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. 


To Tell or Not To Tell

Reasonable people might say that Shakespeare wrote his Richard II with reference (perhaps allusion) to Elizabeth’s childlessness in her old age. In fact, reasonable historians believe that the play itself was an added inspiration for the revolt of the Earl of Essex, which ended in a rather ugly fashion. The trick, of course, is that reasonable people can disagree most vehemently, and, thereby, keep their heads attached to their necks.

AB is on to something with his corrective post, namely that wisdom bears in telling stories. All stories can be told. All stories are told in context. Contexts change. Contexts can be manipulated. Stories can be manipulated. People can be manipulated.

When you get into the  business of people-manipulating, it helps to have the power to do so with impunity. A wise storyteller uses ambiguity as a defensive weapon, that is, winks and nods encoded in the text, the decoding of which, naturally, becomes the playground for mischievous persons. Shakespeare, as history bears out, endures much foolishness, but as all wise men do, he speaks not, and in not speaking, he asserts power, much power, over the reader, over history, over society, informing our hearts with virtue.

Likewise Homer, and a few others.

Qualms beget alms

Does the average person need “engagement with complex ethical theories” to be a good person? This is the type of question that keeps weirdos like me and Adam up at night. In order to reply to Adam’s query I need to call upon an expert witness, Arthur Schopenhauer, On the Question of Motive. The key excerpt is in audio form here:

Schopenhauer asks us to imagine two young men, Caius and Titus, each passionately in love, each with a different girl, each thwarted by more favored rivals. Both resolve to kill the rival that stands in their way, “but when they come to actually prepare for the murder, each of them, after an inward struggle, draws back. They are now to give us a truthful and clear account of the reasons why they abandoned their project.”

For Caius, we are given a menu of explanations from which to choose, each representing a famous “complex ethical theory” from the history of moral philosophy. Perhaps Caius says,

I reflected that the principle I was going to apply in this case would not be adapted to provide a rule universally valid for all possible rational beings; because I should have treated my rival only as a means, and not at the same time as an end.” Or, following Fichte, he may deliver himself as follows: “Every human life is a means towards realising the moral law; consequently, I cannot, without being indifferent to this realisation, destroy a being ordained to do his part in effecting it. …

For Titus, the situation is different. Indeed, it’s not even possible to tell if he’s ever been acquainted with a “complex ethical theory” of any stripe. Thus spoke Titus:

When I came to make arrangements for the work, and so, for the moment, had to occupy myself not with my own passion, but with my rival; then for the first time I saw clearly what was going to happen to him. But simultaneously I was seized with compassion and pity; sorrow for him laid hold upon me, and overmastered me: I could not strike the blow.

Now Schopenhauer:

I ask every honest and unprejudiced reader: Which of these two is the better man? To which would he prefer to entrust his own destiny? Which is restrained by the purer motive? Consequently, where does the basis of morality lie?

I know how I answer. Titus embodies an indelible moral character, motivated purely by compassion, while Caius comes off as an amoral keener who could be persuaded back to murder by a particularly convincing footnote refutation. The basis of behaving morally, then, lies not in any philosophical treatise or divine command, but by cultivating our moral sense. Qualms beget alms.

This doesn’t eliminate the value of philosophy per se, but should definitely feed into how one sets their priorities. At the very least, any person who concentrates on living a life of compassion will run ethical laps around the man of manuscript, who is just as liable to become tricked by the latest sophist as he is to discover the first and only Grand Unified Theory of not being a dick.

In addition to the comments we receive below, there is some lively conversation taking place on Reddit connected to this post that can be found here.

Whence Irrationality?

Spivonomist acknowledges our ship is overcome by a fogbank, declaring, “I irrationally want people to act well of their own accord, to work towards developing excellence in themselves and within their communities without having to be bribed.” We battle-weary sailors are grateful to find our feet upon terra firma, and as soon as our sea-legs can carry us to the saloon, we commence the battle to forget our misery.

One of our crew stumbles to his next stop, and she snares him, saying, “Hello, sailor, I will love you a long time.” She is appealing to his strength, namely that a man who has been, until moments ago, interminably upon the swells, and is now soused, should need a long time for love, that is, if he can, indeed, love. They agree upon a contract for the archetypical euvoluntary exchange, and he goes into her home, emerging after ten minutes of ecstasy, now short a few drachmas and the last few fragments of his soul.

Virtue Ethics is seductive because it appeals to our strength. We sailors heady for the fray damn the torpedoes and the raging seas for a time, but soon we find ourselves under the command of a mysterious captain who is searching, ever searching, ever pursuing eudaimonia, when, all along, she is found ashore, near the saloon. If, indeed, we can love, we cannot love for a long time because we have participated in evil against our best desires, which torments us to exhaustion. A sailor can then acquire eudaimonia for a price, but makarismos is bestowed upon the weak. Not upon the evil-doers, to be sure, but to those whose battle against the seas has overcome them to the extent that they cannot even mutiny against the evil they so much despise. A wise man waits quietly for the wheel of justice to do its grinding.

The logic works, doesn’t it? Even if it’s irrational: with the bestowal of makarismos we are strengthened to raise up our heads, renewed to pursue eudaimonia into the darkest seas and in the darkness of the seashore.

Errata: Honor and Eudaimonia

PV writes:

Could honor have use value sufficient to stimulate optimal social production? Or, are there first mover advantages to an honorable person? Are there network effects to honor? If any of these questions deserves a yes (or even a maybe) then we have an economic theory as to why honor might be something that does not require external reward, i.e. honors. We have an economic theory explaining the Aristotelian intuition—honor is something you do without external reward. There are rewards internal to the behavior—especially in the long term—and no dire public good problem exists.

Important questions deserve serious answers. “Honor is its own reward” sounds nice, and it’s assuredly aspirational, but my training in economics urges me to think on the margin, so to speak. What motivates the next honorable act? So “could honor have use value sufficient to stimulate optimal social production?” For people with a natural propensity to act honorably, I reckon the answer is yes. External incentives are there for otherwise indecisive folks to behave honorably, even if honor isn’t otherwise a part of their character. 

I admit, this sticks in my craw a bit. Honorable behavior spurred by promises of acclaim are pallid, anemic. It ain’t eudaimonia. It’s makarismos. Consider DD‘s closing question ” why bother with all the labor of ethical virtuousness if I can get the same benefits without working?” The reason to bother is because sloth is a vice. It galls the sensibilities to be obliged to pay someone for virtuous behavior, even if the outcomes of the exchange are felicitous. It feels like dirty pool. Or maybe like a dirty pool. Whatever.

My complaint is chiefly aesthetic, I admit. Here I am bathed in the milk of peaceful voluntary exchange and it rankles me that there’s a market in virtue. I irrationally want people to act well of their own accord, to work towards developing excellence in themselves and within their communities without having to be bribed. I want eudaimonia. I have a hunch that the possibilities forwarded by Peter (first mover, network effects) are more likely to exist for eudaimonic honor than for makarismic “honor”, but that’s still just my own sense of right and wrong, and it’s as fallible as the garden of good and evil in which my ethics were cultivated.