The Crisis of Character | Suan Sonna
“Niceness” seems to be the most cherished virtue today. The staleness of this word reveals, however, the flakiness of contemporary “virtue signaling”. Rather than engaging the substance of another viewpoint, the perceived ethos of the speaker becomes proof of their correctness. Sir Roger Scruton identifies this as the Marxist tactic of “going behind” your opponent and exposing their views not for their truth (or lack thereof) but their socioeconomic function. True substance no longer matters, but whether you are an ally or someone of “good” character. Thus, even though contemporary liberalism embraces a libertarian autonomy ethic and utilitarianism, one would be remiss if they overlooked the Left’s virtue ethics. This has culminated into a crisis of character, because contemporary liberalism’s conception of the good is flawed. This crisis requires conservatives to lead by example from the ashes of moral society.
The evidence of decline is everywhere. A 2012 study from the Journal of Positive Psychology documents how the 20th century saw a sharp decline in the appearance of certain words in books related to character and virtue. Words like honesty, patience, honor, and truthfulness faced a statistically significant decline over the century. Simply put, the moral vocabulary once underpinning civil society diminished. We are only left with a stunted and impoverished understanding of character, trying to recover the pieces of our moral inheritance.
Public discourse is riddled with a lack of not only moral virtue but also intellectual character. Rather than proceeding as scholars and truth seekers, many have opted for sloganeering and illogic. The currency of reason today, rather than thoughtful encounters or careful argumentation, are memes and tweets which oversimply and stupefy discourse. Upon closer examination, one finds many are not serious about pursuing the truth but the subjective satisfaction of feeling they are morally correct.
The crisis of character affects both conservatives and liberals.
Conservatives, or those who carry that label, have done themselves a disservice on identity issues. Rather than recognizing our fragmented society and the histories certain groups carry, there is a tendency to trod over them with hellish battle cries. To engage the revolutionaries, however, one must first meet them as persons and then understand their approaches. Though some will demonstrate no intellectual virtue or zero interest in self-examination, some are reachable. We must learn the language and ideas of the Left then work within them to show their incoherence, while also possessing the self-awareness necessary to be effective advocates of the truth. Unfortunately, the tendency to show arrogance and dominance in discourse actually demonstrates insecurity and further bastardizes our cause.
Liberals have conjured a narrow conception of character which coincides with their agenda. They argue that someone who is trustworthy or demonstrates good character has a consistent disposition towards affirming their particular understanding of virtues like love, inclusivity, and fairness. This understanding, however, is fraught with controversial and often unexamined assumptions about human nature, metaphysics, and ethics. Take any socially liberal position and ask whether the public has honestly engaged it, or if mobs have pressured the public into submission.
While some may accuse me of being uncharitable to both sides, I am intentionally pointing out the worst so the best may prevail.
To overcome this crisis, conservatives must reject radical individualism, as embodied in the libertarian autonomy ethic. Rather than being atomistic (even implicitly), as some enlightenment social contract theorists were, conservatives recognize that human beings find their origin and belonging in community – in the smaller platoons of society. And, moreover, conservatives do not shy away from defending a transcendent moral order. This, in turn, provides us with a conception of the good and virtue for the political community.
Thus, we must understand what virtue is oriented towards achieving. As philosopher David Oderberg explains,
“More precisely, a moral virtue is a good habit of the will whose immediate object is a type of means for the attainment of the good.”
We must return to conservatism’s moral tradition, its theory for pursuing and understanding the good – natural law theory.
Thinkers of the conservative tradition like Aristotle, Aquinas, and Burke maintained that the world is built with an inherent and intelligible order. A proper analysis of human nature, being no exception to this order, yields a conception of the good and flourishing with respect to human activity. Nature has endowed us with certain faculties, like reason, to pursue goods, like knowledge. What virtues this pursuit of knowledge requires – like honesty, humility, and rigor – and how they are to be understood follow naturally once their proper end is understood rather than denied. By habitually aiming for something higher than our impulses and ego, we become virtuous and conscientious persons.
Finally, virtue is central to preserving a free society as conceived by conservatism. We tolerate shortcomings to obtaining our social ideal by recognizing the practical and moral limitations of our institutions and human nature. As Robert P. George argues in Making Men Moral, if preventing some vice would overpower the government or distract scarce time and resources from worse ills, then some vices may be tolerated or dealt with by a lower authority. Thus, we must separate between what is the responsibility of the citizenry and authorities. Virtue is therefore essential to preserving a free society grounded on subsidiarity. As Benjamin Franklin once said, “… only a virtuous people are capable of freedom. As nations become more corrupt and vicious, they have more need of masters.”
We cannot proceed as if we were atomistic entities only accountable to ourselves, but we must, as true conservatives, recognize the necessity of preserving that first personal plural “we”. As our society corrupts and disregards virtue, trust, the glue that holds societies together, deteriorates. Niceness is not good enough for a society that needs goodness. It is the job of conservatives, if willing, to revive the love of virtue by embodying a clear conscience and giving hope to a dying society that good men and women still walk the earth.