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How Virtues Came To Rule

See The End of Virtue — Introduction — Everything Comes — Medium

One little preamble. What is a virtue? I define it as a changeable aspect of what we have called character but which could also be called personality. In my judgment these aspects have no ontological reality, no substance that is in itself universal or teleological. In other words in terms of the destiny of the cosmos, virtues such as temperance or courage or generosity may lie behind behavior but the behavior that they stimulate may lack the one aspect of behavior that would make it ontological or teleological — that is universality, generality, applicability to the destiny of reality and to everyone within reality.

Virtues exist without question. So do vices. Let me continue with an example of the latter which will provide a good sense of the train of this discussion. If generosity is a virtue, we might say that its opposite is envy, resentment over not having something.

Now we might go a step farther and suggest that envy is a starting point for a discussion of ethics because it is the initial generator of the first murder.

I am speaking of the demise of Abel at the hands of his brother Cain.

You will recall that the reason for this killing was that the occupation of Abel was preferred by the father of these two. This frosted Cain. He acted out of envy, we are told.

In terms of my point of view, Cain inflicted the worst harm possible on another human being.

He killed Abel. His sin was not envy. Envy did not make him kill. Envy might have made him think of changing his occupation or walking away from his father or any of a number of responses. He killed because he chose to respond by inflicting the worst possible harm on another human being.

On a scale of one to twenty killing is the bottom, the nadir, the worst thing anyone can do.

Virtue ethics emerged because the world, until the enlightenment, accepted its fragmented nature and devised ethics as a means of enforcing a society based on division, hierarchy and inequity.

We still have such a world but it is in the throes of change and at the heart of that change is the universalization of everything and the obliteration of the verbal trinkets that adorned the behavior of persons before the reality of harm itself became obvious and the reality of decency was seen as the holding back, the reduction of, harm.

The world of the past operated precisely by allowing for killing and celebrating force and war and the acquisition of wealth.

And the signature virtue of all of this was the million dollar word honor.

When you came down to it, honor was the signature character of the person who happened to have enough power to vanquish an enemy. This was and remains the basis of our inherited ethic, in the face of consistent reminders that there are things that we should not do because they harm.

We gave ourselves a huge pass by saying exactly what even our vaunted human rights organizations of today tend also to say — the best we can hope for is that nations will abide by the rules of war or the law of war.

This is not good enough.

The only justification of force, and it is slim, is a proportional response to an ongoing reality of actual evil that cannot be stopped without eliminating the doer.

Preemptive force has no justification. Force that is justified by appealing to a cause that can be justified by a virtue or a vice is no justification. Killing is the same no matter what the cause.

It is evil because it preempts and extinguishes the freedom of another to make choices. This is the most precious aspect of selfhood. It is our access to values that can lead to truth and beauty.

If you wish to call truth and beauty virtues, be my guest, but they are finally the descriptors of the end state of existence in which decency has triumphed via the exercise of values.

Aristotle remarks that virtue and goodness are identical. I think not. Goodness applies to the following values in ascending order:


Critical thinking







Valuing Truth and Beauty

Valuing Love and Freedom

In addition to ignoring values while offering 253 references to virtue in his Ethics Aristotle reveals his founding emphasis in comments which essentially regard ethics as matters of fixed character and inclination rather than constant choice based on the freedom to do good or ill.

Thus we have references to those who are inclined to “Jocularity and Jesting”, to Buffoons, to the “refined and gentlemanlike”, to the “man of Tact” to the “Gentleman” and the “Vulgarian”, to the “educated and uneducated man”.

We need little more to conclude that Aristotle helped set in motion an ethic that was patriarchal, characteristic-based and wed to virtues at the expense of values that cut through superficialities and arrive at the meat of what a person does or does not do when alone with conscience.

The universalistic prophets of ancient Israel and Jesus himself saw the obvious and glaring hypocrisy involved in virtue ethics. Latter day analysts like Gregory Bateson saw the simple, destructive force of binary thinking AKA the double bind, the essential cause, if there is a cause, of mental illness.

Virtue ethics was fit for the world described by historians and biographers from Herodotus to Robert Caro. It still rules. We are toppling it as we speak. We are extracting Jesus from the straitjacket of the onerous religion which hallowed patriarchy, fomented war and permitted intolerance, slavery and racism. We may in time extract the wondrous Old Testament prophets from the confines of tribal religion.

I depend on the magic of cyberspace to achieve for value ethics a victory which moves us out of the realm of philosophical debate and into the realm of real politics and the creation of history. It is there that I invest my life and there that I lodge my hope.