Individuals, Communities, and the Virtues: Towards a More Conservative Vision of Morality

by David Pederson ’12

In the last issue of the Tory, Brandon McGinley and I began to articulate a vision of conservatism based upon communities and the common good.  Such a vision is, I believe, crucial for rethinking and renewing conservative politics today.  But what I would like to discuss in this article is how such a community-based approach should shape the way in which we conceive of, and argue about, morality.  To do so, let me begin very abstractly.

What is morality?  However divergent in the substance of their beliefs, almost all modern moral philosophers – from utilitarians to Kantians to rights theorists – share the same basic answer to this question.  For them, morality consists simply in a set of abstract rules or principles specifying what actions are good and what actions are bad, and moral reasoning involves merely the formulation of such rules.  This is a picture of morality as a highly abstract, theoretical, and academic exercise.

Since we all have grown up and live under the shadow of post-Enlightenment modernity, this very modern conception of morality seems quite natural to us.  Indeed, we wonder, what else could morality be, apart from such a set of rules?  Nevertheless, morality was not always so – and indeed, it is not so.  For what we, in thrall to this abstract picture of morality, often ignore is that such a picture is inherently problematic.

In his Philosophical Investigations, Ludwig Wittgenstein raises the problem of following a rule.  Put briefly, what Wittgenstein shows is that rules cannot, by themselves, specify when and how they are to be used.  In other words, they can always be misunderstood.  Consider the case of a foreigner whom we wish to teach the use of a certain word.  We might tell him that a “lemon” is a sour, yellow fruit – but yet he might have difficulty with the words “sour,” “yellow,” and “fruit,” and so we would have to explain further.

At some point, however, we would reach the bedrock of our most basic words and concepts, and our explanations would have to cease.  If someone does not “get” how to use a word, how could we ever teach him?  What this question helps bring to light is that, in order to use any rule (or set of rules), we must have some more fundamental, non-rule-based mode of understanding that provides the precondition for our rule-use.  In the case of words, we need a sense of the language that cannot be taught, but that is acquired through social practice.  But what does this mean for morality?

From the Wittgensteinian argument above, it became clear that rules, for their application and intelligibility, depend upon a more basic form of understanding.  If we take the rules in question to be moral rules, however, then what constitutes this understanding?  It is simply that which allows us to understand and to employ moral rules: the virtues – that is, habituated dispositions of mind and character.  Let me explain what I mean by this.

It is a fact of human existence that each one of our thoughts and actions works towards shaping us into certain sorts of people, towards writing the narratives of our lives.  The actions that we perform in our youth, for instance – indeed, those we are performing right now, here at Princeton – mold us in profound ways.  Whether we like it or not, all of us will acquire – and indeed, become – a particular kind of character.  What remains to be seen, of course, is whether that character is good or bad.

Since this is so, then the fundamental question in our moral reflections should not be, “What action should I perform?”  Rather, we must ask, “What sort of person should I become?”  The shift between these two questions is one from viewing our actions as discrete and atomistic, to seeing them as intimately woven into the fabric of our entire lives.  And, indeed, it is only by answering the latter question that we can answer the former.  If we are wondering about what actions to take, we must first consider what sorts of persons those actions will shape us into.

But to think in terms of the shaping of the self is to think in terms of virtues.  For the virtues are precisely those dispositions of mind and character that we need to cultivate, if we are to become certain kinds of people.  It should be noted here that, contrary to its widespread connotation, the concept of a virtue is not a religious one.  For the ancient Greeks and many modern virtue ethicists, for instance, virtues are quite secular notions, denoting merely the aspects of ourselves that must be fostered in order to live well, both individually and, as we shall see further on, collectively.

As dispositions that we need to develop, the virtues – such as, from Aristotle’s list, courage, temperance, friendliness, and honesty – thus play an architectonic role in our lives.  They allow us to see how we should connect our individual actions into a unified whole.  As such, they provide the basic mode of understanding we need to render intelligible any specific claims about the rightness or wrongness of our individual actions.  By drawing us closer to the spirit of moral laws, they also bring us closer to the letter.

Virtues, then, are those dispositions that both enable us to live out the moral life and provide the perspective from which we can see our lives as intelligible unities.  Remedying the myopia that often makes us consider morality from the localized perspective of our actions, the virtues open us up to the globalized view of our entire lives.  But this broadening of our moral horizons goes even further: we need to adopt the viewpoint not only of our individual lives, but also of society as a whole.  But why is this so?

Man is a social animal.  As human beings, we flourish or fail together.  But what does this sociality entail?  For theorists in the liberal tradition, that man is a social animal means simply that human societies originate in order to provide their members with certain benefits: division of labor and increased material well-being, safety and protection from others, etc.  Or, perhaps, such theorists might say that societies are needed for the personal fulfillment of their members: people enjoy being around other people, for instance.

This interpretation of man’s social nature comes from Locke, Hobbes, and others in the same tradition.  And, as far as it goes, it is quite correct: society certainly does bring such benefits.  But yet this interpretation ignores the full extent to which man is by nature social.  What the liberal theorists overlook is not only that there are non-instrumental social goods, but also, more fundamentally, that humans acquire rationality, moral agency, and selfhood only through society and social relations with others.  In other words, we are not born individuals; we become them.

Because of our essentially social natures, we cannot consider our individual good without also considering the good of the society of which we are a part.  But imagine a liberal interlocutor who might contend that all that matters are individual rights and autonomy.  Why, he wonders, should he consider the good of society in his actions?  Although society may have been the place where he developed rationality, moral agency, and selfhood, now that he has in fact become an individual, what duty should he have to society (other than, perhaps, a feeling of gratitude)?  To answer our interlocutor, let me draw from an argument by the philosopher Charles Taylor.

What is it to ascribe a right?  To ascribe a right to some person (including oneself) is to say that there are some features or capacities that that person possesses and in virtue of which he has a right (not to be harmed, coerced, exploited, etc.).  Such capacities command our respect and have moral significance for us.  If they did not do so, they would not entail our ascribing rights to their possessors.

But that such capacities command our respect means that we have a commitment to further and foster them, both in ourselves and in others – our friends, children, and society at large.  Since the ascription of rights depends upon the moral valuation of those capacities, then, if one really values those capacities, one will be committed to promoting them.  So to claim or ascribe rights – to oneself or to others – entails that one be bound to fostering the capacities upon which those rights depend.  Among other things, this involves fostering the sort of community and society that sustains and promotes those rights.  The individualistic, liberal view thus collapses into a socially focused perspective.

Let us now return to the virtues.  As I claimed earlier, the virtues enable us to shift our moral perspective not only to our entire lives, but also to the whole social matrix of which we are a part.  It should now be clear why this is so.  Because the virtues allow us to live integrated personal lives, then, since man is a social animal, they are a fortiori those dispositions that allow us to live together harmoniously in society.  To grasp fully why, say, a just action is good, we must, as Alasdair MacIntyre puts it, see that it “is only through the exercise and promotion of the virtue (justice) that enjoins this action that individuals and communities can flourish in a specifically human mode.”

Take the virtue of truthfulness.  It is obvious that truthfulness is a virtue without which society could not function.  Without it, employers would not hire employees (how could the latter be trusted not to embezzle the company?) and employees would not work for employers (how could the latter be trusted to pay wages?).  Doctors would not help their patients, nor would patients go to their doctors.  Interpersonal relationships would fall apart, as bonds of mutual trust dissolved.  Human life would indeed become “nasty, brutish, and short.”

What we can gather from this dystopian scenario is that truthfulness is needed in our own lives because it is what enables us to live well together.  This societal perspective thus lets us make more sense of particular moral injunctions.  A traditional ethic of chastity, for instance, may appear puzzling if one takes the perspective of individual actions.  But when one sees the importance of marriage and the family for a stable society in which individuals can flourish, then chastity as a virtue becomes more intelligible: it embodies the dispositions of mind and character necessary for individuals to form strong marriages, families, and hence communities.  And since we have a duty to work towards the welfare of society, then we ought also to promote a culture in which the ideal of chastity is upheld.

The virtues, then, lead us to a community-based ethic, one in which we justify or condemn our practices precisely because they foster or frustrate strong communities.  This is not, however, to subsume the individual into the state, like a cog in a machine.  Such a statism is, in fact, merely the obverse of the atomistic individualism criticized earlier.  Rather, we must see that the individual good just is the common good, and that the common good just is the individual good.  Man is a social animal, and he fully realizes his good only in the context of society.

True communities and societies, however, are not just collections of people who happen to live together.  Rather, communities must be rational.  In other words, communities are communities only if they allow their members to develop practical rationality, moral agency, and selfhood in a robust sense.  This development can, of course, be stultified in various ways – as under capitalism, for example, or in the bureaucratic structure of the modern state.  But thriving communities are those in which their members participate in active discussion and dialogue about the common good – in which political action meets critical reflection.

What all of this means is that we, as conservatives, must think and talk about morality in a quite new and different way.  Drawing on the work of Wittgenstein, Taylor, MacIntyre, and Aristotle, I have attempted to outline the shape of this moral vision.  We must see that virtues are more fundamental than rules, that we are who we are only through social relations, and that we have a duty to promote the flourishing of our societies.  All of this, of course, cuts against the grain of the abstract, liberal, and atomistic picture of morality prevalent today.  But that just means our task is all the more urgent.

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