The V Word

For years, I have risked the befuddlement and disapproval of friends and colleagues when I have raised the topic of "virtue" or the "virtues." Many associate these words with a kind of Victorian prudery and are repelled by them. Even after I explain that the virtues include such desired traits as compassion, courage, gratitude and humility I still receive puzzled and worried looks. I think that this reaction stems from the first commandment of modern culture: that anything that might inhibit or limit personal desire or personal expression is suspect. To modern ears being "virtuous" sounds like being condemned to wearing a moral chastity belt.

The lack of virtue in our culture though, has ramifications that go beyond well sexuality. This morning, I read this excerpt from the new book,The Demise of Virtue in Virtual America by David Bosworth, which explores the financial crisis of 2008 through the lens of virtue. I ordered the book immediately.

Here is a brief outtake from the original posting at Front Porch Republic:

The dive in stock values then may have been devastatingly quick, but the evolution of the bad faith driving their collapse is a much longer story, and the one this book aspires to tell. It is the story of a profound transformation in the national character, in our actual and not just ceremonial credo,and how an American ethos initially geared toward prudence, pragmatism, and plain speaking came to generate instead the greatest con game in human history. It is not simply the tale of an economic crash but of a failure of the moral imagination in the broadest sense, one whose impact could be spied in the barbarism at Abu Ghraib, the cynicism of pop culture, the co-opting of art, the corruption of science, the decline of both family ties and local communal authority, and in the enfeeblement of commonsense thinking that helped license them all.

To accurately assess a series of changes this widespread requires forgoing the usual parochial blame-game, with its scornful scapegoating of this or that corrupt official. The problem hasn’t been just a few “bad apples,” nor even a mismanaged orchard on the left or the right, but the long-term revision of a cultural environment whose “moral field” we all share and for whose current ill health we are collectively, if not equally, responsible. To make sense of that decline, we need to consider instead a broader set of ruling ideas, managerial decisions, and architectural designs that, taken together, have slowly revised the underlying logic of everyday experience and so, too (if often cryptically) our conventional beliefs about the good, the true, and the beautiful.

Already I trespass into controversial territory on two fronts. In the land of the free, where rebellion has been historically esteemed and is now routinely marketized through the many iterations of MTV, few would choose to define themselves as conventional thinkers. So it is that movie stars grown rich on the most fatuously formulaic of cinematic plots tout their hobby-horse causes with the moral fervor of Samuel Adams, while right-wing sons of multimillionaires storm the Bastille of the inheritance tax, using the fervent rhetoric of liberation. I have sat through meetings where the most slickly ambitious of academic administrators have proclaimed themselves subversive and seemed to believe it. Even those who profess to hate the sixties tend to borrow its ruling temper, the moral grandeur (and personal exemption) of romantic rebellion. Like the relaxed jeans we now wear, the role of rebel has been stretched to fit a wide range of self-promoting careerists, from Lady Gaga to Ayn Rand acolyte Paul Ryan.