern: the threatened liberal character of the state?

There is a certain conflict between the virtues required for an ever-expanding market and the virtues required for the secure flourishing of the state. The economy with its crude materialistic indoctrination of consumers and its demand for skilled “workers” is sapping the foundations of the state. Slowly, the task of schools and universities is being changed from offering an education preparing us for our duties as citizens and even more so to master the difficulties of life as a whole (e.g. to know where to find orientation about idealistic goals worth living for or where to find comfort and guidance in an existential crisis) to providing students merely with the necessary qualifications for a specific employment and the willingness to serve unquestioningly an economy geared towards growth at the expense of all other goods. Those parents who practise a laisser faire education contribute their share to establishing a caste of unscrupulous aspiring business graduates.

All this is part of one big social experiment whose outcome is unknown. Currently the experiment seems to be failing. The crisis exceeds beyond mere financial issues; it is a cultural crisis. Amongst other things states have reacted with illiberal policies in the hope of regaining control of the situation. These policies in turn undermine in the eyes of many citizens the state’s legitimacy: the citizens want autonomy, not a state that makes prescriptions. As a consequence, the popularity of the economy with its promise of freedom and material happiness increases while the state becomes ever less popular.

We, the young and youngish generation of Europe have to break this circle of insanity. We must recognise that: 1) we are capable to pursue ends in a self-directive manner, i.e. we have free will; 2) we have a choice between ends, economic growth is not the only option; 3) true happiness does not consist in wealth, it consists in love, friendship, justice, and truth; 4) the state can only be liberal if each and everyone of us contributes to a peaceful and just social order. This requires us to cultivate what is traditionally referred to as the four cardinal virtues. These virtues cannot be inculcated by the state if it wants to remain liberal, they have to be fostered by other institutions. If families and churches fail (and, luckily, they do not fail everywhere), the regeneration needs to come from the young and spread from circles of good friends to society at large.

What we need to possess is: 1) temperance: to resist the corrupting temptations of wealth (e.g. high salaries and bonuses), especially if the pursuit of wealth comes at the cost of justice, i.e. at the expense of other human beings—near or far—or the environment; thus we also need 2) justice; 3) courage, the courage to resist one’s corrupt supervisor at work and to face corrupt politicians; and 4) practical wisdom in order to know in the particular circumstances of one’s life how to act. What can be gained is that we free ourselves from the fetches of economists and their bleak vision of the human life that treats human beings as mere consumers. What matters in life is truth, peace, justice, friendship, the family and love. Here are the principles for us to act on.