©Deirdre Nansen McCloskey | COPYRIGHTED MATERIAL

Giving a Damn: The Missing Ethics in Political Philosophy

by Deirdre McCloskey
June 2012
Filed under editorials. See also Bleeding Heart Libertarian site for original release and comments

In a seaside hotel in the Bahamas in spring of 2011 I was chatting with a man I did not know at a convention of 250 or so libertarians. I remarked in what I thought was a conciliatory tone, and by way of an ethical grounding for our shared libertarianism, and for most other political views, "Well, we all want to help the poor." He shot back instantly, "Only if they help me."

John Tomasi

That about sums up the problem that John Tomasi is trying to solve—how to bring along right-libertarian liberals, the fatherly sort like my acquaintance in the Bahamas, and the High Liberals, the motherly sort whom John and I enjoy so much as beloved if politically somewhat predictable colleagues in the Department of Political Science or the Department of English. Keeping the academic peace is the least of it. The two sides of the liberal tradition since Locke by now think of each other as idiots. John says to them: "Neither of you-all are idiots. Let's get back to the core liberal conviction, which you share, that 'society is a cooperative venture for mutual gain between citizens concerned to honor the freedom and equality of one another' (p. 172)."

John wants especially to test his promising notion of "free market fairness" on deep ethical grounds. The "level of political philosophy" that he identifies focuses "more on the quality of the regime's moral intentions (with questions about the practical likelihood. . . being bracketed)" (p. 173). "By political philosophy," he explains, "I mean a level of purely moral discourse about political questions" (p. 119). He is delighted to challenge the High Liberal Rawlsians on their home ground in political philosophy, that is, on "a single dimension of evaluation: the moral dimension" (p. 205). "Market democracy combines insights from the classical and liberal traditions at the level of moral foundations" (p. 95, his italics). And so throughout.

I warmly welcome the ambition to moralize our political lives and theories. Indeed, that is the point of one of my books, The Bourgeois Virtues: Ethics for an Age of Commerce (2006), which argued that a bourgeois life by no means requires the abandonment of ethics. Rather the contrary. We right liberals, as John notes, have too often accepted the supposition of the High Liberals that they are ethically elevated ("Help the poor"), while we have on our side only vulgar practicalities ("Maximize income"). John wants to take back ethics for a society of markets and innovation and growth, which is my project, too. He and I, with other right liberals like David Schmidtz and Gerald Gaus at the University of Arizona, where John studied, always puzzle and sometimes outrage our leftish colleagues by claiming that one can be ethical and want to help the poor and yet also think that the minimum wage is almost as bad an idea as the War on Drugs. We market liberals are so graceless as to be unwilling to concede the ethical superiority of High Liberals such as Ronald Dworkin or Martha Nussbaum. Martha wrote a generous blurb for my 2006 book, but called the book "maddening": yes, it makes people mad to hear that people they dismissed as idiots have a few thoughts, such as that a market economy can be ethical.

So, by all means, let's base political philosophy on ethics. The trouble is that John, though he is I assure you a highly ethical man, hasn't got an ethical theory worthy of the name. To the extent a theory can be discerned in a highly theoretical book, he takes his stand with Kant: "market democracy takes a more Kantian approach" (p. 98). Just as the High Liberals stand with Rousseau and natural-rights libertarians with Locke and classical/Millian liberals with Bentham, the market democrat, John seems to be saying, stand with the maxims of the Sage of Köningsberg.

Well, not exactly. Nowhere are Kant's loony conclusions from the Categorical Imperative mentioned, for example, or the rest of the details of his Only-Justice theory. John is a Kantian merely in the sense that he admires Kant's at least theoretical devotion to human dignity above all. The word "dignity" is I think a crux, both in John's book and in the history of West (for which see the very wise discussion in Bourgeois Dignity: Why Economics Can't Explain the Modern World [2010]). But I don't think it has much to do with Kant specifically. It has rather to do with the shift around 1700 in northwestern Europe towards notions of liberty and dignity for ordinary people, including merchants and inventors and eventually even the rest of hoi polloi. In the West's case, treating ordinary people as ends rather than means made for economic growth and political democracy and all our joy. In John's case the emphasis on the dignity of ordinary people constructs an ethical bridge between the High Liberals and the classical liberals/libertarians, requiring the one to admit that without paid work, and the other to admit that without income, no one can be dignified, a "responsible self-author," as John puts it.

Understand what I'm saying. John makes many good ethical points, the best being that self-authorship—the startling notion new in 1700 that even poor people should have the scope to flourish, and that pie in the sky when you die does not suffice—involves economic liberty. Careless interventions such as the High Liberals routinely defend as "designed" to help the poor, such as that same minimum wage, throw away the economic liberty that John and I want to make equal in salience to other liberties: not trumps (as the Lockean libertarians would have it) but a serious card in play. Most people are not much interested in the sorts of liberties that intellectuals dote on, such as a free press. But they are very interested in being able to start a new business or to go to another job or to be proud of putting their kids through college, which is exactly what the High Liberal so casually want to take from them and give over to experts. Tzvetan Todorov quotes the protagonist of Forever Flowing, the posthumously published novel of Vasily Grossman (1905–1964), whom he says was the sole example of a successful Stalinist writer who converted wholly to anti-Communism ("The slave in him died, and a free man arose"):

I used to think freedom was freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of conscience. Here is what it amounts to: you have to have the right to sow what you wish to, to make shoes or coats, to bake into bread the flour ground from the grain you have sown, and to sell it or not sell it as you wish; for the lathe-operator, the steelworker, and the artist it's a matter of being able to live as you wish and work as you wish and not as they order you (Todorov, Hope and Memory, 2000, p. 69f, p. 48).

And John cleverly, and correctly, convicts Hayek (p. 136) and, good Lord, Ayn Rand (p. 135f) of basing their arguments on helping the poor, that is, the "social justice" they so proudly spurn: "Social justice, we might say, gives the [Hayekian, not Lyndon Johnsonian] Great Society its [ethical] point" (p. 160). So I'm not saying that John misses all the ethical points. I'm saying that he has no ethical theory.

But he is by no means alone in this. All modern political theory since Hobbes, the part covered for example in the second volume of Alan Ryan's brilliant New Sabine, On Politics, lacks a sensible ethical grounding. It's no wonder, since the moderns gave up (1.) religion and (2.) virtue ethics, and it's hard to imagine a sensible ethical grounding without one or both of these. Martha Nussbaum's Frontiers of Justice: Disability, Nationality, Species Membership (2006) is a case in point. It attempts eloquently to add the love of others to the few accepted ethical axioms of political philosophy. She criticizes on this count the strictly Hobbesian/ Gauthieresque contractarian's assumption of Prudence Only; or the Lockean/ Rawlsian contractarian's Prudence-With-A-Version-of-Justice. In a bumper-sticker version of a complicated project, Nussbaum's book is about love-adding, bringing in our care for others from the start.

She puts forward:

The Nussbaum Lemma

I think it implausible [she writes] to suppose that one can extract justice from a starting point that does not include it in some form, and I believe that the purely prudential starting point is likely to lead in a direction that is simply different from the direction we would take if we focused on ethical norms from the start (p. 57).

The Lemma is devastating to the project since Hobbes in 1651 of pulling a just rabbit out of a purely prudential hat. You can't get virtue J, Justice, from a starting point consisting only of virtue P, Prudence. Virtue J has to be in from the start. You have to put the rabbits into the hat if you are going to pull them out.

But the Nussbaum Lemma applies also to her own project in her own book, and now also to John's. You can't stop with prudence, justice, and love of others. It is implausible to suppose that one can extract faith, temperance, hope, courage, the fullness of love—which is connection, including connection with nature or science, or God, or the poor—which are the other virtues beyond Prudence and Justice that make for human flourishing—from a starting point that does not, in Nussbaum's words, "include them in some form." And it seems likely that attempting to do so will lead in a direction that is simply different from the direction we would take if we focused on ethical norms from the start.

What of it? This: political and economic philosophy needs to be done with all seven of the virtues, not merely with some cleverly axiomatized sub-set. To characterize people with one or another of the boy's-own "models" said since 1651 to suffice for theories of justice or politics will not do.

What is required for any political ethics, in other words, is a conscientious moral agent, a virtuous person. Virtuous: namely, having the seven virtues in some idiosyncratic combination. Kant himself said so. In his Reflections on Anthropology he praised "the man who goes to the root of things," and who looks at them "not just from his own point of view but from that of the community," which is to say (wrote Kant), der Unpartheyische Zuschauer. The phrase is precisely the contemporary translation of Adam Smith's ideal character from whom at least the artificial virtues are said to flow, the Impartial Spectator. Adam Smith's system in The Theory of Moral Sentiments was the last major statement of virtue ethics before its recent revival in departments of philosophy and especially among female philosophers. In Part VI of the Theory, added in 1790, he reduced good behavior to five of the seven virtues: prudence, justice, love ("benevolence"), courage ("fortitude"), and temperance (the last two being "self-command") (Smith 1759/90, p. 236). Hope and faith and transcendent love are absent, as monkish, but the ideal bourgeois he praises in the early pages of Part VI slips them in anyway, secularly, as Smith did in his own life.

By admitting that der Unpartheyische Zuschauer begins his system, Kant undermines it, since the impartial spectator is not derivable from maxims justified merely on grounds of pure or practical reason. Kant's system is supposed to ground everything in maxims that a rational being would necessarily follow. It doesn't. What Peter Berkowitz said about Kant's political philosophy could also be said of his ethical philosophy, that he "makes practical concessions to virtue and devises stratagems by which virtue, having been formally expelled from politics, is brought back in through the side door" (Berkowitz 1999).

That is, ethics, even the political ethics we call political theory, must start from an ethical person imagined as The Ethicist or The Political Theorist—who turns out to have all seven of the Western virtues. The rabbits are already in the hat. Think of how impossible it would be to come to the conclusions of Kantian or utilitarian or Sen-Nussbaum or Buchanan-Tullock or Tomasi-Gaus political ethics if The Ethicist or The Theorist did not already have the character Rachels praises of concern, impartiality, carefulness, humility, courage, and so forth.

Frankly, my dear, he wouldn't give a damn.