Posted by: gcarkner | August 24, 2012

The Leverage of Virtue

The Virtuous Community

What kind of people form a virtuous community? How do we locate ourselves with respect to the good? What do wisdom, courage and hope, benevolence and love have to do with scholarship? What do moderation, self-restraint and frugality, patience and gratitude have to do with academic excellence, business acumen or scientific brilliance? Can we truly flourish if we live, work and love virtuously? Can virtue inform our academic vision? Our vision shapes our goals and actions day to day. Many of us will know of philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre’s landmark book After Virtue which decried the cultural loss of this ancient language of virtue; in its place late modernity have substituted the Nietzschean/Weberian language of posited values. Is this wise and fruitful?

A moral virtue is an excellence of character, developed by conscious choices over time and thus for which we can and should be praised; virtue disposes one to act in such a reasonable way to avoid extremes, to act in short as a sage would act. Virtues are heuristic; they teach us about new dimensions of life as we embrace them and live/embody them. Have you ever been trained in the virtues?  Few of us today have such mentorship. Steven Bouma-Prediger (For the Beauty of the Earth, p. 140) a previous GFCF visiting scholar shared his concern for environmental stewardship virtues. He articulate the language this way:

A virtue is a state of praiseworthy character—with the attendant desires, attitudes and emotions. Formed by choices over time, a virtue disposes us to act in certain excellent ways. Knowing which way is the truly excellent way involves avoiding the extremes of vice by looking to people of virtue as role models. As certain virtues shape our character they influence how we see the world. And the entire process of forming virtues is shaped by a particular narrative and community. The settled disposition to act well, which makes us who we are, is nurtured by the stories we imbibe and the communities of which we are a part.

There is an art, a finesse, a personal strength and creativity to virtue. Virtues orient us toward both individual and group flourishing. It assumes trustworthy social relationships characteristic of a moral community; it takes into consideration an individual as well as a common good. There are academic and research virtues (Linda Zagzebski’s Virtues of the Mind) which help the university keep its integrity as a knowledge centre. Oxford’s Iris Murdoch, although not a believer in God, had a high view of the good, influencing Charles Taylor; she refused cynicism.

Brad Gregory, an upcoming October 2012  GFCF speaker in his tome The Unintended Reformation has a chapter called “Subjectivizing Morality” on the important changes in morality in the West . He makes note of a time when the virtuous community was a common social and political consciousness, part of people’s identity. But this has been exchanged today for a language of rights. Gregory notes: “A transformation from a substantive morality of the good to a formal morality of rights constitutes the central change in Western ethics over the past half millennium, in terms of theory, practice, laws and institutions.”

At one time, rights were articulated within values of the communal good (within the discourse of the virtuous community); now they have morphed into a consumeristic commodity to fulfill my subjective desires or opinions. Today, our individual good seems to be in tension with the common good (within a discourse of individualism, self-interest and entitlements). We are struggling to find the social glue (the common purpose) to hold society together. Is the default position of personal preference and consumerism the answer? How do we recover again and leverage the power of our virtues? This is both a local and a global concern.

Gord Carkner

Colossians 3: 12-14


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