Friday, August 3, 2012

Ethics, Expertise, and the Virtues

A danger of Anthony Esolen's argument in the previous post is that it can be taken to warrant a kind of populist dismissal of authority and excellence.  This is not what Esolen argues, but it is a prevalent trend in modern conservatism, a response to the overwhelming dominance of liberalism in the academy and media.  Because our institutional elites have become so culturally and ethically corrupt and nihilistic, themselves trashing the very idea of standards of excellence, the "populist temptation" - that of throwing out the idea of elites altogether - is particularly strong.

In this post at the Public Discourse poet and essayist Mark Signorelli poses the question like this:
Surely, though, it ought not to take much reflection to recognize how far the rampant egalitarianism of our age is implicated in the corrosion of standards throughout our society—in learning and the arts, in manners and in civil discourse. The refusal to admit any criteria of excellence has simply become a basic fact of our profoundly nihilistic culture, and one of the most obvious causes of its unrivaled degradation. No longer are we willing to recognize, for instance, that Bach was a musician vastly superior to any rock star, or that an education rooted in the reading of Shakespeare and Plato can impart far greater wisdom to a young mind than one rooted in the reading of faddish bestsellers. If conservatism, as a body of thought, has no remedy for such a stark illness, it is hard to see how it can possibly claim our allegiance, or even our interest, any longer. 
How can we subject our present institutional leadership to the kind of harsh criticism it so richly deserves, while retaining our principled belief in the necessity of standards of precedence in our institutional life? 
To answer this question, Signorelli draws on Alasdair MacIntyre's work on the virtues and social practices.  (See especially MacIntyre's After Virtue and Three Rival Versions of Moral Enquiry.)


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