The Problem With Virtue

When I recently wrote about being disagreeable I did not identify the aspect of the conversations that made me uncomfortable. The issue crystallized in a later conversation with an old friend of our family. He was lecturing us on the sins of cutting our grass and the virtue of having no grass at all. In fact, most of his conversation (and the other old friend I mentioned in the previous article) revolved around how they were living virtuous lives. This is not in an older sense of the term. At the end of the last century there was an evident loss of virtue. Specifically, we can identify the losses of chastity for lust, kindness for envy, and humility for pride (see this on Humility). But there is a new sense of virtue based on saving the planet or protecting society from infectious disease (unless it involves sex). Tom Woods put it well in his newsletter.

Whether it’s Black Lives Matter, or teaching gender theory to children, or the usefulness or otherwise of the COVID restrictions, or a wide variety of other subjects, people on one side of the divide have exerted a moral imperialism over the other, refusing even to acknowledge that there can be another side on issues like these, and have instead tried to drive their opponents from polite society through intense social pressure and the outright suppression of dissident voices.

The same people who lecture us day and night about how we shouldn’t “impose our morality” on other people think absolutely nothing of demonizing half of America and imposing their ideas on other people’s children.

Peter Hitchens noted the same virtue signaling behavior in his Monday conversation with Mike Graham (August 22, 2022). So it is not only me feeling the oppressive modern morality.

In conversations with these friends the underlying assumptions of virtue were implicitly critical of virtually all of my choices on how to live. In the conversation about cutting the grass I mentioned above I finally isolated the issue of virtue. This friend is very thoughtful but his assumptions about virtue had never occurred to him. I told him, “You believe climate change is occurring due to human activity, thus there are behaviors that you find virtuous. But I don’t believe what you believe. I believe in the Truth of Christianity and you don’t. Yet I don’t tell you how often I go to church or tithe.” He happens to be gay. I said to him “In all of the years I have known you have I ever mentioned anything about gays?” He responded that he discusses these things because everybody suffers from climate change. I answered, “You believe everybody suffers but I don’t. And I believe that everybody suffers when we don’t follow the teachings of the church. And the spread of monkeypox by gay men having origies could ultimately be dangerous for everybody.” I mentioned he is a very thoughtful guy. The next morning he told me that he now understood my point of view and would be more careful with his assumptions. This small meeting of minds, even though we still disagree, made me feel better after so many disagreeable conversations.

I believe in the old virtues, virtues that have stood the test of time. But I wonder if I lived in the society where those old virtues were the implicit assumptions would I be the one talking about how virtuous I was. Jesus pointed out the problem of the virtuous in his parable in Luke 18:10-14 (New International Version):

10 “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11 The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. 12 I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’ 13 “But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’ 14 “I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”

So humility is the virtue that is lacking; and the problem is not with virtue, but with the virtuous.