In the latest addition to my Jane Austen Theorem*, Thomas Rodham makes the case for reading Jane Austen as a moral philosopher who proposes “a virtue ethics for bourgeois life, the kind of life that most of us live today.”
Virtue ethics understands the good life in terms of personal moral character, of becoming the kind of person who does the right thing at the right time for the right reasons. It is therefore about the fundamental ethical question, How should I live my life? Answering that question involves identifying goals – what are the virtues you should develop – and the path to achieving them. To talk about a bourgeois virtue ethics is to talk about the particular constellation of virtues that are most significant to an ethically flourishing life in middle-class circumstances. For example, unlike aristocrats the middle-classes are not free from material concerns and are thoroughly dependent on the goodwill of other people for success. But unlike peasants they are not trapped by a subsistence economy, but have the resources and time to reflect on who they want to be and to make and carry out plans for their future.
Austen celebrates and promotes a solidly middle-class propriety, and this together with her use of narrative (and being a woman?), may explain Austen’s neglect by academic moral philosophers. Success for Austen’s women depends on developing a moral character whose central virtues are bourgeois: prudence (planning one’s actions with respect to protecting and furthering one’s interests), amiability (civility to family, friends, and strangers, according to their due), propriety (understanding and acting on a sense of what virtue requires), and dignity (considering oneself as an independent autonomous person deserving of respect). Austen is particularly unusual (feminist?) among virtue ethicists past and present in according amiability so much importance, even though it is so obviously central to most people’s lives working, if not living, in close confinement with others with whom one must and should get along. Austen presents these virtues as not merely a necessary accommodation to difficult circumstances, but as superior to the invidious vanity and pride of the rich and titled, which she often mocks.
*Carter’s Jane Austen Theorem states that all complex behavior of advanced mammals can be explained by reference to the novels of Jane Austen. See also: Jane Austen and Game Theory; Jane Austen and Baboon Metaphysics; Jane Austen’s Guide to Being a Gentleman; and Jane Austen’s Guide to Being a Man