Friday, March 21, 2014

Markets in Nothing: Is Virtue Inalienable?

"What kind of a woman do you take me for, sir?"
"We've already established that, now we're just haggling over the price."
- NOT Winston Churchill

Is virtue for sale? Should it be? Consider Aristotle's example of the man throwing down arms and fleeing the field of battle. If that's the end of the story, he's (presumably) guilty of cowardice: a lapse in the virtue of courage. But what if he were paid to throw down arms and flee the field of battle? I think almost everyone would agree that paid desertion is a far worse offense. It's no longer cowardice, it's betrayal. Judas Iscariot's woeful tale put him at the very nape of The Beast in Dante's Inferno because of his treachery. Thirty pieces of silver are the wages of the worst eternal torment.

The curious thing is that it's tough for even me to be objective about this. I'm trained to be very sensitive to act consequentialism (that is, it's the outcomes of human action that warrant analytical consideration), but I cannot for the life of me shake the moral intuition that the incentives behind an act are morally relevant.

Taking a bribe to look the other way is ignoble. Taking a bribe to look the other way to pay for your kid's cancer treatment is not quite so ignoble. Unfortunate? Yes. Risky? Sure. Ignoble? Maybe not.

Incentives matter, but so does context. Virtue is local. Arete is personal, eudaimonia sees to the end of the block, and if phronesis isn't kept on a leash, it'll poop in the neighbor's flower bed. Pretending otherwise saps and impurifies autonomy and community responsibility. If you're skeptical of national-scale politicians who promise you otherwise, rest assured that your skepticism is probably well-founded.

And if you must sell your virtue, make sure the terms of the trade are as euvoluntary as possible.

1 comment:

  1. June 2, 1933
    "Whoring of mind and body can be a jolly, zestful end in itself but it is cheapened by those who find sentimental lying excuses for it."
    Dawn Powell


Do you have suggestions on where we could find more examples of this phenomenon?