Friday, September 19, 2008

The Return of Goodness; The Return of God

Edward Skidelsky has written a very intelligent essay of virtue ethics - "The Return of Goodness." It's a call for an ethic based on goodness rather than a utilitarian ethic. For example, utilitarian philosopher John Stuart Mill wrote: "Neither one person, nor any number of persons," declared John Stuart Mill, the originator of this principle, "is warranted in saying to another human creature of ripe years, that he shall not do with his life for his own benefit what he chooses to do with it." In other words, do what you want as long as you don't hurt someone else.

"Mill's principle has come to shape western public doctrine. It lies behind the social legislation of the 1960s and the anti-discriminatory legislation of the past four decades. Neither left nor right dares reject it openly. Yet in historical terms, it is an anomaly, a departure from the common sense of our species." So "a man who, having fulfilled his obligations to others, settles down with a six-pack to watch porn on television all day may be foolish, disgusting, vulgar and so forth, but he is not strictly speaking immoral. For he is, as the saying goes, "within his rights.""

"Virtue" has no place in this philosophy of morality. So? Skidelsky, who also cites the support of Richard Reeves, suggests that our real problems in our nation are not economic, but moral. We lack the moral resources to better our lot in life.

Virtue ethics argues that some choices really are better than others. There is such a thing as "goodness." "Goodness" sounds like it's an objective moral value, contra utilitarian subjectivism. Skidelsky thinks we can agree to this without belief in God. He says "it is a religion - a religion without God."
Can we be good without God? Yes, I think we can. Does goodness make any sense without God? No, I don't think so. We need a metaphyscial foundation to be able to claim that there is such a thing as "goodness." It is precisely the loss of God that led atheistic philosophers to try to find an ethical theory without God. Hence utilitarianism. So it seems our real problems are not essentially moral, but religious.