Saturday, September 24, 2016


282. Policies for combining virtue and freedom


In the foregoing item in this blog I proposed principles for reconciling freedom of choice of values and views of the good life with the introduction of morality and virtues in the public domain. I argued that the liberal stance that markets are value-free is illusory since it is based on the often hidden choice of utility ethics rather than some other ethic, and that markets create institutions that affect values and virtues, such as justice, trust, empathy, and care.  


Here I develop those principles into more specific policies.


First, in education and schooling introduce, or bring back, a survey, and debate, of different forms of ethics and conceptions of the good life. Christian ethic of faith, hope and love, utilitarian ethics, Kantian duty ethics, and Aristotelian virtue ethics. Stoicism, also, perhaps. This is to serve the development of individual identity as well as good citizenship, with the interest and ability to debate alternative ethical views and moral systems. This is to form the basis for a tolerance that is based on interest and understanding of a variety of values.  


Second, against the liberal dogma that they do not belong to the public sphere, bring back ethical and moral debate in politics and the formation of policies. What ethical and moral principles are served with legislation and public endeavours? What freedoms and cultural variety are allowed? The law must apply equally to all, but tolerance based on mutual interest and understanding is needed to allow for cultural variety. This is needed, among other things, to avoid the increasing cultural polarization now taking place, in Western countries, e.g. with respect to Islamic immigrants.


Then, on the basis of ethical debate, give room for markets where they work, but limit them where they fail or produce perverse effects regarding welfare or justice. In addition to existing regulations of many kinds, change institutions or extend market regulation with measures based on public ethical and moral debate.


For example, measures should be taken to weaken or eliminate the pressure of multinational companies on governments to extend advantages in taxes, regulation, energy prices, etc. with the threat that otherwise activities will be relocated elsewhere.  


For an example of the need for a change of institutions, consider present efforts of some firms to shift the present purpose focused only on shareholder interest to wider interests of stakeholders such as personnel, customers, the environment, and the community. The bottom line is this: can one afford to be fair and transparent to those stakeholders even when this

means forgoing opportunities for higher profits. Many of such ventures are viable only for family businesses or cooperative businesses, shielded from threats of takeover to exploit the potential for unethical profits.


As I argued in the preceding item in this blog, mutual agreement on what is the good life, the ordering of goods, and requisite virtues, may be viable in smaller and relatively homogeneous communities such as the Athens of Aristotle, but not in nations as we now have them. But it can be approached by utilizing present opportunities for decentralization to establish the smaller scale, localized debate on shared ethics and morality, based on personal contacts and cooperation in local projects. Those may concern care for the sick and elderly, for shaping public space, developing public facilities, local finance for entrepreneurial ventures, sports, cultural events, education, etc.

Saturday, September 17, 2016

281. Principles for combining virtue and freedom

In the preceding item of this blog I said that I would combat liberalism with liberal means. What does that mean? In an earlier item (257) I made an attempt in terms of ‘liberal communitarianism’. Here I make a second, related attempt.

Concerning society there is a fundamental dilemma. On the one hand there is liberal society as we (largely) now have it, in the West. There, values, considerations of what is the good life, and corresponding virtues, are private, not a matter for the state or public discourse. There is a separation not only of state and religion but, more widely, of state and ethics.

The state should aim for optimal satisfaction of whatever people choose to pursue. Freedom of choice, initiative, participation, expression, etc. That is a great idea and a great achievement.

However, there is in fact, explicitly or implicitly, an underlying choice of an ethic, in the form of an ethic of utility, with the market as its engine. As I argued before (item 180), economics is not value-free. The market is driven by self-interest and competition, efficiency is central, it is about the utility of outcomes, not the quality of motives. It supports the view that ‘greed is good’. The neglect of public debate on values is hypocritical: as if those values do not play a role. It makes the underlying values implicit and withdraws them from democratic control on the basis of debate.

What lies behind preferences in terms of views of the good life is irrelevant. Marketing, in markets and increasingly also in politics, is aimed at influencing or shaping preferences, without discourse about underlying conceptions of the good life.

Any moral objection to conduct, in abuse of market power, destruction of the environment, misleading customers, avoiding taxes, hiving off business risks onto society, stands ‘off-side’, is not part of the language game. They are appropriately called ‘externalities’ that cannot be incorporated in the price mechanism of markets.  

In opposition to this, voices are raised to revise the system, and economic theory, on the basis of a virtue ethic, such as originally proposed by Aristotle. There, life is to be lived according to virtues, defined as traits of character needed to strive for the good life.

But who decides what the good life is? The answer of Plato was: philosophers. The answer of Aristotle was: the community (‘polis’, such as the Athens of his time).

Now, in my view, philosophers help to reflect but are seldom competent to decide. Mutual agreement on what is the good life, the ordering of goods, and requisite virtues, may be viable in smaller and relatively homogeneous communities such as the Athens of Aristotle, but not in society as now have it.

Above all, imposition of the good by the state eliminates freedom.

So, how to escape from the dilemma? How to preserve the freedoms of liberalism while curtailing its vices and adding virtues?

For this, I propose the following principles.

First, appreciate and allow for variety of values. A necessary condition for this is justice: conditions for exercising a variety of virtues.

Second, it is necessary also to avoid tolerance in the form of indifference, in what I would call active tolerance: having an interest in and trying to understand the values of others. This is even a matter of self-interest. I argued in this blog that the highest form pf freedom is freedom from one’s prejudices, and for that one needs the opposition of the other. For this it is necessary to stimulate and facilitate debate across value systems/cultures.

Third, this requires freedom of expression, but also an ability to express one’s ideas and to assimilate those of others. The other side of the same coin is the ability to accept criticism and democratic defeat. This further requires empathy: the ability to imagine oneself in the shoes of others. It also requires trust, in the ability to give space to actions of others and when encountering disappointment, give the other the benefit of the doubt and engage in ‘voice’(see items 164, 259).

This requires acceptance of uncertainty in relations, to be seen, in principle, as a promise and an opportunity. It also requires acceptance of responsibility, for oneself and for others.   

For all this, people need the resources for developing their individual identities. This requires access to adequate intellectual, cultural, and social capital, as part of justice.  

All this may not seem very different from existing liberal parliamentary democracies. One important difference is that values and virtues behind markets and their failures are made explicit, subject to debate and part of education.

In the following item in this blog I will develop these principles into more specific policies.    

Saturday, September 10, 2016

280. Plato and Aristotle

There are both important affinities and important differences between Plato and Aristotle. When Aristotle was a pupil of Plato, his thought was closer, later he deviated more, and then Plato followed his thought to an important extent.

Here I follow the account given by Alasdair MacIntyre[i]. He proposed, and this is most important, I think, that Plato and Aristotle shared a basic perspective and programme concerning the good life. MacIntyre reduced a complex debate, over centuries, to a choice between two basic perspectives.

First, the perspective shared by Plato and Aristotle entails a striving for excellence in pursuing a set of goods. Virtues are traits of character needed for achieving a good.

The alternative view was held by the sophists contemporary to Plato and Aristotle, and was adopted in our presently dominant view, in the West, of liberal individualism. It entails a striving for effectiveness in satisfying desires. For (neo)liberalism the engine for achieving that is the market.

For example, for the sophists public speech is not aimed at achieving the truth, which is ephemeral, but to convince people of one’s view (rhetoric). In markets, the aim of advertising is not truth but affecting preferences. 

For Plato and Aristotle, who or what determines what is the good, or the ranking of multiple goods, and corresponding virtues? For Plato it is more the individual, though instructed by philosophy. For Aristotle it is the community, the polis, such as the Athens of his time. Here I side with Plato, though in my view philosophers should inform, not dictate ethical debate. 

An important difference between Plato and Aristotle is the following. For (the early) Plato experience, and the complex, variable world we experience, are disparate from the underlying forms according to which reality is ordered. For Aristotle, experience is the basis for inferring and understanding forms. Here I side with Aristotle. However, in his later work Plato approached Aristotle’s views.

Of particular interest for my endeavours in philosophy and economics is Aristotle’s notion of phronesis, practical wisdom. Experience and judgement in the world are too complex and variable, and context-dependent, to be based on fixed, universal ideas or rules.

Yet, and this is a problematic point in Aristotelian philosophy, Aristotle, like Plato, assumed ultimate harmony between different goods. Any conflict between them is due to imperfect reason. Here I disagree with both. I think tragedy is real. Conflicts between goods arise that cannot be resolved by reason alone. I will return to this in a later item in this blog.

Now, my project is to bring in, or bring back, in public  discourse (and economics), considerations of the good life and corresponding virtues. However, rather than having goods and their ordering imposed by the state, I would leave them to personal choice, but subject to public debate, with guidance from people who have mastered phronesis, recognising the occurrence of tragedy while still trying to grapple with it. I might sum this up as follows: I want to combat liberalism by liberal means.

Important for my project is also the claim, by both Plato and Aristotle, that virtuous conduct is not just instrumental to pursuing the good life, but an integral part of it, with intrinsic value. The virtuous person enjoys virtuous conduct for itself.

Also, relationships, in particular friendship, entail the sharing of a project, with mutual interest, care for the partner, and willingness to yield, to some extent, without expectation of material reward or gain.

These are crucial for the goodness of life and for the quality of society.

Finally, especially Plato, but also still Aristotle, rank as the highest, purest good, contemplation (the original meaning of ‘theory’) of ultimate, eternal, universal truths. Phronesis and political virtue are subordinate to that, even though they are necessary to achieve it (according to Aristotle, and the later Plato, perhaps). To me, that is an illusion. I think we cannot achieve more than ongoing ‘imperfection on the move’. 
   


[i] Alasdair MacIntyre, Whose justice, Which rationality?, University of Notre Dame Press, 1988.

Saturday, September 3, 2016


279. The evolutionary advantage of cultural segregation

In preceding items in this blog I discussed the difficulty of mixing different cultures, traditions, or language games. But there is also a sunny side. From an evolutionary perspective it is a good thing.

See cultural traditions in analogy to natural species. If species could easily mingle, in cross-species breeding, differences would peter out, and evolution would stop. Mixing all colours yields a drab brown. Natural variety is preserved by the impossibility of cross-species breeding. Horses and donkeys can breed to produce mules, but that is about the extent of it.

The argument could also be used against interdisciplinarity. If disciplines could easily mix, after a time there would be no discipline left.

In nature, novelty is produced by random mutation of genes and cross-over of chromosomes in sexual reproduction. In culture, novel combinations of species can occur, but only with great difficulty, as discussed in preceding items.

An example is Protestantism arising from Catholicism, at the cost of great strife and long, bloody wars.

But if in culture cross-species breeding is so difficult, how, then, to account for the apparent global homogenization of cultures? That is not the result so much of mixing as of domination of cultures by an overpowering one. That has been the culture of consumerism and marketing, in the all-encompassing embrace of markets and the efficiency of concentration in large volumes of production and distribution of products.

MacDonaldization, Disneyfication, Shopping Mallification, and idolization of stars in sport and entertainment, enhanced by the ‘winner takes all’ phenomenon (see item … in this blog).

Evolution stalls if the selection environment can be fabricated by some unit that is being selected, in what is called ‘co-evolution’.

Researchers survive when selected in access to journals. However, ill-recognized scientific communities can escape by instituting their own journal.

In society, there has also been co-evolution. Markets have become the supreme selection mechanism, and they select for the proliferating culture of markets. Older selection mechanisms such as religion and ethics have been overruled and whisked aside.

But in its successes, the market tradition is about to crumble, with increasing revolts in several forms: nationalism, authoritarianism, religious fanaticism, anarchism, and hedonistic, money grabbing dissolution.

Democracy also is a selection mechanism, and it is now threatened by authoritarian leaders commanding and enticing support with appeals to nationalist passions and prejudices, and the fabrication of external threat from rival cultures.

Now, I may be seen to suggest that all this is cause for celebration, for rejoicing in a newly emerging diversity of cultural species. But evolution is not necessarily for the best. I do see the threat of rivalry between cultural species developing into new wars. That is already happening.

To profit rather than suffer from the emerging variety, the art and effort of mutual understanding and the formation of hybrids becomes crucial. To dismantle myths of external threat, to learn, and to reduce prejudice, to tolerate and appreciate diversity rather than stamp it out. In the preceding items in this blog I discussed the logic of how this might be done.

In this way, one might trick evolution of cultures, preventing it to proceed along a course of violent strife between rivals, by crafting some cross-species breeding, difficult as it is, without, however, falling into the stagnation of cultural homogeneity.