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Can Private Vice Produce Public Virtue?

Detail of Ambrogio Lorenzetti's Allegory of Good Government (1338-1340), discussed below.

Since at least the eighteenth century, this question has often been debated in economic terms. Some philosophers, notably Bernard Mandeville, claimed that vices such as avarice, pride, and vanity are necessary for a well-functioning economy — and a well-functioning economy, they argued, is critical to the public good. Many contemporary American readers probably hold a position like this to some extent. Today, we might be reluctant to call consumer desire and the pursuit of wealth, convenience, and luxury “vices,” but we doubtless recognize these as forces driving the modern economy, producing technological advances, lower unemployment, and higher standards of living. In this sense, at least, we might be inclined to concede that private “vice” produces public virtue. But, in fact, the old argument is far from resolved.

For centuries, many thinkers in the West agreed with certain classical Greek and Roman authors who saw a link between private (or personal) virtue and the public good, between the health of the soul and that of the city. In Book II of Plato’s Republic, for example, Socrates draws an analogy between man’s justice and the justice of the polis. The analogy goes both ways: possession of the virtue of justice in the individual helps to produce its possession in the political community, while political justice contributes to justice within individuals. More broadly, the whole character of the polis — its governance, its values, its culture — affects the character of its members, just as the character of the members affects the character of the polis.

Socrates concedes that in each polis there are inevitably men of all types of vices and virtues. Tyrannies, for instance, are not composed entirely of tyrants. Nevertheless, he insists, the citizens of a tyranny will, on the whole, be marked by the character of slavery as their wills develop in response to the stifling and overbearing will of the tyrant. As Socrates explains to his interlocutor:

“Recall the general likeness between the city and the man, and then observe in turn what happens to each of them.” “What things?” he said. “In the first place,” said I, “will you call the state governed by a tyrant free or enslaved, speaking of it as a state?” “Utterly enslaved,” he said. “And yet you see in it masters and freemen.” “I see,” he said, “a small portion of such, but the entirety, so to speak, and the best part of it, is shamefully and wretchedly enslaved.”

Many of the great thinkers of the Christian theological and philosophical traditions, including both Augustine of Hippo and Thomas Aquinas, agreed in the main with this account of how private virtue is connected to the public good. They accepted as obvious that private vice (or virtue) leads to public vice (or virtue) — and the other way around. For societies to be healthy and well-ordered, families must produce good citizens; for families to produce good citizens, statesmen must embody the virtues they wished to see prevail in their societies and to enact and enforce laws that incline people to cultivate virtue. Character — both in those who governed and those who were governed — was as important as the form of government itself.

The political theorist David Miller begins his wonderful Political Philosophy: A Very Short Introduction (2003) by musing on the fourteenth-century fresco series by Ambrogio Lorenzetti called The Allegory of Good and Bad Government. Emerging from the classical tradition, Lorenzetti takes for granted that the moral characters of both rulers and subjects are deeply connected. The fresco depicts the virtuous ruler in the middle of a flourishing city, surrounded by figures representing the virtues of courage, justice, magnanimity, peace, prudence, and temperance. By contrast, the vicious ruler, who rules a city marked by instability and disorder, is placed among figures who represent vices including avarice, cruelty, and pride. Fear dominates the vicious city: “a city under military occupation, and a barren countryside devastated by ghostly armies,” as Miller writes.

Within a few centuries, the assumptions informing Lorenzetti’s frescoes would be shaken by a new set of arguments about vice and virtue. Where Lorenzetti praised temperance and prudence, later thinkers would make cases against them. “Luxury,” Bernard Mandeville wrote in 1705, “employ’d a million of the Poor, and odious Pride a Million more.”

Mandeville’s long poem The Grumbling Hive: or, Knaves Turn’d Honest defended vice against the moralism of English political ideology famously expressed by Jonathan Swift, among others. Mandeville is explicit:

Envy itself, and Vanity,

Were Ministers of Industry;

Their darling Folly, Fickleness,

In Diet, Furniture and Dress,

That strange ridic’lous Vice, was made

The very Wheel that turn’d the Trade.

The very vices that Lorenzetti portrayed as being opposed to civic well-being — vanity, pride, avarice — are here portrayed as essential to public well-being.

For Mandeville, a society flourishes because of and not despite private vice. “Thus every Part was full of Vice, yet the whole Mass a Paradise.” Even though at the personal level vices of self-seeking abound, that very viciousness conduces to a good society. “Such were the Blessings of that State; their Crimes conspir’d to make them Great.”

But this is merely one half of Mandeville’s account. If an abundance of certain vices can lead to paradise, an abundance of certain virtues leads to despair and poverty. He writes that amid the plenty that vice provides, the hive is “bawling” about the proliferation of vice. These hypocrites, benefitting from their bounty, pray to Jove for virtue, and angry Jove complies, giving them the virtues for which they plead. The hive soon realizes its error:

But, Oh ye Gods! What Consternation,

How vast and sudden was th’Alteration!

In half an Hour, the Nation round,

Meat fell a Penny in the Pound.


All Arts and Crafts neglected lie;

Content, the Bane of Industry,

Makes ’em admire their homely Store,

And neither seek nor covet more.

Unable to protect itself and unmotivated towards industry, art, or craft, the hive relocates to the hollow of a tree to live “blest with Content and Honesty.” Mandeville’s rejoinder to the classical view does not simply dismiss virtue nor favor vice but playfully reconfigures their relationship.

Lorenzetti’s and Mandeville’s allegories couldn’t be more opposed. Each takes for granted the same catalogue of virtues and vices, and each assumes that there is a connection between private morality and the public good; yet, each draws an opposed conclusion. For Lorenzetti, pride and vanity must give way to virtues such as selflessness, moderation, and justice, without which social harmony is impossible. For Mandeville, on the other hand, a society lacking vanity and pride will be poor, not rich, and will produce its own and different vices, especially sloth and lack of industriousness. Later Enlightenment philosophers, including Adam Smith and David Hume, would echo and elaborate on Mandeville’s ideas.

Many of us today will likely be sympathetic to Mandeville’s view. In general, we applaud industry, reward ingenuity, and praise technology, production, and the pursuit of wealth. The “contentment” that motivated the hive to retreat into the hollow of the tree is no virtue of our age. We often concede, implicitly or explicitly, that self-interest underlies industriousness and material success; and if so, self-interest must not be bad. Such a culture is not always hospitable to virtues such as charity, understood as complete regard for others, and those associated with religious belief, such as devotion, obedience, and contemplation — all of which tend to subtract from the self-interested pursuit of success.

But there are reasons to suspect a future return to older conceptions of virtue and the related notion, depicted by Lorenzetti, that virtuous character is necessary for a healthy society.

First, recent economic developments may suggest the unsustainability of ever-increasing patterns of consumption. This is only partly a claim about environmental degradation. It is also a claim that harkens back to the insight of the classical tradition that the desire for worldly consumption can never be satisfied — that happiness is not a consequence of the pursuit of material things. Mandeville and his heirs are right to note the relative wealth and comfort of societies propelled toward industry by self-interest — if not by avarice and vanity. But what would they make of the less desirable characteristics of some of those societies? Are unhappiness, boredom, and despair vicious consequences of private vice — or of virtues in the making?

Second, even advocates of the Mandevillian approach praise the older virtues, whether implicitly or explicitly. This we might call the “eternal return of virtue.”

Indeed, Mandeville’s argument about the social benefits of private vice depends upon the classical understanding of vice and virtue to an important extent. His allegory presumes a certain kind of citizenry, one that possesses some of the classical virtues. For example, the citizens who by their avarice devote themselves to production in order to meet their own or their neighbor’s desires cannot help but find themselves in a communal context on which they depend for their own well-being. Thus their productive activity requires not only self-interest but also interest in the good of the community. They are not, in other words, simply vicious but display an admixture of vices and virtues. Adam Smith, in discussing sympathy in his Theory of Moral Sentiments, admits that:

How selfish soever man may be supposed, there are evidently some principles in his nature, which interest him in the fortune of others, and render their happiness necessary to him, though he derives nothing from it except the pleasure of seeing it.

Or we could even say that these vices, such as avarice and pride, if they are to be understood as in fact good, still depend on the classical understanding of virtue as a kind of moderation exercised in community: Rulers and lawmakers would encourage people to behave in these now “virtuous” ways, while genuinely vicious people — pursuing their self-interest to the point of cruelty toward others — would break these laws and harm the public good. So Mandeville’s inversion of virtue and vice still rests on the classical view.

Thus the classical and modern traditions both agree that most people are a combination of virtue and vice. In praising virtue or counseling societies to seek virtuous leadership or laws aimed at the flourishing of virtuous citizens, we must acknowledge, as did Mandeville and his heirs, that people are not always as they should and can be.

Discussion Questions:

  1. Does the kind of argument Mandeville makes require a population not merely familiar with but also possessing a certain amount of virtue?
  2. If the account presented above is true, what are the possibilities and limitations of the law? Can we expect the law to guide people toward the acquisition of virtue, or ought the law merely carve out spaces for people to pursue happiness as they see fit and punish when those spaces are transgressed?
  3. Should we hope and work for virtuous leadership, or trust that whatever the characters of the leaders we get, all will work out in the end?