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.