Christianity, Marriage, Parenting, regligious education, Uncategorized

Virtue – The Good and the Misguided

If we are to pursue virtue, we need to have some idea of what it looks like. A man may believe himself to be virtuous, while another person thinks him to be a monster. Is virtue in the eye of the beholder, or is one person right and the other wrong? It does not make sense that we could not determine whether or not an action truly is virtuous, or that the virtuousness or evil of an act is just a matter of opinion. God would not leave us that exposed. The task of determining virtue is not always easy, but we do have a basis for discovering the answer.

To do so, again we must look to the principle of connectedness. We are in a world with other creatures beloved by God. God wants what is best for all of his creatures, collectively. Therefore, if a given action helps one or more of his creatures without harming another, it must be good. If another action harms a creature without helping another, it must be bad. If an action does some good and some harm, then it must be judged in light of the relative degree of harm and good and, most importantly, in light of the available alternatives. You cannot claim to have acted virtuously just because your action did more good than harm if you could have instead acted in a way that produced just the good without the harm. This is simply the Golden Rule, do unto others as you would have them do unto you, with the important qualifier that they are not you, and that therefore you must be considerate of their situations in determining how best to act.

This is not complex or difficult in theory. There are few who would argue with the proposition that acting in a way that makes people happier and avoiding acting in a way that makes people unhappy, all things considered, is a good thing to do. The difficulty comes from the complexity of the workings of the world and its creatures. If a child hits her playmate it is generally good to scold her, despite the fact that it makes her unhappy at the time, in order to try to prevent her from making her playmates unhappy and also in order to try to keep her from being unhappy later when her former playmates avoid her. If a child wants something it may sometimes be best to say “no”, even if you can afford to buy the thing for the child, because it is important to teach children that getting material things is not the road to true happiness.  Arresting a degraded drug addict and putting her in a non-punitive work camp of some sort where she can dry out and learn basic life skills may be a good thing, even it is entirely against her will and she insists that she wants to go back to the vile life she was leading, although there are people who will vehemently argue that this is wrong. If a country is having a civil war, with horrible slaughter by both sides, perhaps it is good for a country like America to send troops who will do enough violence to persuade both sides to stop, even if that means the Americans will necessarily kill innocent civilians along with the guilty combatants, or then again perhaps it is best to let the combatants kill each other until they discover it is a bad idea (though, sadly, usually both sides find it more amusing and safer to kill civilians and avoid contacting the armed troops of the other side). Once a war has started, alternative interventions, such as offers to arbitrate and the like, seem to have limited success in dissuading armies that have not yet tired of war. The objective is clear, but the best means of getting there may often be very difficult to determine.

To some extent this is why advanced societies have chosen to separate political authority from religious authority. If the most virtuous course of action was clear in every complex situation, we could simply seek to find a very good person and make her supreme dictator. In reality, however, any one person will make mistakes; no ordinary human is qualified to be the supreme oracle of virtue. So, we look to the collective wisdom and virtue of the population to keep political leaders in check and let them know when they have made mistakes. When political leaders are forced to explain their actions in simple terms of right and wrong, of harms and benefits and alternative choices, rather than claiming to act under divine guidance or through some other form of special knowledge, the chances of choosing a course of action that is pretty close to the right one are increased.[1] The greatest benefit of separating Church from State lies not so much in preventing the State from imposing religious rituals on unwilling participants, but rather in preventing the State from wrapping itself in the mantle of the Church in order to claim that its actions are beyond question.[2]  Virtue grows and blooms under questioning; sin shrivels.

Virtue does not consist of pious enforcement of a book of rules. This is illustrated by the story of the woman taken in adultery. While she had broken the moral rules, the virtuous member of the crowd was not one of the ones who sought to punish her under the law, but rather the one who protected her and sought to lead her lovingly to a better life. Virtue lies in examining the world about you and looking for opportunities to help others to achieve happiness. In one case that may be through helping a delinquent youth to reform. In another it may be through catching a more vicious young criminal and locking him up so that the children of the neighborhood may play together in peace. In either case, all of the consequences of the action must be considered to the best of your ability, and a course chosen that will best serve all of God’s creatures.

This is not quite the same as the utilitarian formula of choosing the course that does the greatest good for the greatest number. Philosophers have been fond of attacking that formula by suggesting that it can be used to justify slavery or other wrongs that inflict an injustice on a minority for the benefit of the majority. The Christian formula for virtue, in contrast, is rooted in the notion that the greatest good for anyone is the achievement of divine bliss, not material well-being. Viewed in that light, the “beneficiaries” of slave labor receive a harm, not a real benefit, because they will be unable to reconcile the duty to love their fellow creatures with a system that harms any set of those creatures. Under the Christian formula, a harm may be inflicted only when there is no other way to prevent a greater harm from being suffered. A child should only be punished when reasoning and explanation fail, and then only because it is necessary to help the child to learn to avoid behavior that will harm it (physically or socially or spiritually) or harm others. A sin should only be punished as a crime when it harms others. A nation should go to war only to stop the army of another nation from inflicting great harm (more on this later). The Christian has a duty, whenever possible, to seek a loving, helping solution to problems, for that is the solution that will best help all involved to achieve alignment with God. When one assumes that all of the parties love and want the best for the others (while keeping in mind that really they may not), it substantially changes the math in determining which course does the greatest good.

The above discussion should not cause the reader to believe that finding a virtuous course of action is too difficult for the average person in our complex world. While coming up with the clear right answer in a given situation may be difficult, the process of reasoning through the problem is based on just the three simple principles outlined above. The chapters of my book illustrate how these principles may be used to address some very difficult problems. Most importantly, though, the key to success in the pursuit of virtue lies not in always finding the “right” answer, but rather in making the effort to try with love in your heart. Indeed, as the discussions in my book  illustrate, in the most difficult problems the solution may not lie so much in the action as in the spirit in which the action is performed. You cannot ask yourself to do more than your capabilities permit, and you may feel the divine joy of virtue so long as you do your best. In this respect, think of a young child who “helps” his mother with the housework. The fact that the child is likely to be more hindrance than help does not alter the fact that he is trying to help to the best of his abilities, and so he will justly feel good about it and his mother will love him for it just as much as if he was really able to assist her. God is no less generous than that mother. To God, the sincere desire to act in a virtuous way, so long as it is in fact attempted in a loving manner, is the only important thing.

[1] This model of democracy assumes that the political leaders are making a good faith effort to find and do the right thing in the spirit of cooperation. Sadly, politicians increasingly are just focused on trying to make the other party look bad, which makes harvesting the collective wisdom impossible.

[2] Many will disagree with me about this, but it makes me gag when a politician invokes the name of God. Politicians should speak in terms of good and evil actions and be forced to explain why a proposed action is good in terms of its specific effects on people and the world. They should not be permitted to speak as though they are God’s chosen and act as though that gives their (usually corrupt) actions, without real explanation, God’s approval.