Wednesday, June 5, 2024

Politics, Moral Virtue, and Jane Austen


Politics, Moral Virtue, and Jane Austen

Peter Schultz


                  Let us say, as is commonly thought, that politics points humans in the direction of moral virtue. That is, through politics, humans are encouraged to be good or morally virtuous. For example, being an American is seen as being good or morally virtuous, just as is being Israel or being British and so on.


                  There is, in other words, a tendency to equate being political with being good or morally virtuous. Politicians, and especially powerful and popular politicians, are thought to be – despite some evidence to the contrary – good or morally virtuous human beings. And those who refuse to participate politically are thought to be wanting, to be irresponsible, or, in an older sense, “idiotic.”


                  But why then does politics so often lead to war and repression? Is it possible that being political, being morally virtuous leads to war and repression? Is there a tendency politically toward war and repression? And is it not so that the more intensely political that humans are, the stronger their tendency toward war and repression, a phenomenon not unheard of and even rather common? Perhaps there is nothing so deadly and dangerous as intensely political or morally virtuous human beings.


                  Insofar as this is true, we are presented with a strange situation. It implies that humans would benefit from “learning how to be able not to be good,” as Machiavelli put it in The Prince. Or, put differently, calculated or calibrated violence and repression is preferable to morally infused violence and repression. Using violence and repression in calculated ways is better than using violence and repression in moralistic ways. Politics and morality should be kept separate, a recommendation which is reflected these days by what Americans call “the separation of church and state.”


                  But given that politics points toward moral virtue as its goal, keeping them separate is no mean task. It would require a critique of moral virtue, a critique of the political, whereas humans, because we are political animals, are drawn to affirming the political, just as we humans are drawn toward moral virtue. Although they understand virtue differently, all humans want to be virtuous. And there is a tendency to think that were that to happen, our problems would be solved.


                  But perhaps it isn’t so. And while this may be “bad morals,” it might just well be the truth, as Jane Austen once wrote [Persuasion]. Was Austen aware of the limitations of moral virtue? That she was might be indicated by her veiled critiques of marriage, the family, British society, and even her heroines and heroes in her novels. Perhaps for Austen, it is the magic of romance, not moral virtue, that accounts for human happiness.

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