Let’s discuss virtue:
"I cannot praise a fugitive and cloistered virtue unexercised and unbreathed, that never sallies out and sees her adversary, but slinks out of the race, where that immortal garland is to be run for, not without dust and heat. Assuredly we bring not innocence into the world; we bring impurity much rather; that which purifies us is trial, and trial is by that which is contrary." John Milton, “Areopagitica”
Writing at Aeon, Christina Starmans, a “postdoctoral associate in psychology at Yale,” would like a definitive answer to a long-standing moral conundrum:
Who is the better person: the one who acts morally while tempted or the one who is never tempted at all?
Ms. Starmans summarizes the most common arguments:
One argument, associated with Aristotle, is that a truly moral person will wholeheartedly want to do the right thing, and no part of her will be tempted to act immorally.1 Another argument, associated with Immanuel Kant, is that an action is truly moral only if it is not something you want to do – otherwise, a person is just acting on her own desires, and although the result might be positive, it should not be considered especially moral.2
Many of us will consider the Aristotelian ideal to be all but impossible to attain with any regularity; as for Kantian morality, it leads to the odd conclusion that one should not train children in virtue (for “virtue” then is mere habit) or encourage them to desire it (since virtue consists only of acting for the good against one’s desire).
In any case, to get to the bottom of this debate, Ms. Starmans and her research team set about getting some empirical data:
My team recruited more than 250 children, aged three to eight years, and nearly 400 adults. Each participant was asked to consider several child-friendly scenarios depicting two characters who both acted morally. One story, for example, described two children who had each broken something of their mother’s. Both ultimately told their mother the truth about what they had done. And both children wanted to tell the truth, and wanted to do the right thing. But one child was also tempted to lie to avoid punishment, yet told the truth even though she found it difficult. The other child found it easy to tell the truth, and wasn’t tempted to lie, because she wasn’t concerned about the punishment. We then asked which of the two truth-tellers was more morally praiseworthy.
I don’t want to spoil the ending, so suffice it to say only that Ms. Starmans and her team found “a striking developmental difference” in the results of the experiment.
Suffice it also for me to add, however, that both John Milton, who disparaged “cloistered” (i.e. un-tempted and untested) virtue, and the God of Genesis, who made a point of complicating Eden with what might as well have been called the Tree of Temptation (to forbid an action is, as we know, also to invite that action), seem to disagree with Aristotle. God, as we know, could easily have created human beings who were so pure of heart as to only will the Good; but that is not the course God chose to take, instead creating the flawed, easily tempted creatures we know ourselves to be.
2 Just to complicate matters, T.S. Eliot wrote that “the worst treason” was “to do the right deed for the wrong reason”. One can easily come up with a “thought experiment” to illustrate Eliot’s point: what if a pedophile were to see a pretty young girl drowning and chose to rescue her (right deed) in order subsequently to sexually abuse her (wrong reason)? The “treason” involved here is the two-fold betrayal of Goodness: first by wearing it as a disguise and then by using it to facilitate Evil.
To continue the discussion of virtue, but from a different perspective:
Robert Westbrook (at The Baffler) seems to harbor no doubts about what constitutes virtue; he just thinks we don’t have enough of it. Westbrook insists that “The only remedy for a crumbling republic is the revitalization of civic virtue.” The crumbling republic is, of course, our own, and the absence of civic virtue is convincingly demonstrated, says Westbrook, by our latest election cycle. Let not your heart be troubled, however, for Westbrook has some solutions for us.
First, we simply change our entire approach to public education and to its fundamental purposes:
In this daunting enterprise of civic-republican reclamation, public education is crucial. As one of our finest American historians, Alan Taylor, recently remarked, the nation’s republican founders placed a weighty bet on the nation’s schools. They were well aware that civic virtue is not inborn. By transforming our public schools into engines for the production of “human capital,” we have effaced the political purposes for which they were established. Taylor concludes: “We need to revive the founders’ definition of education as a public good and an essential pillar of free government. We should also recover their concept of virtue, classically defined, as a core public value worth teaching. That, in turn, would enable more voters to detect demagogues seeing power through bluster and bombast.”
It’s a brave man indeed who proposes that public schools be incubators of civic virtue, especially at a time when not only do people disagree about what exactly constitutes “civic virtue” but when the very existence of public schools is increasingly threatened by voucher programs, quasi-private charter schools, and other mechanisms which fall under the broad heading of the “school choice” movement.1
Setting that aside, Westbrook knows we will need more than just proper civic education:
For those worried about virtue in contemporary American politics, it’s difficult to disagree with Bernie Sanders’s conclusion that, in order to realize any meaningful change, the nation will require a “political revolution.” Such a revolution would have to imaginatively harness what remains of the country’s democratic impulses and practices. There will need to be dramatic innovations in “institutional design”—perhaps even, as the eminent political scientist Robert Dahl suggested in 1985, the creation of a cluster of new representative bodies, each one a “minipopulus” of a thousand ordinary citizens chosen at random and for a limited period of paid service, who would gather for a year of informed deliberation on a major issue. The considered views of each such minipopulus would provide a channel of public opinion to elected officials far superior to polls of ill-informed, uninterested respondents. Elected officials would be free to ignore the policy choices of the minipopuli, but at their electoral peril.
Once we’ve turned our schools into virtue-factories and reshaped our civic institutions via a political revolution, we’ll be on the road to a virtuous republic, and all will be well:
A revived politics of virtue must go much deeper than…programmatic visions of elite-administered moral improvement. We must unearth what the neglected original theorists of civic virtue in the Western tradition had in mind when they articulated the notion that politics was more than an instrumental scheme to distribute power and resources—that public life could be a qualitative enhancement of our otherwise cloistered and isolated ethical deliberations—a vision of citizenship as a true moral calling.
Westbrook’s prescriptions are so well-intended and even (on their face) admirable, one hates to point out how utterly detached they are from current American reality: but one is nonetheless obliged to do so. Perhaps Westbrook could organize a secular Benedict Option: small communities devoted to civic virtue and to virtuous citizenship could serve as examples for the rest of the nation—assuming, that is, that the rest of the nation would pay the slightest attention or give a tinker’s damn about the whole thing.
I'm sorry to sound so cynical, but the inauguration of President Donald Trump is six days away; and when I think about what that says about our nation and about our current regard for "civic virtue," I want to throw up.
1 It’s interesting that conservatives insist parents should have a choice about where and how to educate their children, but at the same time they do not want women to have any choice about having children in the first place.