Modern Substitutes for Virtue
THERE IS NOTHING WORSE from a pedagogical point of view than to begin a discourse with a ready definition unrelated to the reader's personal experience and thoughts. The place to begin a discussion of a subject is always its common understanding. Now, some may think that virtue is very hard to define, while others may think that they have a definition at hand. It does not matter. What matters is that everyone recognizes the difference between people who are really dependable and those who are not. For instance, there are people who are very gracious and kind, provided all is well with them, and they feel happy. But there are also people who are gracious and kind regardless of circumstances, and regardless of whether they are happy or not. It is these people I call virtuous, because the good disposition of those others is only conditional. Think of an honest man who is honest only as long as he is not exposed to great temptations. He will not steal fifty dollars from anybody, but if he had a chance to steal fifty thousand, without much risk of being caught, he might do it. Likewise, it is not so rare for people to be truthful as long as they are free from pressure. But put under pressure, many will break their word and tell lies. Such conditional behavior is not exactly what one would call virtuous, even though it is better than nothing and quite useful in social relations. In fact, relative honesty and truthfulness may well be all that can be expected from most people most of the time. But the virtue of justice is not like that, for a just man can be depended upon to abide by what is right regardless of circumstances. And that is also what virtue means in the common understanding, which is the first thing we need to begin our discussion.
These days, however, discussing virtue requires also that we be aware of certain important developments in the modern history of ethical ideas. Thus we must realize that a number of influential