A better world is possible

Why an understanding of virtue ethics might help us to respond appropriately to events like Trump and Brexit.

Tom Whyman
29 November 2016

Approx 1,000 protesters rallied in Louisville, Kentucky to register their concern about harmful rhetoric used by president-elect Trump. (Gregg Brekke/Flickr. Some rights reserved.)Surely no one can possibly need reminding of this, but let's start by mentioning it anyway: 2016, the bad year that people love to say is bad, has seen two major electoral defeats for liberals and the left, one on either side of the Atlantic: the Brexit vote in June, and now President-Elect Trump's victory earlier this month. Aside from the feelings of dread, of horror, of absolute crushing disaster that these results have inspired in the losing side, one of the key things they have in common is that the majority of establishment political commentators just did not see them coming.

Either out of ignorance or denial, the majority of pundits in both cases stuck to the line that, come polling day, voters would turn out and vote for the safe option, the option they had repeatedly been told for months was the best and most sensible one to choose: Remain, Hillary. But instead, the voters turned out and said No – for whatever reason (boredom, racism, long-standing dissatisfaction with neoliberalism and globalisation) they turned out to endorse an option that, most people in the know had been telling them, would put the far-right in the driving seat; trigger economic crisis; lead to the sudden and widespread erosion of hard-won rights for women, ethnic minorities, immigrants, queer people. (Arguably this choice was less stark in the context of Brexit as the tabloid press had been steadfast in their support of it – but surely events such as the murder of Jo Cox MP in the week before the vote can have left the majority of voters with few illusions about what Brexit was 'really' about).

In each case, quite understandably, this unexpected turn of events has triggered a huge outpouring of reflection: thinkpieces, twitter threads, news studio discussions all trying to work out why this has happened; how hardly anyone seemed to see it coming; what it is that we must now do in response to it. But of course, the nature of the game is such that the very same people who were so wildly off in predicting the outcome are now, for the most part, the ones tasked with providing an understanding of and a response to it.

No wonder, we might think, that so much of the reaction to Trump's victory has seemed so deeply unhelpful: that no clear plan of action appears to be emerging to resist Trump and everything he and his 'alt-right' goons have planned; that already clear and toxic dividing lines are appearing (or perhaps better: being reinforced) on the left between sentimental Hillary supporters who can't see past sexism as the key factor behind her defeat; 'Bernie Bros' who blame economic factors and see in the result a vindication of their belief that a populist leftist candidate would have won; others who (for quite understandable reasons) are convinced that any attempt to downplay race as the overriding factor in Trump's victory smacks of racism itself. No wonder so many of the positive suggestions people are beginning to put forward (Draft Michelle Obama in 2020! Groom Chelsea Clinton as a future presidential contender!) are so obviously, transparently misguided.To respond appropriately to Trump and Brexit, we might all need to become virtue ethicists.

Of course, it's still only early days. Perhaps amidst all the shock and the chaos it's only natural that we'd be at each other's throats, lashing out in confusion as the real significance of Trump's victory begins to sink in. But, as we adjust, gradually a consensus should emerge, and then we can set about the serious business of resisting the far-right's agenda – not just in America but worldwide. Well, I have to say: I'm not optimistic. The example of Brexit must be illustrative here. Five months and one impromptu Labour leadership contest later, the UK left remains divided along a complex network of ideological and strategic lines – and there is certainly little energy being committed to overturning or resisting the outcome of the EU referendum itself (despite its increasingly disastrous implications).

Unable as we are to gain any real insight into our political situation, constitutionally unfit to engage in real collective action, what avenues remain open to us? Sinking into a pit of self-satisfied nihilism, or skeptical despair? Well, this seems equally unhelpful: we might feel cleverly, morally above it all if we thus shirk engagement with the mess, but the brutalisation of immigrants and other marginalised groups will carry on regardless. At any rate, I do have a more positive suggestion. This might sound kind of strange, but I think to respond appropriately to Trump and Brexit, we might all need to become virtue ethicists.

One of the most important things to bear in mind about contemporary virtue ethics is that it is fundamentally a critical project: it emerges (starting in 1958 with G.E.M. Anscombe's paper 'Modern Moral Philosophy') out of a deep dissatisfaction with other philosophical ways of 'doing' ethics, such as consequentialism and deontology. This much should be familiar from Philosophy 101: consequentialists hold that the right action is always the one with the best outcome (understood, for instance, in terms of maximising pleasure across society as a whole); deontologists hold that the right action is the one that duty commands you to do (which we can know, for instance, because our action would be univeralisable under the Kantian categorical imperative).

In each case, however, the recommended ethical framework seems liable to struggle with certain outlier cases, obliging their disciples to endorse monstrousness. Committed consequentialists must endorse pushing a very fat man off a bridge if his bulk would halt a runaway train speeding towards five people on the tracks; hardcore deontologists might find themselves having to insist that you should never lie, even about the whereabouts of your family to a murderer in hot pursuit of their lives. In each case, the position is characterised by a rigorism that seems deaf to context. The people tasked with making sense of political events do not have all that firm a grasp on what, politically speaking, is going on.

In her 1958 paper Anscombe traces this rigorism back to a misapplication of the phrase 'morally ought', a phrase which – as she argues – has its origins in a divine law conception of ethics. If rightness and wrongness proceed from a divine legislator, such as the Judaeo-Christian God, then morality really can be traced to what that deity obliges us to do. But short of such a divine legislator, a deity genuinely and fulsomely active in the world, the bindingness of the moral 'ought' ceases to make any sense. For this reason, it is deeply unhelpful to say that we commit a moral wrong simply insofar as we go against what we ought to do in any given situation: rather, we would need to give an account of why such a decision would be, independently of this, a bad thing to do. 

In the face of this, virtue ethics distinguishes itself in the following way. Consequentialism and deontology primarily focus on what we ought, objectively, to do. But on reflection (on the character of this 'ought') it turns out that there is no independently, objectively verifiable way of obtaining such ethical knowledge. Rather – and this is the core of the virtue ethicists' debt to Aristotle – ethical knowledge is something that only makes sense within the practice of (already) living well. Hence, philosophical ethics must focus far less on the question of what we should (in any given situation) do; it needs to be about what sort of person we might best be. On the virtue-ethical account, ethics becomes a matter of expertise based on the inculcation of the relevant virtues in oneself. In the same way that one only becomes able to tell good or bad wine, say, by being inducted (however formally) into the practice of wine-tasting, one only becomes able to see what is 'really' good or bad, once one has acquired a virtuous character.

Here, then, is the analogy to our present situation. The people tasked with making sense of political events do not, it seems, have all that firm a grasp on what, politically speaking, is going on. There is a general sense – almost certainly justified – that the events presently unfolding are bad, that things shouldn't be like this. But we do not, it seems, have anything like (a) a good understanding of why things are so bad; (b) a good understanding of why they seem to be getting worse; (c) any real, workable proposals as to how they might be made any better.

So here's my suggestion: what if all of this is so mystifying to us because we are simply not, politically speaking, virtuous enough to respond to our world in the appropriate way? What if we can't see these things because we are not the sort of people that they would typically show up to? What if, in short, the most immediate, practical step that we need to take – to resist the Brexiters, resist Trump – is to try to inculcate certain virtues in ourselves, that might help make us politically excellent, as a condition on the possibility of forming workable strategies and solutions in the future? Certainly, I think, the analogy to Aristotelian ethical thought can help us see that this is not so outlandish a thing to claim.Everything can seem terrible. But if we're going to fight, we've got to believe that a better world is possible.

But what might these virtues be? I'm not exactly sure; I don't really think I'm especially politically virtuous, so whilst I'm claiming some ability to grasp the form of the problem, I don't think I can possibly have full knowledge of the content of the solution (some, I'd warrant, would probably be better at this than me – but I can't, of course, claim to know who they are). On the other hand, it can't hurt to make some suggestions. So here, (tentatively) are three. 

First, modesty. Given how radically mistaken most of us were about Trump and Brexit, we should not pretend to understand the strange new world they have thrust us into: and nor should we import onto them political goals and concerns which may well have been obsoleted by the rupture which these events represent. We should, rather, attempt to gain understanding by remaining intellectually flexible; by being modest about our own insight and abilities; by thinking in terms of the particular as opposed to the general; by being receptive to experiences heterodox to our own.

Second, solidarity. We do not, at present, inhabit a particularly cohesive political community. Whilst we must presumably (unless we are, of course, fascists) be interested in the pursuit of social and economic justice across lines of class, race, gender, age nationality, sexuality, when it actually comes to communicating across these lines, we can frequently come across as blinkered, prescriptive, censorious, rude (just look at twitter). Surely no broad-based, anti-fascist political movement can hope to get anywhere unless it can foster a sense of belonging beyond such lines. We need to reach beyond the boxes we inhabit on the census form and find some way of approaching each other with humanity, respect, and good humour.

Third, hopefulness. Everything can seem terrible. But if we're going to fight, we've got to believe that a better world is possible. Imagine how dreadful Obama's election must have seemed if you were a white supremacist; imagine how hopeless things must have seemed to the Brexiters when Britain signed the Maastricht Treaty. No matter how awful we might think these people are, they took these events as their cues to fight to shape the world in their own image of how it should be – and right now, it seems, they've been successful. Their actions should, thus, not stand solely as a negative example. We need to find a way to commit to the impossible.

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