Wednesday, July 20, 2011

the trip wires of virtue

After more than 40 years of devoting myself to what others might see as a virtuous pastime, I am no longer much of a fan of virtue. Instead, give or take a little, I prefer responsibility.

A quick-hit internet definition of the word "virtue" offers several descriptions. Three that catch my eye are these: 1. A good quality or habit that a person has, especially a moral one such as honesty or loyalty 2. A quality that is useful in a particular activity, and 3. An advantage or a good feature that something has that makes it better than something else.

Every definition carries with it the potential to exercise the notion that problems and solutions can be categorized according to their good-better-best factors. So, for example, the fact that I have stood on Northampton's Saturday-morning peace picket line for several years might be seen as either a praise- or blame-worthy activity.  Onlookers might congratulate or despair of the effort that can be seen as either morally virtuous or unpatriotically wimpy. In either case, the opinion expressed tends to carry with it a sense of self-congratulation.

For 40 years or more, I have devoted some effort to the practice of Zen Buddhism and if there is one thing Zen Buddhism acknowledges, it is the recognition of the difficulties that arise with self-congratulation: Self-congratulation for being a Zen Buddhist, for example; self-congratulation for being a Democrat or a Republican; self-congratulation for supporting or decrying the wars in Afghanistan or Iraq; self-congratulation for having a particular job or marital status; self-congratulation for doing a good deed or sidestepping a bad one; self-congratulation according to the size of a bank account. The list can be pretty long. Each element can carry with it a sense of virtue: I am OK because I am right and I am right because others agree with me.

Before this argument spirals into airy-fairy realms of religiosity or philosophy, it needs to be said that the practical applications of what passes for virtue have their uses. Hitting someone else may have a quite satisfying quality, but as a means of leading a happy life, it doesn't work very well ... not least because others are likely to smack you in return. So trying to lead a life without punching others makes pretty good sense. Good sense is good sense ... until the virtue is added on.

A sense of virtue may inspire, but it can also hobble and debilitate. Which is which is a dicey matter and, more important, a personal one. Is a personal action enhanced by virtue or blinded by it? The answer I prefer is, "Your life. Your choice. Your responsibility."

How much friction and confusion might be eased if choices and actions taken were just that -- actions and choices? Virtue separates one thing from the next, makes things good-better-best. But is this an accurate portrayal? Does self-congratulation or the imposition of some "virtue" do much more than elevate the fiery rhetoric of a situation? Does is solve a problem or merely complicate it? Is it better not to lie, cheat, steal or kill because it is virtuous and the social wheels turn more smoothly or is it because it simply works better?

For anyone who takes such questions seriously, answers cannot be dictated or proven by the agreement of others. Those answers lie in the fall-down-seven-times-get-up-eight existence that most of us lead. Expecting others to find the same answers that I do is a fool's errand. The only answers that make much sense in the end do not lie in virtue or self-congratulation. They lie in a responsibility that is tested on a daily basis. Virtue and self-congratulation are beside the point.

Personally, I think anyone who seeks out such answers deserves congratulations.

But that's my problem.

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