Making alterations: Resizing virtue to fit

Everyone wants to be virtuous. It’s part of our DNA. We are born pursuing a standard. We long to fit, or at least fit in. This is just as true of the felon as it is of the lawyer, of the prostitute as it is of the priest.

But what if we do not fit? What if we are not virtuous? There are two courses of action available to us. We can change ourselves to fit the virtue or we can change the virtue to fit us.

I recently bought a pair of trousers off the clearance rack at an Eddie Bauer Outlet. They were quite nice, and the original price on the tag was high. But they had repeatedly been marked down and now they were going for a song. And they just happened to be my size. So I bought them.

But they didn’t fit me. There was an extra inch or two in the waist. They were certainly not the size the tag displayed. So we asked a friend who does alterations to take them in.

That seems to me to be what happens with the virtues. We see them and think, “Yes, I would look good in that (particular virtue). And I’m sure it will fit me. It’s just my size.” Then when we try to wear that virtue we find that it doesn’t fit. It’s too tight or too big. So instead of changing ourselves, we alter the virtue to fit us.

Take chastity, for example. It wasn’t too long ago that a person who was chaste did not engage in sexual relations outside its proper place. President Clinton famously altered the definitions of “sexual relations” in order to preserve a virtuous image for himself. But it is more common still to alter the meaning of “its proper place.”

In previous generations, everyone knew the proper place for sexual relations: inside marriage. But authors and scriptwriters began floating the idea that the proper place for sex was inside a committed relationship. As long as you were really committed to the other person, you could have sex and still be virtuous – never mind how long the commitment lasts.

But in recent decades that too has been altered. It’s no longer about committed relationships, it’s about being true to one’s own feelings. As long as people are honest about their feelings (which were once called “lusts”), they will not forfeit their virtue by having indiscriminate sex. Being true to one’s own feeling is now the benchmark of virtue.

The virtue of courage – standing up for what is right, even at the risk of personal harm – has also been altered. The courage celebrated today is an end in itself. It does not stand up for what is right; it stands up in order to be noticed. Or to be thrilled. Bravery has become bravado.

The virtue of tolerance has undergone radical alteration. A tolerant person once put up with people he believed to be in error; he tolerated them, though he was convinced they were wrong. But to be tolerant today one must never suggest that anyone is wrong. Being tolerant now means accepting everyone’s views (and behaviors) as equally legitimate.

Some virtues have not been altered but abandoned to the back of the closet. They are simply not fashionable in today’s climate. Prudence is a good example. Prudence, which is one of the so-called Cardinal Virtues, is all about thinking clearly, seeing where an action will lead and considering its consequences before acting. In an age when feelings are the benchmark of virtue, prudence is about as fashionable as a bowler hat.

Patience is another virtue that has fallen out of favor. Only the powerless and the poor have to wait, and no one wants to be included in their ranks.

This alteration of the virtues is only possible if virtue (and vice) are merely human constructs, arbitrarily chosen. But if the virtues are objective qualities, we’re only fooling ourselves. They cannot be altered to fit us. We have to be altered to fit them.

First published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, August 20, 2014

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