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Tradition, Opinion and Individualism

The more interesting principle is number one: that individuals are free to decide basic moral questions. This by far the more dangerous assumption. The reason the mass cannot be trusted is because the mass is made up of individuals who cannot be trusted. Few people, by the end of their lives, have ever thought through a single moral question on their own. If they are good, it is because their character and moral understanding have been formed by their family, their Church, and their friends, all of whom represent a long-standing moral tradition. This is true even of virtuous moral philosophers, whose basic distinctions between right and wrong are not arrived at by an exercise of reason. As Aristotle showed long ago, philosophy serves to confirm the character and principles that have been formed by our families and friends. If we are virtuous, philosophy helps to teach us why and how we can and should be virtuous, but if we are vicious, philosophy will only confirm our vice. This leads me to a basic principle of Ethics 01A. The individual, his will and appetites and above all his opinions, are not to be regarded in moral questions. No moral or political philosophy that emphasizes the acquisitive self can be taken seriously either by Christians or by morally serious pagans. If we accept a tradition and live within it, then those of us who are not philosophers are to trust the broad tradition (though not necessarily any one exponent of it) and not put much credit in our private opinions. ~Thomas Fleming

Dr. Fleming's words are salutary. I would add that most of what we tend to call private opinions are not really formed opinions at all, as this would require them to be reasoned and informed. What is conventionally called private opinion is usually as irrational and sentimental as much of so-called "public opinion," which is usually nothing other than the popular mood. I refer everyone back to Prof. Lukacs' Democracy and Populism or Historical Consciousness for more on this theme.

Also, most individualist or self-centered ethical claims do not work on this level, but appeal to the passions and make the expression of passionate impulses, to one degree or another, the measure of moral rationality. An ethical system built up around enlightened self-interest only makes sense if we believe that individuals possess sufficient illumination on their own to restrain appetite and excess stemming from the pursuit of self-interest, but without the norms of society, the teachings of the Church and the instruction of parents no individual is sufficiently conscientious to be able to make appropriate judgements.

In such a system, not only is the individual deemed perfectly competent to arrive at the right conclusions about ethical obligations and virtuous conduct without external restraints or significant reliance on received or traditional habits, which is bizarre enough, but his desires are invested with normative value. If someone desires to do something, regardless of what it is, usually provided it does not come at expense of someone else (typically phrased in terms of rights), then on the whole such a system says that he may do so.

But ethics, as best as I understand, should be understood as the way of life that we ought to lead to live an excellent life. Ethical systems that give priority to individual judgement and choice are systems designed to encourage us to yield to desires, usually with the provision that they are 'harmless' or 'victimless' (and the judge of that harmlessness will, in the end, be the individual potentially inflicting harm). But this is essentially to enshrine desire, not reason, as the measure of what is right and true.

It is also to make the possibility of choice virtuous in itself, and the denial of that choice a form of injustice. Thus some libertarians can claim to be 'agnostic' or indifferent to certain evils, such as abortion, because for them the diminution of choice is a greater wrong. But in Christian ethics as understood by the Fathers, especially St. Maximos, choice itself is already latently vicious, as our deliberate or 'gnomic' will is a function of being fallen and not a mark of nature (as we were not created ignorant of the Good, we originally did not need to deliberate to act virtuously, and our natural will was in free obedience to the will of God, indeed in the only true freedom man can possess). Ethics that prize individual choice exalt and empower the faculty that Christian ethics teach us to eliminate or at the very least severely restrain.

Daniel Larison | September 08, 2005


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