In Defense of Vice

“Folks who have no vices have, generally, very few virtues.”

These are the words of Abraham Lincoln.

It’s a tremendous quote, and deploying it in conversation is a handy way to stop moralizers in their tracks when they start attacking a habit you hold dear.

After all, who wants to rebuff Lincoln?

Of course, what a “vice” is, exactly, is open to some interpretation. According to the dictionary…

Vice: An evil, degrading or immoral practice or habit.

But we’re defining a term with other fuzzy terms. One person’s evil is another person’s pragmatic. Or even another person’s funny. And “degrading” and “immoral” are similarly soft-edged.

But there’s something more subtle about the way we conceive of vices, though. And it’s not hinted at in the definition above.

Something only seems to qualify as a vice if the public “gets it.”

As in: “Yeah, I wouldn’t do that myself, but I can understand why someone else would want to.”

Drinking too much, too frequently is a vice. Having extramarital affairs is a vice. When I was in middle school, sneaking out at night to toilet-paper my classmates houses was a vice in which I frequently indulged.

But chopping up cute little kittens in a blender is not a vice.

Because what kind of sick bastard does that?

Kitten-blending fails to qualify as a vice because we can’t even tacitly acknowledge “yeah, I can see the appeal there.” We feel nothing but revulsion, along with a mystification that someone would want to do that.

Tiger Woods had vices. Jeffrey Dahmer was just a disgusting sicko.

Dahmer: Just a disgusting sicko.

So we can add something to the vice definition: Being a vice requires that most people can empathize with the motivation — even though the weight of the items in the “pro” column is outmatched by the items in the “con” column, at least in most people’s internal calculus.

But if there is nothing in the “pro” column, then we’re just talking about a weird, aberrant behavior. And we won’t even dignify it with the term vice.

Back to the Lincoln quote. Is it true?

If a vice is a behavior where we can acknowledge an understandable motivation behind it — it’s just not motivating enough for most people to suffer the consequences — then we can start to glimpse the logic in Lincoln’s words.

People with vices are people with lots of motivation. They’re highly-motivated people who laugh in the face of a well-stacked “con” column, and double down on their (questionable) goals. Right?

Well, not exactly. Our logic got a little leaky.

Because there are also people who indulge in vices because they have little or nothing in their “con” column. These sad folks feel they have nothing left to lose. For them, any motivation is enough. You don’t need to be highly motivated if the prospect of ruining whatever life you have left is just a minor speed-bump.

So… was Abe Lincoln wrong?

Nope.

Because Lincoln was a lawyer, and a good one. And he picked his words carefully.

He didn’t say “Folks who have vices, have virtues.” He said (paraphrasing) “Folks who don’thave vices, most likely don’t have virtues.”

It comes down to motivation.

Virtues — the kind anyone else is likely to notice and give a damn about — require a significant level of motivation.

Strictly speaking, certain low-impact virtues (e.g. not picking your nose in public) can probably be accomplished with a minimal level of personal motivation. But if someone is asked to list your chief virtues and the best they can come up with is “I’ve never seen him pick his nose,” you’re probably not going to be in the running for Man of the Year.

Virtues worth celebrating require motivation and effort. This could come in the form of a breakaway success or just stubborn resistance to clear and daunting obstacles. Virtue could be breaking through or just not giving in. We think of the 300 Spartans at Thermopylae as virtuous — and they got slaughtered.

But damn if they weren’t motivated.

The epic levels of motivation necessary for top-tier virtuousness are rarely domain-specific. People who want badly enough to attain a virtue are most likely also going to want badly enough for some particular vice’s “pro” column to outweigh its matching “con” column. That’s just human nature.

So Lincoln had it right.

Personal vices are no guarantee of virtue — but good luck in finding anyone who’s doing anything worthwhile without stepping outside society’s “best practices” every now and again.

As the refrigerator-magnet says: “Never trust a skinny cook.”

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This article was written by Jesse Lawler and originally appeared as part of the Smart Drug Smarts Brain Breakfast newsletter.