Monday 1 June 2009

The politics of virtue: conservative or liberal?

Phillip Blond has an article in today's Independent calling for a new politics of 'virtue'. According to Blond, both left and right have been guilty of peddling a moral relativism or nihilism which has created a moral vacuum at the heart of society and politics. The scandal around MPs' expenses is just one manifestation of this.

Blond writes:

'Clearly a new moral code is required. We need the concept of virtue. This ancient Greek and Christian notion transcends the current malaise and calls us to debate and discern the common civic good that alone is the basis for society. While contemporary morals abandon any notion of education and validate us and our "opinions" whatever they may be, virtue approaches humans on the basis of what they ought to be. Since virtue theory accepts the mediation of truth by time and context, it avoids the slide into exculpatory left-wing relativism. And it endorses culture and transformation. It takes moral conservatism out of the hands of an established elite and transfers it to us all.'

There is an interesting similarity here with a column by David Marquand in last week's Guardian. In an essay which contributes to clarifying the distinction between republican and populist responses to the present crisis, Marquand argues that the present economic and constitutional crisis reveals the poverty and redundancy of a 'neo-liberal moral economy' based on the celebration of material self-interest. Marquand writes:

'Now the neoliberal idyll is over. The casino has shut its doors. The neoliberal moral economy is in crisis. But the crisis is not the work of greedy bankers, lax regulators or corrupt MPs alone: they are only grubby flotsam floating on much deeper currents. It will not be ­resolved unless and until we acknowledge that we, the "people", are also part of the problem – that the real culprit is the hyper-individualistic, materialistic hedonism of the entire culture, popular at least as much as elite. I have been committed to radical constitutional reform for 30 years, and I rejoice at its belated appearance on the political agenda.

'But constitutional reform is not an end in ­itself. As John Milton and the Levellers insisted in the 17th century, and RH Tawney insisted in the 20th, it is a means to the greater end of moral reform, and without moral reform it would be an empty shell.'

Are Blond and Marquand making the same argument? Is this a point of convergence between the 'progressive conservatism' of Blond and the democratic republicanism of Marquand? If so, what are liberals to make of it?

It is hard to answer these questions definitively on the basis of these words alone, but there is potentially quite a big philosophical difference between Blond and Marquand - and one that tells in favour of Marquand, in my view.

The virtues are relative to some good. To have a 'virtue' is to have some quality or disposition of character which is relevant to achieving some kind of good. But what kind of good are we talking about?

Within the liberal tradition, we start from the insight that, in a free society, reasonable people disagree about the nature of the good life. Is there a God (or are there gods)? What does He/She/they require of us? How do we respond to the (alleged) absence of a God? These questions are central to discussion of the 'good life', and they are questions which reasonable people do, and probably always will, disagree about.

So a liberal will hesitate to rest an account of the virtues of citizenship - a political status shared by individuals of all religions and none - on any specific religious (or anti-religious) tradition of thinking about the good life. To do so risks turning the state into a representative of a specific religious tradition in a way that would relegate non-believers (in that specific religion) into second-class citizens.

For critics of liberalism like Blond, this implies that liberalism simply has no resources to offer any account of the common good or of virtue. This is a view which was set out by some 'communitarian' critics of liberalism in the academic political philosophy of the 1980s. Theologians and religious thinkers like Blond (and his former supervisor, John Milbank) are acutely aware of this communitarian critique of liberalism. In my experience, they are less aware of the liberal response to the communitarian critique and perhaps not as informed as they should be about the original liberal texts which were the focus of this critique.

For liberals can and do claim their own politics of virtue. Liberals argue that there is a way of thinking about the common good of individuals as citizens, independent of their religious and related views. According to liberals, individuals of diverse religious views share interests in goods such as life, security, freedom, and economic opportunity. They share an interest in seeing that these goods are secured by the state, and in a way that is just or fair. This is what liberals mean by social justice.

For liberals, our common good, then, is not related to some specific conception of the good life, but to social justice. Virtue - the virtue of the citizen - is to be understood relative to this good of social justice. This is why liberals can and should, quite consistently, support the promotion of attitudes and dispositions supportive of social justice: for example, attitudes of toleration and mutual respect across religious and cultural traditions; anti-discriminatory attitudes; and a disposition to show solidarity with those who may be less lucky than oneself in terms of access to economic opportunity. It is in this way, I think, that we can understand Marquand's call for a civic morality which puts materialistic self-interest in its place.

Of course, there is more to be said in this debate. The conservative critics will argue that one can't get far in saying what social justice is independent of a much thicker conception of the good life of the kind that religious traditions provide. The logical upshot of this view, forcefully articulated in the work of Alasdair MacIntyre, is that political decision-making should be substantially devolved down to religious groups with the central state having little more than a 'night-watchman' role - a sort of communitarian libertarianism; or, less kindly, a federalism of theocracies.

Liberals argue in reply to this social vision that there are legitimate demands of social justice, e.g., in equality of opportunity, which have authority even if groups deny them, and which should be enforced by the state if need be over group preferences. This may or may not be correct, but it certainly doesn't indicate anything like 'relativism' or 'nihilism', a lack of a conception of a 'common good', or of a conception of 'virtue', on the part of the liberal.

In a move which is commonplace amongst conservative religious thinkers, Blond implicitly posits a dichotomy between religious tradition and virtue on the one hand, and liberalism and a silence on virtue on the other.

This is a choice we do not have to face. The real choice is about what kind of politics of virtue we want: a conservative, communitarian politics of virtue or a liberal-republican one.

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