Straightening Out Priorities

Let’s ask ourselves a challenging hypothetical question:

What would I be willing to give up in exchange for growth in virtue?

I want to quote a couple sentences from a passage that shows up early in Aristotle’s Rhetoric:

“If it be objected that one who uses such power of speech unjustly might do great harm, that is a charge which may be made in common against all good things except virtue, and above all against the things that are most useful, as strength, health, wealth, generalship. A man can confer the greatest of benefits by a right use of these, and inflict the greatest of injuries by using them wrongly.”

Aristotle, Rhetoric (emphasis added)

Good health, financial security, physical strength, persuasive speech — these are all good things, and worth pursuing. But unlike virtue, they can be a source of harm and sorrow, just as much as they can be a source of good. Virtue is the only thing we can seek to gain that will be always unambiguously good for us.

But it’s even more than that, too: virtue is what makes all other good and useful things beneficial and not harmful. If you had every advantage in the world and didn’t have virtue, then all those things would be of no profit to you. On the other side, if you had an abundance of virtue, then even if you lost everything else, you could still be a happy and fortunate human being.

We used to know this, or at least we used to pay lip service to it. In the modern world, we hardly even bother pretending to believe it anymore.

So then let’s entertain the idea. This brings us back to the hypothetical question I posed at the beginning of this reflection.

What might need to be given up for the sake of progress in virtue? Perhaps money or possessions.

Perhaps the good opinion that some friend or some acquaintances might have of you.

Perhaps some hobby or habit or pursuit that gives enjoyment.

I’m not saying that all of those will always need to be given up! There are such things as honourable pleasures. But our priorities need to be clear to us from the beginning. We need to be honest with ourselves about whether we’re willing to do whatever it takes. 

If growth in virtue would inflict many pains on us, over many years, could we still choose it?

If it might cost us friends and reputation, will we pursue it?

If we are faced with a choice between making a pile of money or coming closer to attaining the sort of good character we’re straining toward, which way will we go?

Virtue can’t be pursued halfheartedly. It’s either our focus, or it’s only a polite fiction.

What will it be for you?

How to Think of Virtue

In reaching for a description of what I am calling virtue, I might attempt some phrases like

  • perfection of soul,
  • excellence of the soul,
  • moral beauty,
  • fitness of soul,
  • nobility of soul,
  • moral fineness.

All of those are somewhat close to what I mean by virtue.

But this account of virtue represents only one way to hear the word, and it’s important to keep in mind that it is not necessarily the main way to understand it. To grasp what virtue has popularly connoted through the history of the West, we have to enter two main paradigms, which we could call the masculine sense and the feminine.

Let’s start with the one that will be more familiar to us. Not so long ago, the word virtue would bring to mind a gentle, virginal, pretty young lady. It’s not that this image was held to be the entirety of what “virtue” could mean, but it was the centre of gravity for the word’s other possible meanings, in popular thinking.

Many centuries earlier, the word carried a very different sense. It was originally a warrior’s term. Our word “virtue” is etymologically related to “virility.” To be virtuous was first of all to be manly, courageous in battle, admired among the brave.

For philosophers, however, the word held another sense, from very early on. Virtue meant, more or less, doing with your life what you ought to be doing with it. It meant a commitment to becoming the best human being you could be. In this way it brought with it the question of what it means for a human to be good, which turns out of course to be not such an easy thing to answer.

Philosophers like Plato and Aristotle and Epictetus (and many more) urged that this account of virtue was the most important and most valuable thing for us as humans to focus on. I believe they make a compelling case.

We don’t really hear people talking in this way anymore, but I believe now is as good a time as any to start to return to it.

Human Rights and Deontology

The average person today is a deontologist, even though it wouldn’t immediately seem that way.

In your typical moral philosophy class, you’ll be told that there are generally three philosophical approaches to ethics, one being deontology (which is focused on rules and duties), another being utilitarianism (seeking the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people), and the third being virtue ethics. Virtue ethics is the odd one out, in a way, because it focuses on the moral status of people more than on the moral status of actions.

At first glance, it might appear that the average person today must be a utilitarian. Whatever makes you happy. Minimal rules, maximal freedom. I stay out of your way while you make yourself happy, and you stay out of my way while I define and pursue my own happiness. Of course there’s a legal system, with all its rules, to stave off total chaos, but other than the laws laid down by the state, our morality really does have the appearance of pursuing freedom, to ensure the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people.

Appearances can be misleading, though, and I don’t believe this is the most accurate way of seeing things.

Our most fundamental moral conviction today is that human beings have human rights. That’s precisely why we leave one another alone to make our own happiness — because we think that’s what is required to respect human rights.

And human rights are the mirror image of human duty. You can’t have rights without duties. When people say, “I have a right to …” they are always also simultaneously communicating, “you owe it to me that …”

So if human rights are our moral bedrock today, then we are fundamentally deontologists.

Well then, why do we always speak of rights, rather than of duties and rules?

I think this reveals the baseness of the modern approach to moral matters. In the modern world, a workable social system has been built on vice. For instance, Hobbes constructs the theory of the state upon cowardice (fear of violent death), and capitalism appeals to greed as the engine of increasing abundance.

That’s not to deny that these vicious motives were at play in the ancient world, and even in a central way, but the moral rhetoric of the ancient world urged that these and all other vices must be fought and transcended.

In the modern world, it’s not so much a question of vices and virtues, but of socially destructive vices in opposition to socially beneficial vices. We celebrate the greedy people who benefit economies, and the cowards who keep society rolling smoothly along.

It seems to me that “rights” talk follows in that same vein. We are able to speak of duties, yes, but we must think of them firstly as things owed to oneself, to myself. Duties must fundamentally take the form of rights. And then in a secondary way, I am able to recognize that if I want others to respect my rights then I will have to respect theirs. Framing duties, even the very limited duties required in modern regimes, as rights, makes them more palatable to our stunted moral capacities.

We’ve got to start with, “what’s in it for me?” because no one buys the unbelievable ideals of altruism or saintliness or moral heroism anymore.

And it is very effective, as a social and political system. Machiavelli promised that when we plan societies on the basis of what we know people will do, rather than what we think they should do, our plans are much more likely to succeed, and there is something to that.

It’s astonishing to me, though, how human rights, as the mirror image of duties and deontology, is so much less noble than deontology, even though in one way it is almost the same thing.

I am all about virtue ethics, but I truly do think that deontology is a beautiful approach to the world. The true deontologist will say, I cannot do that something which is wrong, no matter the consequences. Even if I and everyone I love would die, even if the entire world would have to burn, I shall not do what I know to be wrong. That is heroism.

It’s an approach to ethics that is deeply admirable. Our own is not. I wonder if there’s a way to get from here to there.

In Praise of Hypocrisy

Hypocrisy definitely isn’t the best option available for a person, but I believe it might be the second-best. And sometimes we have to settle for second-best while we’re striving for what is actually best.

You’ve probably heard the saying: hypocrisy is the compliment that vice pays to virtue. This means that a perfectly good person will not only praise virtue but also act virtuously, whereas a hypocrite will only praise it, and will not always do it.

Good personHypocriteBad person
Acts virtuously?YNN
Praises virtue?YYN

My greatest goal is to be a perfectly good person, but in the meantime, I settle for being a hypocrite.

There was a time when I hesitated to praise virtue, because I was not yet virtuous myself, and I didn’t want to be hypocritical. What I didn’t realize was that the problem with hypocrites isn’t that they encourage people to do and love what is good.

I thought at that time that it was better not to speak well of virtue, rather than to be a hypocrite. In my mind, it was best to be a good person, second best to be a plainly bad person, and worst of all to be a hypocrite.

My thinking has shifted.

I’m more virtuous now than I was then, but of course I am still not perfectly good. At this time, though, I see my shortcomings and vices as something for me to conquer, rather than as something that has the power, or the right, to silence my love of virtue.

I do love virtue, and I praise it, and I love the praise of it.

That’s the best thing about us hypocrites. Even though we haven’t attained to virtue, we do know that it deserves to be praised, and praised far more highly than the other things that are normally objects of desire, things like reputation or wealth or pleasant feelings.

There’s a reason this is my first post. I wish to reflect on, and to honour, virtue, in future posts. I accept it as true when Socrates proclaims that “The greatest good of man is daily to converse about virtue.”

But that doesn’t mean I’m perfectly virtuous myself. I am not, although I am working on it. Until then, this is the blog of a self-aware and self-professed hypocrite. I hope you’ll join me.

PS: I imagine some readers will think that I have been imprecise in my classifications above, and this may be true. See below for a somewhat more exact scheme; on this grid, I think that what is possible for all of us, wherever we might be on our journey, is to be a good hypocrite, and that what is blameworthy is to fit in the bad hypocrite column, although even then I think it might be preferable to be a bad hypocrite than a straightforwardly bad person.

Good personGood hypocriteBad hypocriteBad person
Acts virtuously?YNNN
Tries to act virtuously?YYNN
Praises virtue?YYYN