Is Virtue Achievable?

Everett Bowes - virtue

Virtue is not something you achieve, like the popular notion of nirvana or zen. A person’s actions can be virtuous provided two requirements are met: 1. choice; and 2. the capacity to evaluate the virtue of the action. For simplicity sake, let’s equate evil with smoking. If you are brought up in an environment where everyone around you smokes cigarettes and you are told that smoking is the best possible means of health, and you are punished for not smoking, then it’s reasonable to say we would be more amazed by someone who came out of these origins and after years of battling addiction became a non-smoker than we would feel toward someone who never touched or encountered cigarettes except in passing and received instruction of the deleterious effects of cigarettes on one’s health. However, if you are brought up in an environment where people close to you smoke and punish you for not smoking, BUT you see ads against smoking, all of the top researchers proclaim that smoking causes cancer, your teachers sympathize with your plight and strangers tell you how awful it is to have to go through what you experienced, then we would not be quite as awed or inspired when you decided as an adult to quit smoking. The degree to which the rest of the world condemns evil is the degree to which virtue is expected. That doesn’t mean we value virtue any less, but it’s not something we focus our attention on. Conversely, the degree to which the world turns a blind eye to evil is the degree to which we can admire the courage it takes to overcome ungrounded falsehoods.

I think the struggle between good and evil is unlikely to ever disappear completely. But as humans we feel moved by progress and a steadfast commitment to improve what is possible. It feels like we are achieving something real but our lives are just long series of interconnected choices. The context of environment and prior choices is important, but it doesn’t define your virtue (or excuse the lack of it) in the moment.

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