Virtue and the Philosopher

There are two kinds of virtue. We might call them absorbed virtue and sought virtue. Both are good, and each is appropriate for a different kind of people. Between the two of them, all of humanity has the opportunity to grow in virtue.

The first of the two is the virtue of the “ladies and gentlemen” of a society — the honourable ones. When I call it “absorbed,” I don’t mean to suggest that it is acquired without effort (though it may sometimes be). I only mean that the moral landscape is something inherited and received from the society or community. They haven’t worked out for themselves the points of their moral compass, but have accepted it from those they trust. Some of those who have received it will try to be virtuous, and some will not — but even those who do not will consider themselves unvirtuous from within that same moral framework.

We all start there. We all start with a received morality, succeeding or failing at the level of absorbed virtue.

The second kind, sought virtue, is the virtue of the philosopher. This always grows out of the first kind. Sought virtue happens when people start to have questions about the moral tenets they received.

Perhaps they find a scenario where different moral imperatives come into conflict, and they find no way of adjudicating from within that moral orientation and so they see they must step outside to look back in.

Or perhaps they grow familiar with someone who doesn’t share their moral convictions, and over time their deep-seated confidence that “we are good and they are evil” (a confidence which, let’s remember, can be found among liberals and progressives today at least as readily as among conservatives and more right-wing groups). In growing truly respectful (and not merely tolerant) of another moral approach, the first loses the supremacy it needed, and so the person is set on the first step of the path toward sought virtue.

But sought virtue must be sought, and the seeking must not be entirely fruitless. If a person takes the first step of leaving behind absorbed virtue but then never goes beyond that, we are left with a pitiful and shrunken human being with nothing to strive toward. On rarer occasions, such a person might also become something truly heartless and dangerous. This is why the cry to break the chains of traditional morality is a dicey proposition, and why its success tends merely to leave us with a new traditional morality to replace the old one.

Sought virtue is what happens when someone takes the next step of asking, well then what is morally true, if not the things I grew up believing in? The answers might not appear straight away, but a faith that there are (or at least could be) answers to the question, along with the unflagging pursuit of such answers, are the marks of a philosopher’s virtue.

The philosopher’s virtue is not necessary for every person. Most people feel no need to move beyond the conventional morality they have received, most of the time, and that’s okay. Those who do experience a moral crisis will usually eventually resolve that crisis from within the moral framework they started in, or possibly another one that is closely related.

For those who get tired of that first way of thinking about morality, though, it can be a relief to discover that there is a second way.

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