“We’re all free to decide for ourselves what we believe—as long, of course, as it involves sustainability, locally source food, and just the right etiquette when talking about sexual identity. Which means as long as we adopt progressive, upper-middle-class attitudes that function well only if you’re actually upper-middle-class.” R. R. Reno, First Things, December 2014, p. 6
“There are, by my count, seven cardinal modern virtues: Freedom, Convenience, Progress, Equality, Authenticity, Health, Nonjudgmentalism.” Jonathan V. Last
The old virtues: Chastity, Temperance, Thrift, Simplicity, Fellowship, Justice, Prudence, Courage, Charity, Faith, Hope, Gratitude…
“Aristotle deemed courage to be the first virtue.”
“Aquinas called prudence the queen of the virtues.”
“Cicero declared Gratitude is not only the greatest of virtues, but the parent of all others.”
“St. Paul said Charity is the greatest of them all.”
The old ones are still the best ones
In November 1993 an unlikely book appeared at the top of the bestseller lists. William J. Bennett’s The Book of Virtues was a tome: 832 pages of moral instruction. People ate it up. Newsweek called it “just what this country needs,” and Time said it “ought to be distributed, like an owner’s manual, to new parents leaving the hospital.” Looking at a copy of The Book of Virtues today is like examining a relic from some forgotten age. You pick it up, turn it over in your hand a couple of times, and think, People were so different back then. How did they live like that?
The answer comes in a few different parts. First, it really was a different age. Think for a moment about two years—1971 and 1993. In 1971 America was still celebrating having landed a man on the moon. The Watergate break-in wouldn’t happen for another year. Vietnam was winding down. The Department of Education didn’t exist.
By 1993 the Department of Education was an entrenched part of the federal government, and it was the almighty Soviet Union that no longer existed. The Cold War was in the rearview mirror, and with it the space program had begun to wane; an entire generation had never seen a live moon walk, and no American would ever again leave low earth orbit. Instead of looking to the skies, we were looking into screens: The World Wide Web was migrating into common use with the creation of the web browser. The two Americas of 1971 and 1993 were quite different. And here’s the kicker: We’re as far away from 1993 today as they were in 1993 from 1971.
Yet some human longings seem innate. The success of The Book of Virtues suggested that there was a latent demand for virtue then, which, at first glance, looks strange from where we sit now. Who would dare suggest today that parents be given a thick book of moral instruction for raising their children? But if you stare hard enough, the picture changes. If anything, we might be more puritanical and values-driven today than we were in 1993. We just adhere to different values. And boy, howdy, do we cling to them. People still believe in deep moral truths, you see. They simply apply those beliefs in the service of very different virtues.
The world is already en route to forgetting Donald Sterling. But the historical record will show that for two straight weeks in May 2014 he was the most important story, and the most reviled man, in America. Sterling was the 80-year-old owner of a professional basketball team, the Los Angeles Clippers. He had been married to the same woman since 1955, but around 2003, he began carrying on with a series of younger women. And by “carrying on” I mean buying them real estate and cars and bringing them to sit with him, courtside, to watch basketball games featuring the team he co-owned with his wife.
In 2014 the most recent of those girlfriends secretly taped a conversation with Sterling in which he said some not-very-nice things about African Americans. He used no foul language or racial slurs, but was demeaning and nasty nonetheless. On a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being your garden-variety bigot and 10 being a KKK Grand Wizard, Sterling was probably a 4. But the tape of that conversation became public, and the great machine that is American society lurched into action, its gears screeching and grinding. Television and radio hosts condemned Sterling; the public convened protests. Corporations that did business with Sterling’s team cut ties. The president of the United States—the president of the United States—interrupted an overseas trip to castigate Sterling at a press conference. And then the NBA announced that it intended to forcibly terminate Sterling’s ownership.
None of this is meant as a defense of Sterling. He seems by all accounts an unpleasant fellow who more or less got what he had coming. No, the point is to highlight America’s shifting emphasis on different virtues. Sterling’s infidelity and the public humiliation of his wife—the woman to whom he had been married for almost 60 years, who had borne him three children—was unremarkable. It was mentioned nowhere as a defect of Sterling’s character. His private, whispered racist thoughts, however, were important enough to elicit the displeasure of the leader of the free world. They were enough to cause his associates to expel him from their business and deprive him of his property.
In short, think of the litany of shame and approbation heaped on Hester Prynne and then multiply it by a thousand. Except that it wasn’t adultery that did Sterling in; it was racism. The scarlet “A” doesn’t exist anymore, but the scarlet “R” is very real indeed.
It’s clear that the problem isn’t that we no longer live in an age concerned with virtue. The problem is that we have organized ourselves around the wrong virtues.
Did I say “wrong”? Sorry. That’s so judgmental. So let’s call them, instead, the “modern” virtues. There are, by my count, seven cardinal modern virtues:
These are the characteristics modern society most prizes and has begun to organize its strictures around. Often with nonsensical results.
For example, the writer Mary Eberstadt notes that we live at a bizarre moment when it is nearly impossible to speak with any moral judgment about sexual practices—but a great deal of moral and philosophical energy is spent on the subject of food. You wouldn’t dare say that someone ought not put this part there with that person. And you wouldn’t say it because (a) your peers would think you a troglodyte and (b) you don’t really think it’s wrong. It’s just a lifestyle choice. Maybe it’s not for you, but who are you to judge? Food, on the other hand, is different. It’s morally elevated to eat organic grains and eggs that come from cage-free hens. You’re a better person if you only eat locally grown produce. A better person still if you don’t eat meat. And the best people eat with one eye always— always!—on “sustainability.” Whatever that is. On the subject of food, some lifestyle choices are better than others. And we’re not afraid to say so.
Actually, there is one—and pretty much only one—judgment that you can make about sex, and it is this: Imagine that you’re in college and one Saturday morning your roommate comes home and proclaims that she just slept with some guy she’d never met and whom she never intends to see again. Could you suggest to her that this might be a suboptimal life choice? Why no, no you could not.
Imagine, however, that your roommate came home and confessed that she slept with some guy she’d never met and that they had not used “protection.” Well, that’s a different story. You could lecture her. You could shame her. You could gather your friends and stage an intervention, explaining that this is a terrible, awful thing to do. Downright irresponsible. Something that just isn’t done, because you could get a disease. Sexual morality is now a function of health outcomes.
And not just sexual morality. Consider smoking. Over the last 30 years, an overwhelming moral consensus has emerged concerning smoking. Where people once smoked on airplanes and in movie theaters and in bars and at home during dinner, today smokers are treated as if they have a terrible and highly contagious disease. They can’t smoke in public buildings or often even in public spaces. Smokers are the new lepers, except that no one would look down on a leper as being morally repugnant. Why the reversal? Because it is now universally agreed that smoking is disastrously unhealthy. And healthy living is a cardinal virtue, something to be pursued at all costs, not merely because it is prudent, but because it is good and right.
Yet, at the same time that smoking tobacco has become verboten, smoking marijuana has been gaining wider accept-ance. How could this be? It’s not like getting stoned is good for you. No, the emerging moral acceptance of marijuana comes because health is trumped by another of the modern virtues—freedom. Because today we tend to believe that people ought to be able to live however they like, and that societal norms should have little claim on them.
You can see the tensions inherent here. Why should freedom be a virtue when it comes to reefer but not Lucky Strikes? For that matter, why should health trump freedom in one context but not another? But these tensions aren’t unique to the modern virtues. Certainly, the classical virtues are often in tension, too. It can be devilishly hard discerning, for instance, when prudence should override perseverance. Or vice versa.
The real problem with the modern virtues isn’t that they’re contradictory—the classical virtues can be just as confused. And it isn’t that they’re somehow “wrong” as virtues. Equality, authenticity, a devotion to physical health, and even nonjudgmentalism can be fine things, taken in right measure. No, the modern virtues fail because, for the most part, they concern the outer self, the human façade, the part of ourselves that the world sees most readily—while the classical virtues form an organizing framework for our inner selves . . . for our souls, if you believe in that sort of thing. And it turns out that when you scale people out to the societal level, the superficial moral framework of the modern virtues turns out to be an insufficient organizing principle. When it comes to virtue, the old ways are still the best ways.
If you’re looking for a good explanation of the old ways, you could do worse than Alasdair MacIntyre’s summation of Aristotle. Here’s MacIntyre explaining what virtue really is:
The virtues are precisely those qualities the possession of which will enable an individual to achieve eudaimonia and the lack of which will frustrate his movement toward that telos. . . . For what constitutes the good for man is a complete human life lived at its best, and the exercise of the virtues is a necessary and central part of such a life, not a mere preparatory exercise to secure such a life. . . . Virtues are dispositions not only to act in particular ways, but also to feel in particular ways.