Tuesday, June 19, 2007

The Language of Virtue in Public Discourse

This little essay by Linda Hirshman, although sketchy, was interesting. I think it suffers from trying to do two different things in space too small to do both: namely, (1) to identify and encourage the use of virtue ethics in particular (and classical philosophy in general) to enrich our moral discourse about politics; and (2) to contrast classical philosophy as a source of moral language with religion as a source of moral language. Trying to do both makes it seem a little jumbled; so, for instance, we find Christopher Hitchens quoted (to make a point about (2)) even though he's a very poor fit to most of the argument, and some clumsy uncritical comments about faith that manage to insult everyone's intelligence by apparently assuming that none of us know enough about theological versions of virtue ethics to see that she is simply making things up. It makes no sense to advocate the use of virtue ethics as a form of public moral discourse and then to assign arbitrary meanings to things like 'virtue of faith' without regard for the ways faith can be, and has been, regarded in serious discourse about virtue.

With regard to (1), I think that, when we disentangle it from (2), we can state the argument for it a bit more cleanly than we find it in Hirshman's essay. Namely:

(A) There is a pressing need for an adequate moral language in discourse about our government.
(B) Virtue theory in particular, and classical philosophy in general, is a rich source of moral language well-adapted for this end, in that (a) it is public; and it is more robust than formalistic alternatives.
(C) There are indications that it is (if only partwise and partially) being applied in this way to good effect.

Thus there is good reason for us to tap into this source more thoroughly. And this is certainly quite right.

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