Professor John Milbank speaks to The Disraeli Room on what he means by virtue - and how it can transform our society at every level for good
In the second part of a thought-provoking and scholarly riposte to the criticism levelled by readers at his thinkpiece co-written with Phillip Blond on Guardian's Comment Is Free column, to critiques of the piece's arguments about virtue and equality on the Fabian Society's Next Left blog, and to Sunder Katwala's in-depth critique of the first part, Professor John Milbank follows his disquisition on the problem with a narrow concept of merit, by explaining that the concept of virtue, rather than the liberal or indeed Fabian instrumentalist idea of autonomy, can deliver the positive goals of both left and right.
"...I have already argued that the Rawlsian position implies an incoherent endless allowing and dismantling of inequality. This suggests that equality only in freedom is non-viable and also that it quickly generates inequalities of outcome that are scarcely tolerable in terms of huge disparities of income etc. But the alternative has to be equality in acknowledged human goods.
My case would be that there can be no socialism without objectivity of value. For if opinion and taste are merely subjective, then only the market and bureaucratic procedure can mediate the implied social anarchy. This is why capitalism is so modern and why of course critics of capitalism must be somewhat conservative – and indeed, probably in some sense religious. In order to have even literal equality we have to agree about the human goods that all should enjoy – and very quickly what is at issue is more than mere material comfort or the freedom to choose. If we can't recognise any objective goods beyond this then very soon a few will enjoy prestige goods according to fashion that others won't. Fashion and spectacle rush in to fill the gap abandoned by denial of objective good. Social nature cannot tolerate a virtue vacuum!
So, for example, if we claim not to have a hierarchy of the virtuous we will instead get a celebrity culture. Or if we deny that classical and Jazz music are superior forms of music, then teenagers will compete over rubbish unmusic as they do now. Which is socialist, New Labour's favouring of pop culture over high culture (and soccer over cricket in pretentious middle-class ignorance of the Lancashire league..), or Hugo Chavez's programme to get poor kids to learn classical instruments and form youth orchestras?
Equality in autonomy alone quickly means extreme inequalities in outcome that must be ceaselessly reversed with every generation - but equality in basic human goods achieves a far more stable sort of levelling.
It can permit inequality related to virtue, but even that is mitigated by the fact that virtue encourages others, and so it inherently tries to move others up the hierarchy. Real hierarchy can never be static, just as real aristocracy is related to the educative role. Again mention of ‘aristocracy' (in the ancient, not the fox-hunting sense) can make the left scream, yet democracy has a dialectical requirement for this. Without an educative hierarchy which seeks to know, to embody and communicate the good for its own sake, democracy will collapse (as we see in our time) because it will be subject to sophistic manipulation. This is because democracy is not abyssal – always, before people decide democratically, they consider opinions just ‘presented' to them and not voted on at all. So either we have nihilistic manipulators presenting these opinions because we don't believe there is any objective good to be found, or else we have a tradition of educators (in the broadest sense) who seek the good for its own sake and not for the sake of democratic influence. (And note that I'm not saying that we already know all of the objective good – only that we require faith that this can be further discovered.)
The key paradox here is that democracy depends for its functioning upon a non-democratic (indeed in a technical sense, aristocratic) quest for truth. For if truth can be voted upon, then voting must be swayed by untruthful sophistic influence and therefore is not free after all and so is undemocratic. These are the keys to Socrates and Plato's critique of Athenian democracy. Once upon a time this was seen as ‘reactionary' (by Popper etc) but today even thinkers on the far left like Badiou and Boris Groys accept its radical pertinence.
Because virtue is to do with ethos and education (politics for the sake of paideia and not the other way around), the alternative is virtue as tarted-up merit - and so any idea that there might be a 'national virtue panel' is hardly exhaustive! What Blond and I are talking about is a total shift in ethos at every level. This would include trying to build good ethical practice into the way the market operates. Such could be achieved partly by example – firms that are co-ops between owners, workers and consumers can win out in the long run by crowding out bad practice. This is because people will support fair treatment, better products at fairer prices - and so on.
But I would also see a role for external constraint of two kinds here. First, free rather than monopolistic guilds of professional practice where membership means one has signed up to certain ethical standards. This could give a competitive advantage (like a free trade label only much more) and that could be increased if such guilds gave special rewards for outstanding practice. Competition need not be only for profit. Second there is a role for the state in tightening the legal framework – making companies and investors far more liable in relation to risk, and defining more exactly what legitimate economic purposes are and insisting that they should include social purposes. The idea that the profit motive can't be combined with other ones is ungrounded. Also perhaps wages and prices should come more within the legal purview – with local boards and courts for this, not central direction. It's this kind of thing I mean – not an inquisition about behaviour!
Part of this whole package would mean engendering a different kind of rich person – not the rich people we have today only a bit kinder! And also people much less rich in fact – because the idea that reward should be linked to virtue and its scope would actually mean far fewer second homes, luxury yachts, secret bank accounts and endless holidays etc etc.
I think then, that the reason why Blond and I are saying something a bit different from much (but by no means all) of the contemporary left is that we defend inequality more directly in terms of the idea of nobility in its ancient sense – though of course to be properly reconfigured. However, I don't at all think this in any way distances me from Tawney, who was a virtue thinker on account of his High Anglican theology. This legacy in itself naturally included a certain High Tory moment, as is too easily ignored. Indeed the most important influence on the first Labour MP's was probably John Ruskin -- the original red tory/blue socialist who declared himself to be equally dyed in the deepest hue of those two colours. It is for me the whig/Fabian legacy that is the alien intruder into Labour tradition.
The liberal versus communitarian/associationist debate lurks therefore behind the present debate because Blond and I are defending both equality and inequality in terms of the objective good and not simply utility or negative freedom..."
We will to link to Next Left's response to John's arguments when published.