When Virtue Fails


A virtue is a character trait that is believed to carry moral excellence. Every individual, culture, and religion on the planet has a conception of virtue and most wouldn’t hesitate to list several examples of them if asked. Examples of alleged virtues picked from various cultures include justice, hope, faith, industriousness, strength, truthfulness, kindness, and loyalty. The very fact that these things are considered to be virtues means that somebody thinks that it would be good if they were practiced constantly. That is, there are people that would say, “If people were more honest, caring, and hard-working, this world would be a really great place.” And maybe they’d often be right. But sometimes they’d also be wrong. Sometimes truth hurts people. Sometimes kindness means getting taken advantage of. Working hard for the wrong goals is counterproductive. But if the virtues listed do not bring good consequences, how can they meaningfully be labeled virtues? A character trait can’t be good if it causes bad! I don’t see this point being a major problem when applied to the three virtues just mentioned. To most, being truthful, kind, and industrious is good more often than not and sound judgment can be used to determine when they should be applied.


The problem of “virtues not always producing goodness” also has an easy answer for me when applied to alleged virtues such as faith and asceticism. The answer is that they are not really virtues. The character traits of believing things without a reason or denying pleasant parts of life are rarely beneficial to anyone that wishes to live in reality. The same can be said for humility, if it is used to mean that one should never feel that one’s self is good. There aren’t many traits widely considered to be virtues that I would put into this “almost always bad” category; even most of those that I often disagree with can be placed in the above “good with sound judgment” category.


The most troubling situation to me, and the original purpose for which I wrote this article, is when there are virtues that I absolutely think should be good, but it sometimes turns out otherwise. For example, I think intelligence is a good thing to have. But if intelligence causes someone to be murdered for heresy, what was so good about it? I think friendliness is a good quality. But if a man would be placed in the “friend zone” by his object of affection for being friendly, why be friendly? Alternatively, I think that it is good to be confident, but if a woman would scare away her object of affection by being confident, why be confident? These scenarios are very troubling to me because I refuse to believe that having intelligence, friendliness, or confidence is not good. But as I asked before, if something doesn’t have good consequences, how can it be said to be good? Honestly, I can only rationalize this problem with Rule #1. (There’s a reason it’s #1.) People are stupid and they mess up good things. And by reality of causality, they mess up everyone’s future as well. Still, the problem remains and it puts a significant weight on my mind. When virtue doesn’t bring positive results, what’s the point of being good?