Morally speaking, the modern world is highly unsafe. Developing virtue is our best defense.
Although you could perhaps be forgiven for thinking otherwise, bad things do still happen to good people. Secularists have a hard time with this basic truth; they seem not to believe it, or at any rate, they reflexively interpret cosmic inequity as political injustice. Some people are born into circumstances that afford them more opportunities than others. Unacceptable! This must be fixed! There are people out there with possibly-treatable medical conditions, who don’t get the best possible care because they’re too poor. Injustice! Even hurt feelings (like, for example, those suffered by transgendered people who are asked to use the anatomically appropriate restroom) are frequently cited by secularists today as grounds for legislative redress.
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.
Consider a fairly normal day in the Lu household. Like countless mothers throughout history, I wake up in the morning and head for the kitchen to make breakfast for my kids. Unlike most, though, I can pause for just a moment by the doorway, and fill the kitchen with the sweet sounds of Mozart, Vivaldi, Beethoven or Brahms as I work. After breakfast, an extra hour with my food processor and crock pot has dinner in the works. Now I can decide where to take the children for our outing.
The options are rich. We could go to the art museum and bask in authentic masterpieces of history’s most gifted artists. We could go to the zoo or aquarium and marvel at exotic animals from across the world. We could go to our local historical landmark, Fort Snelling, and interact with soldiers, blacksmiths, traders and apothecaries, all dressed in authentic 19th- century garb and prepared to tell us about their historical trade. Or, if that doesn’t appeal, the Children’s Museum always offers an array of exciting hands-on activities, crafts and educational exhibits. For a few hundred dollars a year, I can purchase memberships to all of these places and enjoy them at our leisure.
On the way home, we can stop by Trader Joe’s for a snack, choosing from an exotic array of fruits and cheeses and other delicacies imported from all over the world. Then home for a nap and to enjoy our ready-and-waiting hot meal. After dinner, I can select from my Kindle library virtually any literary classic to peruse in my comfortable reading chair, as I sip a delicious cup of spiced tea (imported from the Far East, naturally). And once again I marvel that, in the world as we now know it, this can be a fairly normal day, in the life of a fairly normal person.
I don’t think I’m too naïve about the modern world. I know that it can be lonely and dehumanizing. I know as well that the world is full of temptation and vice and false promises. Also, my life is a little heavier on drudgery than the above would suggest. I can afford exotic teas and museum memberships, but not servants. The time I spend perusing classic literature is unfortunately dwarfed by the time I spend sweeping, scrubbing and wiping sticky hands. For ordinary folk, life will always involve a fair amount of plain, uninspiring work, no matter what tricks and toys technology manages to offer us.
Nevertheless, I don’t think we should forget that our materialistic world really does yield some wonderful gifts. What it doesn’t supply is direction as to how to enjoy these goods appropriately and moderately. We are free to eat and drink and drug ourselves literally to death, and the elevated and ennobling pleasures must be carefully selected from a veritable torrent of garbage. Snacks designed to destroy our palates and clog our arteries. Entertainment geared to stoke our appetites for violence and lust. Morally speaking, the modern world is highly unsafe.
This is where virtue comes into the picture. It develops our minds and shapes our sensibilities such that we can discern the good from the bad. The virtuous person can enjoy his meat and good wine without destroying his heart or liver. He can savor the honest pleasures of a good book or a spring morning while still keeping sight of the serious obligations of family and faith. For him, modern life is full of opportunities for elevated enjoyment, while the temptations can be allowed to pass.
Virtue is no guarantee of a good life. Disaster can derail any one of us more or less at anytime. It can be hard to find true companionship in a lonely, dissipated world. And, even if virtue is still possible in modern life, our circumstances are such as to make it difficult to transmit. We have to prepare our children to live in the world as it is. Realistically, that probably makes it unfeasible to shelter them from worldly temptation until virtuous patterns are fully set.
Still, let’s not write off virtue just yet. Even today, or perhaps especially today, smart money is on virtue as the best-odds path, not only to a righteous life, but also to a happy one.
Rachel Luteaches philosophy at the University of St. Thomas and writes for Crisis Magazine and The Federalist. Follow her on Twitter at @rclu.