The Perils of Virtue

What does it mean to be a good person?

Years ago, I read one of John Steinbeck’s lesser-known books, a thin novel called The Short Reign of Pippin IV. I stumbled across this passage, which struck me so keenly that I copied it down right then, and have never forgotten it:

“It is a trap,” said Sister Hyacinthe, “like all other virtue – it is a trap. Where virtue is involved it is very difficult to tell oneself the truth, M’sieur. There are two kinds of virtue. One is passionate ambition and the other simply a desire for the peace which comes from not giving anyone any trouble.”

There are, indeed, two kinds of virtue: passive and active.

Passive virtue is what Steinbeck calls not giving anyone any trouble. More recently, Wil Wheaton formulated this as Wheaton’s Law: “Don’t be a dick.” Passive virtue says you can be good merely by not being bad.

Active virtue, however – Steinbeck’s passionate ambition – is very different. For active virtue, it isn’t enough to sit back, smile, and say “I’m not hurting anyone.” Active virtue demands that we go into the world and make it better.

Our society and our laws say that passive virtue is good enough. Active virtue is optional. This makes sense – for law and society. You can’t require passionate ambition, after all.

But suppose we care about more than just following the law and doing what society expects. Suppose we hope to be something like that most mythical of creatures: the Good Person. Is passive virtue really enough?

Imagine you’re leading a caravan through the Sahara Desert. You find some poor man dying of thirst, begging you for water. You have plenty to spare. But you say “I believe in Passive Virtue. I’m not required to help. I merely avoid starting any trouble.” You move on.

Is that okay?

Of course not. In Wil Wheaton’s terms, you are Being A Dick, even though you’ve technically satisfied passive virtue. That much seems obvious.

But be careful. Because once you admit to yourself that you have a requirement – a moral obligation – to help others, the world becomes a very different place.

Before, as a follower of Passive Virtue, you could spend twenty dollars on a couple of movie tickets and popcorn. You’re not hurting anyone, so it’s okay. But Active Virtue imposes a much heavier burden. Active Virtue insists the world is full of people dying of thirst, metaphorically and literally. It says that spending twenty dollars on entertainment is like pouring out water on the sand of the Sahara.

If giving twenty dollars to Doctors Without Borders, or the aid workers in Syrian refugee camps, or [insert your charity here], could save someone’s life, and I spend it on movies anyway, what does that mean? It sounds absurd to say that buying entertainment is ethically wrong, but what other conclusion can we draw?

How can we escape the obligation to spend all our money, all our time, all our resources, on helping others? And why should we want to?

We want our lives to be easy. That’s human nature. But being a good person means active virtue; and active virtue is very, very hard.

I’m as guilty as anyone. I won’t pretend otherwise. I buy all sorts of things I don’t need.

But in quieter moments, I can hear what virtue sounds like – and it sounds awfully distant to me.

What do you think?

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11 responses to “The Perils of Virtue

  1. Not all legal systems are built on passive virtue; the French Code Napoleon makes it an offence to not attempt to save a stranger from, for example, drowning.

    My answer to self vs charity is to remember that I am part of the set of valued entities, therefore:

    (1) I am as entitled to a good life as anyone else, so can spend/save to maintain a present and future life and do not need to take 1-in-a-million chances to save a life;

    (2) I am entitled to the fruits of my labours and rest from toil, so spending all my money/efforts on charity to others is not being virtuous toward myself, so some time/money spend on my own pleasure is virtuous.

    • Regarding #1: “I am as entitled to a good life as anyone else, so can spend/save to maintain a present and future life” – I agree, no argument here. “[I] do not need to take 1-in-a-million chances to save a life” – but I’m not talking about 1-in-a-million chances, I’m talking about simple things like basic medical care, shelter, food, water, etc.

      Regarding #2: “spending all my money/efforts on charity to others is not being virtuous toward myself” – I’m not suggesting we make ourselves destitute, or bring ourselves so low that we need charity from others. That doesn’t help anyone. But channeling unneeded luxury toward desperately-needed help does no injury to oneself.

      • I was talking about heuristics for the dividing line, not absolutes: the high risk comment was to highlight that save a person’s life by giving him a one of your bottles of water in London is different from saving a person’s life by giving him your last bottle in the desert.

        I have written a post to better express the idea of luxury not being inherently unethical.

  2. FAITH OF TEH FALLENS!!!!!!!

  3. haha I know right. Such a crazy libra, pero they had some interesting points. Back to the topic at hand, of course everything has an opportunity cost. But you also have to look at it from an economics standpoint. Is it better to give a little now, or pull a Bill Gates and kick butt at your job now but not give, and once you are super rich then give all kinds of money. I don’t know. Or you can go the Mother Theresa route, give everything now! Who is to say who has done more good. Obviously the Mother Theresa route is considered more virtuous, but it’s hard to discount the 10 s of billions the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation has give to charity.

  4. “What does it mean to be a good person?”

    You know that this question has been a cornerstone of philosophy and ethics as far back as humans can remember and there is still no universally agreeable solution? The basic problem that one encounters is you are forced to define what “good” is.

    Ill just use your example of buying a 20 dollar movie ticket instead of giving to doctors without borders. If you buy a movie ticket you can say that you are paying someone’s salary, supporting the movie industry and the theater industry, and growing Americas economy. America having a strong economy is incredibly important since the USA has been a tremendous force for aid/charity to people around the world. If the US economy recovers/grows the aid that it provides to the world will help a lot more than doctors without borders ever could. So one can argue that spending 20 dollars on a movie ticket is just as virtuous as donating it to doctors without borders.

    I know that that example was a bit of a stretch but you get the basic problem you can run into.

    • Sure it’s an old question, but I think we have to keep asking it. 🙂 Accepting old answers blindly is philosophical suicide.

      I also agree that actions have a lot of unintended consequences, so it’s hard to know what will truly do the most good in the end. But figuring out *how* to do the most good is a separate question from *how much* energy to spend pursuing that vision, whatever it may be. And accepting easy luxury seems like giving up on both questions.

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