On virtue

Few are those who wish to be endowed with virtue rather than to seem so.

Marcus Tullius Cicero, De Amicitia

To those of us of a certain age, it is surprising how popular the notion of virtue has become in recent years. Virtue used to be more or less synonymous with sexual continence, especially in women, and connected in some obscure way with the cleanliness of net curtains. It was old-fashioned, dowdy, and not conducive to having fun. People like Mary Whitehouse who took it seriously were considered faintly ridiculous.

Contrast that with the situation today, in which so many people are so loudly obsessed with being virtuous, enforcing virtue in the public realm, and deploring a lack of virtue in others. Savonarola would have been right at home on social media. Except, that is, for the ideas of virtue that are being promoted. What Savonarola preached was broadly compatible with what contemporary Florentines already believed, or at least felt they ought to believe. What we are dealing with now is equivalent to a new revelation.

One prominent element of it would nevertheless have been familiar to the old firebrand: the call for repentance. It rarely seems to be an effectual channel of grace in practice, but self-criticism is the only acceptable defence to accusations of non-virtue – I hesitate to call it sin, as there is no explicit theological component to it, although as we shall see there are religious parallels.

The basis of this is a doctrine of collective guilt extended indefinitely across time and space. As with the Manichaeans, humanity is divided into two disjoint groups: the oppressors and the oppressed. All virtue resides with the oppressed. In a bold reversal of the proverb that two wrongs don’t make a right, here the only way to be right is to accumulate as many wrongs as possible. If one is an oppressor, one is guilty of any wicked act with which your group can be identified. (Here we see the usefulness of the tendency to put people into boxes, which I discussed in a previous post.) Thus, to take a concrete example, as an Englishman I should be held morally responsible for everything bad ever done either by English people or males, despite the fact that I have pretty solid alibis for the Amritsar massacre, the siege of Drogheda, and the triangular trade, to name just a few.

There is a splendid simplicity and purity about this view. Thinkers over the millennia have explored many forms of enquiry into moral questions. The great achievement of the new morality is to replace all that with a simple two-step method that requires almost no thought whatsoever. To be sure it requires an act of faith, but once that has been managed anyone can have access to the absolute truth of any moral question. It goes as follows:

  1. Identify the most oppressed person in the room. This process is familiar to anyone who played Top Trumps as a child. Gender, ethnicity and disability are all point-scorers here, although curiously not class, even though this line of thinking is associated with the political left, which traditionally was heavily into class analysis. Go figure.
  2. Accept uncritically whatever that person says. This step has the useful side-benefit of testing the virtue of those present, so that deviationism can be detected and rooted out.

Sadly, there are some practical issues with this approach. For one thing, if the moral status of the individual is to be identified with that of the collective, it is quite hard to find anyone who is not in some way an oppressor. That is to say, we are all sinners. (Again, this view would have been fine with Savonarola.) Given this, any individual’s claim to moral authority can only be relative, which makes the second step above unreliable by definition.

Moreover, the notion of collective responsibility is distressingly broad in its application. For example, it was used historically to argue that Jews were responsible for the death of Christ and therefore could and should be massacred. Collective punishment has a long and unpleasant history, and those who carry it out are surely to be numbered amongst the oppressors, and yet it is to be seen as virtuous when it is the virtuous meting out punishment. I hardly need to point out how dangerous this can be.

From the standpoint of the accused (and presumed guilty), there is also no inducement to behave well. If, as a heterosexual male, I am defined to be a rapist, why should I refrain from going out and actually committing rape? (I’ve always thought this to be a weakness in Calvin’s notion of predestination; you are, in the famous phrase, damned if you do and damned if you don’t.) This seems to me a basic problem with this approach to morality.

Inevitably, people have tried to game this morality by self-identifying as a member of a more oppressed group. No less a figure than Senator Elizabeth Warren attempted this gambit, with unfortunate results. Gender fluidity seems to be a card than anyone could potentially play. What exactly are the rules of the version of Top Trumps we are to play? Where do they come from? What makes them the specific rules that need to be followed in order to sort the sheep from the goats?

That is of course a Biblical reference, and it seems to me that there is a clear if unacknowledged debt to Christian thinking in all this. The notion of damnation is largely confined to post-classical Western thought; ancient philosophers tended to see virtue as a habit of mind to be encouraged and as a mean between opposing vices rather than as an absolute in its own right. Plato compared wrong-doing with making a mistake (Republic, Book I; the word he uses refers to missing a target).

Another serious flaw in this notion of virtue, at least in practice, is what it does not condemn. There is some token hand-wringing about the collapse of probity in public life, for example, but nobody appears to be seriously exercised about it. Whether or not some film passes or fails the Bechdel test seems more important than the question of whether or not Cabinet ministers are corruptly giving lucrative government contracts to their friends or allies and concealing the evidence. Regardless of the legal position, that seems to me to be immoral conduct which ought to be called out.

This narrowness of vision is also apparent in some areas which it does scrutinise. For example, in regard to environmental issues it tends to focus on climate change and specifically on carbon footprint. While this is certainly part of the issue, it is far from being a comprehensive view. And while it may be bad to drive a Chelsea tractor, it is not really much better to drive an electric car when one looks at the wider picture. The question of right living is much broader and deeper than any checklist of acceptable and unacceptable behaviours can capture.

All this is not to say that I decry this new-found interest in virtue. To give serious consideration to how one ought to live is an important and valuable endeavour. What I urge, however, is that those embarking on this quest be aware of two seductive temptations. The first is the siren call of simplicity: as H. L. Mencken pointed out, “there is always a well-known solution to every human problem—neat, plausible, and wrong.”

The second, which is harder both to notice and to resist, is the temptation to go along with what others think, or at least say they think. It is in our nature as social creatures to do this, and on the whole this tendency to agree with those around us is a good thing; a society of rugged free-thinkers would be wearing, to say the least. Nevertheless, on the really important questions it is essential to avoid groupthink, if only because we need to be able to own and stand by our beliefs when the chips are down.

No more than two cheers, then, for the modern pursuit of virtue. Insofar as it represents a sincere engagement with moral questions, I am all for it. The problem is when it descends into mindless dog-piling. Savonarola, after all, didn’t succeed in fixing much.

Comments are welcome, but I pre-moderate them to make sure they comply with the house rules.

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