Republican audiences have become the main attraction in the recent presidential debates, in particular, the two moments of cheering for death. Whether cheering for executions or for the freedom to die (due to lack of public health care), death is looking so attractive that Colbert recommended Death be the VP candidate.
Paul Krugman in the New York Times reproaches the conservative movement for raising lack of compassion to a principle. The issue, I think, is not about compassion but about principles. The problem is an ethics oriented towards the principled decision maker–the one who takes strong stances on various abstract issues (like “illegal–I mean Latino–voters” or Alzheimer’s as “a kind of death” that permits divorce).
The “virtue ethics” response is to counter this abstract, principle based casuistry with reflections on the communal shaping of desires and the training in concrete practices that allow us to spontaneously live into this shared vision of the good life (see James K.A. Smith on David Brooks).
I find myself unsatisfied and concerned about such an account on multiple levels, most simply perhaps in that it always brings along some kind of aristocratic class of “culture makers” who take themselves to so thoroughly embody the class values–which are also the best human virtues–that they take it upon themselves to oversee the formation of all others into this, their image (remember that Coleridge was a kind of virtue ethicist and an apologist for British colonialism).
The “thick communal values” are what lead to these cheerful outbursts about death: one applauds the commanding, principled, decisive, unapologetic, strong, virile white man who has the guts to make these decisions (and poor Ron Paul is just too old for it…so thank God for Perry…). Against this embodiment of virtue, the Christian virtue ethicist can only posit an alternative virtuous body, leading to an inevitable clash of abstract cultures (whether the West v. Islam or the Church v. the Secular West).
I think there is a moment in Barth’s ethics that can help us, for Barth envisions human nature as an encounter and not an essence, such that, beyond a concern for principles or culture making, our ethics is attuned to explore and follow the encounter with the Other. We find our humanity precisely in those moments principled deciders and culture makers try to overcome: the uncontrollable and disruptive encounters with the incomprehensible or unassimilable Other.
To put it concretely: death is cheered because they are the cultural leaders who can and should decide. And the others–the criminals on death row, or the poor black kids in Baltimore used to further research on lead poisoning–always encounter them as their judge (whether compassionate, disinterested, or hardhearted). And they have good reasons, strong desires, and thick communal practices to preserve and justify their position as communal judge. But our humanity is found not in our capacity to judge or to (re)produce the proper virtuous (social) body but in a moment between and beyond us, in an encounter that displaces us from judgment and frees us to (the deviations of) love.