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Tuesday, November 18, A.D. 2008
Thrasymachean Knots

On Amused Cynic’s page, the author voices some of my concerns about the new administration and mentions a line that has become a motif in conservative complaints—that the opposition uses our own civility against us . . . The idea goes thus: If only we were not constrained by our respect for the rule of law, by our standards of fair play and decency, by our habitual noblesse oblige in dealing with the opposition, all while they ignore such constraints—then we would be victorious.

But at what cost? As I wrote on the Amused Cynic’s page, would you really want to be part of the MoveOn crowd, even with power? Honor and integrity count for some consolation in defeat.

Manipulative and unprincipled agents always use the civility of good people against them. Thrasymachus in The Republic makes the case well that nice guys finish last. He is correct, if we look at worldly success—the attainment of temporal power—as the measure of a man. Plato’s argument, and the necessary argument of all ethics, is that some goods are more important than the fleeting goods that the many value. Wealth, power, security, good fortune—they are all undeniable goods that we desire. However, they are tricky possessions, and having them might paradoxically make you less of a human being if you do not have firm support. Such support comes from virtue, and the possession of virtue is always a good. It is unqualifiedly beneficial. No one can take it from you, and it is more intrinsically you than any external good. If you had to choose between wealth and virtue, you should choose virtue. It may lead to wealth, as well, but wealth without virtue will not lead to virtue, and it will not bring the happiness for which wealth is supposedly useful in attaining. Thus spake the wise from Socrates to Boethius to Thomas . . .

However, I wonder if this purest Socratic call to follow the Good demands that we neglect our responsibilities. Even if you wish to preach the gospel of self-sacrifice, without power—without the ability to exercise our will—we are unable to fulfill our duties to those in our care. Maybe this is why Socrates tried to dissuade his young friends from a life in politics—like Buddha, Socrates realized that worldly responsibilities often compromise the stringent demands of moral rectitude. We enlightened moderns may snicker when we read that Christian emperors like Constantine waited until their twilight days to get baptized, but they may manifest an uncomfortable truth—the demands of morality and the demands of life often contradict.

It is a rare talent to be both decent and ruthlessly effective. When one starts to justify departures from principle with success rates, one has already begun to lose one’s moral compass. Our choices can transform us into that which we previously hated—all while aiming for something good. Consequentialism is a foolish ethical theory, but there is a greater psychological danger to the end’s justifying the means. For in getting our fingers dirty, we might find that the stains sink in and won’t wash off. We can become habituated in evil even as we do unseemly actions with an aim for the good.

Yet, we do not live in a perfect world, and when the lives of others hang in the balance, should our moral rectitude excuse our negligence in doing what is necessary to protect our fellow human beings? Does morality ever become a personal luxury, the cost of which is the blood and treasure of the innocent? If the good of the city falls to my individual choice, why isn’t it permissible—or even obligatory—to consider the probable consequences of my choice? The utilitarians may be ethically confused, but they tap into a common sense awareness that strict ethical theory fails to grasp.

So, where do we find the balance? How can we maintain our moral sense and yet do what needs to be done to fulfill our duties in a fallen world? This is what every leader, and everyone with responsibility, must face. It truly is applied ethics.

I think that Plato and Aristotle always provide superior guidance. Contemporary historians of ideas sometimes criticize the medievalist tendency to defer to authority, but well-chosen authorities provide able captains in navigating dangerous waters. Plato and Aristotle deserve to be auctores more than anyone outside the prophetic and apostolic tradition, and I am wont to consider them divinely inspired themselves. Anyway, both Plato and Aristotle hold up the virtuous man as an ideal for ethical action rather than defining ethical formulae. Throughout the dialogues, Plato centers his ethical discussions on the ideal man, Socrates. Socrates incarnates in his own life the Good which we must seek. In various passages, Plato also stresses how the ethical life is an imitation of the Good—the virtuous man models his soul on the order of the heavens, and the virtuous soul seeks to follow in the course of the highest things. Aristotle fleshes out ethics in analysing practical reason and in formulating the logic of moral choices. Still, if one were to ask Aristotle what would the correct action be in a given situation, he would reply that it is that which the virtuous man would do. Both Greeks posit the ideal marker of true virtue . . . Plato, in the forms of the virtues, and Aristotle, as instantiated in the truly virtuous man.

If the wise Greeks are correct, then we would expect that the truly virtuous man—the one who knows wisdom, justice, courage, and prudence—would be able to unravel our Thrasymachean knot. The truly virtuous would know if and when the standard rules of ethics could be abrogated, and he would act accordingly. Critics of the Greek way might hiss that we have gotten nowhere with such an answer. As we are not truly virtuous, knowing that the truly virtuous person would choose correctly is somewhat of a tautology; it does not help us. Nonetheless, the Greek scheme does show how important the cultivation of virtue is—as Aristotle says, practical wisdom is for action, not for theory. We learn ethics for the sake of acting well. No amount of ethical argumentation, case hypothesizing, and casuistry will get us closer to right action without the fundamental steps of character formation. If a murderer in pursuit of his intended victim ever came to the door of a truly virtuous innkeeper into whose building the chased man fled, such an innkeeper would surely do what should be done, even as Kant and Mill disagree about morality.

We should thus look to our own character and try, with every choice that we make, to align our habits with right reason and to imitate ever more the virtuous man. In the meantime, I’ll not judge the man who perhaps errs in cases too difficult for us imperfect in practical wisdom.

Posted by Joseph on Tuesday, November 18, A.D. 2008
Philosophy | EthicsPoliticsPermalink
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