Promoting a Virtuous Society, Part 2

How are we to go about promoting a virtuous society?

The first question is obvious: “What is virtue?” The Oxford English Dictionary says it is “behavior showing high moral standards.” And there is the rub. Whose standards are to be used? Some people believe they are virtuous because they don’t cuss, smoke, or drink. Others think themselves virtuous because they work hard and take care of their families. Some think they are virtuous because they don’t judge others or because they are charitable. In each case, people adhere to a set of rules in order to achieve what they think is virtuous.

But when you are talking about a virtuous society, it isn’t good enough for each individual to pursue his own idea of what is virtuous. If you think it virtuous to lovingly raise children and another thinks it virtuous to “lovingly” kill them, there is bound to be a major societal rift. As there is.

And so, as much as I respect Ron Paul and agree with him about the importance of promoting a virtuous society, I don’t think his recommendation is specific enough. Remember his words?

The solution falls on each and every individual, with guidance from family, friends and community.

The number one responsibility for each of us is to change ourselves with hope that others will follow.  This is of greater importance than working on changing the government; that is secondary to promoting a virtuous society.  If we can achieve this, then the government will change.

There are at least two problems here. For one, it focuses on the individual. It seems odd to promote societal virtue by emphasizing individual morality. This works only if every individual agrees on what it means to be virtuous. Which, obviously, is not the case. I know very very few people who consider themselves “bad people.” Just go up to anyone anywhere and ask the question, “Do you think you are a good person?” The vast majority of people will answer, “Yeah. I’m basically a good person.” I would imagine even inmates in prison will answer the question the same way, perhaps even more vehemently than the general populace. And yet each of these individuals has a very different idea of what it means to be “good.”

The other problem is that hoping others will follow a good example is not exactly a sure-fire avenue to societal reform. Everyone is happy to hold other people to a standard of virtue even when they, sometimes unwittingly, do not follow that standard themselves. It seems an individual will follow a standard of morality consistently only when he is forced to by societal or governmental restraints or, in a much smaller number of cases, if he holds himself, through self-control, to his preferred standard. In my last article, I talked about the limitations of governmental restraints to promote a virtuous society. So self-government seems like perhaps the only way to ensure that a standard is consistently enforced in the life of an individual.

Which means the main obstacles to a virtuous society are:

  1. A lack of a common standard for morality.
  2. A lack of self-government.

So, in order to promote a virtuous society, we will have to overcome these two obstacles. That will be the topic of my next article.