In the Absence of Virtue

As I expected, I caught a fair amount of disagreement with my last post, but I was happy to hear it. I had a few really good conversations where people explained to me the positives of loyalty, and they definitely brought up some things I hadn’t considered. But ultimately they did not change my mind about loyalty being inherently virtuous.

That’s not because (as some people took it) I hate loyalty specifically, but rather that I don’t think any character trait is inherently virtuous. I was picking on loyalty last time mostly because it was on my mind, and it’s one I don’t think we question enough. But I’m happy to question the virtue of every supposedly positive character trait, including my own.

So now I will need to break that down and then talk about how we can behave in the absence of virtue.

Let it Begin With Me

I’ll start with one of my big ones:

Honesty.

We often think of honesty as a virtue, but I have a habit of saying that I’m “honest to a fault,” and meaning it. I am fully aware that I am often honest past the point of discomfort for myself and others. I will occasionally warn people when they ask me seemingly innocuous questions that I probably shouldn’t answer unless they are willing to know a lot more than they think they’re asking. And yes, I have hurt people unnecessarily with honesty.

This shouldn’t be too surprising – I think we’ve generally reached a point as a culture where we understand that honesty is not always positive. It needs to be mitigated with compassion.

Which brings me to compassion, a trait I do try to cultivate in myself and which is seen almost exclusively as positive.

It’s much more rare that we talk about the negative aspects of compassion. Mostly, our society is lacking in it, and things would certainly be better if we could just add more. But there are ways to be excessively compassionate or to use it in a way that damages yourself and others.

I have seen this most often with how we treat children – where adults react to their physical and emotional pain as more than it is, and this ends up inadvertently fostering learned helplessness. This is not to say that we should maintain a “get over it” attitude with children, but when we react disproportionately, we encourage them to play up their pain in the future. Feelings should be shared, allowed, and talked about accurately.

Compassion needs to be mitigated with understanding.

The No True Scotsman Definition of Virtue

Of course, this raises the question of whether that’s really compassion. Is sympathy without understanding true compassion? If we have caused harm with our actions, were we truly compassionate? And the answer is yes. It must be, because otherwise we fall into No True Scotsman territory.

I ran into this a bit when I was talking about loyalty – people would say that the negative examples I presented were not “actually” loyalty, but something else that needed a separate definition. This happens with many things we think of as virtues – rather than admit that things like humility, kindness, patience, or even love can have negative effects, we jump through all sorts of hoops to make sure that only the positive effects are considered the “true” versions of those qualities.

The problem with doing this is that it takes away our self-awareness. If I believe that I am patient and that patience is a virtue, then I don’t believe that I can ever harm anyone through my patience. I am a) likely to miss actual harm that I am doing and b) likely to disregard complaints about any behavior that I think is connected to that virtue.

If I assume that my character quality is inherently virtuous, then I won’t accept fault for my actions.

I might admit wrongdoing if I have failed to uphold what I see as the virtue, but any action I take in support of that virtue becomes unassailable. I can’t see that my patience led to inaction, that my kindness to one person made a more needy person feel left out, or that my humility caused someone else to feel like they couldn’t speak up.

But Then What?

We have a common problem in our culture – we believe that if we could simply know the right ways to act and do that, then we would always be “right.” Our personal lists of virtues are built around this belief. In some cases, we hold to the classic Puritanical “Do this or else” view, and in others we hold to a slightly more positive “If only I could do this, then” idea.

The issue is that both of these are unhelpful.

Actions are complicated because people are complicated. The action that helps one person may hurt another, and there are too many factors involved in that discrepancy to be codified. In fact, the action that helps a person one day may hurt that same person the next.

Because of this, virtues, commandments, and codes of morality must always be tempered by an awareness of their effects on the world around us. There may be traits and behaviors that we lean towards because they are generally more positive, but we should always be aware that negative outcomes are possible. And we need to be ready to fix any problems we cause when that happens.

By acknowledging that nothing is inherently virtuous, we look more towards the effects of our actions. We become more willing to set aside our assumptions of our own goodness and look instead to our real impact on others. And that’s more positive than any adherence to virtues could be.


Slight footnote:

I had to restrain myself pretty hard from using examples from My Little Pony for almost every single point. That show does such a good job with all of this, and more people should watch it. That is all.

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