Monday, September 22, 2008

Is liberty opposed to virtue?

Robert Skidelsky argues that we have come to think of morality as having to do only with rights and obligations (here). According to Skidelsky, where there is no right or obligation, morality has become silent:
A man who, having fulfilled his obligations to others, settles down to watch porn on television all day may be foolish, disgusting, vulgar and so forth, but he is not strictly speaking immoral”.

Skidelsky claims that increased liberty, as advocated by J.S. Mill, is largely responsible for this apparent contraction in the scope of morality and in the decline in virtue ethics. As is well known, Mill argued in “On Liberty” that adults should be legally free to do as they choose as long as they do not interfere with the rights of others. However, he also argued against what he described as the “despotism of custom”:
The human faculties of perception, judgement, discriminative feeling, mental activity, and even moral preference, are exercised only by making a choice. He who does anything because it is the custom makes no choice. He gains no practice either in discerning or in desiring what is best” (Chapter on Individuality).

Skidelsky claims that contrary to Mill’s argument, increases in personal liberty have not enabled people to become more self-directed and happier. He observes: “Modern Britain, for all its profusion of choice, is hardly a showcase of fully developed personalities”. I imagine that Skidelsky would also consider that this observation applies to other western countries.

Skidelsky uses the TV show, “Big Brother” as an example of what he means: “It panders to the greed and vanity of its participants and to the voyeurism of its viewers. ... Yet from a liberal standpoint, there is nothing to be said against it. The participants are there of their own accord and may leave any time they please. ... On some level we know it is vile, yet we lack the authority and words to say so”.

Well, I think he just said that “Big Brother” is vile. In any case, Skidelsky has not convinced me that liberty is opposed to virtue. The fact that many people do not use their liberty to make good choices does not make their liberty responsible for their choices, or for the apparent absence of the use of moral language in the discussion of the choices that they make. It is only the possibility of choice that enables anyone to consider the morality or rationality or any other characteristic of the choices that anyone makes.

It seems to me that while liberty is not opposed to virtue, it is possible to argue that those who have been unduly influenced by Mill’s attack on “the despotism of custom” may have been left without a moral compass. As Friedrich Hayek pointed out, it is unwise to disregard customary rules just because their significance and importance is not obvious to us. These rules may embody wisdom resulting from the experimentation of many previous generations. Hayek also made the important point that whereas coercive rules unambiguously restrict liberty, customary rules are not despotic. They “can be broken by individuals who feel that they have strong enough reasons to brave the censure of their fellows” (“Constitution of Liberty, 1960: 62-63).
It is also possible to argue that in emphasizing the role of reason, Mill and his followers have not been sufficiently sensitive to the role that emotions play in morality. The role of emotions had previously been asserted by David Hume: “Morals excite passions, and produce or prevent actions. Reason of itself is utterly impotent in this particular. The rules of morality, therefore, are not conclusions of our reason” (“A Treatise of Human Nature”, 1739, III, I, i).

Nevertheless, even if it is possible to pin some blame on Mill for a decline in unthinking adherence to moral conventions, he can hardly be blamed for the apparent absence of moral language in the public discussion of the choices that people make. If anyone thinks that certain behaviour is unhealthy or in some other way inconsistent with living the good life, there is nothing stopping them from giving reasons why they think that. People might even be prepared to listen if those delivering the sermons regard themselves as moral equals.

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