What does it mean to be virtuous? What does the end-game look like?
It’s a weird question, sure. But it seems to be a question not too many speak about.
Here’s what I mean: If you’re a Christian, “turn the other cheek” (Matthew 5:38-40, Luke 6:28-30) has probably been said to you by people who hate Christianity–and likely other Christians!–to discourage you from fighting back against anything, ever.
But this is silly, right? That’s not what God wants, to let us be patsies and doormats and get rolled by any evildoer whoever happens to come along with ill-intent towards us.
After all, what’s more virtuous: To stand up and fight against those would world enslave or exterminate you, or keep you from proper worship of God? Or to refuse to fight until your enemy runs the world, and you and your children and grandchildren are in abject misery but at least you can say “Man, I turned the other cheek like a goddamn champ!”
See what I mean?
This isn’t going to be a verse-slinging post, or a theological one. But I think this example makes a good point out of pinning down what is virtue and how does one practice virtue?
I’ve presented a little bit of an unfair binary question here, but let’s play it out for a bit. Virtue is either:
- Standing by your principles, even if it means you and your loved ones die; or
- Occasionally violating a principle or principles now in order to prevent ruin and damnation for future generations.
I think it’s pretty clear that this is a difficult choice to make, one that will make the principled feel “icky” (a technical term). But it might be the most difficult choice a man faced in his life.
What would a deontologist do? If you “always do what is right,” do you aid the wounded man you know for certain was about to rape and murder your wife because “it’s the right thing to do” (give aid to the wounded) even though that man will resume trying to rape and murder your wife, or do you let the attempted rapist/murderer die?
Which is objectively better? Which is right? Which is virtuous?I’m using an extreme example to illustrate a point. I’m also anticipating a slippery slope argument: “Bending or breaking a principle one makes it easier to do it again!”
Perhaps. This is why it’s such a difficult issue! This is also where God comes in–I know, I know, I said I wouldn’t get theological–or at least some kind of moral restraint. It’s also vital to be acting without malice or a spirit of vengeance.
You can extrapolate this dilemma to many contemporary issues. Immigration and border control here in the United States and the migrant crisis in Europe come to mind: it feels icky to close off borders and prevent people from entering a nation…but what about the long-term negative effects for citizens already there?
This brings me to my final point: The different between true virtue and virtue signaling.
- The virtuous makes the hard, likely imperfect, choice that leads to the most good. The virtue signaler makes whatever choice makes him feel good, consequences be damned (as long it doesn’t personally affect them).
- The virtuous tries to act with utmost sobriety and clarity of vision. The virtue signaler assumes the worst possible motives, but offers nothing in opposition besides empty moral preening and unworkable, unrealistic, and usually downright silly solutions.
- The virtuous will make a choice that might harm them in order to produce a long-term good. The virtue signaler is more concerned with short-term gain and pleasurable feelings of piety to care about long-term consequences.
- The virtuous likely has a lot to lose, but takes calculated risks anyway in pursuit of an objective Good and an object be Truth. The virtue signaler doesn’t believe in objective Good or Truth, but they sure do believe in objective Expediency.
Back to Mr. Turn the Other Cheek: This guy likely has nothing on the line, and never imagines that he will. He is totally insulated from most hardship, and thinks everyone else is in the same boat as he.
He’s the archetypical virtue signaler, willing to say things that sound virtuous without actually thinking about how illogical or harmful they are. He never wants to make a hard choice, but he doesn’t want anyone else to, either.
He will die, or get himself and others killed or worse, so he can go to the gallows as the most virtuous guy at the end of the noose.
Now ask yourself, which person would God have the hardest time forgiving?