Necessary Vices




It is rarely denied that, in societies remotely like our own, an
impressive array of vices or human failings is on display. Hypocrisy, greed, cruelty, prejudice, envy, sentimentality, dishonesty, hubris… these are just a few of them. But what if many of these vices are
not simply familiar but, as it were, baked into human life as we know
it? How should it affect a moral verdict on humankind if its failings
are necessary to its forms of life?

Responses to this question will vary. For some people, the necessity
of many vices merely adds to their already bleak, pessimistic
assessment of the human condition. For others, by contrast, it is
pointless to bemoan failings without which the benefits and even
existence of civilisation would be impossible. Before these responses
can be judged, we need to flesh out the idea of necessary vices, so
let’s look at some authors who have championed it.

But even before that, it’s important to distinguish this idea from a
less contentious one. You don’t have to be a utilitarian, or to
subscribe to the Buddhist doctrine of ‘skill-in-means’, to accept
that, in certain circumstances, an otherwise wrong action is
justified. One thinks, for example, of the lie that is told to a dying
person to avoid causing distress, or of killing a potential murderer
to save lives. It is a different matter, however, to condone vices or
failings, not because of exceptional circumstances, but because, in
ordinary everyday life, they play strategic roles in the running of a
society and economy.

Some have argued that vices, as well as virtues, are essential to secure the advantages and stability of complex social systems like ours. 

It is these strategic roles that have been the focus of some acute
observers of the moral condition of humankind. They have argued that
vices, as well as virtues, are essential to secure the advantages and
stability of complex social systems like ours. For the Duc de la
Rochefoucauld, in the 17th century, several of ‘the innumerable
faults to be found in [our] apparent virtues’ are as necessary for
alleviating ‘the ills of life’ as are the poisons contained in some
medicines. Hypocrisy, for example, by paying lip-service to moral
behaviour, does something to encourage it, while wilful self-deception
contributes to self-esteem and contentment.

Bernard Mandeville’s The Fable of the Bees, half a century later, is
equally – or even more – emphatic: our ‘vilest’ qualities are ‘the
most necessary accomplishments’ for creating and prospering in ‘the
happiest and most flourishing societies’. It is envy, love of luxury,
vanity and fickleness of taste that, for example, enable industry and
trade to prosper. ‘The moment evil ceases’, he adds, ‘the society must
be spoiled’.

Echoing such remarks, the 20th century philosopher, E.M. Cioran, declares ‘Root out [our] sins and life withers at once’. Unscrupulous opportunism, intolerance, prejudice and …

Originally appeared on Daily Philosophy Read More



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