The Virtue of Virtue


The Virtue of Virtue

Virtue is a habit of the mind, consistent with nature and moderation and reason.

- Marcus Tullius Cicero

Virtue, perhaps, is nothing more than politeness of soul.

-  Honore de Balzac

Paolo Veronese: Allegory of Vice and Virtue / The Choice of Hercules completed in 1580
Original Painting held in Frick Collection , New York, NY Source:

Virtue is in the (enlightened) self-interest of the virtuous.

I am part of a complicated network of human interactions.  If I lie, cheat, and steal when dealing with you, you may do the same when dealing with me.

In a large society, my behaviour probably has little effect on the behaviour of those I see infrequently.  If my gain from cheating is small or my loss from being cheated is big, I probably won't cheat and will encourage others to follow suit.  If I decide to cheat, my decision to cheat will be because it would make me better off (unfortunately at your expense).

I can make a payoff even more likely by being hypocritical - preaching virtue as an attempt to get others to be virtuous while I quietly practice vice.

Many human interactions are voluntary.  My dishonesty may have a very small effect on the moral tone of, say, the Wellington area but have a large effect on how attractive I am as a potential employee, employer, spouse, business partner, or friend.  If my behaviour imposes either costs or benefits on those associating with me, other people will take that into account in deciding whether to interact.

Honest employees are more valuable for most jobs than dishonest ones, hence likely to make more money.  It would seem honesty pays - therefore, a lot of virtuous behaviour follows from rational self-interest (but not all).  Suppose I have an opportunity to cheat or steal, can receive a considerable benefit from doing so, and believe I'm unlikely to be caught.  Should each such situation be evaluated on its merits?

Many people decline an opportunity to steal even if confident they won't be caught, however, the sort of behaviour we usually describe as virtuous is, for many people, a result of acting in their individual interest, narrowly defined.  If they think they won't be caught, they cheat.  Yet it may still be in my interest to behave, even if no one is watching.  Why?  Because of the substantial connection between what goes on inside and outside of a person's head.

Facial expression, body position, and other signs give us some idea of another's thoughts and emotions.  We all have limited intellectual ability and cannot, in the time available to make decisions, consider all options.  We're machines of limited computing power operating in real time.  Suppose I wish people to believe that I have certain characteristics - that I am honest, kind, and helpful to my friends.  If I really DO have those characteristics, projecting them is easy: I merely do and say what seems natural, without paying much attention to how I appear to outside observers.  They observe my words, actions and facial expressions and draw reasonably accurate conclusions.  Suppose, though, that I do not have those characteristics: I am not honest.  I usually act honestly because it's usually in my best interest, but I am always willing to make an exception if I can gain by doing so.  I must now, in many actual decisions, do a double calculation.

bulletFirst, I must decide how to act - whether, for example, this is a good opportunity to steal and not be caught.
bulletSecond, I must decide how I would be thinking and acting, what expressions would be going across my face, whether I would be feeling happy or sad, if I really were the person I am pretending to be.  If you require a computer to do twice as many calculations, it slows down.  So does a human.  Most of us are not good liars over time.

If this argument is correct, it implies I may be better off in narrowly material terms - have, for instance, a higher income - if I am really honest, kind, et cetera than if I'm only pretending to be because real virtues are more convincing than pretend ones.  It follows that if I'm a narrowly selfish individual, I might, for purely selfish reasons, want to make myself a better person - more virtuous in those ways that others value.  Observe that we can be made better - by our own selves, by our parents, perhaps even by our genes.  People can and do try to train themselves into good habits - including automatically telling the truth, not stealing, and being kind and just to friends.  With enough training, such habits become tastes - doing "bad" things makes one uncomfortable, even if no one sees, so one does not do them.  After a while, one no longer must decide not to do them.

This synthesis is easier when we're young.  Parents who want their children to be happy and who believe, for purely practical reasons, that honesty is the best policy, may choose to train their offspring to be honest.

Some virtues (such as tidiness) are behaviour patterns hardwired into us by our genes.  If honesty pays, people genetically inclined to be honest would be more likely to survive and reproduce, and thus genes for honesty would increase.

Why do people show their thoughts and feelings on their faces?  No doubt a human being could be designed with no facial expressions at all - but who would do business with him?  Who would marry him?  Just as honesty is valuable in our associates, so is being a bad liar.

Virtuous people do not steal even when they are sure that nobody is watching.  Why isn't everyone virtuous?  Many people are, but not all.  Consider the situation from the standpoint of potential friends, employers, and/or spouses.  It is in my interest to be honest only because they are watching - not merely watching my individual acts to see if I act honestly, but watching my face, listening to my voice, observing in 1,000 ways whether I am actually honest, whether I am the sort of person who would act honestly even if nobody was watching.  All that watching is costly.  It consumes some of the time and attention that they might otherwise spend on other things.  In a society where everyone is honest, this becomes unnecessary.  So in a society where everyone is honest, nobody bothers to watch.  This makes dishonesty extremely profitable.  The optimum is a mixed solution.

Some people are dishonest, suffer the costs of being (sometimes) recognised as such, and receive the benefits of sometimes succeeding in their dishonesty.  Because some people are dishonest, most people spend time and effort monitoring those they deal with, trying to determine both whether they are acting honestly and whether they are honest people.  Because of that, many find it in their interest to be honest.

The outcome is an equilibrium in which just enough people (selected from those best qualified - the most skilful liars) are dishonest, producing just enough monitoring to make it in the interest of everyone else to be honest.  Extend this argument to all patterns of behaviour valuable, yet costly, to us and our associates and you have a plausible explanation of the world we see around us.

Similar analysis can explain apparently irrational vices and virtues.  Consider, for example, an aggressive personality - someone who picks a fight with anyone who does not treat him with adequate respect and deference.  In the short run this seems like a losing strategy, since the stakes are rarely worth the cost of a fight.  In the long run, however, results may actually be attractive.  The aggressive personality is someone who has trained himself to behave in a certain way and that fact can be observed by others.  Since, in most cases, the things at stake are not worth a fight, the other people usually back down and the bully gets his way without having to fight for it, which makes his strategy a profitable one.

Why are we not all bullies?  For much the same reason that we are not all virtuous.  The more bullies there are, the more often one bully encounters another.  Since they both follow the same strategy, one must fight the other.  As the number of bullies increases, being a bully becomes less attractive, until a point is reached where the gain of usually getting your way is just balanced by the cost of sometimes having to fight for it.  In sociobiology, this is called a hawk/dove equilibrium, named after the hawks and doves one finds in politics.

Consider any personal characteristic, such as honesty, which benefits those around me at some cost to myself.  Such a characteristic makes me more valuable as an associate.  If others can observe it and if it is easier to appear honest if you are honest, then honest people will be more attractive in any association with someone else who benefits by their honesty.  Dishonest people will find that they can get jobs only if they're willing to accept a lower salary than honest employees and can hire workers only if they're willing to offer higher salaries than honest employers.  An individual initially motivated entirely by narrow self-interest will find it in his interest to train himself into honesty, to synthesize a conscience.  The size of this incentive to virtue depends on how large a fraction of our interactions are voluntary.

Consider two societies: in one, most associations are voluntary with a choice of jobs, employees, and spouses; in the other, most associations are chosen for us.  The former might be a competitive, free-market society, the latter a centrally planned socialist society where workers are allocated to jobs, or a historically traditional society, where most people are born into a particular role and have very limited alternatives.

In the market society, since most people who associate with me do so voluntarily and only if they think they benefit by the association, there are sizeable costs to being dishonest and sizeable benefits to being honest.  In the other sort of society, these costs and benefits are much lower.  If you are a worker in a centrally planned society, your job is determined and your salary set by someone far away, someone who doesn't know you and won't have to associate with you.  The dishonest employee has the same opportunities as the honest one - and the additional opportunity to steal things when nobody is looking.

The same argument applies to vices.  In the example of someone with an aggressive personality, a strategy of beating up people who do not do what he wants, committing oneself to that strategy may be profitable.  Though beating up on people is costly, people will often back down, giving way without incurring the costs of a fight.  One disadvantage to bullying is that in a voluntary society people stay out of your way.  They avoid problems by refusing to associate with you.  Bullies aren't attractive as employees, employers or spouses.  This strategy likely has a low payoff in a market society.  It still has some advantages, since not all associations are voluntarily chosen (for example, most of us have limited control over who our neighbours are).  But the payoff will be much lower than in a society where we are assigned or born into most of our relationships.

The implication is that a market society will have nicer people than either a traditional or a centrally planned society (assuming you hang out in the right crowd).  Virtues will have a higher payoff, so more people will choose to become virtuous.  Vices will have a lower payoff, so fewer will choose to become vicious.  The result is precisely the opposite of the claim - that such a society promotes a blind, narrow selfishness - often made by opponents of capitalism.

One important change in American society over the past 50 years has been the increasing frequency of laws designed to reduce discrimination that require individuals, if challenged, to justify decisions such as hiring one job applicant instead of another, or renting an apartment to one of several potential tenants.  Such laws may make discrimination more difficult, but they also make it harder to discriminate among individuals on reasonable but highly subjective grounds.  An answer such as "I hired Smith because he seemed like a much nicer man than Joe" may be true, but may not convince a court or a Fair Employment Practices Commission.  One cost of such laws is to lower the payoff to the strategy called virtue, thus reducing the number of people choosing to follow that strategy.

Most of the foregoing was filched from Milton Friedman's son, David.  Most of the following is from the book Passions Within Reason: the Strategic Role of the Emotions by Robert H Frank (professor of economics at Cornell University):

Whether people honour their agreements when they expect to interact repeatedly with us is obviously important.  But in much of life, we are concerned with how people behave either in fleeting encounters or in ones where their behaviour simply can't be observed.  These cases, after all, are the ones that seriously test a person's character.  In them, an honest action will be one that, by definition, required a personal sacrifice.  The tip left in a restaurant in a distant city is a clear example.  When a traveller [in the US] breaks the implicit promise to tip he will save some money and his disgruntled waiter will have no opportunity to retaliate.

If character traits like honesty are observable in a person, an honest person will benefit by being able to solve important commitment problems.  He will be trustworthy in situations where the purely self-interested person would not, and will therefore be much sought after as a partner in situations that require trust.

Character influences behaviour, of course.  But behaviour also influences character.  Despite our obvious capacities for self-deception and rationalisation, few people can maintain a predisposition to behave honestly while at the same time frequently engaging in transparently opportunistically behaviour.

The opportunist's goal is to appear honest while availing himself of every prudent opportunity for personal gain.  He wants to seem like a good guy to the people who count, but at the same time to refrain from tipping in distant cities.  If character traits are discernible, however, this may not be possible.  In order to appear honest, it may be necessary, or at least very helpful, to be honest.  The motive is not to avoid the possibility of being caught, but to maintain and strengthen the predisposition to behave honestly.  My failure to tip in the distant city will make it difficult to sustain the emotions that motivate me to behave honestly on other occasions.  It is this change in my emotional makeup, not my failure to tip itself, that other people may apprehend.

The best insurance against a change in future material incentives is a strong bond of affection or respect.  If 10 years from now one partner falls victim to a lasting illness, the other's material incentive will be to find a new partner.  But a deep bond of affection will render this change in incentives irrelevant, which opens the door for current investment in a relationship, which might otherwise be too risky.  But a sense of justice and the capacity for affection will not yield material payoffs unless they can be somehow communicated clearly to others.

Economies of scale are a powerful reason to avoid isolation.  To take advantage of them, we must engage in social interaction.  The more closely we interact, the more opportunities for predation arises - and the more value we place in virtue.

See also:

bulletI Wish There Were More to Say - What is considered to be "right" varies most significantly as the future date used for a cutoff varies.  The horizon date determines the "true" cost.  The shorter the horizon, the more the individual tends to value what benefits himself, personally.  The further away the valuation date, the more the individual tends to value what benefits his family, tribe, the Earth, or [his interpretation of] Eternity...
bulletThe Principle Idea (further on in this section) - After drinking two bottles of wine, port and cognac, the couple snuggled under a blanket as the lights were dimmed for the midnight in-flight movie.  But they soon lost their inhibitions, the blanket and most of their clothes.  "Nothing and no one, short of a bucket of cold water, could have stopped them.  They were determined to continue till their passions were spent - and they did," an airline source said...
bulletHonour Your Self - ...she ignored those who didn't share her view.  They were simply wrong.  But after taking three required ethics courses, Lee has changed her mind.  Not about abortion: about the people who oppose it.  "The classes really make you think about other viewpoints," the 19-year-old from Cleveland said.  "I have a lot more compassion for the other side..."
bulletWhy Be a Good Person? - I am reminded of the cartoon depicting an older married man marooned on a deserted island with a younger woman.  He asks her to have sex, arguing, "no one would ever know."  The woman responds, "I would know."  The "I would know" test of good character is a useful one...

The Failure in Forgetting

by Peter Savodnik

Review of The Ethics of Memory by Avishai Margalit, Harvard University Press, 224 pages, $24.95

Avishai Margalit’s The Ethics of Memory opens with a story about a certain colonel in the Israeli army.  As Margalit tells it, the colonel was consumed by public outrage after he admitted — not to killing unarmed Palestinians, torturing would-be terrorists, or leading his men recklessly into battle — but to forgetting the name of a soldier killed under his command.  “I was struck,” Margalit says, “by the moral wrath heaped on this officer simply for not remembering something, and it led me to think about the officer’s obligation to remember — and if indeed he has an obligation.”

Do people have a moral responsibility to remember certain things?  This is the question that lies at the heart of The Ethics of Memory.  It is a question, Margalit suggests, that can and should influence individual lives as well as collective decision-making about what kind of society we want to live in and how that society ought to interact with societies around the globe.  To his credit, Margalit, a Hebrew University philosopher whose interests range from politics to language to religion, has stuck to philosophizing here, avoiding political and historical commentary.  In fact, he makes a point early on of distinguishing between the ethics of memory and a psychology, politics, or theology of memory.  This is an accomplishment all by itself; too many professors and public intellectuals nowadays roam recklessly into fields and specialties about which they know little.

Still, there’s something unhappily prescient about The Ethics of Memory - prescient because the flashpoint of history seems to have relocated — for the first time, or so it seems — to the New World.  If the Battle of the Marne, Stalingrad, Normandy, Hiroshima, Potsdam, Berlin, and Red Square are where the great unfolding of war and ideology took place in the 20th century, the destruction of the World Trade Center can be fairly dubbed the first global event of the 21st.  Suddenly the eye of the hurricane, the volcanic convergence of geopolitical forces and cultural migrations, has touched down in America.  Suddenly we seem to have been yanked out of the virtual ether, protected by oceans and icbms, and transplanted into the ugly concreteness of things.  Now Americans no longer simply chant, automaton-style, “The best is yet to come.”  Now we look back — for the time being, at least — to September 11.  All of which means that how we encounter history, and how we reconstruct that history out of our individual and communal memories, will be crucially important in a way that has not always been the case.  Not only will this remembering define our past and present; it will also frame our future.

Like most philosophy, The Ethics of Memory involves a series of distinctions: knowing versus believing, mood versus emotion, sincerity versus authenticity, forgiving versus forgetting, and so on.  The most fundamental distinction is that between ethics and morality.  Margalit notes that he’s not the first philosopher to differentiate between the two, but his understanding offers a fresh perspective.  Ethics, as he sees it, refers to relations between people who know each other; he calls these connections “thick relations.”  Morality refers to relations between people and strangers, or universal “man”; these connections are labeled “thin relations.”  Importantly, both ethics and morality refer to interactions.  A person’s behaviour is evaluated in the context of relations with others.  Even someone who is all alone — say, a shipwreck survivor on a deserted island — can be viewed through an ethical lens by extending "the notion of thick relations to include one’s very thick relation to one’s own self, which involves a concern with leading a good life."

Underscoring the difference between ethics and morality, Margalit points out that it’s entirely possible to lead a moral life but not an ethical one — by which he doesn’t mean so much an “unethical life” as a solitary existence largely devoid of ethical, or close, relations.  "Being moral is a required good; being ethical is, in principle, an optional good," he writes.  More troubling is his suggestion, only vaguely hinted at, that it’s possible to lead an immoral life as well as an ethical one.  Consider the Nazi stormtrooper who spends all day killing Jews but makes sure he’s home in time to tuck in his children and read them a bedtime story.  No doubt, the stormtrooper is a moral failure, but that failure vis-à-vis mankind does not automatically make him a bad father.  True, at a certain point his interactions with the rest of the world become relevant to his interactions with his children, insofar as those interactions with the rest of the world are instructive.  Clearly, the stormtrooper is not being a good father (that is, acting ethically) if he teaches his children that it is permissible to kill innocent people (that is, to act immorally).  But in the more immediate, or narrowly construed, context of a single day — killing Jews in the morning and afternoon, reading a bedtime story to his children in the evening — the stormtrooper’s immorality does not obviously detract from his ethical behaviour.

But there’s something else, beyond application or context, that separates ethics and morality — namely, caring.  Caring, says Margalit, "is the attitude at the heart of our thick relations."  In fact, the reason we need morality — the reason we need some code or principle that tells us how to treat people in general — is that we don’t care about people in general: we only care about those we know.  What is key to Margalit’s argument is that caring is also intimately connected with memory.  To say that one cares about someone is also to say that one remembers that person.  It would be impossible, Margalit contends, to say that one cares about and forgets someone at the same time.  The Israeli colonel who admitted he couldn’t remember the soldier’s name was indirectly, and unwittingly, admitting that, at that moment, he didn’t care about the soldier.  He may have cared about the soldier at an earlier time, but not now.  Because the public expects comrades in arms to care about each other, the colonel’s forgetfulness offended people’s ethics.

What all this means is that memory, for the most part, can be understood only in ethical, not moral, terms.  To put it more squarely, the caring of thick relations offers a link between ethics and memory, while the lack of caring of thin relations indicates that there can be no analogous connection between morality and memory.  This doesn’t mean morality has nothing to say about memory.  Margalit argues, for instance, that people have a moral obligation to remember "gross crimes against humanity."  It would be wrong if we stopped thinking about the gas chambers or the gulag.  Why?  Because we have an obligation to prevent future genocides from taking place and remembering past genocides is a good way to do that.  Thus, not remembering is to enable, or to contribute to the enabling of, death and destruction.  Still, memory remains largely within the realm of ethics, and most of the problems, considerations, and questions that stem from memory — remembering, forgetting, reconstructing, reliving — take place within the "ethical community."

Curiously, Margalit is a tad vague when it comes to the ethical community.  The ethical community, he explains, is a group of people who share thick relations with each other.  It is the framework within which we measure the ethical quality of our remembering — or forgetting, as the case may be.  But there’s a lot of gray area here.  What constitutes "thickness" in a relation?  What does it mean "to know" someone?  How many levels or hues of thickness can an ethical community make room for before that community loses its cohesiveness?  And what about the ethical community’s geographic or temporal borders?  In the 1990s, Serbs in the Balkans and Hutus in Rwanda made it clear that they identified more closely with their ancestors than they did with their neighbours, which explains why many found it easier to murder and wage war in the name of distant causes or tribal unity than to make peace with living, breathing human beings.  What "ethical community" — if that’s the right term for it — were these people inhabiting?  Christians and Jews, Immanuel Kant and David Hume, all disagree about what comprises and who inhabits the ethical community.  Margalit, for his part, posits that ethical communities range from single individuals to entire nations; while we may not know precisely where ethical communities end, we do know that they do not extend to the whole of humanity.  At a certain ill-defined elevation, ethical jurisdiction melds into moral jurisdiction.  This is all very helpful, illuminating, and insightful.  But, in the end, some of these unanswered questions may leave the reader just a bit unsatisfied.

That said, there’s no doubt The Ethics of Memory marks an important contribution.  By homing in on the question of whether people have a moral responsibility to remember certain things, Margalit has not only fleshed out a whole cache of considerations about the ethics of memory; he has also raised "sub-inquiries" about the philosophical nature, meaning, and implications of emotion, trauma, humiliation, poetry, history, faith, forgiveness, and privacy.  His chapter on the moral witness, in particular, very thoughtfully frames the question, "Who should be charged with remembering for everyone else?"  Closely related to this is, "What kind of person should this 'rememberer' — or moral witness — be?"  And must the moral witness be moral?  "A paradigmatic case of a moral witness should be someone whose morality is not in question," Margalit writes.  "But a moral witness may still be one who compromises his morality for the sake of surviving, especially if the aim is to survive as a witness."  In other words, they can't all be Primo Levi.  Sometimes Josephus Flavius, who betrayed his own people to the Romans but lived to tell the tale, will have to do.

There’s just one serious hurdle here.  Margalit clearly intends to speak to a broader lay audience: he has assiduously avoided technical language and, more to the point, he has raised a number of questions that most, if not all, thoughtful people at one point or another are prone to ask.  What is the "good life"?  What is truth?  Why am I here? — questions that more formal analytic philosophers are often (and unjustly) accused of ignoring.  The only problem — a problem he acknowledges — is that it’s unclear whether thoughtful people living in a democracy pay all that much attention to remembering.  Certainly, democratic life is relatively free of the ancient mythologies that pervade traditionalist-authoritarian society.  "A democratic regime, so it seems to me, anchors its legitimacy not in the remote past but in the current election," he writes.  "It would seem, therefore, that liberal democracies are exempt from an orientation to the past and rest their power on their vision of the future.  Dwelling on the past in a democracy is as irrational as crying over spilt milk."

It may be the case that we ought to be paying attention to the past — it may be that the specter of history haunts lower Manhattan — but that doesn’t mean readers are predisposed to thinking about it.  Why should they be?  The centerpiece of democracy is the individual.  Significantly, the individual’s individuality is reflected in his separateness — from the collective, from other individuals, and, naturally, from the past.  Undoubtedly, one of the great accomplishments of democracy has been to divorce people, with varying degrees of success, from the shackles of a history over which they retain little, if any, power — that is, to transform them from members of historical-cultural groups into free agents with inalienable rights.  "Enlightened" readers, intuiting the inherent backwardness of squeezing those free agents into an historical box, might understandably shy away — unconsciously, unwittingly — from even thinking in terms of memory.  Margalit, to be fair, seems aware of this much: he tries to make the case, briefly, that "backward-looking emotions and attitudes" can and should play an important role in democratic life.  But simply stating it isn’t adequate.  A little more explanation would have made this very intelligent, very engaging book a little more accessible.

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Source: April 2003

For more on remembering and forgetting, see the page Can I Get a Witness? (in the Science section) for articles on the reliability of witnesses, how memories are formed, altered and removed, and the influence of sleep and alcohol on memory formation.

For articles on poverty, social markets, superfluous children, isolation, modern mating difficulties, status, boasting, gender differences, patriarchy, capitalists, civility, groups, racism, virtue, ethics, art, music, religion and crewing click the "Up" button below to take you to the Index page for this Social/Cultural section.

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