Book review: Civic virtue and the sovereignty of evil; Derek Edyvane

Pusterla, Elia R.G. (2014) Book review: Civic virtue and the sovereignty of evil; Derek Edyvane. Global Policy.

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Derek Edyvane’s Civic Virtue and the Sovereignty of Evil is an ambitious monograph on political and moral philosophy. It raises pressing questions about our uncertain times by investigating ‘what is really at stake in ongoing debates ... about public morality and the general sense of ethical crisis in modern life’ (p.14). Edyvane aims at contextualising the political debate on this issue, and providing moral grounds to define civic virtue and public morality even under conditions of endemic conflict within pluralistic societies. This twofold ambition leads to a dense articulation of arguments covering two themes: a discussion of what public morality is and how is it shaped, and an attempt to see how civic virtue can emerge from this. As the title forewarns, this virtuosity does not originate from the good, but from evil. From the first of its nine chapters until the end, the book challenges the distinction in political theory between positive and negative politics. While the former relates to aspirational measures based on the hope that goodness can be achieved, the latter deals with preventive actions due to the fear of evil that must be avoided. Edyvane’s model goes beyond that interpretation by suggesting the existence of an asymmetry between aspirations and preventions, alternatively inspiring positive and negative politics. Edyvane proposes that rather than aspiring to ideals of good, actors may just want to avoid threats to their ordinary existence. Given the difficulties today in bringing to light and defining shared societal values, public morality should rest not on idealistic projects, but on a positive interpretation of contingency: ‘In this way, to perceive the inevitable tension between the claims of aspiration and those of the preventive ethic and to perceive the impossibility of ethical completeness and perfection in human life as we know it may also be to perceive beauty. These are some reasons in outline, then, to suggest that the reality of perpetual discord in the soul need not connote sickness or malfunction, but might rather indicate life and liveliness’ (p.140). Accordingly, the book’s leitmotif opposes the allegory of Cormac McCarthy’s novel The Road, or ‘a tale of the continuing possibility of virtue in a world devoid of sovereign goodness’ (p.9), to Plato’s aspirational one of the cave. In The Road, ‘The father and the son do not despair, they keep going’ (p.9). Thanks to the objective reliability of feelings, they experience the relative goodness of their resolve to ‘keep going’ and not ‘give up’. Indeed, ‘in the domain of public morality, we must acknowledge the sovereignty of evil’ (p.9), and the fight to mitigate the impending sovereignty of evil becomes the only way to ground public morality. Instead of seeking an absolute good, Edyvane emphasises the more concrete intrinsic value and personal satisfaction in preventing greater evils. Avoiding disasters that the sovereignty of evil may bring about must be seen as the source of moral agreement for what politics must be, thus grounding positive forms of (procedural) justice, civic friendship, and a sense of ordinary hopefulness towards the future: ‘Even supposing that our real situation, our ‘ethical crisis’, is more faithfully reflected in The Road than in the cave, the possibility of virtue may yet persist’ (p.9). Edyvane’s preventive ethic as a source of public morality and civic virtue adopts a destabilising perspective. Referring to the ancient Spartan and to the British post-Second-World-War times of preventive ethic of austerity – “in both contexts austerity possesses a clear ethical dimension that today lacks” (p.71) – Edyvane’s “non-substantive procedural” (p.79) ethic is presented as the acceptable solution to deal with the presence of unavoidable compromises within society over what is truly moral (p. 102), while also obtaining the result of preventing the greatest evils and catastrophes of human life. Without cynicism or pessimism, civic virtue deals with the record and defence of those positive actions providing an acceptable level of goodness and, more importantly, preventing the appearance of greater evils. Indeed, ‘While the allegory of the cave suggests that our present inability to make sense of practices of civic virtue need only be a temporary condition – just until we emerge into the world of sunlight – the allegory of the road suggests that what we have is all there is’ (p.9). Edyvane argues that public morality should be based on the profound reconsideration of our scepticism towards the uncertainty under which we live by seeing it as a source not only of reactive and preventive measures, but also of intrinsic positive values to defend. He concludes that ‘Uncertain times call for uncertain citizens’ (p.145), and that the moral value of ‘keeping going’ not only helps us to agree on the positive measures to maintain that existing condition, but also leads to the possibility of unexpected but fortuitous goodness. The prevention of worsening conditions of life due to great evils depends on a serene vision and recognition of the already valuable presence of many positive aspects within our current conditions of life. While the book commands intellectual respect, it is very hard to agree with several arguments that it develops. It advances an indulgent moral posture, with adaptable citizens (p.144) looking towards future events with a ‘hopefulness without hope’ (p.126) that reminds us of Derrida’s messianic without messianism. However, Derrida’s view of ontological indetermination and undecidability as features of life is different from Edyvane’s. Indeed, referring to Kolakowski, Edyvane affirms the sovereignty of ‘evil … which undermines and subverts the very notion of a moral narrative and the basic ability of men and women to formulate ethical aspirations’ (p.57). He claims that evil is sovereign by appealing to moral arguments recovering Hume’s tradition of judicious spectator, emphasising the objectivity of bad sensations. However, religious experiences (e.g. Christian martyrs) teach us how sensations cannot be trusted to establish moral objectivity, given that physical suffering can be voluntarily preferred in order to root out evil. It appears arbitrary to treat a lack of consensus on what is good as a normal feature of life, and to regard physical suffering as worse than transcendental evil. Similarly, Edyvane’s claim that ‘there are no straightforwardly right answers in the domain of public morality’ (p.143), it could be argued, paradoxically rests upon an assumed answer. If follows that grounding public morality on the rehabilitation of our worst feelings of fear, however disguised as acts of maturity and bravery, means abandoning our call to attempt to eradicate evil. Moral duties are certainly not always applicable as a prescriptive rule independent from any contextual evolution. But virtue has to be understood, I would contend, as either finding or adapting the right answer in respect to new circumstances. This is why only those who want evil serve it as sovereign, while virtuous people, according to varying contextual priorities, always search for the morally good option. Finally, the book mentions but does not define sovereignty. Improving this and other points, perhaps through a rigorous reading of the theological dimension of sovereignty, could help us to see why evil cannot be (and must not even be considered) sovereign.

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