What is Virtue?


Professor Newhall teaches philosophy at Port­land State College in Oregon. This article first appeared in MANAS magazine, March 4, 1959.

As man-made satellites move around the Earth and head off toward the Moon, and as our na­tion proceeds with its efforts to produce more and better scien­tists, we may do well to remind ourselves once again that the need for good men as well as good scientists continues, and that this, too, is a basic objective of our educational system and our na­tional life. If we are to produce good men, we should be as clear as possible about what constitutes this goodness. What is good char­acter? Socrates, living in a situa­tion not entirely unlike our own, used to wander around Athens asking this question. He phrased it, "What is virtue?" It was not a very popular question then—Soc­rates was executed for his persis­tence, and it is not a very popular question now—we would prefer to leave it to someone else. Never­theless, Socrates may have been right in thinking that it was a question of central importance, and perhaps we are justified at present in making a stab at it. We can hardly be intelligent and effective in our efforts to produce good people if we do not under­stand the nature of our objective. This essay makes six assertions about virtue and proposes that awareness of these aspects of vir­tue is of considerable importance to us as we attempt to diagnose the nature and extent of our con­temporary sickness.

1. Virtue involves asking the right question. The right question is, "What ought I to do?" This question is not asked to lead to a discussion of moral theory; it is asked with a view to determining action. It is to be answered by the selection of an act, not by the for­mulation of a standard. This ques­tion represents the adoption of the moral point of view, without which a person may be rich or popular or influential or respect­able—but not virtuous. Virtue thus requires from the beginning a moral orientation that will ex­hibit itself in the response a per­son makes to each situation that confronts him. If this orientation is built into human nature, so much the better; if it is not, then we must commit ourselves to it. And this may not be entirely easy. People are persecuted as much for the questions they ask as for the answers they offer. We have learned that one does not get the right sort of answer unless he asks the right sort of question; but it is probably wrong questions rather than wrong answers which lead us astray.

We need not quibble over words. The question might be phrased, "What is the best thing for me to do?" or "Where is the good in this situation?" rather than in the Kantian language of obligation which is used here. The important point is that the question insti­tutes a search for the valuable, the worth-while, the better, in a spe­cific situation. It represents a normative orientation on the part of the person who asks it. Without this orientation, virtue is already forfeit because the individual has failed, either willfully or other­wise, to take the stance of a moral agent. He is not aimed in the di­rection of virtue.

There are other questions that come to dominate our lives. For example, "What will be the easiest way out of this mess?" or "What is the way to have the most fun?" or "What is the way to secure power?" or "What is the way to make the most money out of this state of affairs?" Each of these questions defines a point of view, and there are occasions when they are appropriate leads to follow; but pursuing any one of them makes no contribution to virtue unless the person who asks it has already asked whether or not he ought to discover the easiest, the gayest, the Machiavellian, or the financially shrewd way through and out of a situation. The virtu­ous man is morally oriented. This means that his interest in these other questions is subordinate to his concern to discover what he ought to do. His moral orientation does not arbitrarily exclude them; rather, it places them in perspec­tive. We might say that his moral orientation provides him with the perspective for pursuing these other questions when they ought to be pursued. They may be rele­vant, but they are not ultimate.

This seems to make it clear that the moral question is not the only question. There are other questions a person must ask. It would be silly to go through life with a single question. But it is not silly to select a single question in order to define the point of view from which the others shall be approached. One is reminded of Aristotle’s doctrine that the man of moral virtue must act and feel in the right way, at the right time, with the right motive toward the right people, and to the right ex­tent. (Nichomachean Ethics.) Thus, says Aristotle, "It is no easy task to be good . . . wherefore goodness is both rare and laudable and noble."

Clearly, it is not enough merely to ask the right question.

2. Virtue involves reaching a responsive answer. The great So­cratic affirmation was that virtue is knowledge, and we agree with this to the extent of insisting upon the presence of a cognitive factor in virtue. The virtuous man must know what he is doing. But we are not saying, as Socrates was, that knowledge is sufficient for virtue; we are saying that it is essential but not by itself sufficient. And we are proceeding with modern epistemological caution in using the term "responsible answer" rather than the trouble-strewn term "knowledge." Nevertheless, the responsible answer we seek is far from arbitrary. It will not be infallible or absolute, but it will represent moral insight into the moral requirements of a given situation. It is not any old knowl­edge that constitutes virtue in the Socratic sense; neither is it any old opinion that constitutes moral insight in our sense.

As Kant has pointed out (Cri­tique of Practical Reason), the vir­tuous man does not have to be able to justify his insight in terms of a well-developed ethical theory—that is the task of philosophers—but he must possess the insight nonetheless and he must be able to make a responsible choice of act in a given situation. We will per­haps be gentle in imposing blame upon a person who is incapable of moral insight, but a person does not have to be blameworthy in order to fail in virtue. A blunderer is a blunderer, and, though he may be dealt with kindly until you are convinced that he should have achieved some knowledge of his own limitations, he lacks an essen­tial ingredient of virtue—you do not trust him.

Our present concern does not require us to analyze this failure of moral insight. It may be due to failure to observe facts, failure to draw correct inferences, or some uniquely moral failure. This does not matter. Our point is that some people persistently fail to come up with a responsible answer to the question, "What ought I to do?" They are unable to discern what is relevant.

At this point it is important to distinguish clearly between the virtuous man and the ethical theorist, lest we appear to be trans­forming the former into the lat­ter. In a sense, their point of de­parture is the same: both respond to the normative orientation. The virtuous man, however, proceeds to answer the question in practical terms: "This is what I ought to do!" The ethical theorist proceeds to render explicit the meaning of the terms of the question and to articulate and criticize various standards which might be used as practical guides in the discovery of what one ought to do. Moral insight does not have to wait for ethical theory. Ethical theory de­velops by reflection upon moral insight; and if it can subsequently deepen and stabilize the insight, so much the better. Our present topic, which is a scrap of ethical theory, leads us to stress the movement of thought which leads the questioning moral agent to the selection of an act to be per­formed, not that which leads to the search for a moral standard.

3. Virtue involves the will or determination to act in accordance with what one believes to be right. We are familiar with the person who asks the right question and consistently comes up with a wrong answer. We are also famil­iar with the person who seems to have a sound answer to a moral problem but fails to translate it into action. He lacks what is or­dinarily called will or determina­tion. Sooner or later, as the case may be, virtue requires action. Virtue is incompatible with pure spectatorship no matter how subtle and discerning this spectatorship may be. Even the blunderer com­mands a kind of admiration at this point. His lack of insight is deplorable, and what he does may be disastrous, but his will to act is awe-inspiring. We are likely to interfere with his action, but our basic task is to sharpen his in­sight, not weaken his will. A com­mon word for this aspect of vir­tue is guts. Virtue involves guts, the courage to see through in ac­tion the dictates of moral insight. Positively, this is the will to act; negatively, this is the ability to resist temptation.

The struggle to resist tempta­tion is very likely in part a struggle for deeper insight, yet Paul’s description of the situation (Romans 7: 15-20) seems to have wide application in human experi­ence. He holds that we frequently know perfectly well what we should do and yet we do some­thing else. The problem here is not one of knowing what ought to be done. It is a problem of doing it. Our wills are weak or evil or di­vided. Against this background the struggle to resist temptation emerges clearly. This struggle presupposes a conviction concerning what ought to be done. Without this there would be nothing to struggle with, and the only struggle would be a struggle for knowledge—call it a struggle with ignorance if you wish.

Of course, to the extent that a person is virtuous, he will possess the kind of character that enables him to resist temptation without a major skirmish with each Cha­rybdis, and he may even have ceased to feel certain temptations. But this moral security represents the triumph of virtue over temptation; it does not entitle us to elim­inate will as an essential ingredi­ent of virtue. The will is there, al­though its presence is no longer conspicuous.

We see, so far, that virtue re­quires a person to ask the right question, to reach a responsible answer, and to manifest determin­ation to do what he has found to be right. These assertions cover most of what we ordinarily look for in a virtuous person, but there is something extremely important to be added.

4. Virtue involves commitment. Commitment is not a matter of knowing what to do, nor entirely a matter of doing it. Commitment, or the lack of it, is revealed in the kind of relationship that exists be­tween a person and what he does.

We might ask, "Was his heart in it?" It is at this point that Jean-Paul Sartre makes a significant contribution. He finds the whole of virtue in this one aspect of it. His writings deny that there is any basis for a responsible answer to the question, "What ought I to do?"—with this we need not agree—but we can nevertheless learn something about commit­ment from him. The virtuous man is dedicated to his action. He may find it objectively, but he does not do it in the same mode. He does it subjectively; it is his action. He is not playing a part assigned to him by someone or something else, as Stoic literature suggests. His conduct is his contribution, his very own; it flows from him and he is its autonomous source. In a sense, his conduct is an extension of himself; he transcends himself in and through his conduct, so that no clear line of demarcation between himself and what he does remains.

Commitment also involves acknowledgment. The virtuous man acknowledges his conduct, not merely by admitting that he is its immediate causal source, but in a much stronger way. It is as if he were to say: "There is my act. I have chosen it, willed it, done it. You may look at it and associate it with me. I am responsible for it."

This does not mean that a man is expected always to like what he is doing, nor is he expected to value each act as an end in itself. Our heart may be in unpleasant activity because we believe in it, not because we like it; and life has a way of dividing into means and ends, so that our commitment to an act may be commitment to that act, not as an end, but as a means to an end to which we are com­mitted.

These points are powerfully il­lustrated in Sartre’s play, The Flies. First we see a vivid picture of the breakdown of this aspect of virtue. Orestes’ tutor, an intellec­tual and an uncommitted man, speaks:

And what of your culture, Lord Orestes? What of that? All that wise lore I culled for you with loving care, like a bouquet, matching the fruits of my knowledge with the finest flowers of my experience? Did I not, from the very first, set you a-reading all the books there are, so as to make clear to you the infinite diversity of men’s opinions? And did I not re­mind you, time and again, how vari­able are human creeds and customs? So, along with youth, good looks, and wealth, you have the wisdom of far riper years; your mind is free from prejudice and superstition; you have no family ties, no religion, no calling, you are free to turn your hand to anything. But you know better than to commit yourself—and there lies your strength.

Orestes does not follow this ad­vice. Not only does he act, but, speaking to his sister, Electra, he clearly defines his relation to his act:

I have done my deed, Electra, and that deed was good. I shall bear it on my shoulders as a carrier at a ferry carries the traveler to the farther bank. And when I have brought it to the farther bank, I shall take stock of it. The heavier it is to carry, the better pleased I shall be; for that burden is my freedom. Only yester­day I walked the earth haphazard; thousands of roads I tramped that brought me nowhere, for they were other men’s roads. Yes, I tried them all; the haulers’ tracks along the riverside, the mule-paths in the mountains, and the broad, flagged highways of the charioteers. But none of these was mine. Today I have one path only, and heaven knows where it leads. But it is my path.

It would be rash to say that this is the whole of virtue, but surely this is part of what we mean when we ascribe virtue to a person. In­tegrity requires this sort of rela­tionship between a person and his acts.

There is a difference between the person who meets the four requirements of virtue which have been discussed, but manages to do so only by keeping his teeth clenched, his lips tight, and his visage grim—and the person who manifests virtue with a joyfulness that is both contagious and inspir­ing. The former is not to be dis­paraged. He may have ulcers but he has accomplished a great deal. You can count on him. He will be virtuous if it kills him (and his attitude frequently suggests that he expects this to happen at any moment). The famous lines of William Ernest Henley’s "Invic­tus" exhibit this grim virtue. And a little imagination may enable us to suppose that the elder brother in the parable of the prodigal son was such a person. But the latter is the better man. He is not blind to the hazards, but he has learned to find joy as he goes about his duty. He may even have ceased to think in terms of duty as opposed to desire, so that he is one man in a sense in which most of us are not. Thus—

5. Virtue is enhanced by joy. A person may come to love his duty and find satisfaction and de­light in doing it. This joyfulness shines through the lives of some people even when the going is rough. We see it in Socrates in the midst of the serious business of his trial and subsequent days in prison. We see it in St. Francis, quite compatible with his life of voluntary poverty. We see it in the later years of Gandhi, even during the painful moments of his fasting, to say nothing of the easier moments of his life. These illustrations should be sufficient to show that there is a difference between joy and fun. To say that joy enhances virtue is not to iden­tify virtue with happiness in the popular sense nor to revert to the view which makes fun central.

These people, and others like them, are the saints of our world. This designation stretches the term considerably beyond its ca­nonical usage, but joyfulness in virtue seems important enough and rare enough to warrant this extended meaning. At the same time, we might rescue another term from limited usage and label as puritans those steadfast souls who respect duty but find no joy in it.

Finally, to remind us that vir­tue is not cultivated and does not exist in a psychophysical vacuum, we assert that—

6. Virtue involves getting enough sleep. Obviously, sleep is not virtue, nor do we mean to in­sist literally that sleep is an es­sential ingredient. The assertion is made as a reminder that with­out sleep the several ingredients of virtue are hard to develop and difficult to maintain. Many poten­tially good men have failed for lack of sleep, that is, for lack of concern for their physical and psychological well-being, without which one may lack the alertness to ask the right question, the sharpness to see the answer, the determination to act, or the stay­ing power that may be required.

It would be unwise to claim too much for the preceding discussion. It is a point of departure for a theory of virtue rather than a completed analysis, and much, in­deed, nearly everything, remains to be said about the relations be­tween the six aspects that have been mentioned. But this approach does have the advantage of ena­bling us to focus attention upon different aspects of good character and thereby locate specific areas of breakdown and specific tech­niques for recovery and develop­ment.

Many people are not morally oriented. Their lives are organ­ized in some other way. It is easy to confirm, for example, the wide­spread occurrence of Erich Fromm’s "marketing orientation" (Man for Himself), whose defin­ing question we may phrase as "What must I do in order to be in demand?" or "How can I be as you desire me?" These people are interested in being marketable packages rather than moral agents. There are also many people who are morally oriented, that is, they ask the right ques­tion; but they are honestly con­fused and painfully unable to ar­rive at answers satisfactory even to themselves. The toughest of these keep on searching; others, unable to endure the anxieties of accelerated social change, live aim­lessly and meaninglessly. The will to act is not in short supply—everywhere people are going places and doing things—but when we come to commitment, we find that a powerful diagnosis of our contemporary sickness focuses at this point.

We are charged with alienation. Erich Fromm writes:

Man does not experience himself as the active bearer of his own powers and richness, but as an im­poverished "thing" dependent on powers outside of himself, unto whom he has projected his living substance. (The Sane Society)

An alienated person is incapable of commitment. Fromm charges that alienation pervades every as­pect of our lives, our work, our play, our social and economic re­lations, and our relations to our­selves. Thus he explains how we can scramble for fun but live with­out joy, how we can be depressed and bored in the midst of pleasure.

The diagnosis need not con­tinue. If Socrates was correct in thinking that the cultivation of virtue is the proper business of man, our task is clear—and we have much to do.


July 1959

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