Axis of Evil: Laugh Riot

Axis of Evil: Laugh Riot — If the Axis of Evil held an Olympics of self-satire, North Korea would sweep the gold. At the official North Korean website, one can read side-splittingly banal anecdotes about Kim Jong Il, such as this inspiring gem:
It happened when the president gave field guidance to Kaesong area on September 14, Juche 61 (1972). He asked officials there what was the special food of the area.
None of them could give a correct answer to the questions repeatedly put by him in the course of the on-the-spot guidance.
While visiting factories in the city he met old men who had lived there for years and found out that loach soup was a special food of the city.
And he made sure that a new restaurant was built there to serve only loach soup to the customers.

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“Comrade Kim Jong Il, The Great Leader Of The Juche-Oriented Revolutionary Cause” (five volumes), a library comprehensively dealing with his greatness, on the occasion of his birthday.
It's easy to laugh in the face of evil when you just can't help it!

Author: Will Wilkinson

Vice President for Research at the Niskanen Center

5 thoughts

  1. I do completely agree with you here Will, even tho’ I am not Aristotelian. You do in fact have a far better and wiser answer than Tyler, most certainly in the first part.
    When you discuss moral virtue as a means to an end, however, let me hasten to add – as I think you intend – that the means-ends relationship is internal. We cannot characterize the end separately outside of any characterization of the means.
    It is the telos of man that determines what qualities are virtues; and man moves towards the telos. To the extent that markets aggregate human action, they speed the move to that telos and give us new vehicles to continue that movement more efficiently.
    This is perhaps an interesting feature of our form of capitalism – it does enormous good without requiring a perfectly pure heart of any agent.
    Aggregation of what good there is in action ensues, while the manipulative and negative is largely canceled out in the competition of desire. Not that it’s perfect, for no human institution can be so. But it is, demonstrably, improved and improvable.

  2. Moral character, or virtue, is a means to achieving moral ends.
    You know when Adam Smith says it is not through the benevolence of the butcher, baker and brewer that we expect our dinner, but through their regard of their self-interest? He didn’t mean my this that regard of their self-interest *was* benevolence. Is this what you mean?

  3. Ben, Not sure exactly what you mean, but I’ll ramble anyway. I see my point as a Smithian point. A virtue is counted as a virtue due to broad agreement in our approval of certain traits. He sees more clearly than anyone that norms can lag or get misaligned with the system of economic production. His own view I think gets stuck on the clear recognition of this together with an attachment to traditional conceptions of virtue. Smith hammers Mandeville’s idea that all virtue is really self-interest, but then goes on very cagily to basically admit that he’s sort of right. The big difference is that Smith allows the possibility of distinctively other-regarding motivation. But he recognizes that this is weak. He’s wonderfully explores how an extended system of exchange with finely divided labor reduces the need for motivation based in our exceedingly limited sympathetic powers. Moreover, he wants to hammer on the point that vanity, pride, status-seeking, etc. don’t just counterintuitively transmogrify Mandeville-like into public benefits, but have to be cultivated, civilized, and channeled, in which case they take on the aspect of moral character.

  4. “Moral character, or virtue, is a means to achieving moral ends.”
    Well yes, but most people think that certain activities are *good* not simply because they are particularly fit for achieving moral ends, but because they are part of, or ordered toward, the ultimate end: human flourishing (whatever that may be). In so far as free markets change the conditions and circumstances of attaining the “constituents of human welfare,” then obviously some of our ethical judgments will and should change. However, in so far as free markets adversely affect activities that aren’t just instrumental in achieving various goods but are good in themselves, then I think there is a case to be made that free markets can corrode moral character.
    Unless of course you think that no human act is per se moral or immoral and that the goodness or the badness of an action should be determined merely by its effectiveness in achieving the “various constituents of human welfare.” As many of the participants in the Templeton Foundation forum seem to deny this, it’s not surprising you’re disappointed in their answers. In other words, I don’t think your disappointment is the result of the forum participants somehow missing the distinction and connection between moral ends and moral means or, for that matter, failing to appreciate “cultural lag.”

  5. Will – “Moral character, or virtue, is a means to achieving moral ends.
    Might we distinguish morally fortunate from morally admirable character traits? It seems like these could come apart, e.g. if a trickster God decided to reward humanity with eternal bliss only if we all came to sincerely hate each other here on Earth. Hate would still be vicious, I take it; it’s just that we’ve found a situation where vicious character is ultimately more beneficial than virtuous character. (It’s not a logical truth that good people cause better consequences. So much the worse for being a good person, you might say in that case.)
    Having said that, I like your point that the proper expression of virtuous character depends on one’s institutional environment, and this may change over time faster than our cultural assumptions. But you can maintain this insight without falling into the conflation I warn against above.
    At a minimum, we might think that a virtuous agent not only acts beneficially (“rightly”), but does so for the right reasons, i.e. because he appreciates – at least on some level – that his motivations are for the best. It had better not be a brute *coincidence* that he tends to serve the good. This sort of picture still allows for significant context-sensitivity in determining the proper expression or implementation of virtue, without collapsing it into the cruder evaluation of simply whether the character trait is beneficial.

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