Tuesday, February 14, 2023

The Status of Moral Virtue


The Status of Moral Virtue

Peter Schultz


            In his book, The CIA as Organized Crime, Douglas Valentine asserts that torture or inhumanity is due to “beastly impulses rooted in the dark side of the human psyche.” And, apparently, this “dark side,” these “beastly impulses” exist in decent people insofar as torturers, e.g., are often decent people in many ways. So, humans would seem to be bifurcated, divided, a combination of decency and beastliness.


            But what if “the dark side of the human psyche” is indistinguishable from the decent side of the human psyche? That is, what if beastliness and decency are related in such a way that decency provides no defense, no deterrence against beastly impulses? If so, then the status of decency, of moral virtue, is, at the very least, ambiguous. Or it could be that moral virtue is illusionary altogether. While it might seem to be real, the fact that it frequently disappears, that it is frequently replaced by vice – and at times is even replaced by beastliness – means that it isn’t actually real. Interestingly, in his Ethics, Aristotle has moral virtue culminate into what he called “magnanimity,” which is described by Aristotle as a façade for vanity or pomposity. The magnanimous person seems almost comical in Aristotle’s description.


            Insofar as moral virtue is illusionary, it is necessary to turn elsewhere if one desires to prevent or deter beastliness or inhumanity.  And, interestingly, Aristotle follows up his Ethics with The Politics. Beastliness or inhumanity is not, as Valentine asserts, a psychological problem; rather, it is a political problem, a phenomenon that can only be prevented or deterred by political means. And, more generally, it may be said that establishing human decency is also a political problem, which seems consistent with Aristotle’s argument that political knowledge is the architectonic knowledge. Unless we humans understand politics, acquire genuine political knowledge, we are doomed to beastliness or inhumanity, which as Aristotle indicates in The Politics includes incest and cannibalism. Moral virtue alone cannot humanize us.

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