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.“Cleanliness 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.
I want you guys to help me out with something, which I’ve been struggling with lately. Is there such a thing as something being good in itself? Is all value in some way derived from either evolution or some version of felt satisfaction and pleasure, or both? Does this question even matter?
Of course, at the end of the day there has to be some final good or goods in order for anything to have instrumental value. By definition, something being instrumental means its value is derived from its ability to serve as a means to some valued end. In other words, the value is from the end.
But a lot of people feel that pleasure and its more healthy cousin satisfaction are not good enough (not satisfying?) as ends. And a lot of people recoil at the idea that it’s all just derived from what enables effective reproduction across generations (which is what any evolutionary account boils down to).
This was on my mind again today as I read Rupert Read and Nassim Taleb’s paper on religion as intergenerational risk management. Taleb’s whole worldview, the thing that has made him famous, is entirely consequences-oriented: if you don’t think in terms of bounds rather than attempting to master probability distributions you can’t actually know, a black swan will come and kick your ass and your loved ones’ asses and your civilization’s ass and probably the ass of the whole human race. His arguments are given their bite, in short, by the threat of catastrophic consequences.
Yet Taleb says left and right that we should only do things because it is our duty to. He is clearly some kind of deontologist with a fondness for virtue ethics, especially the Stoics. But should we do our duty because of the categorical imperative, which is indifferent to consequences, or because it is the right thing to do, in itself?
It seems to me that there is no getting around the fact that human morality emerged through the evolutionary process, and any morality that results in the destruction of the peoples who adopt it is unlikely to last for long. It also seems to me that you should do the right thing even when it might mean very bad consequences, at least in the short term. I’m not comfortable making the logical leap from there and saying that the right thing inherently means doing what has the best consequences in the longest term and the largest scale.
I have more thoughts on this, but I’d rather leave it as a question now than attempt to answer it any further. All thoughts are welcome.