Not to revisit a debate that, by internet standards, is now ancient history – having taken place as a result of my posting last week in criticism of the modern conservative commitment to profoundly anti-conservative philosophy of liberalism – but looking over what Peter wrote and others posted as comments, I think it is interesting to draw out some of the implicit problems of a “stuck with virtue” conservatism.
There is, on the one hand, a kind of end-of-history resignation to the fact of liberalism’s necessary and irreversible triumph. There is the suggestion that a political liberalism and free market capitalism is the most natural regime and economy for human beings, as if there were not great struggle and contrivance that had to take place for its success. Peter suggests – passingly – that markets succeed naturally because they accord best with our nature as acquistive creatures. This is, at best, itself an exaggeration of the supposed inevitable march of free markets in the world. Even surveying American history, there was considerable effort exerted by pro-liberal, pro-market forces on different aspects of American culture that were resistant (I won’t mention the problematic case of the American South; one can think, instead, of efforts by Midwest farmers to resist the coming of proto-globalization during the Populist movement. The fact that they resisted its advance certainly can’t be chalked up to false consciousness, can it?).
Peter suggests that it is because of the very success of modern liberalism that virtue is more necessary than ever. Because of the inevitable inability for humans to conquer nature in all respects – the fact that we are still the creature that is conscious of its own death, above all, no matter our ability to conquer ever more of nature – means that we must necessarily rely upon the classical and Christian virtues. Yet, because we are also ever more successful in the technological ability to govern even the inevitable anxieties that remain amid our progress (one thinks here of Prozac, everpresent distractions of popular culture, and the like), our ability and inclination to cultivate and practice those virtues is more difficult than ever. Lawler suggests that we simultaneously need, and have the opportunity to avoid, those virtues more than ever.
There is a kind of resignation to this tragedy of liberalism’s success, but also a sense that those who do practice a kind of virtue are more virtuous than ever. Virtue came relatively easier to a pre-modern people who did not have to confront the liberating force and success of modern liberalism and its attendant prosperity and mastery of nature. Those who are able to live with their modern misery – even live well – are more virtuous than any Aristotleian Greek or mendicant monk. Virtue is a greater accomplishment than ever.
More than that, virtue is precisely more virtuous than ever because it, too, has been liberated from necessity. Naturally it is far easier to be virtuous where there are fewer choices, fewer temptations, fewer options. Precisely by making virtue itself a choice – perhaps the ultimate choice, given that it consists in part in the choice not to choose (e.g., not to take Prozac, to wallow in the truth of our misery), virtue becomes truer and purer than ever before.
Yet, this very argument begins to resemble a kind of Kantian ethical heroism, whereby we eschew some aspects of a hedonistic modernity through the herculean exercise of human will. The practice of virtue itself becomes a form of “the triumph of the will”: it rests in the power of individuals to achieve an extraordinary self-willed, conscious exercise of increasingly difficult forms of virtue.
But perhaps this is the wrong way to proceed, and misunderstands virtue: perhaps virtue was not supposed to be this hard or this willed, but rather was an accomplishment not of individuals, but of cultures. After all, it is Aristotle who begins in the Nicomachean Ethics to speak of virtue as a form of habituation, a pre-conscious set of practices that we learn before we are necessarily conscious of them as virtues. One can compare the habituated acquisition of pre-modern virtue to the learning of table manners: children are taught gradually the proper way of eating in a civilized manner before they have any awareness of the grounds for such practice. Indeed, it is seldom the case that even parents know the deeper cultural and even philosophic grounds for the practice of table manners: it is something into which they were likewise habituated when they were children. There is a strong suggestion in Aristotle that most of the virtues of humans begin, and are ultimately successful, due to successful habituation, and not the heroic philosophic and willed capacity to act with virtue in spite of the structure and assumptions of the wider society.
What we need perhaps to entertain is the non-liberal idea that virtue can be the achievement of a culture – the capacity to habituate generation upon generation into the practice of various civilized virtues. Rather than drawing on a liberal, individualistic paradigm in which we understand such people to have fallen short of heroic self-willed forms of virtue, we can rather understand that the capacity to continuously and successfully transmit certain forms of habituated virtue is a signal accomplishment of a culture. In some senses, it is actually such people who are “stuck with virtue,” or for whom virtue is stuck to them from a very young age.
What I attempted to convey in my last post is the idea that what liberalism does exceedingly well is break the transmission of culture. By displacing the authority of the past – in the form of tradition, custom, and ancestral – it is produces a culture of anti-culture. The virtuous person in such an environment is simply the lastest manifestation of the self-made man: someone who pulls himself up by his moral bootstraps in spite of the challenges that the age presents. This is simply a reification of the voluntarism and the valorization of the naked human will that marks the trajectory of modern liberalism.
Such virtue has the unvirtuous effect of undermining the inculcation of virtue. The rendering of all things into choice is not to establish a neutral ground in which we freely choose among all options, including option C, virtue. Choice in all things generates its own logic, above all the tendency to choose those outcomes that increase choice. A “culture” of choice is not neutral about choice itself. Thus, while virtue is available to the few counter-cultural heroes of a liberal society, the anti-culture of liberalism has the effect of “habituating” its young toward the embrace of ever greater multiplication of choices. I find very little virtue in resignation to such an outcome – rather, I see a deep reneging of the responsibility of an older generation in providing guidance to the young about choices that are better and worse, based upon the experience of history, past, and tradition. One example of such avoidance of responsibility (drawn from my own vocational experience) is the movement in universities away from any fixed requirements in the curriculum. We leave it to our students to figure out what will constitute a good education, reneging the hard responsibility of providing guidance. Within a liberal context we can congratulate ourselves in providing ever more liberty to the young (perhaps including providing them the possibility of exercising virtue), but in so doing, perhaps we have in fact avoided the most fundamental virtue that an older generation owes a younger generation: responsibility and care. Liberal emancipation ultimately takes the form of not caring enough to send the very best. It’s watchwords are, "not that there’s anything wrong with that" – no matter what "that" is. One is hard pressed to imagine a worse philosophy of parenting, or, by extension, a worse attitude of an older generation to a younger. Perhaps we should consider whether a “culture” of choice means that we are stuck with virtue, or whether in fostering such a “culture” we are sticking it – but decidedly not virtue that we ourselves avoid – to our children.