"The nation's morals are like its teeth: the more decayed they are, the more it hurts to touch them." So noted George Bernard Shaw in an observation that still rings true: if the word "moral" feels painful, the word "virtue" makes most people wince. That's striking because virtues are merely the skills that enable us to flourish, if we have them. Courage and kindness, good judgment and justice: they promise life lived well. So whence the rot?
The root problem, I suspect, is that our current moral discourse lacks a compelling vision of what it is to be human. Ethics has ceased to be a source of inspiration, and instead feels like a burden – a limitation. This is because it's become what has been said of economics: a dismal science.
On the one hand is the ethics of calculation, the weighing up of one person's interests against another. It's ethics as a cost-benefit analysis, a process that hands it over to accountants. This utilitarianism is an honourable tradition: the original utilitarians argued that something is right because it increases human happiness. The problem is that they had a thin sense of what human happiness entails – certain material needs and a decent dose of quality pleasures. That struggles to articulate any richer vision of what humans might be; it fails to make any profound call on our nature. Today, pleasures abound, at least in the west, and it's an approach running out of steam. We sense there must be more. It can't say what.
Then, on the other hand, is the ethics of regulation. This is ethics as a series of responsibilities to which we're tied as a result of a contract we're locked into because we live with others. It risks handing ethics over to the lawyers, and has a view of life that is bureaucratic. It makes personal ethics feel like corporate compliance, a burden – perhaps a necessary one – but never a source of vitality because, again, it does not have the capacity to inspire. It doesn't ask what we can be, only addressing what we ought to do, and often ought not to do.
An obvious, invaluable strength of a democratic culture is that it allows everyone to pursue their interests relatively freely. And yet, as Alexis de Tocqueville noted, the democratic individual can easily fall into the delusion that they are rich enough and educated enough to supply their own needs. "Such folk owe no man anything and hardly expect anything from anyone," he writes in Democracy in America. "They form the habit of thinking of themselves in isolation and imagine that their whole destiny is in their own hands."
He'd spotted an old problem. Pericles, the great champion of democracy in ancient Athens, praised individual initiative, but also warned against the citizen who lives only for himself. He said that such individuals have no right to be part of the city-state upon which their flourishing depends. And he had a noun for such folk too, idiotes – from which we get a well-known English word.
In other words, the tensions inherent in the language of rights and democracy highlight something of great importance. To be human is to be, at once, independent and dependent. We can only become independent because of our dependency, and vice versa.
This integrative view finds support in other areas of research. A striking one is neuroscience. Iain McGilchrist, in The Master and his Emissary, explores how the two hemispheres of the brain see the world differently, one as if we are independent, self-attending creatures; the other as if we are dependent, other-seeking creatures. His point is not that one is better than the other, but that both are required, one for the other...To paraphrase in my own word, humans with a strong sense of their full identity, both as individuals and as members of positive social structures, live richer, fuller, more purposeful (i.e. happy) lives.
Let me be clear. I believe strongly that positive participation (via empathy, generosity, friendship, kindness, etc.) in social structures are required for human happiness and overall flourishing. I also believe strongly that government can do very little, either by design or dictate, to organize positive social structures. Empathy, generosity, and love can only elevate both humans and humanity when practiced through choice. Positive social institutions (family, church, neighborhoods, communities, etc.) can only be successfully created through private initiative, and only with much effort. This makes it all the more important that people everywhere are awakened to their importance, and committed to their existence.