Virtue and Power

In modernity, we place little faith in virtue, and we have great confidence in power.

Nobody can deny that power is effective. It works. It gets stuff done.

Virtue, though, is less consistent, less reliable. If I act virtuously, will it lead me to success? It depends on our definition of success, of course, but in terms of how we usually mean it, virtue is certainly not any guarantee of success.

And to trust in the virtue of another is also often a risky proposition. What if the other person chooses at the crucial moment not to do the right thing? We can always find justifications for selfish behaviour when we want to. Often, moreover, the action that seems virtuous to one person is not what the other will have hoped for — punitive instead of gentle, or restrained instead of generous.

In that case, power seems to be the clear choice, between the two. Technological marvels. Economic efficiency. Political shrewdness. These become the priority.

Indeed, I am not against power. I don’t assume that it is always an evil thing, as some would want to suggest.

However, given the choice, virtue is far more important than power. A little virtue is more valuable than entire worlds of power. Better to have much virtue and little power, than the inverse. Virtue gives more security and happiness than any amount of power ever can.

And power without virtue is a terrible thing. If we’re going to err, we should err on the side of focusing too much on virtue and too little on power, rather than accepting what the modern world tells us to believe.

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