Virtue After Abundance

Our sense of virtue evolved in the context of groups living under immense scarcity. Consider the virtue that one shouldn’t be overly self-indulgent (because resources must be rationed). Or the suggestions against taking on debts (r > g for foragers, so borrow wisely). Even honor, that most sacred virtue, seems to work particularly well in environments where “a man’s resources can be thieved in full.”

How should, say, “hedonistic self-gratification” look to a sensibility sculpted by absence? More than a vice, for our ancestors it was solipsistic to the point of immorality. Today still, commentators from religious conservatives to anti-consumerist liberals continue to treat hedonism as an anti-virtue despite economic abundance. Even among the strongest followers of self-gratification, there is a self-awareness that something about hedonism is at least figuratively satanic.

Of course, our virtues and vices needn’t be connected to the facts on the ground of the contemporary environment to be things we still hold valuable. In this sense, modern civilization made all values vestigial and many of them, like the scarcity mindset, potentially maladaptive. At the very least, many of our past vices have lost their edge. Character flaws once thought immoral are now deserving of respect.scarcityCleanliness is next to Godliness” is my favorite example of a virtue as opposed to moral act, in particular for how ubiquitous it is in theology. “Be clean” and “Don’t kill” are both statements of value however hygiene is self-directed while murder is directed at inter-relations between selves. For religious fundamentalists there’s no distinction between virtues and morals, so they happily label homosexuality, masturbation, drug use, blasphemy and so on as equally sinful and dirty.

There are some immediate political implications of this realization (beyond re-branding the “moral majority” the “virtuous majority”). For instance, in this light the Straussian critique of liberalism as leading towards nihilism had it backwards: abundance enabled classical liberalism to enshrine individualism and laws that strive only to abridge human freedom in order to correct interpersonal harms, not individual character flaws or poor showering technique.

Of course, “no man is an island” is still true. There are many personal vices that are apt to spill over into the public domain, which ponces may want to regulate to varying degrees. I could only support this if personal values were not directly imposed on others (piety may be virtuous, but forcing others to be pious is theocratic).

Liberals since Mill and Bentham generally opposed regulating virtue. They said: ingest, do, believe and feel what you will as long as it doesn’t interfere with my ability to do the same. Yet they never said “murder, slander, vandalize” because these are decidedly inter-personally moral in nature.

Our psychology may be social, but the largest unit of psychological consideration is still an individual’s mind – the subject in subjective. Communitarian political systems and puritanical societies aren’t immoral a priori. It all depends on the sincerity of the citizens, how institutionalized the values are, and the nature of transaction cost. If you live in a Buddhist commune but your favorite book is The Virtue of Selfishness, it only becomes illiberal when you’re not permitted to leave.

Meanwhile, the five best scarcity-mindset coping mechanisms according to this psychologist read like they were written by an ancient stoic. Go figure.

A great conversation about this post is happening on Reddit here. This post, and Sweet Talk itself, is about creating conversations, so I’m highly grateful for all the constructive engagement. 


6 thoughts on “Virtue After Abundance

  1. JohnCarter

    The problem is that there isn’t actually real economic abundance for any but the very few, very rich. In fact, this sort of hedonistic morality, brought on by economic abundance, screwed up the sources of our economic abundance as the top tier elite hoarded all the success for themselves. So most of this article is irrelevant unless you’re one of these borderline-malevolent elites, and if you are, your reckoning is coming.

    1. Please consider that you are mistaken. Wealth as measured in terms of disposable income for the typical person, or consumption for the poorest tier of society as well as the middle, have gone drastically up in the last 200 years. McCloskey’s Bourgeois Dignity is a good primer on this.

      1. JohnCarter

        I’ve spent significant time in the Middle East, South Asia, and East Asia. I haven’t been to Africa. Reality is very different. The very rich are so rich they bring up all the averages but billions are living worse off now than their ancestors (the ones who survived infectious diseases) did centuries ago.

      2. I’m not going to discount your experience, which certainly puts you in closer touch with the places in question than I am. But having not been there, all I can go off of are the various measures of well being that are available to me. The ones I’m familiar with show that, while there are certainly fluctuations, the long term trajectories of all these places are way up, and not just for a few very rich people.

  2. Interesting thought. You’re right that economic scarcity is a major part of virtue, but it is still only one portion of it.

    If you look at studies done on happiness & life contentment, income level does play a role, but only up to a certain point in the middle-class range. Beyond that, life satisfaction is derived from doing good for others, having a sense of life purpose, family, social relationships & community engagement.

    These are all things that make up a major portion of virtue as well. In an age of economic abundance, I’d wager that many virtues like the ones you mentioned will become obsolete, whereas many other virtues relating to above will become even more important.

  3. Jessica

    The first line in the preface to “Economics of Development” by Perkins, Radelet, Lindauer, and Block (Seventh Edition):

    “In 1983, when the first edition of this textbook was published, 50% of the world’s population lived in nations the World Bank classified as low income. By 2010 the number he dropped to 12%. Much of that change is the result of rapid economic growth in China and India. Today, both are middle-income economies. Economic growth and development has not been limited to these two Asian giants. ‘Africa Rising’ was the cover story of a 2010 issue of the The Economist, reflecting more than a decade of rapid growth in a region The Economist 10 years earlier referred to as “The Hopeless Continent”. Throughout Africa, East and South Asia, Latin America, and elsewhere, dramatic improvements of been taking place in the education, health, and living standards of billions of people.”

    Unfortunately, agricultural issues are bringing a new wave of scarcity across developing and developed nations alike. There is, however, hope that this may provide an opportunity for a new age of abundance as environmental pressures drive demand for innovation. Some advancements may have a decidedly ethics-oriented bent and an eye toward helping those of the developing world in particular…not that I’m thinking of anything specific… 😉 We’ll see.

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