The (Very) Simple Virtues

Alain de Botton has found another piece of religion he thinks atheists should adopt. He thinks we should claim the idea of virtues for ourselves–with changes, of course. In fact, he’s listed ten of them.

They are…simple. I mean that in a couple of ways. They are not only obvious choices for virtues (you won’t find any surprises on that page), but they are also presented simply. An example:

1. Resilience. Keeping going even when things are looking dark; accepting that reversals are normal; remembering that human nature is, in the end, tough. Not frightening others with your fears.

Hurrah for resilience! Hurrah for people who keep going in the face of continued setbacks! Hurrah for the people who stick anything out, no matter how ugly! Hurrah for the people who exhaust their resources! Hurrah for the people who suffer fear in silence!

Or, you know, not.

Look, resilience has distinct advantages in a lot of situations. Being broken by the small things isn’t anything anyone looks for. Being stopped by every trifle doesn’t get you very far. But sometimes quitting really is the best solution to a problem. Do you want to keep beating your head against an abusive “friendship” trying to get it to change? Is that a virtue?

There are times when treating resilience as a virtue is dangerous. There are times when it’s too much. Then, calling it a virtue is an active harm.

Elevating resilience to the level of a virtue does more than just change it from a tool into a fetish. It also casts lapses in resilience as lapses in virtue–sins. This does what religion all too often does, forces people to choose between what is good for them in any one situation and avoiding sin/maintaining virtue.

That isn’t merely a situational problem either. Resilience has been a hot topic in psychology for at least a couple of decades. We know that resilience can be a powerful thing, so we’ve studied how people can have more of it. The factors that increase resilience are largely beyond anyone’s control. How you are raised, how much trauma you’ve experienced when you encounter a bad situation, how well others support you–these aren’t choices that people make.

Under those circumstances, raising resilience to the level of a virtue as de Botton does is cruelty. We’ve had enough of religions setting arbitrary standards that people can’t meet just by trying, haven’t we?

To give just one more example from the list of a virtue that is and isn’t:

5. Politeness. Politeness has a bad name. We often assume it’s about being ‘fake‘ (which is meant to be bad) as opposed to ‘really ourselves’ (which is meant to be good). However, given what we’re really like deep down, we should spare others too much exposure to our deeper selves. We need to learn manners, which aren’t evil – they are the necessary internal rules of civilisation. Politeness is very linked to tolerance, the capacity to live alongside people whom one will never agree with, but at the same time, can’t avoid.

Politeness isn’t only a virtue, though not because it’s “fake”. It’s no more fake than anything else we do for a purpose.

Politeness is a set of behaviors that serve a purpose. de Botton is close on that purpose, though I think he’s going a bit grand with “civilization”. Few rules of politeness are that universal. Still, politeness is that set of behaviors that allow a society to function without constantly haggling about how it should be done. It’s a codified nonverbal and verbal language that tells you where you stand in a transaction.

Politeness isn’t always honest, of course, which is where the “fake” charge comes from. That’s not its biggest problem, though.

Sometimes we need to haggle over how things are done in a particular society. Societies contain injustices. They can head in a direction that is doomed to failure or even catastrophe. Sometimes there is simply a better way. Sometimes there is virtue in the haggling.

We can’t do that, however, when politeness–separate from the specifics of its function–becomes a virtue. Then the slowing down, even if we gain insights we wouldn’t moving at full speed, becomes the sin. Agitation becomes the sin. Negotiation on how we are treated becomes the sin.

This simple list also doesn’t even begin to address the virtues inherent in the “negative” emotions. There are none without uses. Fear is critical in good decision-making, even if it shouldn’t be allowed to rule us. Anger has accomplished much that is good. Even jealously tells us something about our own needs and desires that we can put to good use. Where do we give these useful negatives their due if we raise one set of traits and tools above the others?

I think atheists can generally benefit from talking about the things we want in our lives. I think we can benefit from a more complex understanding of what makes life good than religion allows us. But I think de Botton is taking the wrong lesson from people who celebrate “sin” when they leave religion. It isn’t that they’re now reveling in “bad”. It’s that they’re finding that the religious prescriptions for what is “good” or “bad” aren’t complex or nuanced enough to describe the realities of life.

Sadly, I think they’ll find the same from de Botton.

H/T Ron Lindsay

The (Very) Simple Virtues

16 thoughts on “The (Very) Simple Virtues

  1. 1

    But… but… the Sydney Morning Herald’s story on this specifically mentioned “Politeness” as the virtue that atheists need to practice more of, especially, say, this upcoming Ash Wednesday.

    Lent is coming up, when the emphasis will be on sacrifice, self-restraint and contemplation. And de Botton’s insanity clause will doubtless give many Anglicans and Catholics pause as they decide whether to wear the thumb print of ash on their foreheads beyond the church grounds.

    So if atheists observe just one of their new commandments on next week’s Ash Wednesday, please let it be Number Five: Politeness.

    Fascinating. de Botton’s virtues are “atheism’s commandments”, and the one the SMH cares about is “don’t make fun of the ash on our foreheads, because politeness.”

  2. 2

    It’s bad enough when believers give religion credit for positive behavior that people usually practice well enough on their own; I don’t think we need Alain de Botton helping them out by claiming they’re religious elements that atheists need to adopt.

  3. 3

    This is one of those situations where you find that in 2500 years, no one has really improved on Aristotle.

    You have your extremes, and virtue is the balance. so, if we want to keep “resilience” as a virtue, it has to be a balance of, say, stubbornness and wimpiness, for lack of a better term.

    That’s not a comment on the merits of any particular behavior being defined as a “virtue,” but it’s odd that someone would try to adopt that sort of system in a way that would have been laughable simplistic in 300BCE.

  4. 6

    The problem with politeness is the same as the problem with civility: it’s only a means to an end. The goal should be decency. If politeness fosters decency, great. But it doesn’t, not always. Sometimes the decent thing is to be rude. Those times, if you elevate politeness above decency then you’ve turned politeness into just another way to tell people to shut up.

  5. 7

    The problem with politeness is the same as the problem with civility: it’s only a means to an end. The goal should be decency.

    I have a slight quibble with this. The purpose of politeness is social lubrication; keeping interactions moving smoothly and without conflict. For most interactions, this is a good thing, and therefore so is politeness. Some classes of interactions, however, should not proceed without conflict; someone needs to change their behavior because it’s causing harm. In those cases, politeness is problematic because conflict is needed in that situation.

  6. 10

    Oh ffs, after avoiding this all day you finally got me to click, I clicked.

    This is the one that pisses me off

    6. Humour. Seeing the funny sides of situations and of oneself doesn’t sound very serious, but it is integral to wisdom, because it’s a sign that one is able to put a benevolent finger on the gap between what we want to happen and what life can actually provide; what we dream of being and what we actually are, what we hope other people will be like and what they are actually like. Like anger, humour springs from disappointment, but it’s disappointment optimally channelled. It’s one of the best things we can do with our sadness./blockquote>

    It’s like a first year philosophy student barfed on an improv troupe. I’m too tired to parse it now… I’ll try and get back in the morning

  7. 11

    I think this guy is confusing virtue with behavior or moral duty. I was under the impression that “virtue ethics” was more concerned with dispositional qualities or characteristics which would then inform our decisions and behaviors on a case by case basis. I.e. a benevolent person would be polite in most cases as a consequence of his aversion to harm, or just as equally dispense with such pleasantries when dealing with a violent or dangerous individual who needs to be restrained. And as far as striving, everyone strives for what they want. However, a wise person drawn to knowledge or truth knows when a plan is worth sticking to despite early setbacks, and isn’t afraid to abandon a plan when it is demonstrated faulty. And in any case, I’d actually say things like wisdom and benevolence are virtues some Christians could learn from atheists.

  8. 12

    1. Resilience. Keeping going even when things are looking dark; accepting that reversals are normal; remembering that human nature is, in the end, tough. Not frightening others with your fears.

    Really. I don’t know how long I believed in that bullshit and how it almost really broke me. If I had allowed myself to set boundaries, if I had dared to talk about my fears and problems I might not have ended up as a total wreck curled up in a ball thinking of myself as a terrible failure.

    And everything what WithinThisMind said about politeness.

  9. 13

    So, OK, I read them all (sorry for the double-post)
    The whole thing is one big laundry list of all the things women have been told for centuries in order to keep them down.
    Hang on, be polite, sacrifice yourself, have hope, be patient, take a joke…
    His wisdom has fortune-cookie level.

  10. 15

    Maybe if we club together we can buy him a copy of the Nichomachean Ethics for his birthday. Then he can write out one thousand times, any “virtue” is a vice if carried to extremes.

  11. 16

    #3 (Patience) is downright dangerous, given that one of his examples of things we should be patient with is government. “Patience” in that arena generally means making your interests irrelevant.

Comments are closed.