Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Virtue is Not Morality

Since the title of this blog has the word "virtue" in it, I thought I should talk about what I mean when I talk about the idea of "virtue." Don't think of this as a discussion of how others have used it; it's more of a definition of terms for my own use.

My boyfriend - I'll call him Quasar - and I often use this word in casual discussions with each other. "I biked home today even though it was raining." "Oh, that's virtuous of you." "We could buy this bookshelf instead of building one, but that would be unvirtuous." "When I'm strong enough to bike up this ridiculously steep hill, then I will truly have virtue."

The way we use it, in practice, means some combination of:

  • enduring hardship
  • overcoming difficulty
  • becoming stronger or more skillful
  • doing things that pay off in the long-term but not the short-term
  • frugality
... and maybe a couple others that I'm missing.

Interestingly, though, I'm fairly sure we don't generally use this to mean something like:
  • doing things that improve the world
  • doing things that are morally correct
And oddly, I suspect we wouldn't usually think to use the word "virtue" to describe donating thousands of dollars to the Against Malaria Foundation, although that's one of the highest moral goods we generally take part in these days.

There's obviously a difference in these, in that enduring hardship isn't really a moral good in and of itself.  "Virtue" is, for us, not about morality. It's more of a personal aesthetic.

A tangent on meta-ethics: When it comes to what's actually morally correct, both Quasar and I think that some form of utilitarianism is probably the way to go. That is, you can trade off goods against each other, and when it comes to making decisions about what to do in the real world, the correct decision to take is generally the one that is based on "net" good in some way.

But what you think is correct is not the same as your preferred algorithm for trying to approximate that correct thing. The algorithm "try to decide what is the maximum net good in every possible situation and do that" is pretty hard for a human being to execute; it's a lot easier to have a general sense of something called "goodness" and try to remember which things have "goodness" associated with them and which don't.

Even beyond that, though, I don't even use "virtue" to mean "goodness." Virtue might include altruism, but only as a method of feeling like a better person oneself. It's a form of effective selfishness - I do it because I think it will make me feel happier and better overall, because being strong and able to endure hardship and do difficult things that pay off eventually... are things that I want.

(Morality has some relationship to what I think of as virtue, but for the most part, I try to optimize it separately. And in any case, I don't think I have much of particular original value to write about in that area - lots of other people have covered it well.)

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