Milbank on the Ethics of Plato’s _Republic_

Notes on Milbank’s Remarks at “Faith and Secularism: the Moral Resourcing of the Nation,”

held at Westminster Abbey in London, Nov. 12, 2012.

As opposed to the tradition of virtue ethics, modern ethical theories tend to reduce down to deontological (ie, Kantian) approaches or utilitarian ethics. The former privilege freedom, particularly freedom of choice, and the corresponding importance of “human rights” construed in merely negative terms. The latter sees ethical goods as fundamentally measurable, and so the evaluation of political policies and so on reduces down to units of stuff.

Virtue ethics on the other hand insists that these things don’t really make us happy, they don’t really lead to human flourishing. Instead, the virtue tradition of Plato and Aristotle says that the kinds of activities that constitute our flourishing are contemplation of the divine, participation in the political life of the city, and the enjoyment of friendship.

Another key distinction between virtue ethics on the one hand and modern approaches on the other is that the latter focus on the performance of individual acts, whereas the former focus on the kind of character produced by a life lived over time.

Utilitarianism leads to an emphasis on auditing managerial solutions to ethics, while freedom-based approaches imply that as long as something is not against the law, it is fine.

Both Milbank and Hobbs agree on all of this. Yet Milbank thinks that Hobbs’ advocacy of a return to the ethical approach of Plato is “odd,” given the fact that in a pluralistic society which has been radically shaped by a) perceived violence stemming from the so-called wars of religion, and b) the concomitant banishment of the transcendent from all public discourse there is no way to adjudicate the different perspectives advocated in society, no way to agree on the common good or what humans are for (much less the wise means to achieve that end).

Hence, Milbank is arguing, a real return to Plato is mutually exclusive with secularism. For Plato, that is, religion, or the desire for the good / the true / the beautiful which is above reason and thus “guides reason,” is inseparable from his ethics. A return the Platon, Milbank suggests, involves a return to religion.

Religion, then, for Plato, is required to bring our passions and our thumos into order. Reason alone cannot do it. Morality is not simply a matter of self-control, with reason “being on top of the passions and thumos.”[1] Indeed, if morality were simply a matter of the hegemony of reason alone, that is the moral simply is the rational, then it would be perfectly moral (since it is perfectly rational) for a person to seek to amass as much power as he can. The pursuit of power is in this case perfectly reasonable and hence perfectly rational.

Rather, contemplation of the forms allows us to develop a sense of phronesis, by which we (intuitively?) know when and how to enjoy pleasure, to insist on our own honor & respect (including self-respect), etc. “There are no rules about this,” but rather it has to do with participating in something ineffable which we can hardly grasp. On this view religion has little or nothing to do with rules.

Not only can Plato not be rightly regarded as a “secular source of morality” but actually “there are no good secular sources for morality.”

[1] These being the three components of Plato’s tripartite view of the soul.