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Virtue Ethics Renewed: Morality in a post religious, post relativist secular age

26th June 2015

Top down morality is out, hierarchies of traditionally respected authority are done. Our institutions, in particular those that wield political power are typically viewed with serious mistrust. The maxim that: ‘Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men’, has found its fulfilment, certainly in the perceptions of the British public.

What is required is a renaissance of virtue. People have begun to push back against the relativism that, in self defeating logic, asserts that there is no truth, because that means that there can be no appeal to an agreed social good because it doesn’t exist, never mind that an assertion that there is no objective truth is itself an assertion of objectivity.

The warnings of John Henry Newman about relativism (he termed it Liberalism) have come true, and as Dr Henri Nouwen outlined in Wounded Healer the only real source of authority that remains is compassion. For those seeking to consistently demonstrate the truth of their religious belief it is only the powerful demonstration of their gentle gratuitous love for the other that will have any influence.

Virtue ethics unites those with or without religious faith but above all it is a secular proposal, consistent with natural law approaches (using reason to analyse human nature) it is our uniquely human capacity for reason that can guide us to objective truth and consequently commonly held social goods. This does not however mean that we can ever reach perfect knowledge or claim that we possess all truth but in the dialogue of reasonable people of good will from the greatest intellects of our age to common people (a term refashioned by Jarvis Cocker) in other words we are all capable of moral philosophy.

Virtue ethics originated with Socrates, Plato and Aristotle and was focused on the individual and how they might become a better person, albeit within a supportive community. Now, as then, it remains focused on the person, and what attributes and qualities make them good rather than categorising actions as right and wrong. It aims at what motivates us to be good and sees good actions and behaviour as flowing from that rather than the other way around. It is therefore both humanist and subjective in the best sense of these terms, recognising that every individual’s specific circumstances and history will be entirely different. Nevertheless it is a philosophically realist view, rejecting the relativist subjectivity that sees any reality as socially or psychologically constructed.

It is worth clearly emphasising that in embarking on any renaissance of virtue we cannot be in the business of advocating for the re-imposition of failed authoritarian, enforced rules based morality; firstly because this in of itself is morally questionable, secondly because ultimately it doesn’t work, in part because it fails to recognize our individual creativity and dignity. But thirdly and most essentially because virtue ethics is anything but, contrary to the view of some, the latest in a long line of attempts to impose morality on an unwilling or unsuspecting populace.

At ResPublica we envisage a renewed conversation about what is meant when voices in the public square speak of the need for institutions, communities and our politics to be founded on a spirit of virtue and strength of character. Our Virtue workstreams will endeavour to stimulate such debate.

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