What is This Thing Called Virtue?

Believe it or not, in at least one specific area public discourse in the United States is a bit better than it was a few decades ago.  How so? Today we occasionally hear the word “virtue” used—and not always in sarcasm.  This is good news because the return of the word “virtue” to the lexicon means we can at least talk about what it means to act with moral excellence, conforming to a standard of right conduct, to “be good” in a meaningful way.  And this makes it less difficult for us to talk about what we are supposed to be like as human beings, for what we ought to strive, and how.

For many decades, the general view seems to have been that “virtue” was what suckers called their own lack of sophistication.  This too often remains the view.  But today there at least is a debate.  Partly this is a self-interested response to certain natural facts.  A society that shuns virtue and decency descends into a war of all against all.  As that war has gotten ever more violent and destructive, even liberals—at least those with property, status, and wealth to preserve (think Ivy League professors and members of various professional-managerial elites) have come to see the value in calling people to some form of good conduct.  Partly, however, the return to discussions of virtue stems from more intellectual sources.  In 1981, Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue shocked academia and that sector of journalism with intellectual pretensions by pointing out the utter failure of the modern moral project—the attempt to build a coherent moral structure on the basis of Enlightenment philosophy.  That project, MacIntyre showed, was doomed to fail because it was empty at its core.  The central, missing element?  Teleology or the understanding that we all have a natural end or goal that we must strive to achieve if we are to have any chance for true happiness.

Enlightenment thinkers (Voltaire might serve as a useful model, here) dismissed teleology as the product of superstition and self-interested myth making.  Peasants are ordered to be “good” by obeying their masters, the argument went, lest they betray their mythically proper end—salvation—and be condemned to Hell.  Hell, then, was the creation of priests intent on protecting their own privileges and the power and wealth of their patrons.  Virtue, on this reading, meant foolishly acting in accordance with the prevailing myths of (Christian) superstitions.

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Sadly, such caricatures remain powerful in our society.  Leaders of public opinion mock traditional conceptions of goodness because they find the notion of a transcendent goal for humanity to be unworthy of consideration.  Liberalism’s double-rejection is logical in the limited sense that teleology and virtue are inextricably linked.  Teleology—our end—is inextricably tied with virtue—our standard of right conduct—because we cannot achieve the one without the other.  Without teleology virtue (like life) has no purpose.  Without virtue teleology is a cruel joke because we cannot approach, or meaningfully pursue, our true end.

But it never really made sense, even for liberals, to simply dismiss virtue.  We can think of virtue, to begin with, in non-moral terms.  The virtue of a hammer consists in its utility for pounding nails.  The virtue of eyes, like other sense organs, consists in their helping us perceive the world around us.  If we look at virtue only in this way, then, it is possible to reduce virtue to questions of utility and to reduce our natural end to questions of what we happen to wish to pursue at any particular time.

The reduction of morality to mere practical utility, seen as a necessary component in “freeing” individuals from the demands of social convention, was a major element in the mistake of Enlightenment moral thought.  For, if we are all individual selves with our own, self-chosen goals, and if there is no higher end toward which we are by nature intended to aim, then there is nothing so special about us, or about the social structures (families, churches, local associations, traditional ways of life) in which we live and find meaning.  Man becomes merely another thing to be judged, used, and discarded according to his utility in the projects of the moment being pursued by those with the power to dispose of him—whether he be sick, politically troublesome, or merely inconvenient in the timing of his appearance on the scene.

People are not things, of course.  Most of us instinctively know this, but it is easy for people to forget it as they pursue their own selfish ends, including various utopian fantasies.  Building heaven on earth often means getting rid of quite a few inconvenient people who for whatever reason would mar “perfection.”  In teleological terms, though, the fact that we are different from hammers (or parts of our bodies, like eyes) has a deep, moral importance.  For what is a person good?  What is our end, or natural goal?  Christians, at least, should be able to answer this one:  we exist to know and to love God.  One need not believe in the divinity of Christ or even the existence of a personal God in order to see something of the reality of our natural end, however.  So long as one recognizes that there is an order to the universe, that existence is not mere chaos but rather the playing out of discernible rational principles (like cause and effect) one can glimpse the basic outlines of our purpose—to act properly in light of eternal principles so as to promote permanent goods like truth, beauty, and love while limiting, to the extent possible, the damage done by their opposites.  To say that the answer is a bit more difficult for those who reject the order of being (natural law) would be an understatement.  If there is no meaning to the universe, no meaning at all save that which we happen to will, then there is no standard against which to judge human conduct.  One may, of course, experience such meaninglessness as a personal liberation, but it is a liberation from everything that makes life worth living.  One becomes the plaything of one’s own appetites (even if one defines them as “goods” or even “basic goods”) and loses the capacity to lead a decent life or even maintain any substantive sense of one’s own personal identity.

And this is where virtue becomes crucial, and contested in contemporary public discourse.  In moral terms, virtue is a habit of right conduct.  It is a part of one’s character—of the person one is.  One is a good, a loving, a brave, or a selfish person because one has developed, over time, through practical conduct, the habits of such a person, acting as one ought, not out of discrete conscious choices, but out of habit.

As Aristotle pointed out, a courageous person is one who stands firm in the face of the enemy.  And one becomes brave in part by developing the habits of bravery—by, in concrete fact, standing firm in the face of the enemy.  The same goes for other virtues, such as magnanimity, or charity, or love, in that one must cultivate in oneself (with the help of others, and of circumstances) a disposition to act in the proper manner.  Over time, one develops the proper (or, if one falls into vice, the improper) character by acting in a consistent fashion.

In each of these cases there is a standard against which one’s conduct is measured; a standard that come from outside the realm of one’s own choice.  Ultimately, the standard is embedded in the order of existence.  Courage always and everywhere will be firmness in the face of the enemy.  But different societies will and should define firmness, for example, in different ways.  Aristotle discussed virtue in terms of a Golden Mean, such as that between cowardice and foolhardiness.  Yet, where the customs, tactics, and military technology of one society may dictate fighting to the death, those of another society may dictate flight, making it possible to fight another day.  Each may be courageous, depending on the totality of the circumstances.  The inevitable historicity of circumstance does not render the principle any less universal.  The universal principle and the particular, contingent, historical facts always must be approached as an integrated (though sometimes fragile) whole.

The cardinal virtues of a Christian—faith, hope and love—are no less virtuous when they become habitual.  One need not always stop and consciously choose to act in a loving way.  Indeed, once the virtue of love becomes properly characteristic one will act in that right manner almost automatically.  The result ought not to be a loss of personality but rather development of a more refined capacity and desire to seek out new and better opportunities to exercise the virtue of love.

The Enlightenment was all about “freeing” the individual from the institutions, beliefs, and practices the philosophers of the eighteenth century in particular thought held them back from expressing themselves and achieving their own, self-directed lives.  Of course, as Edmund Burke well knew, the actual result was to expose our naked, shivering nature in all its weakness, leaving us at the mercy of either the mob or the mob-run state.  Unfortunately, we still live in this fantasy world of the autonomous individual who chooses his own “lifestyle” and ideals, constructing life as if it were a house, with the materials and structure open to infinite discussion (provided, of course, he has the financial and other means to fully engage in the process).

But even liberals have come to realize that no society can exist without some conception of virtue.  Society, to function, must have order, and that order must include a hierarchy of values.  Almost all of us recognize that even an “authentic” and honest member of the Ku Klux Klan is emoting the wrong thing—race based hatred, though sadly the same cannot be said about someone who emotes hatred for people of faith, or anyone deemed “powerful.”

Even the brightest silver lining is set within a cloud.  That cloud is the fact (of which most of us already are aware) that today conceptions of virtue are at open war, with Christian virtue being termed “bigoted” on account of its failure to abandon the family, the unborn, and our duty to serve our God in the face of an alternate vision of virtue as autonomous action circumscribed by an all-encompassing toleration that equates indifference with caring.  What is more, the view that virtue is for suckers is given strength by a combination of disdain for religion and hypocritical hostility toward success that makes gaming the system seem natural and smart.  But the rejection of the good by those who find its demands inconvenient is nothing new.  And the demand for virtue in the face of such rejection remains, as ever, one we must answer to the best of our abilities.

Editor’s note: This column first appeared April 29, 2013 in Imaginative Conservative and is reprinted with permission. The image above pictures a second century AD marble bust of Aristotle (Museo Nazionale Romano, Palazzo Altemps, Rome).

  • Bruce Frohnen

    Bruce Frohnen is Professor of Law at the Ohio Northern University College of Law. He is also a senior fellow at the Russell Kirk Center and author of many books including The New Communitarians and the Crisis of Modern Liberalism, and the editor of Rethinking Rights (with Ken Grasso), and The American Republic: Primary Source. His most recent book (with the late George Carey) is Constitutional Morality and the Rise of Quasi-Law (Harvard, 2016).

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