Sunday, July 31, 2011

On Virtue and Intention

Montaigne's essay "Of Cruelty" speaks more to virtue than evil. He's sorting out what it means to be virtuous.  In a nutshell he says, "What I have in me of good, I have by chance."  Being virtuous has to be more than just the good we do that we would have done even if it wasn't considered good.  Virtuous acts are those that take a bit of struggle.

I like to think of myself as moral by choice - by the sheer strength of my willpower to resist temptation. But lately I've decided it's just my dumb luck that I tend to do things that seem virtuous at this time and place.

I have allergies to fragrances. I go on and on about the harm caused by phthalates, but truth be told, I couldn't wear perfume or make-up if I wanted to. I can't even walk down the detergent aisle at the grocery store. I'm a canary in a coal-mine. My irritations make me seem a good feminist and a good environmentalist.

And I'm oblivious to details. My mom had significant facial hair, but I didn't notice that was unusual until I was 12 when a friend's dad made fun of it. A few years back I met up with an old boyfriend on the street. He thanked me for having dated him in high school. I was hot for him and baffled by the gratitude.

"I used to be really overweight."

"Oh, I don't think so."

"No really. I've lost 150 pounds since then."

I didn't notice a difference. I didn't say that because it might be taken as an insult. I'm just kinda spacey about that kind of stuff. But instead of getting called on being a basket-case, I seem non-judgmental and open-minded and accepting and all those other nice things.

The smell of cars makes me sick, and I also get horrible motion-sickness. So, of course, I'm a strong cycling advocate. I'm good for the planet not because of my moral fiber, but because cars make me barf.

And I'm left to wonder, if I wasn't such an easily-sickened space-cadet, would I be as virtuous? And since my virtue seems personality-dependent, or just my inclination, can I take any credit for it?

According to Montaigne:  nope.

Virtue is "other and nobler than the inclinations toward goodness that are born in us." A virtuous act requires some measure of vice to work against and overcome.  Virtue requires a struggle for goodness.  We're virtuous, I take it, when we act against our desires, not with them.  Good acts are still good I suppose, but not nearly as commendable as virtuous acts.  I can buy that.  It's easy for me to live without a car, so it's not as praiseworthy as if I gave up a car I loved for the sake of the environment.  And if I seek praise for such an easy act, then I'm being kind of slimy.

He goes on, 
"For this reason it is that, when we judge of a particular action, we are to consider the circumstances, and the whole man by whom it is performed, before we give it a name. 
To instance in myself: I have sometimes known my friends call that prudence in me, which was merely fortune; and repute that courage and patience, which was judgment and opinion; and attribute to me one title for another, sometimes to my advantage and sometimes otherwise."
I'm pretty honest which is sometimes a virtue, but I'm often unaware of the affect my words and actions will have on others. Years ago when I brought my newborn baby to work for a visit, I immediately handed it off to a colleague who loves babies.  Later another colleague told me that that was so incredibly nice of me.  The guy holding my baby has schizophrenia.  But I didn't see him as someone with a disorder then make a moral decisions to do the right thing.  I just saw him as a person who loves babies, and I didn't hesitate to hand mine over.  It was an act of innocence, not virtue.

But honesty works against me too.  Again at work, I once casually mentioned that I wouldn't be caught dead in a blazer, and apparently offended a whole room of blazer-wearers.  They thought I was so cruel to say such a thing. But that wasn't my intention, only the effect.  So, if I take no praise in the first case, then I should take no blame in the latter either, right?  I apologized anyway.

In both instances I was being honest and oblivious, but neither kind nor cruel.  If we consider the whole person before we cast judgment, that suggests that intention matters more than effect.  But we still have to take responsibility for the effect we have on others.  It seems to come down to getting the blame but not the praise.  Montaigne doesn't actually suggest we get no praise for our goodness, just not as much as for our virtuousness.

I have had perhaps a few moments of virtuousness.  When I was first pregnant with no desire to marry, several people advised me to abort.  They didn't typically use those words though (although a few did).  The words were closer to, "You can't be pregnant and single and teach in a high school, and you can't marry the dad, so...."  Then they'd trail off for me to come to my own conclusions.  I'm pro-choice, but not for my own convenience.   It was clear to me the right thing to do was defy public opinion and custom and have the baby.  I stood up to the masses and did the right thing.  BUT it's also what I wanted to do, so I think it was actually a good act, but not a virtuous act even though there was significant internal struggle involved.

I'm down to only one really clear example of virtue.  This past March I wanted to sell a rental property.  I asked around if anyone wanted it, and I offered $320,000 as the price - a very reasonable estimate given the area and a realtor assessment done the previous fall.  A neighbour jumped at it the day before I was about to give up and have realtors look at it.  He couldn't have an offer ready for a few days.  I wanted to go ahead with the realtors in case he couldn't get the money together, but I promised him that my word was good, that I'd take $320,000 regardless what the realtors said.  They said $450,000.


I sucked it up and accepted the neighbour's offer.   It was virtuous in that I had to struggle with it, and the right answer was not the easy answer, not what I desired by a long shot.   BUT, I will be left to wonder, would I have been so virtuous if it wasn't a neighbour that I had to see regularly.  AND since it's the case that if I had raised my price by 100,000, I would have felt sick every time I walked past his house, isn't it still an inclination to act that way?  That I would be internally tormented if I hadn't done it seems to suggest it was an act more natural than intentional.  I think the struggle and the ill feeling I also have when I think of the lost cash means it was actually indeed a virtuous act.

Can I feel virtuous now?!

Finally Montaigne gets to the cruelty bit of his title.  He, like most of us, has "naturally a horror for most vices."  It makes us uncomfortable to watch people in pain.  Most of us have empathy, and he doesn't understand people who don't.  He says,
I could hardly persuade myself, before I saw it with my eyes, that there could be found souls so cruel and fell, who, for the sole pleasure of murder, would commit it; would hack and lop off the limbs of others; sharpen their wits to invent unusual torments and new kinds of death, without hatred, without profit, and for no other end but only to enjoy the pleasant spectacle of the gestures and motions, the lamentable groans and cries of a man dying in anguish. For this is the utmost point to which cruelty can arrive:  "That a man should kill a man, not being angry, not in fear, only for the sake of the spectacle." (Seneca)
That he despises cruelty by inclination makes it an act of goodness or innocence, not virtue.  But, does it follow then that people without such an inclination are merely bad, and not evil?  The effect is the most evil acts ever committed, but the intention may be merely to clean up the neighbourhood.

And I also wonder, if Montaigne was a guard in Zimbardo's experiment, where random students were assigned to be guards or prisoners for six days and nights in a wing of the university, would he have tormented the prisoners until they were rocking in a corner like the other guards did?  This would be a perfect event necessary for the expression of virtue:  going against the crowd and inclination in order to do the right thing.  But would he have done it?

Would I?

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