Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Aristotle & Obama & Clinton & Mill

Eureka! The real difference between Obama and Clinton supporters is their fundamental take on ethical theory--and that explains the demographics. Obama fans go for Virtue Ethics; Hillary supporters trend Utilitarian. Virtue Ethics is an elitist preoccupation; Utilitarianism is ethics for the rest of us so, predictably, while the elite--individuals, with post-graduate degrees--prefer Obama two to one, high school graduates and drop-outs favor Clinton in the same proportions.

Virtue Ethics and Utilitarianism don't merely give different answers to ethical questions: they frame the moral enterprise differently and ask very different questions. Virtue Ethicists ask: how can I attain arete--excellence or virtue? The moral life on this account is a life of self-cultivation in the interests of achieving virtue, which Virtue Ethicists regard as an essential feature of the good life. It is hardly surprising that Virtue Ethics comes from Aristotle and appealed to fellow members of the Athenian slave-owning rentier class. They had the leisure for self-cultivation and were largely insulated from the circumstances that posed a range of other moral questions.

The illiterate masses, slaves and thetes who worked to eat and ate to work, did not have the education for moral reflection or the time for self-cultivation. If they had, it is unlikely that they would have had any sympathy for Virtue Ethics and very likely that they would have been outraged by their social betters' preoccupation with self-cultivation. "We've got real problems, important problems, and these jerks are making a fuss about cultivating wisdom, courage, honesty and the like. To add insult to injury, they have the gaul to regard these fancy luxury items as important, and the sheer bloody arrogance to imagine that they're worthwhile people because of the virtues they're cultivated."

I'm with the slaves and thetes. That's why Obama's followers repel me. I used to wonder why they made such a big fuss about "change" when the concrete changes Obama proposed were not significantly different from the changes Clinton advocated. Then I realized that what most were looking for was not a change in the material conditions of their lives so much as a change in the way politics was done. They were sick of cynicism, sick of grasping power-hungry politicians, sick of spin-doctors, negative campaigning and attack ads, sick of dirty politics. They wanted politicians who were not politicians. They wanted Virtue.

They can, I suppose, be forgiven. The quest for Virtue has been the central theme of canonical coming-of-age stories since Catcher in the Rye and Salinger's saga of the Glass family. Salinger's fictional world both reflected and formed the moral vision of privileged children for generations to come. Morally awakened in mid-adolescence, these rich brats were shocked to discover that their parents, and other adults, were hypocrites and that the pious stories they'd been told as children were lies. They resonated to Holden Caulfield's whining about "phoniness," and Seymour's noble suicide out his relationship with Muriel, who sat in their honeymoon hotel room varnishing her nails while Seymour was telling whimsical stories about banana fish to a child on the beach. We were taught that these preoccupations were meritorious, that sensitivity, idealism, honesty and courage were admirable, that crass grade-grubbing was despicable, that ordinary middle-class suburbanites with good middle-class jobs were, at best, to be pitied, and that the little boxes made of ticky-tacky in which they lived were a blight on the landscape. Aristotle and the other gentlemen of Athens would have agreed.

I didn't buy it. I was hemmed in at every turn. The few desirable options I had were were long-shots and the possibility that I would end up living a miserable life was a real and present danger. I obsessed about the number of people who had boring jobs--the supermarket checkers and waitresses, and the legions of women doing routine clerical work. I knew the odds of getting an interesting job were low, and that I would have to fight for all I was worth, grub for every grade and bag every academic credential, to get one. At the same time I worried that my academic investment was too risky and cast about for fallback positions. The problem was that if I invested time and effort in securing a fallback position I would undermine my chances of getting an interesting job. I was desperate--calculating probabilities and utilities, and fighting for all I was worth.

I resented my classmates who imagined that they had innumerable options and weren't scared. I detested the idealism of the '60s, the elite preoccupation with saving the earth and ending the war, and with intangible luxury goods--with honesty, courage, and other virtues, and with peace, joy and love. I wanted a house in the burbs, a Dick-and-Jane family, and above all an interesting job where I could work hard at challenging tasks and achieve. I was outraged by my classmates contempt for my aspirations. I resented their elitism--the same elitism that working class Americans perceive in Obama and his groupies.

We're Utilitarians. We're hemmed in: we can't get what we want and are fighting for all we're worth to avoid poverty and drudgery. We can't afford Obama's childish idealism; we detest his vacuous rhetoric about hope and change. We're sick of this privileged elite who are contemptuous of machine politics, disgusted by the Clintons' power plays and shocked by the fact that in this mean, rough, dirty world people have to lie, cheat and fight to survive. We're sick of these rich, spoiled brats whining about the facts of adult life, like Holden Caulfield grousing about "phonies" or the junior members of the Glass family dabbling in Eastern spirituality and questing for Wisdom.

Would Clinton do any better than Obama if she were elected? I doubt it. Both Clinton and Obama are centrists and neither is promising the kind of change that would seriously improve the lives of most Americans--the establishment of a socialist welfare state in which everyone would have unconditional assurance of a minimally decent life. But even though Obama and Clinton are virtually indistinguishable when it comes to policy, they've become symbols of two radically different moral visions: the aristocratic, elitist moral vision of Virtue Ethics and Utilitarianism, the ethic for the rest of us, who are thwarted at every turn, who have had to fight for everything, who can't afford virtue.

8 comments:

Richard said...

Actually, all the Obama supporters I know (including myself) support him precisely on (indirect) consequentialist grounds. The whole point is that better outcomes will result from improving the political process.

Lawrence Lessig makes the point well in his 'Change Congress' presentation.

As for "childish idealism", all I have to say is: read hilzoy.

H. E. said...

Consequentialist point taken. But this raises 2 empirical questions: (1) Do idealistic, non-corrupt politicians always produce better outcomes and (2) is Obama really idealistic and non-corrupt? Leaving aside (2), it seems to me that (1) is false--not because hardheaded cynicism always produces better results than starry-eyed idealism but because sometimes it does and sometimes it doesn't.

I lived through the starry-eyed idealism of the Vietnam era ("We'll CHANGE the world, rearRANGE the world") followed immediately by the a rightward shift in the political culture that it may take decades to undo--if it can be undone at all.

Anyway, I wasn't arguing that electing cynical, corrupt Clinton would have better consequences than electing (ostensibly) honest, idealistic Obama. They're both centrists and would likely produce the same mediocre results. What I argued was that the working class is turned off by Obama because he makes idealistic noises that they perceive as elitist, which elicits a visceral aversion, and because they assume (wrongly) that people who make these noises are contemptuous of them and can't/won't help them with their material problems.

And there's something to that too because when I was in college we WERE contemptuous of the working class--remember Archie Bunker?

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