The People’s Virtues

08. novembris, 2007

This Monday, I was at a conference where a professor of ethics declared that there is nothing wrong about praising the traditional ethic of one's ethnic group - what she referred to as 'the people's virtues'.

The professor was badly provoked, of course. She was talking of theoretical approaches to ethics, presenting a huge audience – mostly of policy practitioners rather than academics – with a glittering chain of notions and terms such as ‘deontology’, ‘Sittenlehre’ and ‘virtue ethics’. ‘And then’, she said, ‘there is the traditional ethic, the people’s virtues’. And imagine, suddenly there comes a couple of smug, irreverent, vaguely academic types from the Soros networks, and begins to question the content of the notion ‘people’s virtues’. Anyone would get annoyed. The professor did, too. So did some others at the same conference. Therefore, I decided to dedicate this week’s blog to the people’s virtues.

To start with, the professor is not alone in her concern about a lack of respect for the notion, and Latvia is not the only country where debates about the people’s virtues are a social no-go. Take Turkey, now in the throes of beginning (or not) its pre-accession talks with the EU. There, a handful of similarly smug types, blinded by their intellectual pretensions, no doubt, have in the recent past made offensive remarks about the Turkish identity and way of life. Fortunately for the defenders of the people’s virtues, Turkey has an article of criminal law (labelled Article 301) that makes offending Turkish national identity a crime. So far, as the President of Turkey recently declared, no person has ended up in prison for the offence. Nevertheless, the world-famous writer Orthan Pamuk was one of those accused under the article. The European Union has recently requested that Turkey repeal Article 301 before the beginning of accession talks, but I bet there are many in Turkish society who think the demand is outrageous.

But let us return to Latvia. When asked about the content of ‘people’s virtues’, the professor replied that she was referring to a system of ethical self-regulation that the Latvian people had in the times when this land was ruled by others and when the legal and political sphere was a precinct of the oppressors. These virtues, she added, included the concepts of honour and shame. While this may be a valid historical explanation, I was still left in the dark as to the meaning of such traditional self-regulation today, when access to the political and legal sphere is free.

Therefore I have made a little investigation in the media, trying to see the contexts in which the term ‘people’s virtues’ was used recently. A document that caught my eye at once was an open letter of 266 teachers to Prime Minister Aigars Kalvītis (published early this year) about the planned amendments to the Criminal Law. The teachers protested against the intention to make discrimination of the basis of sexual orientation a punishable crime. Their reasons? The amendment, in their opinion, would have prevented them from teaching about ‘the people’s virtues’. Apparently, homosexuality offends the people’s virtues somehow, while discrimination does not. Or, perhaps, naming and shaming people who are found to be gay is a people’s virtue.

I had further clues from the professor, who mentioned that the active citizens who gathered to protest against the policies of Mr Kalvitis’ government on 3 November were moved not by abstract ideas of protecting the rule of law, but by the people’s virtues. Now, that may well be true. When waiting for some colleagues on my way to the demonstration, I have indeed seen a gentleman of advanced years holding a piece of cardboard painted white that stated “Away with selfishness, corruption and nonsense.” I could not pluck up the courage to approach him and to ask whether he recalls a single society that had successfully done away with these things. Because I do remember a society that tried. I lived in such a society, where bigotry prevailed and hypocrisy was at the core of ideology, until it collapsed in 1991.
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