Monday, April 17, 2006

Dierdre McCloskey: virtue as transgendered, transpersonal, transcendent

Can you get rabbits out of a hat if none have been put there in the first place? Can you understand (or generate) a flourishing human society using, in Bernard Williams's words, "an immensely simple theory"--perhaps even just a single, simple axiom like Hobbesian utility maximization that will blossom through careful deduction into a full understanding of what the good life is?

Dierdre McCloskey says no in the Buchanan Lecture, and in fact rejects even the next few most-reductionist theories after Hobbes, like Hobbes with a few justice steroid injections (Rawls), and Hobbes+Rawls with a dollop of other-concern (Nussbaum). To get a theory of the full panoply of ways that a society and a human life can go right (or wrong), you need to feed some sense of those virtues (and vices) into your machine at the start.

This doesn't mean you are engaging in circularity. What you're doing is heading both toward first principles by making hypotheses about the roots of human nature and refining those in light of failures and inconsistencies, and then using those honed first principles, moving from them deductively to apply your newly gained understanding. This is the heart of Alasdair MacIntyre's First Principles, Final Ends, and Contemporary Philosophy. The Cartesian process is nonsense. McCloskey gets it.

So let's drop the idea that a mere self-interested invisible hand can generate our intuitions about why the good person will not crush the weak, or that Rawls can get a theory about a just human community of extended fellowship just by taking away information. Put the rabbits in the hat already. Prudence, justice, temperance, courage, faith, hope, and love. While one might believe some of these can be reduced to the others, or draw slightly different divisions, the roots of human and societal flourishing are fundamentally plural. The Hobbesian program is a failure.

The second half of this paper is a discussion of how these virtues lead not to strong communitarianism, but to a robust respect for individual rights. The connection between the cardinal virtues, property rights, and limited government is a complicated one. Discovering what institutions are most conducive to the human polis is the job of sociology resting on a strong philosophy of man. Public choice theory, on this view, is a major contribution to a field that the Greeks hardly knew existed, at which late medievals like Suarez and Bellarmine made some weak stabs, and that the moderns have failed at.

McCloskey also discusses the "genderedness" of the virtues--hers is an interesting perspective, given her sex change--and the importance of transcendent virtues like faith and hope even in a secular society. Finally, she notes that virtues like prudence and temperance are "aristocratic" habits in that the ancients thought the well-off leisured class could best practice them, while faith and hope are "peasant"--perhaps referring to the Nietzschean slave revolt, but embracing it, and noting that these virtues more and more reach to the transcendent rather than quotidian preferences.

I'll probably be writing more on this article soon. Please do check it out. Below the fold is a diagram of the virtues. Also: Norbert Elias and Bentham talked a lot about "the ideology of self-control" and the "civilizing process." This seems closely connected...

As you go upwards, the object of the virtue becomes more transcendent; as you go to the left, more masculine (autonomy), while to the left is feminine (relatedness).








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