The Tao has no place for pettiness, and nor has Virtue. Pettiness is dangerous to Virtue; pettiness is dangerous to the Tao. It is said, rectify yourself and be done.
— Chuang Tzu, Chinese philosopher, major thinker in Taoism (circa 360 BCE -275 BCE)
The origins of the word virtue are from the Latin virtutem (nominative, virtus) meaning “moral strength, manliness, valor, excellence, worth.” This is derived from vir which is “man” (as in virile).
In its strictest meaning, as used by moral philosophers and theologians, virtue is an operative habit of good behavior. One of the great questions, of course, is what, exactly, good behavior is and what should I do, to be good and virtuous? This codification of good behavior has been the ascendant model for many centuries, but there is growing evidence that it not working well in our rapidly changing times.
Instead, there is a revival of an earlier view, which focuses on what kind of person we are. Rather than shaping our lives and choices around rules of behavior, this approach cultivates goodness within the individual, which in turn, enables good behavior to follow naturally. First advocated in the Tao and then by Confucius, and in the West, associated most closely with Aristotle, from prior works of Socrates and Plato, this approach is known as “virtue ethics.”
Philosopher Rick Lewis writes of the behavior-centered approach, “Whether Kant’s idea about our having duties founded on the categorical imperative, or Bentham and Mill’s utilitarianism, which is based on considering an action’s consequences, the aim has been to work out how people should behave in different circumstances.
“In other words, the focus has been on people’s consciously-chosen actions. But some have found this kind of rule-following ethics to be desiccated – they claim that it doesn’t take enough account of the emotions and affections of the moral agent, for instance, or encourages people to do good deeds grudgingly, even resentfully.
“Virtue ethics by contrast doesn’t look at morality in isolation but as something which is inescapably in the context of our lives and of society.”
There is no doubt that today, the “rules” are changing rapidly. For instance, my parents’ and grandparents’ generations were taught rules of morality that were, in fact, deeply racist. Yet at the same time, they were also instilled with values based on “The Golden Rule,” and loving thy neighbor.
At some point, unless one goes to great lengths to stifle all awareness, the disconnect between the societal rules and the personal values becomes so glaring that conflict must arise. That conflict, in this case, became the Civil Rights movement.
When faced with a conflict between the constructs of society, and the deep values of the individual, which do you think will eventually triumph?