Some Good Ideas

Some Good Ideas:

...and a very few bad ones. Let's try to sort out which are which.

We're speaking of Alasdair MacIntyre, whose thoughts on virtue, ethics and morals are largely wise and well-considered:

He has lambasted the heirs to the principal western ethical schools: John Locke’s social contract, Immanuel Kant’s categorical imperative, Jeremy Bentham’s utilitarian “the greatest happiness for the greatest number.” Yet his is not a lone voice in the wilderness. He can claim connections with a trio of 20th-century intellectual heavyweights: the late Elizabeth Anscombe, her surviving husband, Peter Geach, and the Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor, winner in 2007 of the Templeton prize. What all four have in common is their Catholic faith, enthusiasm for Aristotle’s telos (life goals), and promotion of Thomism, the philosophy of St Thomas Aquinas who married Christianity and Aristotle.
So wise and well-considered are his ideas that they manage to come up with something good even when they are rooted in Marx.
MacIntyre begins his Cambridge talk by asserting that the 2008 economic crisis was not due to a failure of business ethics. The opener is not a red herring. Ever since he published his key text After Virtue in 1981, he has argued that moral behaviour begins with the good practice of a profession, trade, or art: playing the violin, cutting hair, brick-laying, teaching philosophy. Through these everyday social practices, he maintains, people develop the appropriate virtues. In other words, the virtues necessary for human flourishing are not a result of the top-down application of abstract ethical principles, but the development of good character in everyday life....

There are skills, he argues, like being a good burglar, that are inimical to the virtues. Those engaged in finance—particularly money trading—are, in MacIntyre’s view, like good burglars. Teaching ethics to traders is as pointless as reading Aristotle to your dog. The better the trader, the more morally despicable.

At this point, MacIntyre appeals to the classical golden mean: “The courageous human being,” he cites Aristotle as saying, “strikes a mean between rashness and cowardice… and if things go wrong she or he will be among those who lose out.” But skilful money-men, MacIntyre argues, want to transfer as much risk as possible to others without informing them of its nature. This leads to a failure to “distinguish adequately between rashness, cowardice and courage.” Successful money-men do not—and cannot—take into account the human victims of the collateral damage resulting from market crises. Hence the financial sector is in essence an environment of “bad character” despite the fact that it appears to many a benevolent engine of growth.
"Wait!" one might say -- and particular one like me, who has traveled in the third world. We're not talking merely of 'growth,' some vague thing that might be a chimera. We're talking about massive and sustained improvements in the quality of life, education, and liberty of people who have suffered tremendously. Taking on board that part of anti-colonialism that is valuable, we can still say that the people of (say) China are massively better off now than at any point in the past; certainly better off than under Maoism.

That is not too far a stretch for the gentleman.
MacIntyre argues that those committed to the Aristotelian-Thomistic tradition of the common good must begin again. This involves “capturing the double aspect of the globalising economy and its financial sector, so that we understand it both as an engine of growth and as such a source of benefits, but equally as a perpetrator of great harms and continuing injustices.” Apologists for globalisation, he argues, treat it as a source of benefits, and only accidentally and incidentally a source of harms. Hence, the view that “to be for or against globalisation is in some ways like being for or against the weather.”

MacIntyre maintains, however, that the system must be understood in terms of its vices—in particular debt.
Here we find that he is addressing what is really the central moral and political issue of our time. The challenges posed by war, by terrorism, by torture, all these pale in scale and ramifications to the moral and political challenge of debt. That may be hard to see at once, but I think it is right. The war in Iraq has involved, directly, perhaps one percent of Americans; if you want to speak of taxes paid, it's a small percentage of what you are paying. The debt issue envelops all living generations, and those yet born; and overwhelms, in terms of cost. While there is a depth to the moral problem of violence that seems to have no bottom, too, there is that same depth to the questions we face with debt: questions which come down to leaving people to die, and choosing which people. They are questions of honor and fealty, because others have promised in our name; and to break that bond is to break all bonds.

For example, we recently received as an assertion from the Congress figure one of this report. I don't think they're adequately accounting for Federal pensions there, which are another set of massive transfer payments owed to the retiring: but that just makes the point worse. The wealth of the nation has already been spent -- and to avoid collapse, there is little choice but to repudiate some of the debts. To put it simplistically, if we eliminated Medicare and Medicaid, and refused to pay on Federal pensions, we would be fiscally fine forever: but only by breaking our promises to older Americans who no longer have a long time to plan their way out of the problem.

On the other hand, to the degree that we don't break these promises, we're destroying the lives of the younger generation -- the one that is currently trying to raise families, who are poorer on average than the older generation, and who have had less opportunity to build and save wealth. They will pay punishing taxes and watch their nation bankrupted. Whose fault is that? The Congress', for making promises while spending the cash they were supposed to set aside -- that is, for taking on debt. But also those older Americans', whose job as citizens was to stop them.

That leaves aside, as we should not, the way in which the politicians and big business (including big labor) have become a wealth-extracting machine; as Ymar and Eric rightly point out, that's the real story behind this TSA mess. Why are Americans being subjected to these radical humiliations, when (as BillT points out) there is no legitimate security purpose at work? For the same reason that the crash of 2008 can bankrupt and destroy you and me, but not the big banks! Not General Motors! They must be saved -- with our cash.

It also leaves aside, as we should not, the way in which Congress encouraged and enabled -- and, failing that, required -- the lending of money to people more likely to be destroyed by it. The moral hazard of that is something Cassandra often wrote about; perhaps she will speak to it in the comments here.

Or the same reason that QE is destroying our purchasing power in order to avoid 'inflation' -- at a time when gas and food prices are already higher than a year ago, and heading higher yet. Who is that helping? Not you and me; but it is helping the big banks.

So let's read the rest, and talk about the ideas. It's an interesting mix of influences. We've got some time this week, with the holiday: I'd like to talk this through with you. What do you think?

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