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Some Musings on Virtue

September 1, 2015

‘Tis been awhile since I wrote, as I’ve been rather busy for quite a long time, and still am. (The perfect time to write 2500 words must be when assignments are due) But, without further adieu, I give you some scattered, off the cuff , entirely normative, and highly erroneous (perhaps) musing on a variety of matters, often relating to virtue.

On marketing

There are perils in marketing. In many a business textbook I have been told that the purpose of marketing is said to be to add value. That’s a lie. Marketing does not add value. Rather, it adds the perception of value to a product. Yet, the creation of that perception oft involves devaluing other perceptions, and is thus pretty much a zero-sum game. However, it’s a zero-sum game that to uses resources to create perceptions. Thus, marketing fundamentally is an inefficient use of resources. It uses up resources to create perceptions worth nothing, which are as shallow as a glamour.

But more so than that, marketing is normatively questionable insofar as it propagates poor values. Marketing is most often centred around individualism, consumerism, and consumption; it may serve corporatist needs. If we are what we see, hear and listen to, then marketing does not propagate a world of honour, respect, virtue, or responsibility, but rather one designed to serve the self-interest of business. That’s a moral ill. And in a positivist sense, its inefficient too.

Imagine if instead of advertising on every street, every TV channel, in all our media – including vaunted newspapers – if all this advertising was dedicated to something noble. If those millions of types of marketing would propagate notions of honour, respect, and doing good by one’s fellow man. Consider just exactly what all this marketing leads to – ‘tis all a trivial waste.  If our social conscious, or public will is tinged with thoughts of triviality, then our very public discourse shall be tinged with triviality.

You have to consider what you’re striving for, and whether you’re actually striving for it. If I say to you ‘do you value your friends more than surfing the internet’, but you actually spend more time surfing the Internet, then… aren’t you valuing the Internet more? Similarly, when we think of all the powers that are behind marketing, you have to wonder whether all those powers could be put towards something else.

Food for thought.

‘Economics is a positive science’

Economics is a positive science. That’s what I was told at a business class very briefly introducing economics. A very curious statement. I love my empirical economics findings as much as the next reasonable economist, but there’s a certain pretension in the claim. Economics can’t quite replicate the hard sciences in terms of their methodological accuracy, because, no matter what Granger causal relationship you find, or multivariate analysis you use – or whatever it may be – economics is complicated by the enduringly fascinating, and yet eternally changing environment of human affairs.

But putting that to the side, is economics really – ideally – conceived as a positive science? Are we looking to this factual, scientific view as some sort of paradise? This idea that positive economics tells us what is, and normative economics gets all stuck up with what we ought to do… and we somehow get a place like Investopedia saying “A clear understanding of the difference between positive and normative economics should lead to better policy making, if policies are based on facts… and not opinions.”

Query, dear reader the assumption that the ‘facts’ can lead to better policy making if we shouldn’t consider what is ‘better’.

Better how? The only time you might be able to make a decision without any sort of normative analysis would be if ceteris paribus some variable like income rose. But since when does just about any variable like income change ceteris paribus in reality? Oh, you might find a nice isolated increase, but it might ignore social issues or something similar.

The point is, anyone who wishes to find facts is doing a great service to us in informing us how to build a ‘better’ outcome. But its cowardly to stand back with no normative judgement. To use the old phrase, either you swing the sword, or you must pass it to someone else. You must use the facts to back a reasonable normative judgement, knowing that the facts on a pragmatic basis lend themselves to certain preferable normative outcomes.

And don’t you know, this whole article is rather normative. You should just disregard it, I suppose.


Why most places get ethics instruction horribly wrong

I remember the ‘ethics’ component of my introductory business course earlier this year. It was laughable. Laughably stupid. Its idea of ethics is you teach a bunch of random philosophical theories, and, suddenly, everyone is ‘ethical’.

This wondrous idea that teaching ethical theories and make people more ethical is foolish. If you teach people about deontological and utilitarianism, that’s all fine and dandy, but do you think the average person going about their day will in the heat of the moment say “I do wonder whether I ought to apply a deontological view of ethics to this situation, and whether…”

Jack London once said that ‘philosophy goes glimmering’ the moment people have the impulse ‘I like’. Its true. These grand philosophical ideas are very useful, and can provide noble foundations for a principled ethical stand.

But, if you want to’ teach’ ethics, then the power of example is far stronger than that of words. Do good, even if you cannot make an ethical case for it. Follow instructions on ethical behaviour of ‘help thy neighbour’ and the like. Practice smiling at others, assisting others… by practice you shall become a better person, till your actions have positive consequences. In practice (following consideration of principle) there lies the good for moral instruction. In throwing around moral theories inconclusively to no end, little is obtained.

Of course, this brings us to the issue of whether we can determine anything ‘good’ for moral instruction, and questions of cultural relativism. Lets turn there now.

Postmodernism and the good

When one considers ‘ethics’, the question inevitably becomes ‘what ethics?’ , and what ethic is ‘right’ or ‘just’ or ‘correct’. The premise here being that there is some objective truth.

And, of course, its very easy to shoot such an idea down. Ethics is subjective, there are only cultural truths (relativism), there are many competing ethical frameworks that can’t be objectively preferred over one another as we can only argue from emotionally founded premises etc. Very quickly, one can argue that determining what is ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ is a fool’s game – its impossibly difficult. And, undoubtedly, it is a difficult task.

There used to be honour systems in Western cultures, which were amoral, insofar as any honour system’s values determined whether it was a moral system. These systems meant that deviation from a ‘code’ of honour brought punishment, and exceeding the minimum standards of a code gained one honour. The point is, the judgement of one’s peers was powerful and it was definite. There was an idea that there was an honour system. But as you enter the 19th century, and see industrialisation, urbanisation, the rise of psychology, nationalism, and into the 20th century, the continuation of these trends, you see both the fragmentation of the intimacy that honour requires to operate under, the rise of the individual over the collective, and into the 20th century, you see waves of multiculturalism and immigration in many Western cultures that brings previously fairly monocultural populations into contact. Of course, this is all a very broad brush oversimplification, but the point is that all these events brought many competing views to light, and suggested that there was no one truth, no one conception of what was right or wrong. From there, it became very easy to conclude that teaching any moral system would be wrong insofar as it wouldn’t be objectively true, and to teach would be to unduly preference one moral system over another. And that’s where you start to see these ideas of listing a whole list of ethical theories from these business classes from, because if no system is superior then what is there to teach? Your values might be equality, tolerance, multiculturalism and pluralism, but those values say little except that other values should exist. It seems to leave a vacuum.

My view is that proving a moral system is objectively ‘right’ or a proper analysis of behaviour is a fool’s game. Its pointless, timewasting, and fruitless. However, I firmly believe that we can all agree on a conception of ‘good’ behaviour in society that we ought to encourage and practice.

This conception sounds odd – it sounds like a restatement of objective truth, but its not. What I mean is that we’re never going to solve moral quandaries like ‘should we push a fat man onto the train tracks to save 5 others?’ or the exact cut-off time for abortions or many other issues. But, we don’t need to solve such quandaries. When are we ever going to have to push the overweight man onto the train tracks? What use does all this posturing over ethics do for us? Sure, we can’t agree on perfect moral responses to these tricky issues. But that’s because we’re asking questions designed to try and make any possible common sense idea of ethics fall over. If I ask “have you stopped beating your wife?” both yes and no are incriminating answers. But, both don’t answer the question satisfactorily, just like our train tracks question. But, crucially, it doesn’t matter – the question is useless. The question does nothing but confuse the situation in the case of the husband and wife, or the train tracks; all the question does is bring up a problem with no basis in reality that’s designed to twist any reasonable answer out of proportion so as to be wrong. The question about the husband and wife does nothing useful like stop the husband beating the wife, or improve matrimonial harmony; it simply smugly smiles upon any attempt to answer it.

By contrast, I suggest that we ought to judge ethical systems not by how they handle absurd questions like the above, but in how they actually help society function and live with meaning, happiness and satisfaction.

Helping a friend when they are in need, keeping family ties positive, not launching slurs at people in the street, being friendly to your neighbour in discourse, and so many other things in everyday life are simply ‘good’. It might be as simple as a smile, a kind word, a sincere compliment that makes a massive difference to someone. I know it has happened many times to me where a single word can change the tune of a day. Just a few weeks ago I was stressed out and in a foul mood, but a bus driver’s salutation of ‘sir’ in greeting gave me a bit of pride, made my smile, and completely changed my day. Such things as manners are like the grease that make society function well, and a respectful politeness goes a long way.

That’s not to say one has committed a ‘crime’ if one forgets to say ‘sir’. But it is simply to say that in practicing these little actions we’ll make a significant difference to others. By contrast, I have very real doubts that a smorgasbord of abstract ethical theories taught simultaneously can do much good.

There is objective good, if not an objective moral system. We have an ethical intuition as to what that is. We should practice the actions that lead to good till they are instinctive.

Myths and legends of virtue

These tales of virtue and the implication that the past was full of virtuous paragons is undoubtedly analogous to a myth. Indeed, there are sociocultural influences which make the idea of virtue and honour groups prominent in the past, but in part its simply a rose coloured view of the past – as if the past were a golden age – and a fabrication.

Like any myth, there’s some truth and some falsehood. But like many myths, the facts that its not historical fact is not the point. Myths have, for generations, inspired people, honoured the dead, creations rites of passage, fostered social bonds and more. The myth of virtue serves a purpose – it can inspire people to greater action and kindness, even if you have a Hobbesian view of the world.

Of course, even a myth does not make people perfect, nor will it ever do so. But like many myths virtue in part becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Believe something to be achievable, and you may achieve it. Look at Nathan Hale, the American Spy in the Revolutionary War, and his brave dying words “I only regret that I have but one life to give to my country” – look to his bravado. Look at Captain Lawrence Oates, who when he was slowing down Robert Falcon Scott’s doomed Antarctic expedition due to a leg injury, yet wouldn’t be abandoned by his comrades, said as his dying words “I am just going outside. I may be some time.” What stoicism, self-sacrifice, and altruism! Then look at Wallace Hartley, bandmaster on the Titanic as it sank. Hartley and his band members kept playing music as the Titanic sank, to calm the passengers, all the while knowing that any lifeboats being loaded were not taking them away. There is sacrifice, and consideration of others, even in circumstances that were literally life-threatening. ‘Tis said that Hartley’s final words were to farewell his band members before he was swept overboard. His last thought in life – one of camaraderie, consideration and kindness.

Those actions are not fundamentally ordinary, and owe a good deal to virtue as an ideal taught. Whether the ideal is ever likely to be attained is irrelevant. If we reach for the stars and only ascend a mountain s, then are we not a mountain higher than we were before?

Every man and his battle

Whenever I consider virtue, I often get images like Hartley, or Oates in their dying words, or heroes of a grand nature like Theodore Roosevelt, George Washington, or the profound wisdom of Seneca. In short, figures of such grandeur that anything short of perfection seems hollow. Next to saints, we all seem like sinners.

But I think its worth remembering the phrase ‘every man is fighting a hard battle’. All of us are fighting a great many battles just to hold station in life, let alone advance. James Joyce held the average person to be a figure of greatness in his book Ulysses. I think its important to give credit to such figures.

Even those who often seem to ‘have everything’ – to be these mighty figures – are frazzled. I ran into a friend recently who many would esteem to be doing exceedingly well, yet she was struggling with many things. That is not to impugn her abilities, and I consider her a most capable young lady. But as we chatted we both realised that we both had let some things slide – seemingly of necessity. And not always of necessity, but simply challenging situations – I know I’ve made a questionable decision or two from sheer difficult circumstances in recent times.

The point of this rambling is that people are not perfect, and beneath a glamour or serenity and calm are facing a great many challenges.  For there is no easy way from the earth to the stars, no easy path to become the paragons we hold out in myth and ideal. But if we can honour and esteem these people for their efforts, and understand their challenges, we shall go a long way to helping them.

And such efforts would also lie at the heart of many a virtue.


From → Foundations

  1. Elements permalink

    It begins again!!!

  2. Well, indeed it does begin again, Elements. I’m glad to see you interested in my article. You clearly sound like you enjoyed some of my previous work. Can I ask what you liked before, and what you’d like to see in the future?

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