Virtuous vices: our mutable notions of good and bad

From jealousy to cowardice to greed, the power of vices is to inspire virtue.

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Greed: from Gordon Gekko to David Hume 
Stewart Sutherland
Haus Publishing, 80pp, £7.99

Cowardice: a Brief History 
Chris Walsh
Princeton University Press, 304pp, £19.95

Jealousy 
Peter Toohey
Yale University Press, 272pp, £16.99

We like to think morality is timeless and universal but vices and virtues are creatures of fashion and change along with the vagaries of belief. Think of stoicism – the ability to endure hardship, suffering or loss without complaint or visible distress – which a couple of generations ago used to be admired as a virtue in Britain. Today, someone who displays this trait could well be condemned as repressed, unfeeling or ruled by convention, all of which are vices in a culture that attaches pre-eminent value to personal authenticity and the expression of emotion.

For those who take their moral bearings from Christianity, humility – a modest view of one’s importance and achievements, combined with a well-developed awareness of one’s flaws and limitations – is a cardinal virtue. Yet humility was not especially valued by Greek philosophers. Aristotle believed that the human virtues could be harmonised: the best life was one that contained the right amount of each. Humility, however, appeared nowhere among his requirements for the good life. Instead he praised “greatness of soul” and would have regarded a meek acceptance of one’s low position in the scheme of things as showing a lamentable lack of self-esteem.

The relations of vices with virtues become even more tangled when it is recognised that a vicious human trait can have good effects. When we talk of something being a vice or a virtue, we are not just judging a type of personal behaviour. Implicitly, we are favouring a particular sort of society. The trouble is that the kind of society we want to live in may depend on human traits we condemn. John Maynard Keynes recognised and accepted this awkward fact. Although he believed that “love of money” was a base passion, he also saw a market economy based on that passion as a way of channelling impulses that were more harmful. Writing in the last chapter of The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money (1936), he cautioned:

. . . dangerous human proclivities can be canalised into comparatively harmless channels by the existence of opportunities for money-making and private wealth, which, if they cannot be satisfied in this way, may find their outlet in cruelty, the reckless pursuit of personal power and authority, and other forms of self-aggrandisement . . . The task of transmuting human nature must not be confused with the task of managing it.

Keynes offered this advice in the midst of the Great Depression, but it’s a line of thinking that has become unpopular since the most recent of capitalism’s periodic upheavals. The financial crisis that erupted in 2007-2008 has been blamed on greed and any suggestion that this human passion may be useful has been dismissed as the self-serving philosophy of Gordon Gekko, the anti-hero of Oliver Stone’s 1987 film Wall Street. What we need, we have been told, is a gentler, kinder and morally prettier sort of capitalism, one that is based on serving the public good rather than selfish acquisitiveness. It’s a high-minded fantasy, which Keynes relegated to a distant future and Marx would have scoffed at. But against a background of market-rigging in the banking system, the idea that the economy needs to be morally transmuted is bound to be attractive. Recently a far-fetched vision of non-predatory capitalism seems to have possessed the higher reaches of the Labour Party, although it is doubtful whether it would ever appeal to a large section of the electorate.

Stewart Sutherland condemns greed as vicious in itself and in its effects and here he articulates a ruling consensus. It would be hard to think of any thought more commonplace at the present time than the claim with which he begins: “Unconstrained greed is the heresy of our times.” Who any longer subscribes to the heresy? When the governor of the Bank of England and the managing director of the IMF can condemn market fundamentalism, rising inequality and excessive rewards in the financial industry,as Mark Carney and Christine Lagarde did at a conference on “inclusive capitalism” in May last year, the idea that unrestrained greed is insidiously destructive can hardly be described as iconoclastic. Sutherland writes with evident passion, condensing his argument into a forceful text of fewer than 100 pages, but the substance of his essay is not remotely challenging. It’s what everybody today is thinking or saying.

Where Sutherland can claim some originality is in recruiting David Hume as a supporter of the conventional wisdom. Sutherland, a philosopher of religion who has served as chief inspector of schools and university vice-chancellor in Edinburgh and London and who has been a cross-bench peer since 2001, thinks the 18th-century Scottish philosopher is wrongly interpreted as a wholly sceptical thinker. We can glean a positive defence of civility from Hume’s condemnation of “cupidity”: “This avidity alone, of acquiring goods and possessions for ourselves and our nearest friends, is insatiable, perpetual, universal and directly destructive of society.” As Sutherland interprets him, Hume believes that greed “minimises absolutely the possession of property on other grounds than the capacity of the owner to wrest it from others through the practices of stealth, cunning and violence”.

It is a curious interpretation of a philosopher who is generally seen as having been essentially conservative in his outlook. It was Hume who defended impressing unwary seamen into the navy on the grounds that, although it was an “irregular power” and inherently contrary to liberty, “The very irregularity of the practice, at present, prevents its abuses.” Suspicious of large schemes of reform, Hume preferred to tolerate abuses as long as they didn’t undermine the system of justice as a whole.

More generally, he was anxious to show that the commercial economy of his day did not rely on vices such as greed. Here his opponent was the Anglo-Dutch economist Bernard Mandeville, who suggested in his satirical poetic treatise The Fable of the Bees, or Private Vices, Public Benefits (1714) that motives such as selfishness, avarice and the love of luxury are the necessary fuel for a dynamic and prosperous economy. For Mandeville – unlike for Gekko – these were still vices but he believed that without the energy they mobilised the economy would be stagnant. This was a challenge that Hume, in his role as a defender of the established order, couldn’t let pass.

Sutherland doesn’t mention Mandevilleand one can see why. Hume wanted to shield the existing institutions of property and market exchange from moral criticism. While Mandeville could be read as a defender of the market economy, his satire could just as well be used to support the view that the entire system was morally corrupt. But as was recognised by Keynes, who admired Mandeville and cited him often, the mischievous versifier understood how the emerging economy of capitalism would actually work much better than did most of the economists who came after him.

If Sutherland follows the current fashion in seeing greed as entirely destructive, Chris Walsh presents a more nuanced view of cowardice. It’s a subject that is surprisingly little explored. Walsh writes, “Every other species of human baseness, it seems, has rated a monograph; the seven deadly sins have been dissected. Yet no one has devoted a scholarly book or even a substantial article to cowardice in and of itself.” I don’t know if this is true but as far as I am aware this is certainly the first book-length study of the vice – if it really is always a vice.

Walsh quotes Mark Twain’s account of his abortive attempt to join the Confederate forces in the American civil war. As soon as serious danger loomed, Twain wrote, “Our boys went apart and consulted; then we went back and told the other companies that the war was a disappointment to us and we were going to disband.” Twain commented: “The human race is a race of cowards, and I am not only marching in that procession but carrying a banner.” It is often said that courage is shown when someone is afraid but goes ahead and acts anyway. Twain’s view seems to be that cowardice can be virtuous if it leads to surrendering to fear in a battle that is not worth fighting. In effect, Twain is praising the moral courage that is required to stand back from a needless conflict.

Walsh shares Twain’s belief that coward­ice is a dangerous moral notion. People can inflict reckless harm on themselves and others simply for fear of being shamed as cowards. In international relations the fear of looking weak and cowardly can have catastrophic consequences. Walsh cites Adlai Stevenson advising John F Kennedy during the Cuban missile crisis to offer some quid pro quo to the Soviet leaders if they would remove their missiles from the island. Most of the people in the room with him, Stevenson said, “will probably consider me a coward for the rest of my life . . . but perhaps we need a coward in the room when we’re talking about nuclear war”. It would be comforting to think there were someone like Stevenson around today, when Russia and the west are once again at loggerheads.

The idea of cowardice may be liable to a kind of moral hazard but it can also be a useful tool of self-examination, Walsh suggests – a means of finding out what we value most. Much of Walsh’s thoughtful and probing inquiry focuses on the meaning of cowardice in military contexts, most of his examples being drawn from the American experience in the period from the revolutionary war up to Vietnam. This makes his discussion not only America-centric, but almost exclusively male, and towards the end of the book he broadens the scope of his inquiry to interpersonal relations. Using texts from Kierkegaard and Stephen Crane, among others, Walsh explores how irony can express a cowardly refusal to commit to a project or a person, and Emily Brontë is cited for her fierce contempt for such cowardice in “No Coward Soul Is Mine”. Along the way, he discusses “the last of the cowardices of love, in the ending of it”, a variety of cowardly behaviour that Walsh tells us is catered for nowadays by the likes of idump4u.com, an internet service offering to end relationships for a fee: “$10 for a basic break-up; $25 for an engagement break-up; $50 for a divorce call”.

“Jealousy,” Peter Toohey writes, “is an especially difficult emotion to talk about.” For one thing, it is “a very slippery des­criptor” and hard to distinguish from envy. Jealousy is normally understood in triadic terms involving yourself, the thing or person you crave and the person who threatens to take them from you, while envy is typically a dyadic relationship between you and whatever it is you covet; but a simpler difference may be that jealousy very often has to do with sex.

It’s not just the imprecision of the word that makes talking about jealousy difficult, though. Another reason is the stigma attached to the emotion: admitting to jealousy may be interpreted as a confession of weakness, while in liberal circles jealousy has been regarded as an uncivilised emotion expressing proprietary attitudes towards other human beings. The social reformer Havelock Ellis (1859-1939) condemned jealousy in precisely these terms. Ellis was hostile to religion but Toohey makes an astute observation when he notes that the idea that jealousy is a weakness or vice has its roots in monotheism. With its condemnation of those who covet “the works of the flesh”, western religion “has laid down a judgement of jealousy that has had a very long life”. Like so much else in liberal morality, the condemnation of jealousy is a relic of Christianity.

Toohey’s aim is to reimagine and, in part, to rehabilitate the role of the emotion in our lives. Jealousy, he tells us, “indicates that remedial action needs swiftly to be taken to retain your place, get what you need, or protect a bond. It keeps you in the world . . . It’s an ugly emotion. But its place in all our lives can be a very beautiful thing.” Toohey believes that “sexual jealousy, like other adaptive emotions, is intrinsic to human life”, but recognises that some cultures are more or less prone to the emotion (or its expression). When marriage is regarded as a means to personal fulfilment, a sense of exclusivity may develop that goes beyond the claim to own another person. “In Europe,” Toohey observes, “the final decades of the 19th century exhibited an explosion in cultural depictions of jealousy.” The agonies of jealousy that are portrayed in novels such as Anna Karenina are integral to the high-bourgeois ideal of romantic love.

A distinguished classical scholar, Toohey moves effortlessly from the early Church father Tertullian’s anxiety that husbands of widows who remarried would be jealous in the afterlife to the “sympathetic, if not ennobling” struggle of John le Carré’s George Smiley to control the resentment he feels at his wife’s affairs. One of the achievements of this rich and consistently surprising book is to show how the interplay of jealousy with other emotions is highly culture-specific, even though they all draw on impulses that are humanly universal.

If any conclusion emerges from these three studies, it is how little there is to be learned from moral philosophy. The ideal of a uniformly virtuous human being is as fantastical as that of a wholly virtuous society. This isn’t because human beings are incapable of fully realising their ideals – though that is doubtless true. It is because their vices and virtues are many and conflicting. Virtues can be vicious in their effects, while vices can supply the energy that makes virtue possible. Moreover, what is admired as virtue in one morality may be condemned as vice in another. Having all the good traits without any of the bad isn’t conceivable.

Taking the conflicts of human motives as their subject matter, history and literature are more instructive than the visions of imaginary harmony of which philosophers since Aristotle have been so fond. If you want to understand how good intentions work out in practice, read David Hume’s History of England – not his philosophical treatises. If you want to explore the contradictions of vice and virtue, read Marilynne Robinson or John Williams, Georges Simenon or Patricia Highsmith. If you prefer the tranquil pleasures of fiction, stick to philosophy.

John Gray is the New Statesman’s lead book reviewer. His latest book is The Soul of the Marionette: A Short Enquiry into Human Freedom.