Freedom and virtue

On the Eurostar to and from the OECD yesterday, I read  by Michael Ignatieff, an old book first published in 1984, with my 2nd hand paperback even more mauled by the fact that the dog got to the post before I did that day.

[amazon_image id=”B0079EW3ZK” link=”true” target=”_blank” size=”medium” ]The Needs of Strangers[ THE NEEDS OF STRANGERS ] By Ignatieff, Michael ( Author )Sep-05-2000 Paperback[/amazon_image]

I wish I’d read it before attending the recent Christ Church, Oxford symposium on  by Edward and Robert Skidelsky. It’s on the same territory. Ignatieff makes very clear the possibly irreconcilable tension between freedom to choose and a shared agreement on the constituents of ‘the good life’. The book starts with a reflection on the welfare state. It assumes everyone is equal, and reasonably so, but in uniformity of treatment is unable to respond to individuals’ specific needs. Hence the seeming lack of care in the way welfare is sometimes delivered to people. He writes: “We think of ourselves not as human beings first, but as sons and daughters, fathers and mothers, tribesmen and neighbours. It is this dense web of relations and the meanings which they give to life that satisfies the needs which really matter to us.” Hence the utopian aspect of Rousseau’s writing or Marx’s – freedom and happiness have to be reconciled by everybody making choices anchored in equality and fraternity.

The book goes on to explore the tension between communitarian visions of moral agreement about necessities of the good life and the restlessness of commercial society, as reflected by Smith and Hume. “How is moral virtue possible in a society which is constantly pushing back the limits of need?” The Skidelskys claim that needs were satisfied by 1974, but that seems absurd to me. Since then we’ve had everything digital, vastly improved medical treatments, longer life expectancy, lower infant mortality, central heating in most homes in the UK, and so on. Rousseau would have been happy to ban machines and trade – virtuous stasis came above freedom in his eyes.

Ignatieff doesn’t answer the dilemma of course, but the book is a very interesting exploration of how it continues to be relevant to modern societies.

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One thought on “Freedom and virtue

  1. The subject-matter of this post is both fascinating and important, but I think it’s worth being a bit more attentive to the way that some famous old authors often don’t actually serve up the views with which we sometimes associate them.

    The point about how “uniformity of treatment is unable to respond to individuals’ specific needs” is linked to a suggestion that Marx is utopian because he’s over-invested in this kind of equality-as-uniformity. But in fact it’s exactly the point that’s being made here–that different workers have different needs–lies behind Marx’s insistence in the Critique of the Gotha Programme that what marks the passage from a lower to a higher phase of communism is a shift from distribution according to labour contribution to distribution according to needs.

    Rousseau is also presented here as someone who would have been “happy to ban machines and trade”, but, again, we have to be cautious. If his republican political theory is about any community in particular, it’s about his native Geneva, a city where one of the main industries was machine-making (specifically, watches), and where the citizens were engaged in commercial activity, trading goods and services among themselves. Marxists have always criticised Rousseau as offering a “petit bourgeois” theory, and it’s these aspects of his argument that they latch onto when they do (as well as his closely related claim that private property is the most sacred right of citizenship). Rousseau was very sceptical about various kinds of foreign trade, it is true, and worried about the consequences for the prospects of Genevan republicanism of the citizens having unrestricted commerce with its wealthy French neighbour, for a number of reasons.

    And on this topic of Genevan republicanism after Rousseau, we now have Richard Whatmore’s fine book, Against War & Empire, where he explains both how the relevant arguments played out, and how modern politics were transformed in the process.

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