What they're making of London burning

So the post-riot ideological battle lines are almost fixed.

In the blue corner, for it’s broadly on the right, we have the family breakdown argument. The looting and violence is the predictable outcome of a deep forgetting in our society of the fifth commandment: honour your father and mother. Authority begins in the home. Liberal forces, or experiments, have emasculated it.

In the red corner, for it’s broadly on the left, we have the culture of greed argument. We live in a smash and grab society, which politicians and bankers have exploited too, so who can now blame them if aspirational gangs and street opportunists join in? The riots are the predictable outcome of deep divisions in society.

It’s an inevitable war, and another sign of an impotent politics that can’t really do anything about family breakdown or runaway markets anyway, should either option be thought desirable. Further, and to isolate a more specific concern, it seems to me that the divide draws too on largely redundant conceptions of ethics. The blues are broadly deontological: enforcing ‘thou shalt not’ is their solution. The reds are broadly utilitarian: the greatest happiness is not being brought to the greatest number, but to an elite few. Neither, I think, can get to the real issues.

I feel a bit scholastic suggesting it – as another siren screams past my window – but a virtue ethics approach might offer something different. The analysis might work better if it’s considered that relatively poor parts of society have lost much hope of the good life, and relatively wealthy parts of society have little love of the common good. There is little motive in either, therefore, to work on the habits and character that instills the social virtues we called Citizen Ethics.

To be frank, our project stopped just as the trickiest issue was becoming clearer. If the telos of life is not hedonistic consumption, not radical individualism, not serving markets and capital, then what fundamentally is it to flourish as a human person? Answers below the fold.

Actually, I’m sure such questions can’t directly be answered. As in one’s own life, so in society: any renewed vision of how to live well must gather, emerge, unfold – and probably only in conjunction with breakdown and pain. That’s part of what it is to be all too human too.