Saturday, March 4, 2017


305. Public and private virtues

In preceding items of this blog, I adopted the definition of virtues as needed for the good life, and I struggled with the following problem. On the one hand, I want to move from the liberal ethics of only utility, where virtues are a matter to be left to individuals, not a matter of public concern, to a virtue ethic, where at least some virtues are a matter of public concern. On the other hand, I am wary of paternalism and loss of freedom for individuals to make their own choice of what the good life is. As I put it in one item (nr. 280): I want to fight liberalism with liberal means. Here, I make a further attempt at clarification.

While the term ‘virtue’ may suggest an imposition on people to behave in a certain way, to ‘act normal’, as the Dutch prime minister Mark Rutte put it recently, my intention is to lay a basis for diversity, allowing for quirks and weirdo’s, compatriots and refugees.  

The paragon of the paradox of combining diversity, going your own way, and normality, conforming to norms, arises in the combination of democracy and the law.[i] Democracy aims at diversity, with the liberal freedoms to allow for it, to be guaranteed by universal law, applying indiscriminately to all.

Democracy is substantive, concerns the content, the substance of life. The law is procedural, concerns how to proceed in dealings with other people in order to provide the room for diversity.

But laws alone do not suffice. Those say mostly what is not allowed, not to encroach upon the room for action of others. That is only negative power: constraining the room for choice. We also need positive power: providing the room and the competencies for choice.

I recall that trust is giving room for conduct, distrust is constraining it. We need as much trust as wisdom permits, giving room for action and accepting the risk of it, without becoming blind to it. 

Earlier, I adopted the definition of virtues as character traits needed for the good life. Here, I change my mind. Like trust, virtue has a competence side and an intentional side. One needs virtues for the competence of leading a good life, but also for the will, the intention and commitment to do so to the best of one’s competence. Perhaps this is precisely what character entails. Those virtues, the competence and the will, need to be developed in upbringing and education.

Now, I propose that some virtues are public, as extensions of the law, and partly lying behind the law, as the source from which the law emerges, in democratic debate. Those virtues are  mostly procedural, and need to be shared, as public virtues, as a basis for allowing and enabling people to exercise their choices of the good life. Other virtues are more private, substantial, and vary with the choices that people make for the good life.

The ‘cardinal’ virtues of reason, courage, moderation, and justice are mostly, but not entirely, public. Reason is needed for being reasonable, being able and willing to listen and understand others, give and take criticism. The virtue of justice is needed to grant people their right to existence and dignity, acknowledge equality under the law, and empathy: being able and willing to understand people in their views, positions, and predicaments. That also requires the virtue of moderation, in give and take. One may be immodest in ambition and a drive for excellence, but not at the expense of others. The virtue of courage is partly private, to strive and take risks in the pursuit of the good life, but also public, in the courage to face one’s shortcomings, and to take personal and public responsibility.

Next to those classical virtues there are the Christian virtues of faith, hope and love. Those also can be public next to private, or would preferably be so. Faith in the potential for the good in people and in relations, hope that it will be realised, and the courage to risk it.

And then there is a whole range of possible, more personal virtues, depending on one’s choice of the good life, with more or less emphasis on ambition, courage, risk-taking, strength, truthfulness, loyalty, generosity, gentleness, adventure seeking, excitement, change, equilibrium, peace of mind, solitude, gregariousness, spirituality, material enjoyment, humour, seriousness, etc.


[i] I was inspired to this by a lecture by Herman Tjeenk Willink.