Bryan Caplan  

Nobility Defined

Henderson on Goodman on Obamac... About those wacky libertarians...
I occasionally describe people as "noble."  What do I mean by it?  In slogan form: "He would rather be wronged than do wrong."  The noble, as I use the term, hold themselves to exemplary standards of thought, word, and deed.  Intellectually, they strive to be reasonable and fair at all times.  They don't seek excuses - like "My opponents did it first" - to be unreasonable or unfair.  They apply my recommended remedies for purges and schisms to one and all.  And on a deep level, they internalize my admonition against winning.  In short, the noble are the puritanically praiseworthy - i.e., people who merit praise given my admittedly unforgiving standards.

None of this requires that the noble substantively agree with me.  I have deep disagreements with several of the noblest people I know.  And needless to say, people who agree with me on substance disappoint me every day. 

The good news is that anyone can become noble.  Starting now.

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COMMENTS (5 to date)
jb writes:

I agree with you in principle. Please never attempt to gain political office, or you'll be executed for treason by a monstrous boy king born of incest.

Kristo Miettinen writes:

I take it you are thinking of the nobility of a Cincinnatus, an Aurelius, or maybe George Washington. If so, then while admiring nobility is a good start, isn't the real challenge learning to cultivate it?

Rome rose because it had a succession of generations that more-or-less valued the so-called "republican virtues". One might argue that the USA rose (stumbling over slavery in the early going, but still) for the same reason. One noble man here or there is not enough to do much good; nobility by its very nature is ineffective when it is alone or even in a minority.

And if we acknowledge that we ought to cultivate nobility at the generational level, to the point of getting it woven into the institutions of society, then aren't we setting off down the road of republicanism rather than libertarianism?

Daniel Klein writes:

"It is not the love of our neighbour, it is not the love of mankind, which upon many occasions prompts us to the practice of those divine virtues. It is a stronger love, a more powerful affection, which generally takes place upon such occasions; the love of what is honourable and noble, of the grandeur, and dignity, and superiority of our own characters."

Mr. Econotarian writes:

English "noble" comes from Latin nobilis "well-known, famous, renowned; excellent, superior, splendid; high-born, of superior birth," earlier gnobilis, literally "knowable," from gnoscere "to come to know," from PIE root gno- "to know". The terminology is likely from prominent Roman families, which were "well known," and provided most of the Republic's public officials.

By 1200 "noble" only meant "distinguished by rank, title, or birth", although by 1600 it was "having lofty character, having high moral qualities".

Peter Gerdes writes:

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