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October 27, 2004

The Two Moralities Project: Decadence: The Passing of Personal Virtue and Its Replacement by Political and Psychological Slogans - (Ed.) Digby Anderson

Posted by Michael Mosbacher

The Social Affairs Unit is pleased to announce that it has just received a major grant from the John Templeton Foundation for a new project on The Two Moralities.

Past work by The Social Affairs Unit (e.g. The Loss of Virtue) might appear to suggest that virtuous action and discussion and understanding of traditional virtues is in decline in modern society; that virtues are being 'lost'. In fact an attentive reading of that book and others shows that while traditional virtues may be disappearing, other things which look somewhat like virtues and which clearly use a moral rhetoric are in plentiful supply.

The two moralities to be compared and contrasted are traditional morality and modern morality. The individual virtues chosen for analysis are, in traditional morality:
A Classical Virtue: Courage, plus risk-taking, fortitude, endurance;
A Christian Virtue: Charity with some attention also to humility (and thus pride), forgiveness and mercy;
A Victorian virtue: Thrift in earning, saving and spending with hard-work;
A Conservative Virtue: Conserving and upholding tradition in family and property with consideration of dutifulness and pietas;
An Administrative Virtue: Disinterestedness with honesty, fairness and reliability; and
The application of the virtues: through the Prudential Virtues, judgment, arbitration, the admission of possible error, reconciling competing virtues.

The six new morality virtues are:
Environmental virtues;
Distributive Virtues;
Psychological Virtues: Self-affirmation, autonomy, not being repressed plus some physical virtues, being healthy;
Business Virtues: transparency, accountability;
Intellectual Virtues: being critical, new thought; and
Sentimental/Therapeutic Virtues: caring, showing emotion.

The project is for 12 contributors to take one each, give examples of how it was or is expressed, ask whether it is indeed a virtue, and try to trace any relationship with virtues from the other morality. Thus six authors will start buy looking at a traditional virtue, assess it then look to see what developments/ perversions of it might be found in modern virtues, while the other six work the other way round.

The contributors will present their findings at a symposium in the spring of 2004 and thereafter a book will be organized, published and disseminated. The symposium will be chaired, and the book edited, by Digby Anderson.

Update 10th October 2005: The project's book - Decadence: The Passing of Personal Virtue and Its Replacement by Political and Psychological Slogans, edited by Digby Anderson - has been published today.

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Well it's very schematic - although obviously this is a listing not a discussion.

Wouldn't Locke be said to be recommending "thrift" in his "Thoughts on Education"? - hardly a "Victorian" work (1692, IIRC). And it hardly springs on the scene with Locke ...

"Environmental virtues" is an odd one for the "baddies" list. For a start, there is a conflict here with "Conservative Virtue" - which is in the "goodies" list. For "environmentalism" means (or ought at any rate to mean) the "conserving" of worthwhile and traditional landscapes. Few people - probably no one - has argued as eloquently and convincingly for this care for the landscape as Britain's leading conservative philosopher Roger Scruton (See "News From Somewhere".)

I think that since care for our surroundings is such an obviously good thing, it is easy for it to become a emotional lever and an excuse to advance destructive political and social ideas. Green Parties have certainly tried to use it as an excuse to advance socialist agendas. Staggeringly incongrous - and impertinent - when one recalls the extent of pollution in the old eastern bloc. Still, misuse of an idea is one thing; I don't see this virtue, properly understood, with the "baddies".

I think "repression" is in the right list. This bogus concept has probably done enough damage. Sometimes people speak of "inhibition", which is ridiculous. Inhibition is a natural biological mechanism - there has to be stop as well as go - and people who really can't inhibit have a problem. Inhibiting actually means choosing to do nothing, allowing a moment of calmness, as a cat does before it springs. Most people in modern society, owing to the frenetic pace of life, probably don't inhibit enough. If we were to try to attach a sensible meaning to "repression" in muscular terms, it would probably mean holding a reaction in check by muscular force. And this would be less than ideal: it would be layering one unhelpful reaction on top of another. In fact, what one needs rather to do is *not* to react - to inhibit - until ready to react suitably - like the cat does. But that is a complex psycho-physical process, and for humans can involve reflecting, too. The usual meaning attached to the term by the psychobabblers is a purely "psychological" and a highly questionable one - namely, that some (unspecified) harm will come to me, if I don't give in to my dubious urges - say, the urge to punch a psychoanalyst.

Posted by: Michael at October 27, 2004 08:13 PM
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