The High Cost of Virtue

Morality and Conflict

by Stuart Hampshire
Harvard University Press, 175 pp., $17.50

Stuart Hampshire’s main target, in the subtle and beautifully written essays collected here, is the ancient but still current idea that moral conflict is an illusion, that we can always find, in every situation, one choice or decision that leaves us nothing to regret. Aristotle held one version of that idea: he thought that philosophical reasoning could reveal the place of each virtue and experience in the ideally best life, which would have the right degree of each and the right balance among them. Utilitarians have another version: they argue that all questions about how people ought to behave, from the most intimate personal decisions to political decisions affecting many millions, must be made on one standard alone. People ought always to do what will produce the greatest overall happiness, or the greatest “utility,” according to some other conception of what that means. A certain form of conventionalism offers a third version: it insists that morality is nothing more than falling in with the traditions, practices, and codes that define each moral community; since morality has no purchase outside conventions of that sort, someone who behaves as his community requires, on this view, can have no grounds for moral regret.

These various doctrines contradict one another, but each offers a single, ultimate test that promises unambiguous solutions to moral problems. Hampshire argues that this promise is false: he insists that ordinary moral experience is a matter of conflict between incompatible methods and standards and impulses and goals, and that conflict of this kind is pervasive and irreducible. He exposes fallacies and misperceptions that he believes have contributed to the conflict-free tradition he opposes. He notices, for example, the use Aristotle made of the medical analogy: just as medical science can discover, by examining the human body, what foods are everywhere and always nutritious for it, so, Aristotle thought, philosophers can discover, from reflection on man’s mental and emotional nature, what combination of experiences and virtues will everywhere and always provide him with the most flourishing possible life. The analogy is mistaken because, among other reasons, what a person will and can conceive as valuable to his life will be influenced, in ways his digestion is not, by the contingent culture and traditions of his own particular society.

The utilitarians made a different kind of mistake. They were not only arrogant in thinking human happiness was all that could matter, but also unreasonably optimistic in supposing that science and technology could predict the consequences of elaborate social changes with enough confidence to let decisions rest entirely on those predictions. Some of the most terrible crimes of military adventurism, Hampshire believes, were the result of utilitarian attitudes.

His argument is mainly phenomenological, however, drawn from reflecting on ordinary moral experience rather than from demonstrating fallacies in his opponents’ work. He shows how the monistic assumption that one method or standard which eliminates conflicts must finally govern all moral decisions ignores the complexity of the different ways people think about what to be and what to do. He describes three kinds or levels of conflict, though these are more interconnected in his account than the following summary suggests.

He notices, first, the different and sometimes competing methods people use to think about moral issues. Sometimes moral argument takes the form of systematic, even geometrical, reasoning, ostensibly from first principles. That method of reasoning is most often in play, for example, when we think about the wisdom and fairness of large legislative programs like tax reforms. But on other occasions ethical reflection is more a matter of unreasoned, intuitive imagination, as when a person holds up to himself one or another ideal of self, imagines himself as a family man or a hard-driving politician, for instance, in order to shape his character one way or the other.

Each method, the reasoned and the imaginative, has a characteristic form of justification or explanation. Reasoned justifications of legislation try to tie each concrete decision to some single and coherent scheme of justice. But a defense of an important personal decision can only be expository: it explores the details and appeal of a chosen way of life, showing its coherence and what it requires in various circumstances. It cannot demonstrate the superiority of that way of life over all others.

Hampshire points out, secondly, the competing place in each of these methods of two sources of moral standards or ideals: abstract and timeless ideals we think hold always for human beings everywhere, and more local ideals given by convention or tradition to which we feel loyalty as citizens or members of the tradition in question. We feel conflict between these two kinds of standards both when we reason about what justice requires and when we imagine personal ideals for ourselves. When we debate, for example, how far society has the right to legislate codes of sexual conduct and enforce these through the criminal law, we are aware that the conventional sexual morality of any community is arbitrary and even irrational, that the lines it draws between what is permissible and what is forbidden are drawn differently elsewhere, and cannot be defended as best against any plausible abstract scheme of consequentialist or Kantian morality. We count these facts as serious arguments against state enforcement, and yet we are also attracted by the idea that every society needs codes, that our own code is part of what defines us as a community, that it commands loyalty just for that reason, and that something important is lost if the more abstract perspective prevails. The conflict is genuine; any choice we make disregards and sacrifices values we cherish.

The third kind of conflict is deeper, more pervasive, and in some circumstances tragic. No choice we make in either personal or political morality, whether we take the abstract or the local perspective, is without its ethical or moral costs, even viewed from that perspective. Any form of life a person takes up will discourage, even rule out, associations and projects he and the traditions of his community value. Any legal scheme a community adopts will neglect or burden some interests and values whose claims seem equal to those it promotes. Sometimes we can honor principles we take to be fundamental—that trials must always be scrupulously fair and that torture is absolutely wrong, for example—only by turning our back on others: that the lives of innocent people threatened by crime or terrorism are sacred, for instance, and should be protected at any cost.

Hampshire exhibits these various kinds of conflict and the ways they interact in moral reflection through a sensitive discussion of the contrasting virtues of friendship and justice. Our arguments about justice rightly try to discover, in some conception of fundamental human good, standards that must govern the basic rights and institutions of any decent society. The responsibilities of friendship and love, on the other hand, are only to a very limited degree matters of reasoning from first principles; they are mainly matters of imagination both sparked and constrained by the limited forms of association held out by the communities we inhabit. (Aristotle’s own account of friendship, for example, seems foreign and even defective to us.) But though justice and friendship differ in that way, because we think about the former mainly through reason and mainly from a universal perspective and the latter mainly through imagination and a more local point of view, we cannot wholly ignore, in thinking about either, the methods and perspective characteristic of the other.

The general principles of justice we recognize as timeless, for example, are never sufficient to determine the details of political structure and regulation any society establishes. Different communities that each recognize the dignity and equality of all citizens will nevertheless settle on somewhat different patterns of provision of care for the poor, for instance, or on different models of a fair criminal trial. So at some point, in any discussion of the justice of an institution or decision, the argument, “That is the way we do things here; that is the way we live,” will be the only, and so the right, argument to make. Even the least legalistic social institutions, on the other hand, like those of friendship and family, will in some societies be the source of suffering and unfairness; and it will always be open, in those circumstances, to appeal to external principles to condemn them.

We count both justice and friendship as virtues, and because our sense of the nature and demands of each draws on both the rational and imaginative methods, and on both the universal and conventionalist perspectives, no one method and no one perspective can be exhaustive of morality. Friendship dramatically illustrates the third form of conflict, moreover, and challenges the Aristotelian assumption that the virtuous life is the life that combines everything desirable in the right degree. That is an impossible goal, Hampshire says, because virtues of character are not items on a “shopping list” that can be acquired in whatever combination we choose.

A disposition to a particular form of friendship, or of love, will be at the expense of other possibilities, and will be recognized to be so. For example, the ideal of friendship between young males in some ancient Greek cities is thought to have entailed a cost in the ideal of romantic love between men and women, and perhaps also in ideals of married love, ideals that have prevailed in other places and at other times.

We cannot take up all the kinds of lives we would like, compartmentalizing our lives and devoting part to each, because each form of life a particular society permits is valuable only if it structures one’s life as a whole, and to put one’s life into compartments would result in moral schizophrenia. That is, however, an argument as much against conventionalism being a complete guide to the ethics of character as it is against the Aristotelian vision. It is absurd to suppose that a perfect form of friendship is available that would, without cost, combine all the desirable features supplied by different models of friendship produced by different societies. But it is also absurd to deny, as the conventionalist seems to, that we can aspire to a more general and universal point of view from which the costs inherent in each model can be noticed and understood as matters for regret. Neither of these ways of eliminating confict is defensible; as Hampshire makes clear, taking up one way of life imposes genuine and inevitable costs in the values that the rejected ways of life would have provided.

These are impressive arguments. They remind us of the complexities of actual moral decisions so often ignored in the schematic formulas of most academic moral philosophy. Do they establish Hampshire’s central claim, that conflict in moral reasoning is pervasive and inevitable? We must take care, in assessing the force of his arguments, to distinguish two different positions he might be thought to be attacking. The first holds that genuine moral questions have, at least in principle, right answers; that in each situation of moral conflict one act or decision will be, all things considered, the right one. The second includes the first, but adds that the right decision is, from a moral point of view, a decision without cost which leaves the agent who makes it nothing to regret or deplore in a moral way.

The distinction is important. It matters whether, if we believe ourselves justified in breaking a promise to a friend because we can then help someone else in greater need, we owe our friend an apology or some other form of recompense, or whether in these circumstances we owe him nothing because the moral force of the promise was wholly extinguished by the greater good we did by breaking it. It also matters, though in a different way, whether we should feel deep guilt when we bomb innocent civilians in a just war to prevent more deaths later, or only a more impersonal sympathy, as if they were victims of something beyond our control, like an earthquake or epidemic.

Hampshire’s arguments are effective against the second view. Moral conflicts are inevitable, and we would be morally defective if we did not feel their agony. But Hampshire does not distinguish the two views clearly enough, and some of his remarks—for example his repeated statements that there can be no “single” ideal and that the irrational has an important part to play in moral reflection—might suggest that he means to deny the first as well, to reject the idea that there can be right answers to difficult and controversial moral issues. I do not believe he means to do so. He nowhere explicitly endorses the idea that there can be right answers, but his careful moral phenomenology shows that ordinary experience is built on that assumption. We would not sense the moral conflicts he describes as conflicts unless we assumed that one decision is better than another even when we are uncertain which decision is better and know that either will have grave moral costs.

So Hampshire’s arguments, far from showing that we can dismiss the ancient puzzles about the objectivity of moral claims once we recognize the inevitability of conflict, make these even more urgent and difficult. Consider his account of the choice people make between different forms of life, each of which contains something of value. A man may feel the pull of a life fully and unreservedly committed to an intellectual project, but also the appeal of a life fully and unreservedly devoted to politics and community; he may accept all that Hampshire wisely says and remain perplexed about what decision to make. He accepts that his choice of a way of life must be drawn from those his culture makes available, so that he may not create a new, bespoke combination of intellectual and political life with just the right mix of each; and also that any such combination, even if it could be imagined, would be the worst choice possible because the attractiveness of each kind of life critically depends on a wholehearted commitment to it. He accepts that no geometrical demonstration can decide which is the better choice, that he must put imagination rather than logic to work, and that any decision will leave part of his nature dissatisfied. Yet he is left with a decision nevertheless, and Hampshire’s reminders are poignant only because that decision matters so much.

His choice is not a matter of urgency and stress unless he believes that one choice is, at least for him, the right choice and one the wrong choice to make. That belief raises all the problems discussed by philosophers, what Hampshire calls the academic tradition. Does the best life for a person mean only the life that is likely to provide him with the most happiness or some other sort of satisfaction as it unfolds? Is his problem, that is, mainly a predictive one? Or should he seek, in his exercise of reflective imagination, not just to employ but to examine the preferences he already has? Should he be trying to develop a character or only to satisfy one? Moral experience gives the first answer to these questions. But is it possible for people to abstract from their present commitments and projects in the way that answer supposes? Can a person even conceive of himself as radically detached from the convictions he already has in order to ask whether these are best for him? And where does the independent idea of a valuable life come from?

These are not puzzles about just part of our moral experience, the part Hampshire calls the rational part. They are puzzles about all of it, including the part he calls imaginative, because that part, too, assumes that there are right choices in imaginative conflicts, whether over the kinds of lives we choose or over the loyalties we owe our friends. Hampshire does not address these puzzles, but his account of how we think about the kind of person we want to be confirms the importance they have had in moral philosophy. So does his account of political morality. He is right that no plausible theory about abstract, universal principles of justice will decide every detail of the distribution of resources within a community. Any decent theory will allow a political society to decide certain details any way it chooses.

But he is also right in saying that people disagree about how demanding the correct principles of universal justice actually are, and therefore about the point at which a society is in fact free to distribute resources according to its own historically developed and traditional sense of what is proper. Almost everyone in America now seems agreed, for example, that abstract justice forbids leaving the grievously ill entirely to their own resources. But we disagree bitterly about what abstract justice does require, about when it would be right to say simply: that is what we, in our society, have traditionally done about this problem, and abstract justice requires no more. Our national traditions deny that the poor are entitled to the same medical care the rich can buy. Is that tradition permitted or condemned by justice?

The fact that we disagree about that kind of question, posed in that way, has philosophical importance. It shows that we reject the extreme conventionalist view that disagreement about justice only makes sense as disagreement about what our conventions and traditions, properly understood, require.* When we argue about how far the principles of justice which any society must respect leave us free to follow the distinct traditions of our own society, our argument presupposes that such principles are not themselves drawn from convention. We may in the end have to choose between what we think justice requires and what our traditions endorse, and Hampshire is right, again, to insist that either choice will leave us with something to regret, for even if we choose justice we should still regret the loss in cultural distinctness and integrity. But this conflict, like the others we noticed, is the consequence of a moral structure firmly committed to an objective point of view. We are in conflict between our sense of justice and our sense of cultural identity, but not in conflict about the independence of the two. Hampshire’s book is valuable for making that clearer than it has been. He makes a strong challenge to philosophy not only to recognize the conflicts crude moral theory ignores, but to explain the deep sources of those conflicts in a more comprehensive phenomenology of moral life.

  1. *

    For a discussion of a sophisticated version of this conventionalist view, see my review of Michael Walzer’s Spheres of Justice, and later correspondence between us, in these page (The New York Review, April 14, 1983; July 21, 1983).