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.