I’ve been thinking recently about virtue.
Not the old-fashioned heroine sort, perhaps needless to say. But virtue, built or maintained by living in accordance with a moral code. I’ve never felt very good at that particular variety.
Why? For one thing, it’s not really a part of High WASP culture. We focus instead on the excellent, the appropriate, and the beautiful. Or the Very Attractive, as my mother might say.
For another, I’ve been very busy trying not to Do A Bad Job. Raising children, I wanted to be a good mother, but danged if I know what a virtuous one looks like. You just do the best you can and watch carefully to make sure the kids seem OK. At work, again, I have wanted to do a good job. I have wanted not to make irreparable mistakes. But the closest I ever got to virtue was maintaining my humanity in the fight.
Now I’ve got time. Virtue is easier where the clock doesn’t tick. For example, as anyone who knows me in the flesh will confirm, I’m absolutely my best self here on the blog. Nobody is pressuring me to type these keys, nobody is making me push Publish. I have the time, and therefore the responsibility, to focus on and adhere to the High WASPs boon companion, Good Behavior.
Virtue is Good Behavior’s spirit animal. And hides in the forest accordingly. How to find it? If it follows the same rules as unicorns we’re lost.
Here’s the thing. I think most of us can get to what we might call first line virtue pretty easily. Don’t kill people, don’t take their stuff, don’t lie for your own gain, be courteous. It’s the second and third lines that get hard. With complex moral questions – and you can tell I’m still thinking about the Sodastream issue here – absolutes disappear early in the analysis.
Here’s the other thing. I believe that when we can’t find absolutes, we feel our way along the walls, eyes closed, navigating with feelings. We might speak some words, to spin a theory, to superimpose some structure on our wanderings, but I think complex morals are like politics, and people are hard-wired to go one way or the other.
Both of which things lead me to wonder if some of us are better with the Virtues of No, and some with the Virtues of Yes. This may be a false dichotomy, but let’s consider it anyway. Thank you in advance.
I’m much better at the Virtues of Yes, myself. I find generosity, loyalty, commitment, affection, doable. The Virtues of No, not so much. Self-discipline, minimalism, scrupulousness (for which there is probably a better word but I don’t know it), resistance – I want to be your girl but I probably am not. I can move forward ever so much better than I can hold back.
Do you find yourself in one or the other of these camps? Am I making it up?
In any case, if my highly creative (i.e. speculative and proof-less) theory is right, I’m left with another question, one to consider quite carefully.
If one wants to develop Virtue, is it best to base the effort in one’s strengths (if that “one” is me I mean in the Yes), or to work on one’s weaknesses? (Must I in the end become abstemious? Oh no. Please no. Sadness ensues.) Perhaps the best way to start considering is to define Virtue not by measuring it like an internal quantity, but by our impact on the world. Not in the test tube but as a reagent.
Put simply, is it best to do what’s hardest, because it shows more character, or best to do what’s easiest, because you can perhaps accomplish more? Few people can do both. You see? Even how I frame the question will predict my answer. Thinking, deconstruction, gets us only so far. I will trust that it’s still worth doing.
Have a wonderful, wonderful weekend.
Original photo “Crowd” by Espen Sundve on Flickr. Text added by LPC.