A few weeks ago, I wrote about the possibility of establishing virtue in a liberal democracy like the United States. I have been reflecting on the topic ever since, trying to understand the relationship between virtue and democracy.
If you take Aristotelian virtue seriously, then you know that law is a vital component. Aristotle believed that law should create the behaviors and habits that would ultimately lead to virtue. Obviously the nature of law in the ancient world is very different from our current understanding of law. For most of us, law is merely supposed to curb, rather than to encourage, any particular kind of behavior. I would argue that this has serious implications for our understanding, and pursuit, of morality in general.
Along with the Aristotelian tradition, many of the ancients believed the nature of law should affect the nature of virtue, including its very definition and connotation. The nature of law in the ancient world defined the nature of their virtues.
Since then law has changed immensely. Democratic revolutions of the world introduced an understanding of law that merely prohibited behaviors, so rather than encouraging your good behavior, laws told you only what not to do.
You have only to speak to my generation to see what I mean. Ask them: “What does it mean to be a good person?” You'll probably hear something along the lines of: “Not doing anything bad.” This may be somewhat exaggerated, but you get the point.
So, it would seem that democracy, and more specifically the laws associated with democracy, has greatly affected our understanding of morality and virtue. The nature of law in a democratic society is so dramatically different than that of the ancient world, and this of course has many different implications. It dramatically affects our perception of human flourishing and even human goodness, for what it means to be “good” is dramatically altered. It may even limit our human potential. I think it can be safely said that this is a potentially dangerous trend.
To understand ethics and virtue in a more holistic sense, we must have some way of looking beyond democratic laws and seeing the human good as something that is pursued proactively, through positive action, rather than through limitations and restrictions.