Monday, December 23, 2013

125. Private and public virtues

 Ethics has mostly been approached from an individual perspective: how should the individual behave. There, the proposed universal principle is the ‘golden rule’ that one should (not) do to others what one does (not) want done to oneself.

Now, most individual ethics are powerless when we turn to public conduct, of states, which are under pressure of geopolitics, aggression, crime, insurgence and terrorism. Torture is clearly wrong but what if by torturing one person one can save a nation?

This was brought home forcefully by Machiavelli’s classic ‘The prince’. For reasons of state things may need to be done that are blatantly bad, such as torture. However, that does not make it good. What does this do to ethics?

Should one now say that there are two kinds of good and bad: private and public?

I propose that there is no fundamental difference. Ethics and morality are not clear-cut on the individual level either. Also in the private sphere there can be multiple goods and bads, and it is often difficult to choose.

Earlier in this blog (in item 40) I referred to Martha Nussbaum’s account of the Fragility of goodness, with the example of Agamemnon, who had to choose between his daughter, to whom he had paternal duties, and his army, to which he had the duties of the commander.

I also argued (in item 118) that the golden rule is not strictly universal. There are things that I would do to others that I would not like to be done to myself, because knowing the other I know what s/he appreciates that I do not.

Lying is bad, but even on a personal level I may have to lie to protect someone’s interests. Would I lie to keep my child out of prison? I certainly would. Others might not.

I appealed to Aristotle’s virtue ethics. There are multiple dimensions to what may be good, they are often not commensurable, not amenable to a common denominator, and what is good depends on circumstances. Sometimes I need to be brave and at other times prudent. Next to valour and prudence there are choices between trust and control, ‘voice’ and ‘exit’, attack and defence, spontaneity and restraint, truthfulness and lying, etc.

As I claimed (also in item 118), ethics is indeed multiple, debatable. What is to be chosen, and to what degree, is a matter of debate. However, the impossibility of universal rules and judgements is not a passport to the arbitrary. Or to relativism in the sense that any opinion is as good as any other. The striving for justice remains. And an ethical stance is subject to argumentation.

For matters of state there is an International Court of Justice. To justify oneself one needs to show awareness of the bad, evidence that one deliberated, evidence of proportionate action, and the willingness to have one’s judgements tested and possibly condemned and punished.

Also as an individual one must submit not only to the rule of law and but also, since the reach of the law is deliberately limited, to ethical judgement of friends, colleagues, and communities. It does not automatically suffice for bankers to plead that they are aware that they acted immorally but acted within the law and were forced to act as they did under pressures of competition. They need to argue their case in a balancing of virtues.

Socrates drank the cup of poison though convinced that his actions had been right.

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