Virtuous Thinking?

Are we as human beings all different from one another, or are we not rather all basically the same? And do you feel you are a better person for the way you answered the previous question? If your answer to the second question was not a self-satisfied “well, yes”, then I commend you for your intellectual integrity! Because it is the second question I am more interested in here. The idea that our virtue is embedded in the things we believe to be true is an increasingly pervasive one. But are we justified in valuing ourselves and others in this way? Is it even a coherent way of thinking?

The starting point I would propose in thinking about this issue is the fact that as individuals we hold different ideas about how the world or society around us should be ordered. Naturally enough there is a limited amount of convergence between the views of people even within fairly homogeneous groups. (My wife and I struggle to reach agreement about where our recycling bin should be located!) But of course there is a close relationship between our envisioning of a better world and our “values”. One could have a lengthy discussion on whether one drove the other or vice versa, but suffice it to say they are closely connected.

But if that is the case, don’t we have a problem? Because even though we tend to believe that values are shared with other members of our society or group, we don’t imagine or expect that they want the same things as us; if we tried to insist that they did, wouldn’t we instantly be rebuffed? Nonetheless, we are frequently engaged in imposing our worldview on the people around us by sharing our opinions. Of course we can’t reasonably expect people to inherit our opinions, so we are obliged to engage in some subterfuge and dress them up as facts. In this way, by judicious selection of the “facts” we choose to present and invite people to accept, we can seek to change their outlook on the world to align it more with our own.

That may be a realistic, albeit rather cynical, way of viewing human relationships, but how does this relate to the original point raised? There is a corollary to this process of opinion formation, which is that once we start evaluating the facts someone puts forward in terms of the kind of social order they appear to be espousing, it is but a short step to agreeing or disagreeing with those “facts” on the basis of our sympathy or otherwise for the worldview we perceive is being advocated. As Adam Smith succinctly put it in his Theory of Moral Sentiments: “we judge of the propriety or impropriety of the affections of other men by their concord or dissonance with our own.”

So we end up with proxy wars which appear to centre on the veracity of claims made by individuals or groups, but are actually about competing worldviews and social agendas. Then, rather than the disputes remaining in the realm of establishing the veracity of claims, what we observe increasingly in discourse these days is a tendency to challenge the worldview that is apparently supported by the claims made, rather than the claims themselves. Now it might be argued that this is a good thing, if in reality the latter are a proxy for the former. Misogynists who are hiding their real views behind bluster and equivocation surely deserve to be exposed for what they are? But therein lies the problem: just because I hold and express views (for example, support for freedom of the press) that are similar to those of some individuals of questionable moral character (such as journalists making scurrilous allegations) does not mean that my moral character is equally questionable. Yet it happens on a regular basis now that people are accused in this way.

In a more obvious way, what if I am a Muslim or even just a supporter of religious freedom and some Muslims engage in suicide bombings? Or if I voted for Donald Trump and then it turns out that Vladimir Putin is an enthusiastic supporter. What is more pernicious is that, in such scenarios, whether the original position or action taken is justified is not, and does not need to be, considered. We are condemned without trial in the court of public opinion. That being the case, to avoid censure, one has to avoid saying any of the things that might be construed as being motivated by misogyny, xenophobia or any of the other “isms” or “phobias” which have become the deadly sins of the modern age.

For example, before 2010 it was difficult to bring up the subject of immigration in public discourse without facing the risk of being labelled as xenophobic or even racist. Fast forward six years and it turns out 52% of the population are by that argument closet racists! Consequently, whereas it used to be difficult for either of the main UK parties to put forward a coherent program to address immigration levels for fear of the negative publicity it might generate, now it would appear a party without a clear manifesto commitment to address this issue is unelectable.

So let’s resolve to stop judging our virtue and that of others on the basis of opinions held and postures adopted, and judge rather on the basis of actions performed. Our opinions should be arrived at by a process of weighing up evidence and reasoned argument, whether or not the conclusions we reach fit well with our preconceptions of how we would like the world to be or with what we would like to be seen as advocating for the world. That is an intellectual virtue and is commendable in itself. Indeed it is also in the view of Karl Popper the foundation of all scientific progress!

On my original question of whether people everywhere are the same or not, there are clearly arguments to be made on both sides: this particular issue is distinctly double-edged. One would think that the number of times per day one is enjoined to “celebrate diversity” (whatever that may mean in practice) would mean that identifying other people as being different from oneself was a duty of every virtuous man (or woman, or otherwise) around town; yet any dwelling on specific differences, and their consequences for good or ill, or even the slightest suggestion that the human race is not indivisibly one, and sharp condemnation can follow. So, say as you will on the subject. I make no judgement on your moral character based on the position you take, as long as you promise to do the same in relation to your own moral character…

By Colin Turfus

Colin Turfus is a quantitative risk manager with 16 years experience in investment banking. He has a PhD in applied mathematics from Cambridge University and has published research in fluid dynamics, astronomy and quantitative finance.

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