Graham Tomlin wrote a piece for Prospect, upon which I comment and whence comes the title of this post. Always the deconstructivist curmudgeon, it seems, I agree with Tomlin’s assertion that Mill was wrong, but so is Tomlin.
In a nutshell, Tomlin makes the argument that the Ancients had it right, and the Enlightenment derailed it. Tomlin wants to return to the days of yore when the artifice of character and virtue ruled the day, a time when men were men and women were women. A return to the good ole days.
Tomlin waxes poetic, nostalgiac to a time that never was, a time that the prescription was to chase windmills of virtue and amass the currency of character. But character as currency is more unstable than Bitcoin.
Is there anything more capricious than the held perception of character? Is there anything more futile than chasing the vicious cycle of virtue, always searching for that deserving true Scotsman?
Character is a term especially bandied about by political Conservatives, although Progressives tend to play the #MeToo game because it’s a game of appearances. It doesn’t matter what you do; it only matters what it looks like you do.
And even this is a game. Time and again politicians ‘slip’ (read: get caught), they apologise for the temporary lapse, and ask for forgiveness. Whether or not they keep their position, they are still forgiven and may return to their position learning their lesson (read: don’t get caught again). Let’s just dispense with the formalities.
In Plato’s day, he holds out four moral virtues to pursue: courage, temperance, justice, and prudence.
Courage: the resolve to act virtuously, especially when it is most difficult
Temperance: moderation in all things; the middle path
Justice: to render every man what’s due
Prudence: application of practical wisdom
Courage seems to be caught in an infinite loop, as it essentially says to exercise temperance, justice, and prudence in the face of danger. Typically, courage is associated with heroic acts, though I fail to see the connection to rescuing a baby from a burning building with any of these other virtues. Perhaps the definition has morphed over the years. Everyone needs a hero. Only Zeus needs a Hera.
Temperance is to find the middle ground: eat but not too much; drink but not too much; rape but not too much; kill but not too much. Is there really a middle ground for all things? In traversing a canyon, shouldn’t one stay close to the edge—or what about sidewalks? Is it temperance that led US President Donald Trump to declare that Nazis and white supremacists. are ‘some very fine people‘, or does he just lack prudence?
Justice I’ve written about at some length so I won’t spend any additional time here.
Prudence, which advises one to use common sense, relies on a rare jewel. As Voltaire wrote, « le sens commun est fort rare ».
Perhaps I’m just too hard on people, but I find that most people are pretty dimwitted outside of some small area of focus, and I have to agree with Voltaire’s position on common sense. This is why as an economist, I find it so difficult to accept the homo economicus assertion so key for modern microeconomic theory and why behavioural economics has become a bigger deal in the past 30 years as more and more social scientists realise that people are predictably irrational.
Thanks but no thanks. There’s got to be a better way.