Virtue Ethics and Brexit

Update 17/03/17: I wrote this post last year before the EU referendum in response to a post in which someone tried to frame the choice as egoism on one side (Brexit) and selflessness on the Remain side. I thought this rather shallow.


At his site Peter Baron has interestingly looked at the politics of Brexit through the lens of moral egoism.

I thought it would be interesting to take a virtue ethics view of the EU question. Virtue ethics makes eudaimonia, roughly translated as flourishing, a key element of moral decision-making. Equally it emphasises character over duty or consequences. It is not surprising that most of the arguments for Remain or Leave are framed in terms of utility or consequence; basically what are the economic losses or gains if we stay or go, because utilitarianism is the default public discourse mode of moral decision making. And this is so probably because of the materialism and relativism of secular modernity.

It is my view that virtue ethics can do much to augment and invigorate such deracinated modes of moral reasoning. And taking a virtue ethics approach to the EU referendum seems refreshing. Where are the great narratives on both sides? Rabbi Sacks argues here that they are missing from this debate:

“The debate has been great and vigorous but what is it turning on? How much money will this cost us; will it make it easier or harder to control immigration.

“These matters … are important but in the long run the fact is that we have historical narratives that should have been spoken about and haven’t.

“One is the historical narrative of England, that extraordinary history that runs all the way through from Shakespeare to Elgar to Blake. The second is the other narrative, of Europe in the 20th Century, two world wars, tens of millions of deaths and the original vision … the people who really passionately believed and believe in Europe were people who came through the Second World War and vowed let us create a Europe where this can never happen again.

“There are two very powerful historical narratives, one for leaving, one for staying, but nobody has tried to do that and it tells you that it is very difficult to speak in these memory terms and narrative terms at all.”

If we try to speak in these narrative terms we will be attempting a telos-orientated interpretation of events. We will be rejecting Utilitarian modes of thought, but more than that, we will be rejecting the simplistic liberal reactions to Brexit that frame it in terms of egoism on the Leave side and superior moral insight on the Remain side. Here is the smug arrogance of the liberal elites at its worst.


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