Virtue is commonly characterized by the standard boring dictionaries as goodness, righteousness, and upstanding moral creed. In a poststructuralist world, however, we know the definitions of what is “good” and what is “right” can vary widely. It is like saying a mirror is the same thing for every person that stands in front of it: it is and, as a result of its nature, it isn’t. Or, as Heraclitus’s oft-repeated maxim goes, “You could not step twice into the same river.” Both you have changed and the river has changed. Virtue is different for everyone.
So what is virtue? My goodness. That’s a box thinkers with more neural connections than this writer have been trying to unpack forever. It’s so easy for us to melodramatically talk about good and evil, but even the fiction that we ingest that follows those tropes never seems as satisfying as stories that wade into moral gray areas. Everyone thinks they’re the good guy; everyone thinks they’re right. So in this post I’m just going sidestep the irreconcilable conversation about the subjectivity of morality to make the point I want to make: maybe we can’t have a universal morality, but we should, at least, have an ongoing conversation about virtue.
It’s so easy to throw around words like honesty and trust and respect and integrity that they can lose all meaning after a while. Brings to mind the phenomenon of saying a word over and over until it just feels like putty in your mouth: kitchen. Kitchen. Kitchen. Kitchen kitchen kitchen kitchen kitchen. Except that a kitchen is a real thing and values are intangible guides about how to live. Values like honor or leadership or service or generosity are more difficult to pin down. They don’t have refrigerators or ovens, so their interpretations are much more subjective, or at least more open to political manipulation. Leadership and honor and integrity are going to look much different from the perspectives of a banker, a fundamentalist, a gang leader, a senator, a teacher, a comic book scholar, a mother. Because values are abstract nouns, there are countless ways to interpret them and apply them, leaving them nearly devoid of meaning when, tragically, they should be infused with meaning—no, overflowing with meaning—in order to help guide people toward right action and good living.
A few years ago there were advertisements on public transportation for a nonprofit named The Foundation for A Better Life. Their mission, from their website, “is to offer inspirational messages to people everywhere as a contribution toward promoting good values, good role models and a better life.” Maybe there are other organizations like this out there, but this is the only one I’ve seen, and they’ve got a good marketing angle, with a URL of www.Values.com and a catchy slogan: Pass it on. Check out their list of values here: http://www.values.com/teaching-values. Most of their values have their own website. How cool is that? Here’s one of their commercials.
So sometimes we compromise our values depending on the situation. Unfortunate that they are so malleable. Some people prop up values in front of them like cardboard cutouts of soldiers and then go do whatever they want behind the curtain. We can hear words like charity and industry and appreciation and be swayed by them not knowing that they had no weight to the speaker. Too often, values are tools of political and financial manipulation. This denigration poisons the language we need in order to be the best versions of ourselves.
And in that vain, a task of the self-developing individual is to identify which values are most important to him or her. Faith and honesty? Service and loyalty? Friendship and empathy and self-improvement? For a good blueprint of how to do this, look no further than the idol of intellect himself.
Virtue, as the purest ideal, is not an end that is attainable. Perhaps the Buddha, Camus, and Shakespeare would have agreed. But I think they would all like thinking of virtue as not an end, but a road you travel on your journey. Values are the road signs. Praise be to those who stay true to the path.