Tuesday, July 10, 2012

the red flag of "virtue"

A friend sent along an article by Chris Hedges, a latter-day moral gadfly whose roof-top positions I generally agree with and simultaneously have less and less energy to read. The latest essay, for Truthout, is entitled "Turning a Blind Eye to Catastrophic Truths." Its thesis more or less is that there are people who speak and act so as to make the soft underbelly of comfortable conclusions apparent ... and society would do well to heed them. I agree with Hedges and I can't help remembering Albert Camus' approximate observation that "some people climb onto the cross in order to be seen from a greater distance."

Whatever my suspicious nature may whisper, still, when speaking of the people who speak out, I liked Hedges' short and sweet line, "They make us unsure of our virtue"

"Virtue" is an odd duck. An Internet dictionary defines the word as

-- a good quality or habit that a person has, especially a moral one such as honesty or loyalty
-- a quality that is useful in a particular activity 
-- a way of behaving in which you do what is morally right and avoid things that are morally wrong
-- an advantage or a good feature that something has that makes it better than something else
Virtue seems to be a good thing. But it also seems to rely on the agreement of others for its force: If you say it's virtue and I say it's virtue, then, perforce, it becomes that very good thing called virtue. And it is in this arena that the soft underbelly of virtue is exposed. When virtue becomes static, when it becomes something that does little more than produce a group hug, how realistic can it be?

I'm not so much interested in criticizing or downplaying the group hugs others may indulge in. What does interest me is the static group hug within -- the complacent acceptance of one virtue or another, one socially-active proclivity or another, one conclusion or another. To be sure of a virtue may be comforting and socially-warming, but how realistic can it be?

Generally, I think that doing the best anyone might to act in an attentive and responsible manner is a good thing. But the moment the word "virtue" raises its head, the moment a settled position comes calling ... well, I think "virtue" is a red flag, something that deserves investigation and then re-investigation and then re-investigation.

Anything that stands still is a fantasy. Shrinks may make a good living from those beset with fantasies, but who would want to pay a shrink if they didn't have to?

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