The contradictions inherent in virtue

Every virtue has the seed of its own destruction inside it. Taken too far, or taken the wrong way and things that should have been virtuous and brought good into the world become dysfunctional or damaging. The problems come when we get too focused on practicing the specific virtue and stop putting it in the context of a bigger picture.

Tolerance that tolerates intolerance sows the seeds of its own destruction. When you accept that all views deserve to be heard and all comers are due a place at the table, you empower those who will take power from others. Tolerance needs to be conditional on excluding the truly intolerant. When we’re so invested in our tolerance that we’ll tolerate anything and anyone, we enable Nazis, fascists and other haters.

Modesty and humbleness, and avoiding pride can in itself become a form of pride. These are particularly Christian virtues, and the way they seed their own destruction can often be best seen in those who claim Christianity as their faith. When people become enthusiastic participants in their own martyrdom, and keen to announce how humble, modest and good they are, it’s pride in a different hat. But it’s more problematic than simple, honest pride, because it’s also self deluding.

Being kind can become profoundly unkind when it supports people in doing harmful things. If we’re too kind to tell someone that what they do isn’t working. If we’re too kind to call out an abuser, question dodgy thinking or protest at inappropriate behaviour, we enable all those things. The kindness that lets someone carry on destroying their own life isn’t very kind at all.

Often the wider frame we need for navigating here, is honour. But even honour holds the seeds of its own destruction. If we focus on how to appear honourable and how to put ourselves forward as the best and most honourable people, we won’t always do what’s needed. Sometimes what’s needed is a lot more complicated than personal honour will allow. When the laws become toxic and the leaders are false, it ceases to be honourable to hold up laws or dutifully follow leaders. When the truth around you is evil, lying can become necessary. When the system is unfair, cheating can become essential.

At every turn, you can use the seed of destruction within a virtue to act badly while claiming the moral high ground. At every turn, you can use the knowledge that every virtue has its limitations to justify not even trying, or to protest that virtue itself is meaningless. It is a difficult thing to meaningfully practice virtue in a dishonourable age.

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About Nimue Brown

Druid, author, dreamer, folk enthusiast, parent, wife to the most amazing artist -Tom Brown. Drinker of coffee, maker of puddings. Exploring life as a Pagan, seeking good and meaningful ways to be, struggling with mental health issues and worried about many things. View all posts by Nimue Brown

4 responses to “The contradictions inherent in virtue

  • Ellen Efenricea

    Thought provoking: I think, maybe these virtues don’t contain so much contradiction if you use them ‘within reason’ and take that to be the limitation.
    I would take reason here as meaning in a context of the greater good of our planet, people and selves (and which you prioritise may sometimes be dependent on immediate need).
    Does your kindness to someone increase the net kindness of the world/ society etc? If not then it is not kindness within reason and so not a virtue.
    Does your ‘kindness’ mean that you avoid and immediate threat and so maintain your capacity for compassion later? Then what you are looking for is survival (physical or emotional) rather than virtue and that’s definitely in the scope of reason.

  • Musings Of Meandering Spirits

    Such words of wisdom! Thank you so much for this!

  • thesseli

    “A virtue isn’t the opposite of a vice, it’s the point between two vices”, as they say.

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