I was asked on a recent award application to “explain how my moral and civic virtue has enhanced Ashland University.” This is standard fare for any application like this. Essentially, you just have to tell them why you are more deserving than the other applicants, and if your case is strong enough, there’s a good chance you’ll win. But for some reason, this particular question bothered me more than questions like these usually do. It seemed to ask something more than the standard “why do you deserve this award,” asking the applicant to not only analyze their own virtue, but also specifically how it has been beneficial to the university writ large.
Questions like these illustrate a few very subtle, dangerous problems in modern society’s conception of virtue. First of all, what does it say about the society we live in that we are so frequently asked to describe our own virtue? Aristotle never would have asked someone to tell him about his own virtue because the idea of telling someone about it is antithetical to the very notion of virtue. It is not something that someone says, but something that someone does – a way of ordering one’s actions toward the good at all times. Indeed, if someone was constantly seeking to tell others about how virtuous they are, they simply would not be considered virtuous.
Modern society also views virtue as something to be rewarded rather than something all human beings should naturally seek. Certainly, we should all try to be virtuous, but only insofar as it produces some material benefit for us. Take this award for example. The selection committee needed to know how virtuous I am so they would know whether or not I’m worthy of their honor. But virtue is not something to be done in order to receive rewards. Virtue is its own reward. Modern society has incentivized virtue to such an extent that its material benefits – what I might gain from being virtuous – have overwhelmed its own inherent value. The real reward of being a better person is being a better person.
This is so prevalent that almost nothing good or virtuous can be done without the context of reward. College students are the
most active source for volunteering in this country and they are encouraged at every turn to tell people about it. There is a section for it on nearly every undergraduate’s résumé. There are awards given out at the end of the school year to students who volunteer the most. And while many of them (myself included) like to believe that they volunteer simply because they want to help people, society is constantly handing out rewards for this service. As a result, it is entirely possible that in many cases volunteering is done not because it is a virtuous thing to do, or because it makes you a better person, but because it will separate you from other candidates in an application process.
But perhaps the worst part about modern society constantly asking us to describe our own virtue is the question’s inherent impossibility. In my experience, human beings tend not to be very good judges of themselves. At every turn, there is incentive to exaggerate our own virtue. Ironically, there is no safeguard against the very real possibility that I could lie in order to make myself a more “virtuous” candidate. Intentionally lying, however, is not the problem. Rather, the issue has to do with the ever-present and inescapable way that each individual must view himself.
The only resource a person has to evaluate himself is, of course, himself. This is a wellknown problem, and it extends to the issue at hand. In my estimation, it is impossible to answer a question about our virtue because we are unable to get far enough outside our own heads to be honest about how virtuous we truly are. We will always be prejudiced toward ourselves – toward thinking we are better, nicer, more virtuous than we really are. We are dishonest about ourselves – not as a conscious tactic of deception, but as a basic, underlying fact about our humanity. We do not even realize we are doing it, and yet it always happens. We love ourselves.
With that in mind, I came up with only one possible answer to the question at hand. The only answer that a person could reasonably give about their own virtue is simply, “I could’ve done more. I could’ve been better.” This is a fact about human beings: at a certain point, we will all fail to live up to the standards we set for ourselves. We’ll let harsh words slip. We’ll forget to tell our loved ones how much they mean to us. We’ll shut the alarm off, stay in bed for another hour when we could be out volunteering, helping others, creating human good. This happens on a daily basis.
No matter how virtuous somebody thinks he is, the answer is always the same. No one has done enough. No one has helped as much as they could. No one has acted virtuously at every possible moment, and thinking you have is all the proof necessary to show that you haven’t. Clearly, I am not saying that human beings must be virtuous at every moment in order to be considered virtuous. I recognize this as impossible. I’m saying that thinking “I’ve done enough” is about the least virtuous sentiment that I can imagine.
Now, this might seem like a very cynical view of virtue to some people, the idea that no one can be truly virtuous. I don’t see it that way. I think people are virtuous on a daily basis, that we seek to be as good as we possibly can very often, but that the human condition causes each of us to eventually fall short. This failure is not something to be mourned. It is overwhelmingly a good thing. No one can say they’ve been perfectly virtuous, and as a result, everyone is able to and should say that they could’ve been better. Because the standard can never be reached, it is always there to chase.
This is how virtue should be viewed by modern society – as a state of being that is wholly impossible to reach and yet entirely worthy of pursuit. Virtue should not require a person to be aware of how virtuous they are. It should not be met with material reward as a result. And more than anything, it should not be left up to a person to tell others how virtuous he is. Virtue should always be sought as its own reward with the understanding that it will never be perfected but should be sought anyway. Then, at the end of one’s life, he can say, honestly: “I did a lot of good, but I could’ve done more. I could’ve been better.”