It is rarely denied that, in societies remotely like our own, an impressive array of vices or human failings is on display. Hypocrisy, greed, cruelty, prejudice, envy, sentimentality, dishonesty, hubris… these are just a few of them. But what if many of these vices are not simply familiar but, as it were, baked into human life as we know it? How should it affect a moral verdict on humankind if its failings are necessary to its forms of life?
Responses to this question will vary. For some people, the necessity of many vices merely adds to their already bleak, pessimistic assessment of the human condition. For others, by contrast, it is pointless to bemoan failings without which the benefits and even existence of civilisation would be impossible. Before these responses can be judged, we need to flesh out the idea of necessary vices, so let’s look at some authors who have championed it.
But even before that, it’s important to distinguish this idea from a less contentious one. You don’t have to be a utilitarian, or to subscribe to the Buddhist doctrine of ‘skill-in-means’, to accept that, in certain circumstances, an otherwise wrong action is justified. One thinks, for example, of the lie that is told to a dying person to avoid causing distress, or of killing a potential murderer to save lives. It is a different matter, however, to condone vices or failings, not because of exceptional circumstances, but because, in ordinary everyday life, they play strategic roles in the running of a society and economy.
It is these strategic roles that have been the focus of some acute observers of the moral condition of humankind. They have argued that vices, as well as virtues, are essential to secure the advantages and stability of complex social systems like ours. For the Duc de la Rochefoucauld, in the 17th century, several of ‘the innumerable faults to be found in [our] apparent virtues’ are as necessary for alleviating ‘the ills of life’ as are the poisons contained in some medicines. Hypocrisy, for example, by paying lip-service to moral behaviour, does something to encourage it, while wilful self-deception contributes to self-esteem and contentment.
Bernard Mandeville’s The Fable of the Bees, half a century later, is equally – or even more – emphatic: our ‘vilest’ qualities are ‘the most necessary accomplishments’ for creating and prospering in ‘the happiest and most flourishing societies’. It is envy, love of luxury, vanity and fickleness of taste that, for example, enable industry and trade to prosper. ‘The moment evil ceases’, he adds, ‘the society must be spoiled’.
Echoing such remarks, the 20th century philosopher, E.M. Cioran, declares ‘Root out [our] sins and life withers at once’. Unscrupulous opportunism, intolerance, prejudice and self-deceit are among the ‘defects’ that this Romanian-born Schwarzseher deems essential to the survival of nations, societies and individuals alike.
The question of how the idea of necessary vices should affect judgement on the moral condition of humankind is uninteresting, naturally, unless the idea is at least plausible. I suggest it is more than that: it is compelling. One quick way of refuting it is certainly unsuccessful. Somebody – Machiavelli, perhaps, or at moments Cioran – might argue that if our failings play a strategic role in benefitting and maintaining society, then they are not failings or vices at all. If hypocrisy, say, helps to reinforce salutary moral beliefs, the hypocrite does nothing wrong.
In response, we should remind ourselves of La Rochefoucauld’s analogy between vices and poisons. That a poison is an ingredient in a useful medicine doesn’t mean that it is not really a poison: indeed, it’s because it is that it’s medically effective. Using his own medical analogy, David Hume drives the commonsensical point home: just as a man will not welcome his gout on learning that it has its place in the balance of the universe, nor will he condone a robber’s greed on hearing that greed, too, contributes to a harmonious world. Greed remains a vice – something to condemn – whatever beneficial role it might have in society as a whole.
The idea of necessary vices can be refuted only by a painstaking demonstration that none of them really is essential to the maintenance of society. But utopian faith in the power of moral education, social reform, economic arrangements, political ideologies, therapy, sermonising and persuasion to engineer a viable society from which the vices have been expelled is… well, utopian. It is a faith, for one thing, which assumes that, deep down, everyone wants to live in a vice-less world, and that the problem is simply one of removing the obstacles to this goal. But no reader of La Rochefoucauld and his successors could take that assumption seriously.
Their language may be hyperbolic, but these writers are right to regard many failings as belonging, so to speak, to the scaffolding of society. In any society marked by social and economic hierarchies, shortages of things that people want, competing group interests, impetus towards achievement, and unequal individual abilities, vices are bound to make their contribution. Dissemblance and flattery, for instance, help oil the wheel of social intercourse; vanity, jealousy and aggressive ambition enable achievements in science, sport and business; self-deception and disrespect for others boost the self-esteem of the less talented.
None of this is to deny that we can at least try to imagine communities free from all vices. But, sooner or later, we’ll find ourselves imagining ones whose forms of life are so different from our own as barely to count as human. We’ll find that, instead, we are imagining, say, choirs of angels. It is instructive that thinkers who do imagine such communities emphasise their great distance from ones recognised as pursuing a characteristically human form of life. According to the Buddha, for example, what ‘keeps the [human] world turning around’ are the so-called ‘worldly conditions’: these include people’s preoccupations with gain and loss, fame and disrepute, and praise and blame. In effect, these are precisely the concerns that put a premium on skilful deployment of the vices. In a community of enlightened arahants, by contrast, the human world has been ‘overcome’: its members, liberated from human desires and perceptions, and no longer ‘holding dear’ anything that ‘ordinary worldlings’ do, have ‘transcended’ the human world.
It is worth noting that, over two millennia later, people today who envisage a future paradise of superior, genetically engineered creatures advisedly employ terms like ‘post-human’ or ‘trans-human’ to describe such a civilisation. ‘Human’ would be a bad choice, certainly, for describing beings that, as some transhumanists hold, will not experience pain, emotion or the exigencies of purely biological bodies.
In short, the idea of the human condition as one in which vices and failings are necessary is a compelling one. A condition in which these have been dispensed with is no longer a recognisably human condition. So, to return to my initial question, how should acceptance of the idea affect a verdict on our moral condition? Does it secure a misanthropic and pessimistic judgement of it as very bad indeed, or instead render such a judgement pointless?
My own sympathies are with the first of those responses. That forms of human life are saturated with vices and failings is bad enough: that they are bound to be is even worse. There are pessimists who, though sceptical of the prospects of a radical improvement in our moral condition, do not entirely rule the possibility out. Think, for instance, of a Marxist who doubts, but still nurtures the hope, that the idyllic post-capitalist future envisaged by Marx will materialise. The realisation that some of our most serious failings are ineradicable can only intensify this person’s pessimism. We’ve already noted, moreover, that optimistic, utopian scenarios of a vice-less human world are ruled out by the necessity of our failings. A vice-less world would not be a recognisably human world.
The necessity of vices also lends force and edge to the pronouncements of some famously pessimistic and misanthropic philosophers. Existence – human existence in particular – is ‘evil’, declared the great Italian poet, Giacomo Leopardi. What persuades him of this is not simply what he observes of human behaviour, but the realisation that our existence is ‘by its nature and essence’ replete with ‘imperfection’. The human race, he adds, is not only unhappy, but ‘necessarily unhappy’.
Or consider some of Arthur Schopenhauer’s notoriously negative remarks – our existence is ‘a mistake’, for instance, or ‘Ours is the worst of all possible worlds’. Feeding into these remarks is his appreciation of the necessity of our many failings. To design something that develops faults is a mistake, but a bigger mistake still if the design guarantees that it will do so. And while we can perhaps imagine human worlds somewhat better than our own, they are not going to be radically better if they are bound to be infected with the same vices as ours. Informing some of Cioran’s bleakest remarks – ‘Being born is a catastrophe’, ‘Society is a disaster’, and so on – is his conviction that such failings as intolerance and vengefulness are ‘needs’ and constitute ‘the law of human affairs’.
How, though, might these pessimists counter a critic’s claim that the very necessity of our vices makes it idle to denounce them and irrational, therefore, to let them influence a verdict on our moral condition? This claim is in the spirit of the precept ‘You’ve got to take the rough with the smooth!’. Visitors to the Scottish Highlands might not like the heavy rain, but they should put up with it for, without it, there’d be no tumbling rivers and picturesque lochs for them to enjoy. The rain cannot detract from the value of a place that wouldn’t exist without it. Similarly, it’ll be argued, it is pointless and irrational to alter one’s estimate of humankind’s worth in the light of failings essential to human existence. That estimate might not be high, but the necessity of our vices should not make it any lower.
The pessimist and misanthrope can, in fact, agree with the critic that, on a familiar understanding of denunciation, it is idle and irrational to denounce our necessary vices. Since they can’t be eradicated, it is indeed a futile waste of energy to indulge in an angry, fist-shaking polemic against these vices. The critic’s claim, in other words, is an effective one to make against certain types of misanthrope – like the one Kant labelled ‘the Enemy of Mankind’, who rages against human existence, or a splenetic hater of humankind with, as William Hazlitt put it, ‘the most virulent intolerance to human frailties’.
But if ‘denounce’ is taken in the gentler sense of to ‘make a negative moral judgement’, it’s hard to see how we can fail to denounce the necessary, as well as the unnecessary, vices. To suppose otherwise comes close to accepting the view, rejected earlier, that necessary vices are not really vices at all. Here, it is salutary, once more, to recall Hume’s common sense response: our immediate, natural antipathies – to what we rightly call ‘vices’ – cannot be overridden by metaphysical or sociological observations on the strategic place of vices in the world. If, in the relevant sense, we cannot but denounce necessary vices then, for reasons suggested earlier – the shipwreck of utopian hopes, for one – the denunciation must surely amplify a misanthropic, pessimistic judgement on humankind.
Implicit in the critic’s claim, perhaps, is the thought that it is idle to condemn something unless you can at least try to eliminate or mitigate it. Otherwise, it’ll be asked, are you really denouncing it, or just ‘gassing’? Now, it is true that, to be genuine, rather than merely gestural, the negative judgement on humankind must carry with it implications for behaviour, feelings and attitudes. But these need not take the form of futile attempts to eradicate or reform. Another of Kant’s misanthropes is ‘the Fugitive from Mankind’, someone who flees, temporarily at least, from a world that he fears will corrupt him. The Fugitive refuses, in effect, to take the rough with the smooth. He eschews both – like someone who, rather than put up with the rain, avoids Scotland altogether.
Or, there are those who endorse the misanthrope’s negative judgement but, instead of making the Fugitive’s literal retreat from the human world, live quietly and unobtrusively in that world, but with a certain detachment from its machinations and entanglements. This was the kind of ‘ironic’ existence prescribed by Daoist sages, like Zhuangzi, for whom the human world is irredeemably shot through with vices and human failings. The best that someone who appreciates this can do is, without fuss and clamour, to keep a distance from those affairs of life in which, inevitably, our vices are called into play.
Denunciation of necessary vices is not idle when it encourages, not useless protest against the universe, but a considered retreat from the human world or a distanced, quietist accommodation to it.
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I am grateful to Ian James Kidd for suggestions and comments, and have also drawn on his published work on the taxonomy of misanthropy.
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