Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Hierarchy of Virtues


I've been in Berlin for a week and a day now. Lots of thoughts about various topics. Instead of thinking about getting everything down and then deleting the post halfway through, I'm going to pick just one thread.


For a while in high school, when I was trying to codify a moral system for myself (and for a secret society of sorts in a secondary world fantasy), I had a phrase that ran through my head frequently. It was: "Self-control is the highest virtue."

In the middle of last quarter, I went through a rough patch with a friend, by which I mean all my other friends thought I hated this guy. Once, while discussing it with another mutual friend, I clarified--"I don't have a problem with his character; it's his conduct that I can't stand."

Here--people jaywalk a lot less. The trains run on time. The streets are much cleaner than in any big city I have ever seen, and the buses do not reek. People are polite, and helpful, and yet I have seen stickers "Gegen Islamisierung" on the U-Bahn.


There is, I believe, a hierarchy of virtues. I am in the middle of formulating my thoughts on it, and thus far have determined that it has at least two levels. The primary level is character/conscience (Gewissen); the secondary, conduct. Virtue, in both of these levels, deals with what is "right." But in the first, "right" means "just" and in the second, "right" means "correct."

The two are not entirely discrete, because of course, one's conduct is a means of demonstrating character. How people do things reflects what value system they bring to the world, and--for example--brushing off a friend who needs help is bad character and bad conduct (i.e. both unjust and incorrect). Telling someone what they're doing wrong in a condescending or aggressive way may be a case of--well, my terminology thus far would call it "incorrect justice," which doesn't parse very well. But that resembles how the criminal justice system operates: actions deemed wrong under a socially agreed-upon value system ("crimes") lead to treatment which would not be acceptable in ordinary life (and "punishment").

Under the first category we have big principles: justice, of course; liberte egalite fraternite und so weiter. Conscience. Respecting the rights of other humans. The second category is, to my mind, more socially arbitrary: manners, courtesy. Respect belongs here, too, though, and I think is the borderland--because respecting someone as a person doesn't mean much unless you demonstrate it. Whereas one can strive to promote equality and still be an unpleasant person to be around.

People often focus on the second kind of virtue, conduct, because I think it is more amenable to spot checking. If someone holds bigoted views as a pattern of thought, it probably comes through a little bit in almost everything they do, but perhaps in such a subtle way that it's hard to point to any specific thing that is "wrong." Whereas if someone goes crazy on weekends and causes a big mess all the time, it's more straightforward to specify what is "wrong." As an analogy--correcting grammar mistakes in a paper takes much less mental effort than reading the thing, sitting back, and commenting about structural weaknesses in how the argument is presented.

But problems that are easier to fix are not necessarily the most important. Because I value self-control very highly and have done so for several years, I will never use drugs or alcohol. But where is my engagement with important issues, where is my self-education on injustice and how to decrease it? Secondary virtues are, generally, negative--do not do this, do not do that. Refrain. Do not cross the street until the Ampelmannchen turns green. Do not push beyond someone's stated boundaries. Primary virtues are, generally, positive--protect people who need protecting, speak out when you see something that runs contrary to your conscience.

History is everywhere here. It is not difficult to think about the time of the Hitler regime and how secondary virtues--orderliness, economy, trains running on time--remained long past when the primary virtues of humanity and justice had been abandoned. The "banality of evil," the bureaucrat who does their job and does it well and does not question whether or not it is the right, the just job to do. There is a world of difference between being well-behaved and doing good, and achieving the former in no way guarantees the latter.

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