Thursday, February 4, 2010

Inventing Virtue

A virtue needs to be our own invention, our own most personal need and self-defense: in any other sense,a virtue is just dangerous.

Nietzsche
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For many hundreds of years philosophers have been trying to define virtue, to describe it and to answer the question "What is the virtuous life?" The arguments raged on over issues of war and peach, social and anti-social behavior, religious and nonreligious issues. As time went by revolutions took place, common people gained the courage to claim their rights. Those rights were subsequently squashed by the aristocracy. Revolutions were put down and martyrs of change were hung or burned and the whole process began again.

But the emergence of the common man as a strong, important element of the world is inevitable and that emergence is still going on. Modern day tyrants may not be kings and dictators, but they do exist in some area of too much power. This nation doesn't have a ruling class, but it definitely has one that thinks it is. And they show up in strange places. Ideologies masquerade as natural law and opinions as truth. Most of humanity is held to a standard of behavior by some system of thinking which may or may not be viruous.

The problem becomes confused when we are faced with the possibility of doing things we would never do according to our assumed code of conduct. "Thou shalt not kill." Is there ever a time when killing is a virtue? Ask the soldier in mortal combat with the enemy. "Thou shalt not steal." Is there ever a time when stealing is a virtue? Robin Hood thought so. Most of the human race is being perpetually plundered by some of the rich and powerful. Is it a virtue, for the sake of our fellow humans, to try to get it back, even by theft? Can certain crimes be justified by the name of virtue?

Most thinking people consider a virtuous life one of compassion, reason, respect, sociability, honesty, community, courage, conscientiousness, duty, order, righteousness and a long line of other qualities that go to make up a good person. But we all slip up on certain things. We're basically good but....

There are some humans, barely human, for whom those words have no meaning. Even the idea of virtue itself is a totally foreign concept that does not ever enter their thinking. Those are the true killers, torturers and thieves of the world. When faced as we are daily with the good, the sometimes good and the evil, what do we do?

There are times when any agreed upon ethic does not effectively apply. As a result I've spent many hours trying to come up with a plan of ethical behavior that can cover every situation I face. I often thought I was definitely doing the right thing and ended up suffering and having regrets about it. That caused me to question my own sense of right and wrong and discard some earnestly held beliefs I had been taught. Then I looked behind the veil and found that what I had assumed were true facts about virtue were the problem. What is a virtue to one man is a vice to another. Not only that but what is virtuous under one circumstance is vicious under another. Given the limited and delayed resources how do the doctors in Haiti decide who lives and who dies? Is suicide, assisted or otherwise, a virtuous option for one living in perpetual agony with no hope of release or for someone sentenced to be executed by some unspeakable means as is practiced in some countries? Is it ever virtuous to torture a prisoner of war to extract information or an animal in a medical lab to obtain scientific knowledge? Is it ever permissible to take someone's property away from him? Is the pursuit of pleasure a virtue? If so and you can justify the actions as stated above, what about the man who kills, tortures and robs for the joy of it? What happens if you rebel against doing something you've been ordered to do that you know is wrong? How do you live with the punishment of refusing to do it, or how do you live the with regret if you do it?

Governments are passing and instituting laws all the time to influence and control human behavior and doing it under the assumption of virtue. And why should there be laws to prevent one group from doing what another group considers wrong. I think one of the worst vices is trying to force your own morality on someone else.

With the rise of the common man comes the freedom of individual choice. People can think for themselves, even if many don't., Nietzsche was very concerned with getting people to think for themselves. He knew that virtue did not come from religion, laws or doing what others do just because they do it.

In this confusing life it is difficult, near impassible, to define virtue. It is easier to define what it is not. In the long run it is up to the individual to examine his conscience, his heart, his intuition and his reason and decide for himself what is right, what is wrong, choose the right and stick with it. That's as near as anyone can come to a virtuous life. At the end, can I be pleased and satisfied with myself for how I lived?

DB - The Vagabond
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3 comments:

Big Mark 243 said...

Boy, you said a mouthful!

Ol' Frank was about the power of the individual. I think that is what virtue is about, being true to oneself and staying that same way as you move along the world.

What ever is 'you' is the absolute that you must make your decisions by. As you said, the doctors in Haiti have some difficult decisions. And soldiers in a theatre of war have similiar conundrums, were the lines of morality and decency are blurred. In fact, war itself is often called a 'necessary evil'.

Is something evil if it is necessary? What makes it so urgent that we can set aside our principle and virtue for this act?

This is something that a person has to ask for themselves... OF themselves, and come to an answer. In the politcal arena, many simply echo the sentiments that on the surface speaks to something in them. They don't differentiate between the 'righteousness' or 'fairness' of their words, even though many consider the pursuit of what is right and fair a virtue.

I find myself wrestiling both internally and spiritually with questions like this. Makes me want to learn more about exsistensialism than I know now. Think there is a good bit of it here in your journal, DB

Bucko (a.k.a., Ken) said...

I think our modern day tyrants are on the airwaves - fanatics in many forms.

Beth said...

All good questions, and I think anyone who is at least a little self-aware will ponder them at some point in his or her life, if not throughout. I've also been pondering what I believe is a false assumption, that religion is necessary for virtue. I know plenty of nonbelievers who choose to do the right thing merely because it IS the right thing.

Love, Beth