The horizon is not so far as we can see, but as far as we can imagine

Morally Neutral Virtues

Something is moral if it is good for people you know. Something is ethical if it is good for people you don’t know.

One of the most important concepts to understand for judging oneself and others is “morally/ethically neutral virtues.”

A virtue is something that makes a person a better person.

Better is not a synonym for good.

It is a virtue, in most cultures to be generous, to keep one’s word, to be kind, to work hard, or to be courageous.

Three of those five virtues are morally and ethically neutral.

A brave person who is doing evil (many Nazi war heroes to give the most socially acceptable example) is worse than a coward doing evil. A hard-working person doing evil is worse than a lazy person doing evil (usually). A person who keeps their oath (their word) to a tyrant, is worse than someone who doesn’t keep their word to a tyrant.

We admire people who are hard working, courageous, or honorable.

But people who are all of those things, or even one, in service to a bad cause, do more harm than those without them.

I find a great deal to admire in Genghis Khan, but he left a wasteland behind him. (And note that Khan was generally moral. He took very good care of almost everyone around him. He was not, however, ethical.)

Although Dick Cheney was not a brave man (he sought and received Vietnam deferments), even those who hate him will admit he worked like a dog. That is unfortunate. One of the things I liked best about George W. Bush is that he was lazy, which, because what he wanted to do was almost all evil, was a good thing. Left-wingers whining about him (or Trump) taking holidays were fools.

The virtues of our enemies are virtues.

Note also, very carefully, the distinction between ethics and morality. A person can be moral (look after his family, friends, and other people he knows) and deeply unethical. Joe Biden is a deeply moral man: He loves his family and friends and would do anything for them.

He is also a deeply unethical man, who has supported many monstrous policies which have hurt millions and millions of people. He’s, frankly, evil, if you don’t know him. But what a friend he would be.

However, he’s not your friend, and if you vote for him because of how wonderful he is to people he knows, you will get hurt badly, and be somewhat responsible for that hurt.

It is also possible to be ethical and immoral, as in leaders who treat people they know like shit and people they don’t know well. Huey Long fell mostly into this category. To the extent that JFK did good things (his legacy is mixed), he certainly was.

A wise peon, and most of us are peons, prefers as a leader someone who is immoral but ethical, because they know that they aren’t their leader’s friend, or family, or direct servitor.

And, generally speaking, an enemy who is lazy, stupid, and so on, is preferable to one who isn’t. The only broad exception is that honorable enemies are better than dishonorable ones, because you can cut deals with them, and it is enemies, above all, with whom you must be able to negotiate.

In the small world, of small people, there are many we admire for their virtues who have turned themselves into creatures of bad leaders. Take, for example, special forces, whom many worship. In many cases they have done truly amazing things to become special forces: worked brutally hard, put up with privation, been loyal, and disciplined.

But when you let other men (or, more rarely, women) turn you into a weapon or tool, you are responsible for how they wield you. If your loyalty, skill, and discipline make you a better weapon or tool for doing evil, then your virtues have been corrupted.

(Ivy League graduates as well as military men and women should think deeply on this. But so should those who consider themselves elites in the financial industry, for example.)

Virtue in the service of a bad cause or evil master is still virtue. It is still admirable. But it turns virtue to the service of evil.

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  1. I think this is a central human conflict — not having an intellectual location to house a courageous villain, or a villainous hero, or someone who might be the hero of one news cycle and the villain of the next. The Nazis were stylish! The Navy Seals killed bin Laden! Good people on both sides, right?

    Personally, I think the enshrinement of “hard work” as a communal virtue is psychotic. I suppose it came into fashion when culture was primarily agrarian, because farm work is mostly comprised of discrete, useful tasks with an observable purpose. But ‘working hard’ at a job that’s focused on filling an outbox, or pushing pixels around, seems like a form of mental illness to me.

    There was an old George Carlin joke about a guy who sleeps all day and jacks off when he’s awake being preferable to a motivated go-getter, because a lazy jackoff isn’t causing anybody any trouble. It was satire, of course, but I also kind of agree with the sentiment.

  2. Oh, and I would also like to stipulate that my only objection to Donald Trump dividing his waking hours between Big Mac consumption and golf is that it leaves the country in the tenderly-loving hands of congressional Republicans. If the rest of the government were staffed by competent, non-evil bureaucrats who were even middlingly interested in helping the poor and scaling back the Forever War, I wouldn’t care if Donald Trump spent every afternoon having sex with Richard Spencer in a golf cart parked on the White House lawn.

  3. V. Arnold

    One of the most insideous, patriotic sayings in U.S. lexicon is: My country, may she always be right; but my country, right or wrong.
    Just how far does one go, to see that as a virtue, or ethical?

  4. realitychecker

    @ V. Arnold

    This stuff is so complicated!

    For example, just because it’s an easy one, how virtuous, ethical, OR moral is it to comment on a blog thread after you have just openly urged everyone to BOYCOTT that blog???

    Awaiting your enlightened response . . .

  5. The Stephen Miller Band

    Personally, I think the enshrinement of “hard work” as a communal virtue is psychotic. I suppose it came into fashion when culture was primarily agrarian, because farm work is mostly comprised of discrete, useful tasks with an observable purpose. But ‘working hard’ at a job that’s focused on filling an outbox, or pushing pixels around, seems like a form of mental illness to me.

    Amen, Brother Ben (or Sister Emma)!!!

    Corporations are a substantial form of Social Control. 80% of the administrative “jobs”, and most of the “jobs’ are administrative these days and increasingly so with automation, are meaningless and unnecessary.

    Yet, Corporations don’t lay all these useless eaters off. Why? Aren’t they charged with MAXIMIZING PROFIT as their ONE & ONLY GOAL?

    Because of Social Control, that’s why.

  6. nihil obstet

    Until relatively recently, like the last hundred years or so, “hard work” was a punishment. The goal was to get out of it. There has always been some pushback against elite privilege. John Ball’s question, “When Adam delved and Eve span, who was then the gentleman?” led the 14th c. Peasants’ Revolt. Capitalist ideology placed monetary value on time, and therefore on what people did with it. With the Industrial Revolution, the new rich merchants and manufacturers preached the redeeming value of hard work. It helped the enclosure movement by providing a moral argument for pushing tenants off the land and forcing them into wage labor status.

    The landed aristocracy didn’t accept any of those hard work values for themselves. Workers organizations including Socialists, however, emphasized labor as the moral justification for full rights in the society, over the parasitic elites. By the 20th c. in the U.S. in particular, the rich adopted the propaganda of meritocracy and claimed to be working harder than the poor or even the middle class to merit their wealth. And so, even the goal of getting out of work was erased.

    If you read the arguments on a jobs guarantee compared to a universal basic income, you can see how many people cannot get over the notion that paid labor is a moral necessity.

  7. Dan Lynch

    “It is also possible to be ethical and immoral. Leaders who treat people they know like shit and people they don’t know well. Huey Long fell mostly into this category.”
    Interesting observation about a person that I find interesting.
    Huey was a lot of things. His personal life was not particularly moral — he drank and slept around, not that that sort of lifestyle was ever unusual in New Orleans or in Washington. Yet as near as I have been able to discern, Huey sincerely believed in his “Share Our Wealth” platform. Unlike a demogogue, Huey mostly kept his campaign promises. While his organization raked in lots of dirty money, Huey did not personally profit from it. He really wanted to change the world — and had no scruples about breaking eggs to make that omelet.

  8. Willy

    Taking care of insiders while ruining outsiders is a rational strategy for maximizing personal power. It is not a rational strategy for improving the world. One must look to other fruits from which to truly know them.

  9. The Stephen Miller Band

    I knew Huey Long and let me tell you, Trump is no Huey Long. Far from it.

  10. The Stephen Miller Band

    We admire people who are hard working, courageous or honorable.

    Aside from Emm’s commentary about “hard Work”, I’m not so sure “we” do admire people who do this. Maybe once upon a time, but no more.

    Also, there really is no “we”, if there ever was. Maybe there was once, but Community is a relic of the past.

  11. Mongo

    If we honor virtues independent of context, then Joe Biden is deeply caring and forthright. A nazi soldier shows extreme physical courage, repeatedly rescuing wounded comrades under fire. George W. was just a lazy and ineffective president who allowed others to create most major policy decisions of his two terms; so much more he could have accomplished, but didn’t, out of lethargy.

    With context, an action may not ultimately be virtuous. A nazi who performs a courageous act is still a nazi. Joe Biden feels deeply and supports a power structure based on inequality, corruption and violence. Bush’s laziness, by default, gave more power to persons who were hard-working and were murderously effective.

  12. The Stephen Miller Band

    This overlaps, and segues great, with the concept of Cold Evil as discussed below. Cold Evil vs Hot Evil. The Pilot’s Dilemma. Systemic Murder & Violence & Impoverishment & Immiseration Bureaucratically From A Distance. The True Final Solution.

    Cold Evil: Technology and Modern Ethics

    Modernity has brought with it increasing tolerance for diverse religious beliefs and traditions. We are rightfully proud of our pluralistic religious environment. Yet over the years I have grown skeptical about this purported robust religious pluralism. The almost unquestioned acceptance of the cold-evil ideologies of objectivity, efficiency, and competition makes it obvious how little our religious beliefs affect our social practice. I have come to a far different conclusion about the diversity of our religious life: I now believe that we tolerate various religions with increasing ease because they have gradually become tangential and irrelevant to the actual workings of the technosphere and do virtually nothing to impede the work of that grey eminence “cold evil.” I see somewhere in the dark oracular workings of the technosphere a single “default” religion made up of these ideologies, a religion whose doctrines the vast majority consciously or unconsciously believes.

    This new secular religion is, of course, Progress. Almost a half century ago philosopher Richard Weaver, in The Ethics of Rhetoric, noted the central religious position that “progress” has taken in the modern technological state: “. . . ‘progress’ becomes the salvation man is placed on earth to work out; and just as there can be no achievement more important than salvation, so there can be no activity more justified in enlisting our sympathy and support than ‘progress.’” Our faith in technological progress may be obvious, but I think it is more difficult, and not completely fanciful, to see that it has a governing trinity. The secular “cold trinity” of Progress apes the Christian trinity in a tragi-comic way: Science will let us know everything; Technology will let us do everything; the Market will let us buy everything. Science takes the place of God the Father in this new trinity. Mysterious and unknowable to all but the cognoscenti, science has its own objective, unemotional laws and rules, which define the universe. To find “the Truth” it has its own unwavering impersonal process (ritual), known as “the scientific method.” Any statement that begins “Science tells us . . . ” has the imprimatur of unquestioned truth.

    Technology plays the role of the incarnated God, the Son. Science incarnates in our daily lives as technology. It is an admittedly inhuman, cold, mechanical incarnation, yet it manufactures miracles. Technology saves lives, allows us to fly and to speak to others who are thousands of miles away, and creates so many other everyday wonders. Our belief in the Father (Science) is bolstered by the acts of the Son (Technology), which appear to be devoted to making our lives a “heaven on earth.” Technology also has its impersonal, unquestioned commandments based on its mechanical nature, the aforementioned “laws” of efficiency. Importantly, Technology takes on the mysterious nature of its progenitor Science. After all, few of us understand how even the most basic technologies (telephone, television) actually work. So Technology is in this world but, at least to our consciousness, not wholly of this world. It is a kind of incarnated magic.

    Our adoration of Technology, despite its dominance over our lives, is not with us at all times, nor does it fully motivate our daily lives. Although we do not understand our technologies, we soon tend to take them for granted, so an animating, ever-visiting third member of the trinity is needed: the Spirit (the Market). We wake every day, go to work, and make money—with a deep desire to buy. Just as in traditional theology the Holy Spirit gives us access to the Son, so too the Market gives us access to (the ability to purchase) Technology and brings it into our lives. It is this spirit of acquisition that brings us fully to the trinity. The Market also takes on the numinous quality of Science and Technology. As noted, its “laws” of supply and demand and competition are unquestioned dogmas that control public policy in virtually every sphere of our national and global economic lives. They are laws to which almost all of our economists and politicians genuflect on a daily basis.

    The cold trinity provides a powerful, though mostly unconscious, arsenal for the defense of cold evil. No matter what environmental horror or exploitation of animals or humans occurs, it can be rationalized through the trinity, whereas complaints against cold evil are routinely condemned as heresies. The trinity acts as a kind of implicit enclosure of the spirit, a spiritual cocoon, blocking society from any incursion against the cold and binding laws of Science, Technology, and the Market. Questioning any one part of the trinity leads to immediate suspicion, the potential ouster from serious discussion, or loss of influence. Those “heretics” who would expose the cold evil inherent in this default religion of Progress risk ridicule as well as academic and social excommunication.

  13. Hugh

    If you want to distinguish between morality and ethics, in the way I look at things, it would go this way. We are each of us two people, one private, one social. Our social life takes precedence because society creates the space for our private life. Without society, you don’t have a private life. You don’t have much of anything. You are an animal with at best only rudimentary language and knowledge of the world.

    In this view, morality is about how we act in the private side of our lives, and ethics is about how we act in society.

  14. Hugh

    Re the Nazi example, I have often used the case of an SS officer engaged in mass killings in discussions of the bad faith in elites. You see as unsettling as it may be bad faith is not about what you believe or how intensely but what you should have known, especially so as an elite. And that is what any ordinary person would know. The elite justification for elites, and their privileges, is that they know more and better than the rest of us. This takes away the excuse of elites that while they were screwing us over they were acting in good faith. They didn’t know. No, they should have known by virtue of who and what they say are.

  15. Steeleweed

    By your criteria, there’s a whole lot of evil people in the county, including the millions who work for corporations and thereby contribute to the accumulation of wealth by unethical functionaries and the rentier class. Unless you are entirely independent – a la the small independent farmer of yore, you’re a bad guy?

  16. DMC

    It’s not that you’re a bad guy per se, but you do bear a propotional degree of culpability. The elites set the agenda but the peons have to carry it out. “Devil’s wages, Devil’s dues”.

  17. Hugh

    I agree with DMC, but as Reinhold Niebuhr said the hypocrisy of the upper classes and elites is greater than the hypocrisy of others because so much of what they do is not about the greater good but justifying their own outsized privileges. Indeed Niebuhr said elites usually simply substitute their good for the greater good. Problem solved.

  18. V. Arnold

    Morally Neutral Virtues; whistling through the graveyard?

    I think few see the real U.S.. Those dying of opioid od’s probably do…

  19. bruce wilder

    Institutions add more dimensions: an institution has an ethic built into the design of the institution. Whether the institution’s design is moral involves an inquiry distinct from determining what the ethical imperatives of institution may be.

    Behaving in accord with an institution’s ethical imperatives is not the same as the morality of behaving strategically, with an eye on changing the ethics, norms and values of an institution. Violating an institution’s ethics in the interest of an innovation may be moral or subversive of morality.

    Rule-making and the giving of law is a moral business that prescribes and enforces ethical behavior. And, so is rule breaking.

  20. Mongo

    @DMC: It’s a point that all human societies do some form of harm — how much is a matter of degree. And, culpability in what harms a society does is passed on simply by being born where you are, or assuming citizenship. Talk about original sin.

    How much individual culpability we have for the harm our societies do depends on how much power one has. It’s a fair bet Jeff Bezos has more effect on the U.S. and the world than the ordinary citizen.

    Most Americans are passive participants as workers and consumers, or voters. As individuals, any of us would be less culpable than Jeff — but the collective effect of our passivity (without which The System couldn’t function) is arguably greater than his.

    Collective responsibility for what our society does isn’t something we acknowledge in America, not in any real way — possibly because taking collective responsibility might lead to an understanding of its flip side, collective strength. Then, we might have to do something with it.

  21. Willy

    The Larry Nassar scandal may be a good analog for the way ethics works in America today. If you have higher status, it’s your ethical responsibility to maintain the status quo. If you have lower status, it’s your ethical responsibility to shut the fuck up. Still, it’ll be interesting to see how that situation plays out, and how much change, if any, is possible.

  22. The Stephen Miller Band

    Great comment, Mongo. I agree completely and have thought, and do think, the very same thing. You articulated it proficiently.

  23. realitychecker

    “whistling through the graveyard?”

    Whistling past the pedophilia and other rampant sex tourism?

    Hey, I know, why don’t you urge your neighbors to BOYCOTT it? 🙂

    Lots of links at Google for the child prostitution and sex tourism industry in Thailand. Lots.

    Concern begins at home lol.

  24. nihil obstet

    @Bruce Wilder

    I’m not sure I understand how this plays out. Could you walk through an example? I’d suggest maybe some kid who falls to the poverty draft and finds herself in Iraq, or a whistleblower like Chelsea Manning or Thomas Drake, or even with the new movie out, Daniel Ellsberg.

  25. Webstir

    “Virtue in the service of a bad cause or evil master is still virtue.”

    Have you been reading Eichmann in Jerusalem, Ian?
    Someone please jump in and correct me if I’m wrong, but I believe you’re arriving at the same conclusion Arendt did. Nobody would argue Eichmann was a moral or ethical human being — not even Eichmann I’d wager. Virtuous, though? In a twisted fascist technocratic way? Sure. In fact, while I don’t think she used the word virtuous, Arendt was struck by Eichmann’s smug demeanor on the stand. I think she would agree that he would list himself among the virtuous. Jamie Dimon, anyone?

    Twinning the threads of Welsh and Arendt, I think one can conclude society’s banal acceptance of corpratechnopolitipundicratic virtues, as moral and/or ethical conduct to be emulated or condoned, is an evil that each an every one of us must constantly struggle to be free in this day and age. And yet, here I sit. Tool of my tools. Struggling to get just far enough ahead of “the market” to buy enough land to drop out … before I drop dead.

    Furthermore, shout out to The Stephen Miller Band on the Pilot’s Dilemma link. Unquestioning acceptance of the “cold trinity” are precisely the bullets the corpratechnopolitipundocracy want lodged firmly in everyone’s heads:

    Violate one dictate of the cold trinity and you risk the useful idiot’s retribution through the tyranny of amiability.

  26. V. Arnold

    January 27, 2018

    An interesting post worthy of thought.

    “I think one can conclude society’s banal acceptance of corpratechnopolitipundicratic virtues, as moral and/or ethical conduct to be emulated or condoned, is an evil that each an every one of us must constantly struggle to be free in this day and age.”

    Yes, good, and I agree.

  27. Tom

    Ironically Trump’s hardline on Immigration and Border controls is the best way to stop this via sledgehammer approach given how prevalent the issue is.

    But employers should be allowed to claim ignorance, and should be thrown in prison with the traffickers.

    This makes it clear that current system of Governance in the US is broken and we need to re-write the Constitution and go for a more centralized state with the Individual States being dissolved as entities and all Police, EMS, Fire Services, CPS, and Courts being Federalized with Cities and Townships being the next level of governance after the Federal Government but only handling road, trash, and zoning.

    Or we can continue with an outdated Governing system whose rational cease existing when telegraphs connected the nation alongside Rail Roads.

  28. V. Arnold

    January 27, 2018

    You haven’t a clue.
    Good luck with that…

  29. Marcus

    I don’t have time to read the other comments now, but I want to chime in while it’s fresh: I think Ian’s warning to watch out who one’s gifts are in service to should be broader.

    Although I was a stellar student and had the privilege of rich parents, I aimed for a different kind of success than academic or financial. I joined an alternative movement that was determined to introspect within ourselves (and within each other,) to live intensely-close to the earth and one another, and to rekindle a way of life more natural and less nucleated than that lived by most in the modern day.

    Twelve years into this path (at 33) I realized that the charismatic man who had blazed this trail for us (and nurtured myself and my subcultural peers along our own merry ways) was using us. I guess he was a mix of moral and ethical, and amoral and unethical. He liked being a detached guru to his “seekers,” and he used this to keep an emotional distance from his peers and coworkers. He also liked taking care of his peers and coworkers, and would use his guru status to his seeker-students to extract resources from them, which he promptly shared with his peers/coworkers. Ian seemed to give the general outlines, but real-world examples – or at least mine – were much more complex. There’s no safe haven from the manipulations of us/them, even among the most “revolutionary” cadres. To some extent this is also just a problem with charismatic leaders; I discovered that many of the leaders in the back-to-nature scene (the one I was in) had similar distortions between their private and public spheres.

    It makes me wonder how I, myself, struggle between those two. Thankfully, I’m not too much in the limelight and can figure that out in my own time without worrying about my reputation for posterity in blogs and such… 😉

  30. Hugh

    I may go back and look up Arendt’s characterization of Eichmann, but as I remember it, she thought he was a small-minded, scheming, careerist bureaucrat, the type you find in any kind of business or organization, only the business he happened to be in was mass murder.

  31. tony

    “There’s no safe haven from the manipulations of us/them, even among the most “revolutionary” cadres. ”

    Because we are animals. What we do is in service of our animal instincts and our animal conditioning. Even the reasons to read this blog are due to biological drives, need for cognition, power, fairness and so on. Animals live in a world of limits and sexual competition.

  32. Marcus

    RE: tony. I don’t disagree. But I’d also add that animals are not strictly competitive for territory with all in their own species and all in the other species. I believe there is cooperation, or at least acceptance of cohabitation in many places, because nature doesn’t operate on everyone-for-themselves.

    But, sure, territoriality is a huge deal. Especially now with so many people and dwindling resources.

    I was just warning against joining some enlightened cadre where one expects to not find people struggling with the same morals/ethics quandaries and manipulations that one sees in the “bad guys.” It’s everywhere, and thinking that one has found the right group is pretty dubious. I don’t think it’s necessarily ambiguous and subjective (maybe some groups do really have a better percentage of truthfulness with themselves) but arguing that about your own group is awfully tricky territory to get into [or, perhaps, territory to defend…] 😉

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