Part I is here.
Part II is here.
Some Virtues and Vices
Even with all of our increased scientific knowledge and technology, doing a good job at living out the form of a human life is not easy for most of us: school is not easy, getting a good job is not easy, attracting the best mate you can is not easy, marriage is not easy, raising children is not easy. The virtues are the states of character that aid us in living well. What follows is a list of some of the virtues that aid us in doing so. This is not a complete list; it is just the ones I think are especially important or neglected today.
Excellences of the body:
The organs of the human body all possess etiological functions and the excellences of the human body are those features which allow the body to function properly; what we call health and fitness. Without a healthy body we are severely impaired in living a human life well. Plus, physical attractiveness is important in other relationships such as attracting the best possible mate, and keeping a mate satisfied with one’s appearance. So hit the gym.
We spend almost all of our lives as part of functional institutions such as the family, school, marriage, and our profession. Institutions possess etiological functions (I defend this claim here). What allows institutions to achieve their functions are its members performing their obligations or duties. The degree to which an individual can perform their duties excellently–how good they are as a student, worker, husband/wife, mother/father—goes a long way towards the ability to live a good human life.
I discuss the duties of marriage in more detail here but I wish to make one additional point. The existentialist view of authenticity as resistance to outside determinants over the will is toxic to marriage. We are pounded with the message that marriage is about respecting autonomy and individuality, and that any sacrifice in order to make your spouse happy is a violation of autonomy. Hogwash. Marriage ought to be about making each other happy, and we need to revive the notion that you have duties to your spouse. So actually put in effort at making your spouse happy and forget all the destructive nonsense.
As discussed in part II, the social virtues are a subset of virtues that aid us in producing good relationships with other people, such relationships being crucial in living a good human life. Social virtue results when the will resists the push of the appetites and emotions and instead favors the working of the social emotions in producing their characteristic selected effect. In this section I am going to illustrate how this works for some of the virtues.
The way to analyze a virtue is to ask what behavior an appetite or emotion is designed to produce, look at what negative effect this may have on other people, and ask what social emotion may motivate us to resist our appetites.
Function: to get the organism to procure food.
There is nothing wrong with letting hunger do its job in getting us to procure food. But excessive eating leads to obesity. Obesity may be immediately disadvantageous to an individual in producing poor health, but obesity also has negative social effects in that it is unattractive. When I am perfectly honest to myself about why it is I work to stay in shape, the answer is that I don’t want to be seen as repulsive and unattractive by others. I don’t want my wife, friends, and co-workers to see me and react to me in that way. (I also work out in order to stay healthy.) And it is the strength of this social emotion to avoid these negative social consequences that motivates me to resist cravings for unhealthy foods and to burn calories at the gym. It is not easy! I really do crave fattening foods, but my social emotions have the function to prevent behavior that would produce negative social consequences, and this gets me to resist the working of these cravings.
Appetite/emotion: sexual attraction.
Function: As with all the appetites, the appetite for sex is designed to get us to perform a certain behavior; in this case it is to get us to have sex with the object of our attraction.
It is probably best for society if sex if confined to marriage (an argument for another occasion), but as with hunger, I really don’t have a problem with someone allowing sexual desire to do its job of getting the organism to have (consensual) sex. But if the individual is in a committed relationship, fidelity demands suppressing sexual desire in favor of the social emotion of concern for the effects on one’s committed girlfriend/boyfriend, husband/wife, and children. In marriage one has taken on an institutional duty to one’s spouse to remain faithful, and the desire not to hurt one’s spouse or one’s children through divorce needs to get you to resist the impulses of sexual attraction. In a healthy society, fear of social ostracism provides an extra incentive not to violate one’s wedding vows.
Function: Anger is designed to get us to be violent towards the object of our anger.
The most obvious reason to resist giving in to anger is that violence will end you up in jail. But there is something more than this in modern society. The British, for instance, delight in “taking the piss,” intentionally trying to make someone angry and then mocking them if they do. I confess I don’t really get it, but since those who are good at resisting anger gain status, and those that become angry are marked out for increased mockery, there must be something else going on. Nisbett and Cohen (Missing the Revolution: Darwinism for Social Scientists, 1996) claim that resistance to anger demonstrates that you can be trusted in cooperative endeavors. And since cooperation with others is important in social society, fear of ostracism motivates one to resist anger. As with all other virtues, emotions like anger have been selected for their ability to benefit us, and so in certain situations it is perfectly acceptable to let your anger produce violence, as in self-defense of in defense of one’s people, friends, or family.
Function: We are actually designed to not expend energy unless it is necessary.
It is very difficult to resist the impulse to not expend energy unnecessarily. Perhaps in humanity’s long history as hunter-gatherers this impulse was very useful. But in order to live a good life in social society we are required to get up, go to work, do homework, hit the gym, work on that project, meet that client, do housework, mow the lawn, and so on.
Function: To keep us from being exploited by others
Pride can motivate us to neglect our obligations and damage our relationships. I’m a fan of old movies and what comes to mind, of all things, is this old movie called The Women (1939). In it, a man cheats on his wife. Her mother councils that she swallow her pride for the sake of the family. Instead she destroys her family out of pride. In the end though, she decides to forgive her husband and save her family. (Tellingly, in the horrible remake with Meg Ryan the lesson is to never forgive and to destroy your family in order to serve your ego). When pride would cause us to destroy our relationships with others, humility is called for. On the other hand, pride is fine to keep us from being repeatedly exploited by others. It is only where humility would benefit us and our families, and where pride would harm us or our children, where pride should be swallowed.
Appetite/emotion: desire for material goods
Function: to acquire resources
For the most part, people only become angry at another person’s greed if their desire for material resources is impinging on another’s ability to acquire resources. Letting your acquisitiveness harm others will produce a negative reaction from them. This can take many different forms from social exclusion, refusal to trade, or even violence.
Masculinity and femininity:
Masculinity and femininity are signs that you would make a good mate. It may well be that the historical environmental conditions that produced masculinity and femininity no longer exist in much of our modern technological society. But we are still designed by our long evolutionary history to find these traits attractive. So the social emotion that ought to motivate masculinity and femininity is the desire to be attractive to the opposite sex, in order to satisfy our desire for companionship in attracting a wife/husband, and then, once in a relationship, these traits will keep our spouse happy, and will hopefully motivate them to be attractive in kind.
I discuss the virtue of loyalty here.
Tactics Going Forward
This series has merely been the first word, not the last. I haven’t discussed many virtues such as Hume’s “qualities useful to ourselves”: intelligence, benevolence, discretion, frugality, honesty. I haven’t discussed envy, spite, resentment, or jealousy. I haven’t discussed the Christian virtues of faith, hope, and charity. I view these later virtues as socially beneficial as they prevent social problems.
In fully functioning virtue-based societies such as depicted in Pride and Prejudice, everyone has been educated in the virtues and seems aware of their vices (even if they continue to act on them) so there is no reason to belabor the point. But we do not live in such a society. Instead, our current public morality is the unapologetic dedication to acting on one’s appetites and the shaming of anyone who dares suggest we not do so. But tolerance and non-judgmentalism aren’t really doing anyone any good. To a great extent it is social pressure that produces the social emotions which motivate us to resist our appetites. All tolerance and non-judgmentalism do is give the appetites free reign to destroy the quality of our life and relationships with others.
In order to kill our current public morality and restore a virtue-bases ethics, I would suggest two courses of action. First, we will need to once again point out and criticize the vices of others. As I mentioned, in a healthy virtue based society, people are aware of their virtues and vices, and they are mostly left to them. But to get us to this point we need to be more critical. People need to once again be educated in the virtues, and until this is done people’s vices need to–gently, if possible, more harshly if not—be criticized. Notice when people are merely acting under the influence of their appetites and what effect it has. Call them out on it whenever possible. Rationalizing acting on our appetites is our national pastime. If someone is flaunting their vices do not hesitate to use a withering comment.
–You were hungry and you ate. Do you want a reward?
–You didn’t go to the gym because you’re a lazy bastard.
–Desiring another person’s stuff isn’t a grand political statement.
–Don’t be so beta.
–Know what would actually be impressive? If you were horny and didn’t have sex.
If you can get away with it, criticize someone’s vices. Be more judgmental. My male friends used to constantly jokingly criticize each others flaws as a way of keeping each other in line. But you should leave strangers and co-workers alone (except on the internet where you can openly criticize someone who is flaunting their vices.)
For women it seems more complicated. Women don’t “take the piss out of” (to use a British expression) each other the way men do (at least not to their faces). Traditionally, girls learned virtue from their mothers and through their religious moral education.
Secondly, do not let people receive the characteristic beneficial effect of virtue without displaying the virtue itself. On the account given in this series, virtue has a selected effect, so if someone is not producing that effect, don’t give them the benefits of acting virtuously. If someone in your military unit or police department is a coward, do not reinforce this vice by giving them the good opinion that is deserved of the brave. The military needs to punish cowardice, and squadmates should not let the coward enjoy the same reputation as a brave man. Do not act like someone who is obese is actually attractive (unless you are married to them 🙂 ). Do not forgive cheaters. Don’t flatter a women’s vanity. Do not continue to do business with an unjust man, and so on.
Most of all, work to inculcate the virtues in yourself. Remember, the virtues are designed to aid you in producing successful, rewarding, beneficial relationships with others. Pay attention to the effect you produce on others and learn to control it. Even though resisting our appetites and emotions may be momentarily unpleasant, the exercise of virtue is designed to ultimately produce a good human life.