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Most human relationships are in essence moral relationships. And if they’re not moral, then they’re not relationships, but mere transactions masquerading as the real.

An Ethic of Virtue and the Modern Condition, Part I

 

I

 

Morality and politics, and the connection between the two, have been the undercurrent of my thinking of late, the leitmotif of my recent essays. It’s a classical conception to be sure, dating back to Aristotle for whom politics was but an outgrowth of ethics, an extension of personal relations to the social and beyond; and once this extension was carried forth, the political was born: a clan became a tribe, a tribe a coalition of tribes, eventually a city-state (the polis, as Greeks would have it), and then a federation, a compact between city-states. A nation-state is where we are right now, representing as it were the pinnacle of our efforts, a point beyond which we can’t seem to see our way past.Have we reached thus the end of our evolutionary or moral development as a species? Does this centrifugal movement away from the parochial to the universal, this constant progression towards human enlightenment and the ethos of inclusion, represent the end of the road for us? Can’t we do better? I’d like to believe that we can. More importantly, however, I’d like to provide you with reasons, cogent reasons, why we can. There is a basis for hope.   

No question that extraneous circumstances, whether due to nature and its elements or events beyond, engineered by humans because of strife, desire for conquest or plain hostility, have all accelerated this relentless push towards consolidation and the making of alliances. The commonality of purpose has always served as the most immediate impetus for coalition-forming, whether you’re an aggressor or a defender. Only a fool would dismiss pragmatic considerations as representing the first step, if only the first step, in all such endeavors. Still, to say there is strength in numbers, that it makes perfect sense to present a united front against common enemy, again, either natural or human, is not to say very much. We can do better.

In the remainder of this article, I’d like to argue that what really matters is the basis of human consensus and coalition-forming. Practical Reason, to borrow from Kant, may be the first step in the process, but only the first step. If we truly believe ourselves to have progressed on the evolutionary or moral scale, beyond the exigencies of the moment or of dire necessity, then we must look for human consensus on more lasting, more solid grounds. Pragmatism, as far as I’m concerned, is only a platform, a launching pad on the way to transcendence, ultimate transcendence. It instills in us the habit, a very useful habit for humans connecting, but it falls short of the mark by ignoring the possibilities. What ultimately matters about humans connecting is the nature of the underlying purpose, beyond what’s merely practical or prudential. And to my thinking, there is no better candidate for building a meaningful and lasting consensus than commonality of values, shared values, no better principle of construction if our aim is inclusion.

I used to be fond of saying there is no better basis for revolutionary thought and action than shared morality, with the emphasis of course on universal justice. And Kant’s dictum, amounting more or less to a proposition asserting “the moral equivalence of persons,” always served as the cornerstone. It’s not exactly as though I’ve come to question the validity of these propositions; they’re still true as far as they go. What’s missing, however, is their grounding in human psychology and the intricacies of our language, our moral language; in short, in our everyday practice. Indeed, apart from this grounding, Kant’s dictum comes across as a standalone, detached proposition with no particular rhyme or reason, divorced from everyday living and everyday concerns. Even if taken as a maxim, as an injunction to live by, a rule of thumb as to how we ought to act in each and every circumstance, it’s lukewarm and it fails to inspire because, as stated, it’s unconnected to everyday concerns, to the human psychology and ordinary language.

It’s the express purpose of this article to correct this oversight and sketch the necessary background in order for Kant’s dictum to come alive, as it were, a living truth. For unless it becomes a living truth, I’m convinced we’re destined to remain cavemen.

 

II

 

It’s been remarked lately by my comrade-in-arms that most of our personal relationships are communal in nature. (I shan’t say “communist” lest I estrange most of you!) This made a deep impression on me for it’s a deep, very deep thought. Just think! It’s not our desire for gain or for comparative advantage that dictates how we tend to relate to the people we know and associate with day in and day out: our acquaintances, neighbors, friends what have you. Granted, much of it may be grounded in pure practicality, the usual give and take, the “I’ll scratch your back if you’ll scratch mine” good neighbor policy; in fact, it all may have started that way. But surely, there’s also an element of friendship, of certain affinity, if not at first then eventually. Human relationships, when given their due course, do tend to progress from what’s merely practical to something beyond. And friendships, affinity, all of the above, certainly suggest the sharing of values, common values. None could survive in the absence of such.In his recent book on the origins of debt and money, Debt: The First 5000 Years, David Graeber makes pretty much the same point, though his focus is on our economic relations. Our original dealings in what we’ve come to call the market place, it’s arguable, weren’t motivated by any desire for personal gain. Even the idea of “fair exchange:” you have what I need, and vice versa, so let’s barter!  misses the point, according to Graeber. Indeed, even with the advent of money (in order to facilitate the ease of exchange, among other things), the so-called legal tender, Graeber argues, was essentially an IOU, a promise; and given the common practice of debt forgiveness every seventh as well as the fiftieth year, the year of Jubilee, there was no stigma that’s being attached nowadays to nonpayment of debt, no reflection on the debtor’s moral character. 

In essence, our so-called economic relations were no different at first from our usual comings and goings, the kind of stance we so readily adopt when it comes to friendships and relationships of reciprocity. It’s only with commercialization of human economies, in particular, with the quantification of an honest-to-goodness promise, if not gratitude, in terms of money (as though there were any inherent value to this money thing, this fictive repository of worth) that we begin to recognize our present and how we got from point A to point B. But initially, if we take human economies as our starting point, even when it came to exchanges, money acted more as a social lubricant, less as purchasing power: the English “thank you,” Graeber reminds us, derives from a phrasal verb meaning “I will remember what you did for me.”

How exactly things have deteriorated to the point whereby outstanding debt started to accrue interest so as to become a burden, leading to the debtor’s enslavement, imprisonment or other innumerable hardships, is a story in its own right and I don’t think it need concern us now. Suffice it to say, it was a gradual process. And even though the Church was always opposed to money lenders and the practice of usury, I think it’s a safe bet the process crystallized and assumed its present dimensions with the inauguration of capitalism.

To make a long story short, human relationships, which used to underlie exchange of goods and services, took a back seat and have become supplanted by transactions. (That’s the meaning of commodification or commodity fetishism that Marx talked about, along with the attendant by-product, alienation.) And what has became apparent in the sphere economic was paralleled by a similar development when it came to the political.

Relationships have been supplanted by transactions! I’m not as clear as I ought to be about the exact nature of the relationship between the two spheres, more specifically, of how the impoverishment of the individual in one realm had led to a similar impoverishment in the other; nor am I as clear as I should be about the direction of causality: perhaps what we’re dealing with here is a complex, a highly interactive complex whereby the events and trends in one area give rise to similar events and trends in the other; and vice versa of course. Of one thing, however, I’m certain: there’s got to be one, some kind of relationship, that is. After all, Adam Smith and John Locke were on the same page insofar as their conceptions of the human subject are concerned. Both the economic man and the political man come out equally truncated on either account if the classicist view is to remain our standard. In the interest of brevity, let’s just say both have merged into one: the one-dimensional man!

 

III

 

The relevance of these remarks to the subject under discussion should be apparent by now. If human relationships could be said to constitute the bloodlife of social organization, its building blocks, as it were, starting at the micro level and then proceeding outwards, it would stand to reason we should see them manifested in all walks of life, public or private. When we look at our institutions, however, we walk away with a different picture. If anything, human interactions emerge as having a disrupting influence on the smooth functioning of our organizational structures, let alone the purposes these structures were supposed to serve.  

I’m not exactly against formalization or streamlining for efficiency’s sake whenever humans conduct their business for public purpose. I can appreciate the fact that some of it may be necessary if we’re wholly intent on attaining that end to the exclusion of all other concerns and with a minimum of waste. (A bureaucratic/technocratic mindset is the natural outgrowth, the general tenor pervading most of our modern-day organizations, public or private, whenever the goal of efficiency is taken to the extreme, but that’s just an aside.) But surely, the codification of rules of conduct to govern organizational behavior cannot be the whole answer, for we’re not talking here about keeping down the static that may result from humans relating to one another as they normally do, and interfering thus with the organizational purpose, but about eliminating it altogether.

So understood, one can’t help but wonder whether there isn’t something categorically wrong with our institutions if they require of us that we abandon our personhood. The fact we accept this condition as a given and never question it doesn’t make it right. If anything, it should only make us suspicious of our institutions for not allowing us to be ourselves. There’s something unnatural about it, I daresay, a cause for concern, let alone puzzlement.

 

IV

 

It wasn’t always so, I hasten to add. Prior to Augustus, the presumed founding father of civil service in what had become by then the Imperial Rome, the business of politics, in spite of such formal institutions as the Roman Senate, was conducted for the most part in an informal kind of way, behind closed doors. Pater familias was the most pre-political nexus and unit of political will of note, and amicitia, along with the extensive system of patronage and the army of clients to back one’s political demands, the lubricant that greased the wheel. (It doesn’t say very much for our modern notion of transparency we’ve come to value, but then again, this is not the point!) 

Caesar’s overtures to Cicero weren’t empty gestures or mere exercise in Caesar’s literary talents. They reflected the underlying reality. Caesar needed Cicero’s approval, he needed Cicero’s good will and friendship to help him implement his political program. The fact that Cicero refused tells us about the kind of man Caesar was and Cicero was not. But it also tells us about the tenor of the times and how the Romans, in the pre-Augustan era, conducted their politics.

The Middle Ages, which featured a feudal mode of human relations, from economics to practically everything under the sun, offer a more recent example. Whatever the faults of that long bygone era, and there are many, the ensuing relationships between humans in all walks of life were personal to the core, up-close-and-personal, to use the modern idiom. And loyalty, personal loyalty, was the glue that held the medieval society together, whether the relationship was between the lord and the overlord, the lord and his vassal, or the lord and his serf. The respective duties and obligations, as well the proper recompense, may have been written in stone and therefore irrevocable, but they weren’t based on any kind of contract requiring you to sign on the dotted line. Your word was your contract, and allegiance (not alliance) was understood to cut both ways.

An oath of allegiance, a knightly custom, to be sure, was all that was required (though I’m certain the function was mostly ceremonial, pure formality). But the same kind of oath, I contend, was in effect even between the serf and his lord, though it remained unexpressed, In short, human relationships ruled over transactions. There were no transactions!

The early Christian churches, established by Paul throughout the Greco-Roman world, represented perhaps the finest example of people relating to one another, to their fellow believers and to their God, in a totally personal way, unencumbered by their relative importance or unimportance, their status in society or their wealth, but we’re getting too far afield, I’m afraid. Suffice it to say, the idea of contract and financial obligation are relatively speaking modern notions, and I can’t think of any epoch other than capitalism which made them all-important. And the same goes for transactions, which usurped the realm traditionally reserved for human relations. You might point to The Merchant of Venice as a counterexample; I think of it as but a precursor.

 

V

 

Where am I going with this? In particular, what is the relationship between politics and ethics, between morality, human relationships and virtue?

By way of answering these questions, let me rephrase my friend’s formulation concerning the essentially communal character of most of our everyday dealings. It’s a fairly accurate, descriptive term as far as it goes, descriptive in terms of the sheer practicality underlying it, in terms of what’s visible on the outside. We’re being treated to a sociological fact, that’s for certain. But all along, throughout this essay, I tried to argue on behalf of something beyond mere practicality which, I remain convinced, underwrites our everyday comings and goings. I don’t care what name you give it, but there is something beyond, of this I’m certain too.

To cut to the chase, I contend that most human relationships are in essence moral relationships. And if they’re not moral, then they’re not relationships if we want to speak truly, but mere transactions masquerading as the real. Which isn’t to say there’s anything wrong with the communal description or turn of phrase, as long as it’s understood that what underlies it and what makes it possible is none other than the common morality we all share and practice.

In the concluding part, I’ll connect the dots. In particular, I’ll argue on behalf of an ethic of virtue, to enable us to make the quantum leap from what’s merely practical to what’s ideational and desirable, and in the process, try to make Kant’s dictum come alive, if possible. Lastly, I’ll end with an ode to an ethic of love, that all-embracing principle of total inclusion.

About Roger Nowosielski

I'm a free lance writer. Areas of expertise: philosophy, sociology, liberal arts, and literature. An academic at a fringe, you might say, and I like it that way.

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