Morally speaking, the modern world is highly unsafe. Developing virtue is our best defense.
The world has never been remotely equal of course. Some always have it better than others, for reasons that are totally unreflective of personal merit. Reflecting on why this is so is a time-honored Western tradition, which for some (Boethius, for example) has inspired profound and moving works of literature. But it’s hard to benefit from these jewels of wisdom if you’re determined from the get-go to find a human culprit for every undeserved misfortune, or to see the state as the ultimate guarantor of universal fairness.
I understand why secularists have so much trouble with this. In their minds, the political order is all that we have. If justice cannot be found in the here and now, it simply doesn’t exist. Understandably then, political justice becomes a very expansive category.
We Christians know better, though we too sometimes like to forget. This is the primary point of David Mills’s recent essay, "Promiscuity Pays," which takes as its starting point a rather dissatisfying study showing that promiscuous men are at diminished risk of prostate cancer, in comparison to the chaste. Christians tend to disbelieve such studies, Mills suggests, because we want to believe that virtue pays off. But what if it doesn’t? People frequently pay for their virtues in this world. The unscrupulous get ahead, while the virtuous get cancer. Only in the next life will we taste true justice.
I acknowledge Mills’s point. And I think it’s well worth making, particularly in light of this pervasive secular confusion. The world is not fair, and we have but limited power to make it so. Evening the cosmic scales is impossible in this lifetime, and it’s often harmful to try.
This point, however, needs a counterbalance. Virtue may not always pay off this side of the grave, but sometimes it does. In fact, it frequently does. If I were a life coach, I would sell the virtuous life like a Stephen Covey book. In a way, that’s exactly what I do as an instructor of moral philosophy, and as a True Believer in the program, I can promote it with enthusiasm. Virtue is perfectly suited to promote human happiness. And, far from losing its luster, I think it may be more obviously rewarding in our day and age than at almost any previous time in history.
Why would I say such a thing? Well, it’s not because I believe America to be a perfect meritocracy. Far from it. Worldly success draws on a mixture of good, bad and ugly traits, seasoned with a reasonable share of good luck. Self-discipline and perseverance help, but workaholism is generally preferred to mere honest hard work, and too much integrity can be a deal-breaker. Fame and fortune are not reliably the product of virtue.
Who needs them, though? We can live quite wonderful lives nowadays without making it to the top. More than almost any other society before us, we non-elites have at our fingertips a whole cornucopia of opportunities, entertainments and experiences to sample and explore. For the undisciplined there are innumerable pitfalls. For the virtuous, there are a thousand ways to succeed.
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