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