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Ideological Blindspots (part III): Virtue

April 4, 2017

Definition of virtue:

 

"(1) (a)  conformity to a standard of right: morality

b: a particular moral excellence; (2) virtues plural: an order of angels — see celestial hierarchy; (3) a beneficial quality or power of a thing; (4) manly strength or courage: valor; (5) a commendable quality or trait: merit (6) a capacity to act: potency; (7) chastity especially in a woman."

 

https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/virtue

 

Barack Obama:

 

"You didn't get there on your own. . . . Somebody helped to create this unbelievable American system that we have that allowed you to thrive. . . . If you've got a business – you didn't build that. Somebody else made that happen." 

 

Remarks by the President at a Campaign Event in Roanoke, Virginia". Office of the Press Secretary. White House. 13 July 2012. Retrieved 13 August 2012. (Full quote available here: http://tinyurl.com/d6qruhq)

 

Donald J. Trump: 

 

"My whole life really has been a 'no' and I fought through it . . .  It has not been easy for me, it has not been easy for me. And you know I started off in Brooklyn, my father gave me a small loan of a million dollars." 

 

Remarks by Donald Trump, October 26, 2015 (full quote available here: http://tinyurl.com/ny2zwle)

 

Experts on memory explain that, contrary to common intuition, memories are constructed, not recorded. (For two general discussions, see http://tinyurl.com/l7r6f5uhttp://tinyurl.com/l3zrexs). Not surprisingly, in constructing our memories, we tend to reconcile our past experiences with pre-existing schema, including our innate sense of self. Since most us think of ourselves as good people, and since we do not always conduct ourselves admirably, this implies that some memories shade past events as compared with what an actual recording might reveal. 

 

A similar dynamic is at work in the stories we construct and collectively enjoy telling, again and again, about those we deem exemplars in society, whose virtues we admire, and whose conduct we encourage others, including especially our children, to emulate. The manner of these constructions increasingly carries ideological valence, and so, to that extent, our sense of virtue is a matter of political, even partisan, significance. As with other inquiries that reveal blindspots in liberal and conservative views of the world, there are blindspots in our competing conceptions of virtue. 

 

Conservatives enjoy stories of the self-made man. This is the person who lifted himself up by his own bootstraps, fought against adversity, saw a goal, had a vision, and through raw pluck, made it happen, on his own and characteristically against great odds. He is a masculine prototype (compare Merriam Webster's seventh entry, which, even in 2017, ascribes a deeply sexist core virtue for women). Critical to the entire package is the emphasis on "self-made." Liberals, by contrast, view virtue in terms of generosity, kindness, and perhaps above all, placing others ahead of one's self. Although gender binaries are inherently problematic, if the conservative conception of virtue is prototypically masculine, the liberal conception is prototypically feminine. Liberal virtue favors not merely giving credit where credit is due, but also disclaiming credit that is rightly one's own, or at least displaying reticence to claim it. In the liberal understanding, braggarts can almost never be virtuous. 

 

In its bluntest form, conservatives tend to equate virtue with success, whereas liberals tend to equate virtue with humility, or modesty. At its core, this liberal and conservative divide centers on how we ascribe the root causes of success. Conservatives tend to emphasize the resilience and creativity of the entrepreneur, the suffering the eventual star athlete endured along the way, the adversity that the renowned academic or military leader overcame en route to emerging a recognized leader. Any giving back, for example acts of charity, is out of generosity, not obligation. The self-made man graciously recognizes the needs of those less fortunate--less virtuous--than he. Liberals, by contrast, tend to eschew accounts of the self-made man. They view success as a collective enterprise. Hillary Clinton's book, "It Takes a Village," (see http://tinyurl.com/kj4l3mm), extols the virtues of community in childrearing, and Barack Obama's discussion of business success also emphasized the critical role of government in creating a beneficial legal system and infrastructure without which no entrepreneur could succeed. (See http://tinyurl.com/d6qruhq)

 

These competing accounts present a false dichotomy. Personal drive and ambition, and the critical opportunities necessary to thrive, are interwoven in ways that make the task of untangling them impossible. Success vitally depends on the coincidence of two conditions: first, the series of steps that create an opportunity (education, financial resources, the happenstance of being in the right place at the right time), and second, the inner drive, vision, sense of confidence to see, and to seize, an opportunity and to make something meaningful out of what others have overlooked, often at tremendous personal cost. Each is a "but for" cause of eventual success, meaning each condition is necessary, yet neither alone is sufficient. The line-worker or mid-level manager might have a brilliant entrepreneurial mind, but not have had the good fortune to be in the right place at the right time to apply it. The same opportunity that led a great entrepreneur to thrive was undoubtedly missed by countless others who lacked the requisite vision and skill to take advantage. Each factor--inner drive and opportunity--is completely, 100%, responsible for any resulting success. The prevailing accounts of virtue overlook this critical fact. 

 

Although law is my field, this insight is somewhat at odds with how lawyers think. We are accustomed to allocating credit and blame. Lawsuits are likewise characterized by the often tragic coincidence of multiple but for causes. But for x, y, and z, the accident would not have occurred, a crime would not have been committed, a contract would not have been breached. Despite this, the goal of the suit is to ascribe a level of fault to each side. But here's the thing: life is not a lawsuit. Indeed, and thankfully, only a minuscule subset of conflicts end up that way. In defining success, and in ascribing virtue, nothing blocks us from being more nuanced. We can recognize that our competing accounts of what constitutes virtue are incomplete, and that together each contains elements that combine for a more a complicated, yet more accurate, understanding of what truly is virtuous.  

 

First, objective measures of success are not a precondition to virtue. Virtue is in seeing an opportunity to make the world a better place, willingly incurring a cost to see that vision realized, and matching that success with a spirit of generosity toward others in need who didn't have the skill, or see the opportunity. This can arise in forging a team, teaching a class, starting a children's program, raising a family, starting or growing a business, or for that matter creating or improving just about anything worthwhile. To be sure, there is potential for virtue in high profile success, but this is not a precondition. And there is nothing non-virtuous about taking appropriate credit for one's success. After all, virtuous people can accomplish more good if others recognize their talents, drive, and accomplishments. (For Larry David's brilliant, and funny, exploration of this theme, see http://tinyurl.com/h7heozc). Virtue demands recognizing our good fortunes while also being graceful in acknowledging that although we are to some extent agents of that fortune, others were as well. Self-awareness is a virtue.

 

Success and virtue are not synonymous. Surely we all recognize that although there are successful people who are virtuous, there are plenty of others who are not. It is sadly true that some succeed to great heights, not so much by creating or improving, as through through sharp, even illicit, behavior at others' expense. What of humility, or simple modesty? Winston Churchill once said of his political opponent: "Mr. Attlee is a very modest man. Indeed he has a lot to be modest about." (See http://tinyurl.com/mtmndld).  Appropriate humility is virtuous; false humility is not. Great leaders, women and men, exude confidence; they know their true value, and they are not shy about claiming it. They do not disclaim what is rightly theirs. As a society, we should not wish otherwise. Every society needs virtuous leaders. They are in all too rare supply. But this requires understanding, in a nuanced way, what virtue means. 

 

Ronald Reagan famously said: “There is no limit to the amount of good you can do if you don't care who gets the credit.” (See http://tinyurl.com/lj2md2x). Whether you lean left or lean right, all readers should see virtue in that. 

 

As always, I welcome your comments.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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