Embracing the tension

One of the reasons I like virtue ethics over other ethical approaches is because virtue ethics starts complicated and muddles along from there. Deontology and utilitarianism begin with one or a few simple, abstract principles and then – if you’re doing it right – they get more complicated. I’m not so partisan to believe that ethics can’t be understood well with these latter approaches, but I do think that starting simple and adding complexity sets one up to favor the singular master principle over the countervailing considerations that have been acknowledged by more sophisticated theories as exceptions, side constraints, provisos and the like. Virtue ethics, by contrast, begins with many principles (the virtues) that have pretty much equal weight. The multiple virtues can exist in tension with one another,* and the ethical agent’s task is to carefully discern which virtues are salient for a given problem. The obvious drawback is that action guidance is tricky with virtue ethics. “Use your judgment. Best of luck!” is cold comfort. But the retort is that the simpler action guidance of single-value ethics is an illusion – judgment is still required for interpreting how the abstract principle translates to real life.

I admire the capabilities approach for social analysis for similar reasons. Gross national product (or income) is a great metric with a lot of things going for it. But it is still one-dimensional and inevitably leaves out crucial concerns, like the persistence of poor health outcomes relative to comparably wealthy countries, or significantly worse social outcomes for particular groups (e.g., blacks in America). In my capabilitarian analysis of libertarianism, I criticized the tendency of many libertarians to tout a political philosophy that is so simplistic it fits on a bumper sticker (e.g. the non-aggression principle or the reduction of everything to property rights). The Left sometimes sounds just as monist with its emphasis on income (or wealth) equality as social panacea. The capabilities approach instead offers multiple poles of value, many of which exist in tension with one another. Private property is essential for personal empowerment, but not at the expense of leaving some so poorer in relative terms that they cannot show their face in public without shame. Freedom of association is respected, but not if some group is so marginalized that its members suffer stunted employment or social prospects. Etc.

I’m beginning to see this general structure all over. Conservative states rights enthusiasts have good reasons for preferring political power to be localized, but progressive skeptics are right to point out that unchecked local authority can endanger the rights of disfavored individuals in those localities, rights that should be universal. The wisdom of federalism lies in affirming both these positions, and allowing voice and exit to do their work. In the ideal case, loyalty itself is significantly divided between different loci of influence (e.g., province vs central government, state vs church, etc).

Sam Hammond has recently written about the foundational social virtue of liberal neutrality. He argues persuasively that liberal neutrality arose in response to literal wars between factions with incommensurately opposed conceptions of the good. Adam Gurri has argued that there are limits to what can be tolerated as part of liberal neutrality, and further that these limits are themselves politically determined. I agree with both the value of liberal neutrality and Adam’s critique. Indeed, I had a remarkably similar conversation with Adam, but with roles reversed, over how liberal neutrality applies to the capabilities approach. As I put it in that discussion,

While an individual surely has reason to value their affiliations and group identities, they shouldn’t be held hostage to those affiliations and groups. And if an individual while growing up is not taught to read, not granted wide access to uncensored information, not encouraged to be curious about that information, and effectively prevented from social contact with nonmembers of their group, then that individual effectively is a hostage. […] The point is that there must exist some limiting principles by which some social context an individual is raised in is deemed too restrictive to qualify as fertile for the “development of independent practical reasoners”. Honestly, I don’t see how MacIntyre’s project of developing such reasoning individuals can deny the existence of such disqualifying social contexts, even if the specification of limiting principles is left murky and subject to political contest.

Even more recently, these pages have seen a discussion (not so much a debate, really) of the tension between recognizing the power of situational influence on ethical behavior and maintaining a sense of moral responsibility. Situational influence is real, and can’t be overcome by strength of will alone. But allowing this to negate moral culpability results in just another kind of insidious situational influence facilitating evil or unwholesome behavior. Instead, a virtue of cultivating morally enriching situational contexts and avoiding “bad barrels” is needed. Or, as Sam says,

The upshot is that we shouldn’t stop holding people accountable for their actions just because the situation they somehow found themselves in made shirking their moral duties the path of least resistance. Indeed, just the opposite. Employing techniques of neutralization, as a self-serving behavior, should itself be an object of social sanction. Moreover, it means there’s a chance we can preempt our techniques of neutralization by being aware of them, and by training ourselves in strategies that undercut self-delusion.

A few days ago I made the argument in private conversation that the family, if it is shielded too jealously from public eyes and the considerations of justice – the way it was shielded until the feminist revolution began the slow process of extending transparency and equality into the home – is ripe for abuse. A fellow Sweet Talker said they were none too impressed with this critique of the family. After all, “every attempt to meddle in the family from larger units of analysis has been catastrophic.” Perhaps every attempt to recast the family according to some ideal in a top-down fashion has backfired. But feminist consciousness raising – a bottom-up approach to social change – has had enormous beneficial consequences for women (and for men and children too, I would argue). But the escalating argument with my fellow Sweet Talker miscarried sans drama when we both readily agreed that “vulnerability is inevitable.” Indeed, the family, imperfect though it is, is critical for developing moral, independent persons while also providing such individuals with a haven of unconditional love and social support.

The Sweet Talk approach to embracing tension.

The point of this little series of vignettes is that life is full of conflicting values. The common mistake is to see the importance of one value and in response become blind to contrary values. So the NAP-obsessive libertarian sees the coercion at the heart of the state and becomes blind to non-state instances of coercion and exploitation. The incautious progressive fetishizes wealth inequality and condemns market institutions amidst what is far-and-away the most prosperous era in all human history (even for the poor). The unreformed traditionalist sees the family ever under threat from modernizing forces, but is blind to the stifling oppression that traditional families can foster. And the unreflective feminist sees only the elements of domination and downplays the critical role that the unchosen bonds of family play in nurturing individuals. There are many values, and no sure-fire algorithm to help us decide which values are most salient for which situation. But this is no call to relativism. We open ourselves up to charlatans if we believe that every side of every debate always has something worthwhile to contribute. How then do we proceed?

Use your judgment. Best of luck!

*Those who affirm a “unity of virtue” thesis might quibble with this, saying the virtues can’t contradict one another. For example, machismo isn’t really courage because machismo is imprudent by definition. Machismo and courage are the same kind of mindset in the rough draft understanding of some situation. The rough draft is revised by applying judgment and considerations from the other virtues. The virtues are often in tension in the first impressions phase of moral deliberation.

4 thoughts on “Embracing the tension

  1. The unity of virtues thing is an interesting way to explore what you’re talking about, actually. In some versions (the Socratic or Platonic one) it’s literal—virtue is singular, irreducible.

    In others, it’s more like a recipe; you have to not only have the right ingredients but the right amounts, and cooked just right, etc. It’s still fundamentally balancing a lot of incommensurate things. That is arguably the Aristotelian approach; at minimum, it is the approach of Aristotelians like Nussbaum, Daniel Russell (consider his threshold argument, in which a high degree of imbalance is allowed), Foot, and Hursthouse. It’s less clear to me that MacIntyre can be included in this list; his only tension is between internal goods and external goods (as well as incommensurate theoretical frameworks, but that’s somewhat orthogonal to this question) but virtue is straightforwardly about internal goods, which he seems to imply are much more unitary within their domains than the balancing approach would imply.

    In any case, I, too, like how virtue ethics seems to capture the way we all muddle through as best we can, while still allowing that actually there is a way for us to judge rightly.

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