Propagating Virtue Through Use (Or, Humanism as Inexhaustible Doritos)

A little while ago I posted about Claude S. Fischer’s piece exploring the phenomena of sympathy, and how our “moral circle” has expanded over time to allow us to feel sympathy or grief for the misfortunes of strangers and foreigners (in all senses of the word), and, incidentally, how at least in the West a fetishization of “public grieving” (or as I termed it, “garment rending”) developed, even over losses not directly our own.

Hemant Mehta pointed me to a piece by JP O’Malley in The Rationalist about American philosopher Michael Sandel. The gist of the piece is to show how Sandel has some refreshing ideas about balancing markets and more ephemeral democratic virtues, and how Sandel as a personality may be in danger of being co-opted by politicians who want to look like they have a heart while they sink the knife into yours.

First off, I appreciated how Sandel says that Western societies seem to have such faith in markets that we have all given up a great deal of what makes our democracies democratic; in ceding authority to the invisible hand, we leave little else to discuss or debate — what’s left to be democratic about? The market will sort it out. It sounds a whole lot like religion.

Anyway, that’s not the call-back to the Fischer piece though. It’s about treating each other and ourselves as more than consumers:

. . . in Sandel’s view, the freedom argument [in favor of markets] is taken too far by libertarians and laissez-faire economists. “Market freedom refers to our freedom as consumers, but not as citizens, and not as full human beings. Our identity as consumers is only part of who we are. And if we allow our identity [as consumers] to dominate, then we miss out on important aspects of freedom to do with individual self-development and citizenship.”

[. . . said Sandel,] “There are some economists who make the argument that human beings should rely as much on possible on self-interest and as little as possible on altruism, solidarity or civic virtue. These economists seem to think that positive virtues are fixed in quantity, that they are like fossil fuels: the more you use, the less you have. But for me Aristotle is closer to the truth. There is not a finite supply of virtues, as if they were commodities. Aristotle says that we learn to become brave by acting courageously, and that we learn to care for the common good by engaging in civic acts and civic responsibility. These virtues are cultivated through practice.”

There’s that word: “cultivate.” (And not incidentally, “practice.”) Being kind and compassionate to each other, the choice to show sympathy in the sense of recognizing common humanity in everyone as a default, is something that is not in short supply, nor in any supply. It is a practice that can be cultivated. The very act of embodying virtues like sympathy and compassion for those from, say, different countries or economic classes, or even virtues like democratic deliberation, further propagate them through use.

An excellently-crafted musical instrument must be played to remain in fine condition, and indeed, to improve and “season”. It doesn’t “run out” of songs or notes. So it is with a democratic society. Democracy and humanism must be practiced so that we can have more and better democracy and humanism.

Or as Jay Leno used to say in those 1980s Doritos ads, “Crunch all you want; we’ll make more.”


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