Saturday, November 26, 2016

291. Need for a virtuous elite

It is fast becoming the currency of political correctness to blame present upheavals of populism in Western countries on ‘the elite’. With good reason. The elite of top decision makers in politics and business, with assorted pundits and economic ideologues, has failed to take into account, among other things, the plight of those who have lost out in globalization, with an erosion of their employment, income, and values.

However, and here I take a politically incorrect position, we do need an elite. Or something like it, though with a better ethic, an ethic of serving, not self-serving. An elite that does not congeal into an oligarchy. Given that the term is so tainted perhaps another term should be used. Guides or guardians, perhaps?  The first sounds like scouts and the second seems too paternalistic. And I dislike terms that softly obfuscate. We are, in fact, talking about elites.

Milbank and Pabst[i] argued, and they convinced me of this, that democracy requires something in between the ‘one’ of the state and the ‘many’ of citizens: the ‘few’ of intermediary institutions. Those are needed for two reasons.

First, the development and implementation of policy, jurisdiction, education, engineering, health care, management, etc. require expertise, experience and an ethic of profession and vocation, with support from professional or vocational associations.  

Second, for democracy to function in present times involvement of citizens is needed between public and private, in local forms of collaboration, in many areas: health care, schooling, training, employment, investment and entrepreneurship, spatial ordering, public amenities, etc. They are needed to personalize democracy and make it more direct.[ii] 

A deeper point here is that government from the centre, by the ‘one’, is based on a mistaken idea that policies and government can be universal, with rules and procedures that apply equally to all, regardless of specific, local conditions and personal circumstances. That has arisen from a laudable ideal of equality under the law. That should indeed apply to what is forbidden, to protect negative freedom. But for enabling people to exercise positive freedom, for a flourishing of life, it is an illusion. That needs to be locally rooted.

In this blog I have argued repeatedly against universalistic pretensions, and I have pleaded for recognition of Aristotelian phronesis: the ability to weigh and balance multiple, not necessarily commensurable and often conflicting, values and virtues, depending on local and individual circumstances. I granted that this is difficult and needs to be guided by role models. There, I propose, lies part of the task of a new elite. 

A related deeper point here is, as I picked up from a recent inaugural address by Gjalt de Graaf[iii], that while we are putting all the weight of democracy on positioning, in representation, elections, and referenda, democracy should be seen more as a process that involves citizens. And that should be seen not so much in terms of interests but in terms of underlying values that meet and clash, in the process.  

Intermediary roles used to be performed by churches and aristocracy. Liberalism has eliminated those but has not replaced them with a new elite to perform the legitimate functions of the few. There were good reasons for abolishing the old elites, for their indoctrination, paternalism and perversities of power. But they did have an ethic of service that is now lacking with the new elite that has arisen in the vacuum, driven by personal ambition and self-interest rather than service to some higher idea or society, producing new perversities of power. Latter day robber barons.

The new elite should be one of excellence in knowledge, virtues, character, expression, understanding, and the skill of phronesis.

The objection to aristocracy was that its position depended on where one is born. Liberalism  aimed to replace this by meritocracy: position based on merit. But the chance of getting on is still very much related to the position, wealth, educational level, and social contacts of parents. And as Milbank and Pabst put it, we now see how meritocracy tends to ‘.. throw up the ruthless and self-regarding … (with) their incessant pursuit of a sense of entitlement’[iv]. The merit should not be one of personal advancement but of public service with vocational excellence.

Professional and trade associations became suspect in shielding off their membership from competition and renewal. Any new elites and intermediary institutions should remain open for new ideas and for entry from all classes and regions. New elites should not congeal into oligarchy. 

[i] John Milbank & Adrian Pabst, The politics of virtue, London: Rowman & Littlefield, 2016.
[ii] I also argued this as part of a response to populism, in item 283 of this blog.
[iii] On 11th November, Free University of Amsterdam.
[iv] Milbank & Pabst, p. 221.

Saturday, November 19, 2016

290. What virtue debate?

Previously in this blog (item 287), I criticised present liberalism for neglecting public goals of virtue, oriented at the flourishing of life, leaving them to the individual. Of course, liberalism is not against public debate of values and virtues, but does not consider it the business of the state. And indeed such debate crops up like weed between the cracks of the public pavement that blankets what brews beneath. People are concerned with issues of virtue and they will voice it. However, the topics that emerge are next given a liberal twist that avoids the issue.

Pollution and climate change are problematic because they yield what in economics are called
‘externalities’: Pollution does not get reflected in the prices of goods. A way out is sought by selling emission rights, thus attaching a price to pollution, and allowing a market for such rights. As a result, these rights converge on where pollution is worst, since that is where they fetch the highest price. Worse, rather than building an ethic not to pollute, it eliminates the need for it. Violation of an ethic, or absence of it, is now bought off and thereby legitimised.

Fortunately, entrepreneurs that operate from outside vested interests are often motivated by the ethical motive to contribute to society, as a goal for a meaningful life. They are not averse to gaining a profit, and indeed they claim they have a right to it, but that is not what motivates them most. And once they manage to develop viable alternative, renewable sources of energy, and this is taken as the future for markets, oil companies are forced to go along because the value of their old fossil-based assets starts to decline, yielding a drop of the firm’s share value.

At a day-care centre the staff wanted to reduce late pick-ups by imposing a fine. As a result late pick-up increased. Whereas first timely pick-up was an ethical matter of solidarity with the staff, late pick-up now became part of the product to be paid for. 

Where the donation of blood began to be paid for, the quality of blood declined. It had been, and in many countries still is, an ethical sacrifice or service, not to be bought with money, and now it became a means of subsistence for the poor and unhealthy.

There are public debates on ethical issues of euthanasia, discrimination, refugees, genetic engineering, health care, pensions, homosexuality, globalisation, child labour, trade in body organs, tax evasion, and so on. These are difficult for liberalism to cope with, since they entail conflicting values and virtues, and here also there is a strong tendency to reduce the problems to economics.

Refugees are OK if they are highly skilled, or satisfy unfulfilled demand for low-quality work, and their high degree of motivation may be profitable. There is no ready tool to include any ethic of hospitality or care in the equations, so that drops out. However, refugees are widely seen as not OK since they are seen as dangerous outsiders that do not belong here, and this now trumps virtues of hospitality and sympathy, but this is not part of the market equation.  

Trade in bodily organs is generally seen to go too far, but child labour is defended on the argument that without it poverty would be even higher, rather than tackling poverty and furthering education.

More widely, emotion-laden values, and their neglect by the establishment, are now firing a populism where economic logic has an adverse effect, as we saw in Brexit and the Trump victory.

Tax evasion by multinational companies is bought off with lenient fines to avoid expensive litigation, with disregard for the symbolic and ethical import, and for the enormous political cost of populism, in what is seen as a double standard at the expense of  the regular tax payer.

So what, then, do I propose? How should these things be done differently? I propose that in each of these and other cases the mutually rivalling virtues, and the practical and economic concerns involved, and the trade-offs between them, should be made more explicit, in public debate. Concerns of utility are not irrelevant, but should not routinely shove off ethical issues of virtue, such as justice, fairness, solidarity, decency and integrity.

Ethical dilemma’s tend to be hidden away, but that is a mistake. They serve to bring to the fore what values are involved, and that is a precondition for debate.[i]   

[i] This point was made in an inaugural lecture at the Free University Amsterdam, by Gjalt de Graaf, on 11th November 2016.

Saturday, November 12, 2016

289. Multiple causality of virtues

In a politics of virtue, which values and virtues are to be held in common, and which are to be left to individual choice? If we want to go beyond the negative freedom of being left alone, to include positive freedom for developing and realizing one’s choice of the good life, what competencies and conditions are required, and which corresponding values and virtues? Which are of public and which only of private concern?

In this blog I have employed the multiple causality of action proposed by Aristotle (items 96 – 100). Would that help here as well?

To recall: Aristotle distinguished the following causes: efficient (agency), final (goals), material (means), formal (method, competence, technology), conditional (surrounding conditions surrounding), and exemplary (role models). What is the scope of one’s agency: what room does one have to act, what does one want, what does one need for it in means and method, what are external conditions, and what are good examples to follow?

There, the question would then be: which values or virtues belong to what causes, of action, and to what extent are they public or private?

For agency (efficient cause), the question is whether one is recognized as a legitimate agent, without discrimination, say. That is a public issue of justice, connected to human rights. But it is also a private issue, with the virtue of taking responsibility for one’s actions. 

The final cause is the choice one makes for the good life. That is a private issue, though developed in human relations, in the course of developing one’s identity. It requires the virtue of courage to make a choice and stand by it, with commitment and perseverance. A minimum of courage is needed, but some people more than others relish risk and restlessness, in their striving for excellence, excitement, creative destruction, or adventure. That is fine, provided that it pursues positive, not negative power, as a matter of justice. Other people attach more value to composure, equilibrium, peace of mind. In Nietzschean terms: more Dionysus or more Apollo.  

What is fitting, viable, or desirable, depends on talent, age, stage of development, being single or not, having children or not, the environment one lives in. Different activities have different standards of excellence. What is shared depends on groups. People congregate to share more values or virtues.

I think virtues are dynamic, in a double sense. They change as one develops, and they are needed to achieve development.  

For positive freedom one needs access to what is needed for choosing and realizing the good life, in terms of means (material cause) and competence (formal). Those are in large part a public issue, with sufficient income and housing as a material need, and access to education, schooling, for the formal cause. That is part of social justice.

The conditional cause is the most complicated, in a mix of private and public. It entails legal institutions, ensuring justice. That includes assurance of negative freedom, with constraints on one’s freedom for the sake of the freedom of others, but with a minimum of meddling, control, imposition, constraint. That entails the virtue of moderation and self-restraint, and, again, a matter of taking responsibility.

But since the human is socially constituted, conditions should not only constrain but also enable it in the pursuit of the good life. For that it needs individual values and virtues for human interaction. But institutions also should enable interaction, in competencies for collaboration. This is both a public and a private issue. It is an important part of education, schooling, formation, which should include critical reflection, formation of identity, expression, and social responsibility and capability.

All this requires capabilities and virtues of empathy, patience, openness, willingness to listen, courage to exercise voice, in making and accepting criticism, friendship in the form of philia, in projects with shared interests, with mutual commitment and loyalty, balancing interests of self and other. This requires moderation, and attachment not only of instrumental value to relationships but also intrinsic value. Here we find the old ethical principle of never using people only as means but also as ends in themselves. It requires an ability to engage in contests and accept losing them.  

The core capability here is that of ‘voice’. That requires the virtue of reflection, being reasonable, and the ability to weigh often incommensurable or even conflicting values and virtues, depending on specific circumstances of specific individuals, and to debate the dilemma’s.

That is difficult to do well, and people who are proficient in it serve as role models, in the exemplary cause.       

Saturday, November 5, 2016

288. The politics of virtue

Given the crisis of liberalism, discussed in the preceding item of this blog, there is a need for a politics of virtue that looks beyond mere negative freedom, allowing for virtues that open up positive freedom for the pursuit of the good life. To enable people to develop wider values and virtues than only those of consumption.

Having negative freedom is ‘being left alone’: freedom from interference such as coercion, imposition, molestation, and authoritarianism. However, as recognized by Milbank and Pabst[i], this fear of interference has led to ‘leaving people alone’ in a wider sense, with lack of care and concern for others, such as parents offer their children, in upbringing, teaching and guidance.

Developing potential, enabling for action, judgement, communication, conflict resolution, moderation, courage, empathy, fairness, justice, and striving for excellence. Those contribute to positive freedom: capabilities for a flourishing life, not only being ‘free from’ constraints but also ‘free to’ develop and exercise talents. They are virtues, traits needed to achieve a good life.

But all that has come to be seen as meddling, paternalism, not as enabling but as constraining negative freedom, even in schools. The choice of a good life and associated virtues are seen as up to the individual, not to be meddled with at school. But like education in general, schools should have the task of furthering positive freedom with its corresponding virtues.

The motive behind the rise of liberalism was to get rid of religious and political indoctrination and manipulation, but that has strayed into absence of any concern for values. Separation of state and church has become separation of state and values.

All this has contributed to the lack of ability to exercise and absorb criticism, discussed in item 286 of this blog. Criticism is seen as an affront to autonomy. A public drive against obesity can be blamed for hurting the self-regard of obese people.

Next, flight from criticism yields indifference and lack of courage, dressed up as respect for the integrity of the other. But, I propose, true respect entails interest in another’s contrary opinions, and the other as worthy of one’s critical attention.  

The paragon of negative freedom is the market: freedom from interference in conducting economic activities, no matter at what cost of perversities of gluttony, extortion, make-believe, avoidance of public and environmental responsibilities, commodification of intellectual, spiritual and cultural values, primacy of efficiency over quality, and only instrumental rather than also intrinsic value of work and relationships. The latter violates the ethical principle of treating another as having not only instrumental but also intrinsic value.

Under the pressure of competition trust cannot survive and is to left to personal relations of love and friendship, so economists say.

Deirdre McCloskey has recently argued that markets have produced bourgeois virtues, the classical virtues of reflection, courage, temperance and justice, and that those virtues are needed to operate in markets. Reflection is needed for good business decisions, courage is needed to take the risk of investment, and temperance and justice are needed not to antagonize customers. That may be true in the ideal, the utopia of economic theory, and may have been true in fact in earlier stages of capitalism, but in present capitalism, dominated by multinationals, not much of that is to be seen now.

Decisions of top management of multinationals are often not in the rational interest of the firm, but are motivated by hubris, self-aggrandizement, and mimicry (e.g. in mergers and acquisitions, as has been well-documented in research), banks have hived off risks onto the public, producing the 2008 financial crisis, the drive for salary, bonuses and conspicuous consumption seems to be without limit, and with power play on governments special favours have been obtained and laws and regulations are avoided or bent to achieve more profit.     

In sum, the nurturing of virtues for positive freedom should be brought back as a public endeavour. However, the challenge is to do so while leaving the choice of a good life up to individuals, with all their differences in talents and preferences.

As discussed earlier, in items 281 and 282 of this blog, this entails the development of virtues on a meta-level of striving for mutual understanding and collaboration in the pursuit of what people variously make of the good life. As discussed, that includes the old Christian virtues of faith (in the human potential for good), hope (for the realization of that potential), and love (in reciprocity and an adequate degree of altruism), as well as the classical cardinal virtues of reflection, courage, moderation, and justice. Those should be taught and trained, in families, schools, and organization of work.    

[i] John Milbank & Adrian Pabst, The politics of virtue, London: Rowman & Littlefield, 2016