Jonathan Ashbach wrote an essay on our response to Coronavirus that set me thinking about Virtue Ethics.
I think, from context, we can tell that Ashbach supports lifting lockdown restrictions - or at least, his ideas are warmly welcomed by other people who do - but there seems to be more in his essay than just an argument over quarantine. Let's unpack...
In society as in the human personality there are many virtues: duty, compassion, individual self-expression, loyalty, freedom, justice, to name a few. These exist in tension with each other. For example, promoting justice tends to mean restricting freedom. In a fully just society the police would have sweeping powers to detect and punish criminals; in a fully free society, there would be great scope for evil-doers to get away with crimes. Aristotle describes the GOLDEN MEAN which is the optimal arrangement where virtues exist together in a state of creative tension. The mean is not fixed and is relative. For example, in war, loyalty and duty become more important, individual self-expression less important and compassion for the enemy becomes – in some situations – a temptation to be resisted rather than a good to be embraced. But no virtue ever becomes unimportant and all virtues need to be acknowledged, which is why it is important to have the Geneva Conventions in wartime to remind us that compassion is still a virtue, however unpopular or politically inconvenient it might have become.
Just as individuals embody a different mixture of virtues in different intensities, so do societies. There are cultures that set more store by duty than by individualism, others set more store by freedom than justice. These arrangements aren’t fixed either but they are held in a sort of stable form by powerful institutions (the media, religion, political constitutions, education) that reinforce and reproduce a society’s particular composition of virtues. (The word Aristotle uses for virtue is ARETE so you could talk about the ARETEIC COMPOSITION of a society).
Sometimes one particular virtue is raised to the point where it subordinates all the others. In Nazi Germany, loyalty to the state becomes this preeminent virtue. At other times, a virtue is entirely demeaned: compassion ranks so low in Stalin’s Russia and Pol Pot’s Cambodia that leaders feed entire populations into mincing machines of their own creation.
A million people were executed in 'the Killing Fields' of Cambodia in the 1970s
Aristotle, and thinkers who follow him, deplore the tendency to exalt one virtue over the others. Jonathan Ashbach terms such people ‘barbarians’ who wish to cash all the virtues in for one single value or else denigrate one virtue entirely – as opposed to the ‘civilised’ person who struggles to hold the virtues in tension and seek the Golden Mean. The barbarian says “Justice is a bourgeois illusion!” or “Compassion is just lack of patriotism!” The civilised man and woman is always saying “Yes, but …. And on the other hand …”
(This is a Greek concept of ‘barbarism’ – it’s got nothing to do with what the actual historical Celts or Persians were in fact like. The Greeks were often wrong in identifying particular societies as ‘barbarians’ but they weren’t wrong about the idea of barbarism itself.)
During times of crisis, there is a tendency for us all to rush to one value to be our exalting characteristic. In the past it was often loyalty to country. Currently it’s Compassion (or Mercy, as the ancients thought of it). People who champion other values get shouted down. Tell the ardent patriot about the importance of free speech and due process and he calls you a traitor. Tell a certain sort of humanitarian about the importance of ending quarantines and he calls you a murderer. It is the same response..
Obviously, experts will tell us the likely casualties of different courses of action, but the choice about which action then to take is a moral choice. Virtue Ethics reminds us that the rednecks waving flags outside US senate houses are not moral strangers. They are reminding us of virtues we are neglecting: liberty, individual self-expression. That doesn’t mean their policies are the right policies, just that their motives are not wicked motives. When we sneer or shriek at them, we’re no different from the McCarthyites shouting “Filthy Commie!” at writers and film makers who were trying to point out some things about Justice in American society. We have made one virtue into the only virtue and lost sight of the Golden Mean. It is we – not they – who have stopped being civilised.
Images like this create strong reactions but Virtue Ethics reminds us that these people are championing virtues too - just ones we are currently neglecting
Ashbach goes a bit further than this analysis. He seems to be saying that the areteic composition (I love that phrase!) of society has been fundamentally altered by the arrival of the mass media to shape our moral responses to events. This is plausible.
And he seems to be saying that a particular virtue - courage - is in danger of being denigrated, the way justice or compassion were shouted down in previous crises.
Courage (Fortitude, in ancient terminology) is an interesting Virtue because it undergirds all the others and without it no person or society can be virtuous. A coward is only kind or honest or just up to the point where it becomes dangerous. This is why C.S. Lewis says, "Courage is not simply one of the virtues but the form of every virtue at the testing point, which means at the point of highest reality.”
The idea that the mass media are launching a sustained assault on the virtue of Courage - by endorsing timidity and a fear of death as the only appropriate and moral response to what's going on - is a pretty serious charge. Of course, there really is a risk of death for some people and there's a distinction between timidity and caution (itself a virtue that the ancients termed Prudence).
As usual, Virtue Ethics addresses dilemmas by asking, What would a healthy, sane and balanced society look like? It counsels finding a middle way between recklessness and caution - and between compassion for the vulnerable and the liberties and freedoms of the majority. But of course, how exactly that should be put into practice in everyday situations is still left maddeningly vague.
A part of the Philosophy of Religion course that's hard to get your head around is Necessary Existence and Possible Worlds. These ideas turn up as part of the Cosmological Argument (especially Aquinas' Third Way) and the Ontological Argument (especially in the version by Malcolm and Plantinga) and finally in Solutions to the Problem of Evil especially in Leibniz's Best of All Possible Worlds argument). Rather than adding to the description on several pages, I'll add some thoughts here.
The idea of 'Possible Worlds' is based on this world not being the only way things could have turned out. The idea of alternative possible worlds is pretty entrenched in DC superhero comics - especially in the adventures of the Flash. However, it plays a big part in Star Trek and even Buffy the Vampire Slayer as well as lots of episodes of Doctor Who. Possible worlds are alternative universes where some significant change made everything turn out differently from the universe we know. The entire plot of Back to the Future Part II depends on this idea.
Possible Worlds illustrate the idea of contingency - that things depend on other things to be the way they are or even to exist at all. For example, it's not difficult to imagine a possible world (let's call it Earth-B) in which you or I don't exist. Our parents married someone else - or married the same person, but under different circumstances - and ::poof!:: we're not here any more (but we are perhaps replaced by someone else who has our name).
Except, perhaps, God.
If God exists, then he'd still be there in Earths B, C and even D (though there would be no people to worship him in Earth D). This is what we mean by saying God has NECESSARY EXISTENCE (otherwise known as ASEITY). If God exists, then he exists in every possible world. Or, put it another way, it's impossible to imagine a possible world in which something could happen to cause God not to exist or make it impossible for God to exist there.
This is because God is non-contingent. He doesn't depend on anything else for his existence or to be the way that he is, so no imaginable change in the surrounding circumstances could make any difference to God.
Leibniz's argument about this world being the BEST of all the Possible Worlds needs more unpacking - in the next blog
It took longer than I thought, but the Design Argument and Cosmological Argument sections of the site are complete. Ontological Argument comes next.
I've over-done the detail (I think) and won't be teaching everything on here (like, who needs Aquinas' 4th Way?). But the information is up for students to extend their knowledge.
The most important question is, Is it clear? It's easy with philosophy to write stuff that makes sense to YOU but not to anyone else - try reading Kant's "Critique of Pure Reason" if you don't believe me. I'd welcome any feedback on the site that asks for clarification. Which bits don't make sense or need to be expanded?
Composing these pages set me to wondering, what exactly is the point of these arguments for the existence of God?
One thing they don't seem to do is make people convert to Christianity or any other religion. I mean, people convert to religion all the time, but almost never because they've been presented with a really impressive philosophical argument. People usually convert because of a relationship that they're in, because they enjoy taking part in worship or because they've had a religious experience. I've never met anyone who was argued into being religious.
There are a couple of exceptions, perhaps. Bertrand Russell is supposed to have run down the street as a student, throwing his tobacco in the air, because his mind was so blown by the Ontological Argument. But he didn't convert to Christianity.
A lot of this material comes from America and I get that too. In the USA, an important part of the Constitution is the First Amendment - the "separation of church and state". America was founded by people escaping religious persecution and prides itself on being a secular country in which everyone can practise their own religion in private, but only in private. A lot of Americans feel nervous about the idea of 'God' being smuggled into discussions about science or politics or ethics. They worry that, before you know it, they'll be teaching 'God' in schools and religious freedom will be a thing of the past. So there are Americans who will argue pretty furiously about the idea of the "Big Bang" being proof of God. And some churches really do want to put 'God' back in the science classroom. Look at the controversy over Intelligent Design.
But these arguments have another value for religious people. Even if they don't create religious faith, they can sustain it. Lots of people come round to a belief in God, but then there are setbacks, temptations or just long periods of boredom. It's easy to change your mind and dismiss your beliefs as a "phase". These arguments help people keep hold of their religious beliefs, by reassuring them that these beliefs are in fact rational and reasonable.
Faith ... is the art of holding on to things your reason has once accepted, in spite of your changing moods - C.S. Lewis
What Lewis means is that you might have good reasons for becoming religious, but those reasons might fade. The argument's for God's existence stop you from ditching your faith during bad times.
When you look at it this way, the arguments don't seem so threatening. They're not trying to convert you; they're trying to encourage and motivate people who are already religious.
With this in mind, we can adopt a healthy attitude towards them. We don't have to crush and demolish these arguments. We just have to understand them. They make good points as well as bad. None of the fails utterly. They don't need "debunking" but they do need to be weighed up.