I’ve been reading a book called The Geography of Good and Evil: Philosophical Investigations by Andreas Kinneging (ISI Books, 2009). This book is no small oddity, since it includes two things not commonly found in modern books on ethics and morality. The first is that it promotes virtue ethics, a view that ethics are something that should be taught to people and developed through training. The second is that such teaching comes from a modern European.
I cannot recall the last time I heard anyone tell me that they should train a child to have a character trait of honesty, and pursue honesty as a virtue. Rather, a few of us teach children to do honest things because the consequences of dishonesty are painful. The rest of us teach our children nothing in the way of morals, just survival techniques. The Boy Scouts of America still teach the Scout Law, which starts off “A scout is trustworthy, loyal, helpful, . . . ” Note that the law says a scout is these things, not that a scout does these things. Of course, the distinction has long been lost on modern scout leaders since it was written in another age that had another system of values and ethics. To modern scouts the reason for the ethics is as forgotten as the scouts’ command to be morally straight.
Further, since Europe has long lost any sense of its historic Christian foundations, a system of conservative virtue ethics is amazing to the point of being ponderous.
A good example is one of Kinneging’s statements near the beginning of the book, in a chapter called The Solid Darkness of the Enlightenment. Again, that a modern westerner would even write such a title is evidence the book is deserving of reading, for questioning the value of the Enlightenment is heresy to the modern liberal mind. Note the following from the chapter:
The importance of moral education–training the conscience of the next generation–is difficult to overestimate. Without conscience training, without moral education, freedom cannot continue to exist, because without a moral conscience, man is not capable of checking himself. He remains a slave of his harmful affects. Restricting freedom then becomes a necessity, either through social-control mechanisms or through a body of legal instruments. Otherwise chaos and anarchy would result. (p.18)
Indeed, we are seeing the result of what happens when we do not train the conscience. Not long ago I was researching an ancestor, and found a reference to them in a local newspaper from the early 1930’s. My ancestor was going away for a few weeks to visit family, so the paper thought this was enough news to tell everyone in town by putting it in the paper. When I was a child we never thought to lock our doors — what on earth for? No enemy would think of stealing from someone’s home. By contrast, today we caution folks to not put announcements of their whereabouts on Facebook, since their friends will see that they are away and burglar their home.
Yet in the midst of such “restrictions of freedom” as Kinneging calls it, imagine what would happen if we were to pass a law requiring a course titled Honesty as a Virtue to be taught in all the public schools. The clamor of public outcry would be drowned out by the sound of ACLU lawyers beating on the door trying to stop it. Imagine the questions: Whose view of honesty will be taught? Is this religion in disguise? Will this get in the way of soccer practice? Will it cost taxpayer dollars?
Kinneging contrasts the classical moral tradition with the modern view that arose out of the enlightenment: “To the Christian and classical tradition, the function of reason is to order and temper the desires, to keep them within the bounds of reason, while the Enlightenment sees its task as recreating the world according to our desires.” (p.22) Modern western culture is headlong into trying to recreate the world according to whatever base desire happens to be felt this morning. If I feel it, it must be OK. Imagine Miley Cyrus telling us that we need to temper our desires.
One wonders what reaction we would get from the modern atheists who hold that morals are the result of pure natural forces of chemistry and physics in the brain. This would never align with Kinneging’s command to restrain our thoughts within the bounds of reason, not because of a logical consequent of our actions, but because a virtue is valuable in itself.
While there are some things that we must disagree with Kinneging, and at times the essays in his book meander a bit, but at the base he is correct. If we can somehow regain the sense of teaching virtues to the next generation, freedom will be kept. But if we continue down the path of allowing all base desires merely because we have them, our society will have an ugly end, one where increased social control mechanisms and legal instruments fail to reign in the anarchy.