Over the past two weeks we have been thinking about changing the world in 2019. Naturally, that kind of what we all do every year really make our New Year’s resolutions. We think about what might not have gone so well in the previous year, and we figure out a way to make it better. You might’ve thought that you didn’t exercise enough in 2018, so your resolution is to go to the gym three times per week in the upcoming year. You might have thought that your last year was kind of boring, so you made a resolution to actually go on a vacation somewhere new and different this year as some type of adventure.
I don’t know what your particular resolution is, but I have been suggesting a few steps that our culture in general ought to take. First, we need to reduce anger. We have become a culture of outrage, and that is not healthy for any culture. In fact, that is one of the easiest ways to dissolve a culture. Beyond that, and I would argue more importantly, we need to build towards something that is good. I suggested that building communities around common interests and concerns would help do that. Not only does it help us become more closely knit to our fellow man, but it will also encourage other people. When they see the benefits that we are reaping from community, they will want community as well. Ideally, we will create a kind of chain reaction.
There’s one last thing though that we really need, and it is a sensitive topic. However, I figure that I don’t really do any of you any good if I hold out the detail that will make this work. Reducing anger is great, and building communities are great. In fact, I would argue that are necessary. However, if we don’t do these things while we are oriented towards that which is good, they are all going to be for nothing. We need a revolution of virtue in 2019.
Virtue is hard to define. People have tried to throughout history. Judeo-Christian cultures have largely embraced objective moral virtues rooted in the character of God. Aristotle talked about virtue as being a kind of mean. In 2018, it is not difficult to find someone who would say that virtue is however you define it. Virtue is whatever is right for you. Therefore, I fully understand that when I start wading into a topic such as virtue, it is really hard to have this discussion because you might have a different definition of virtue than I do.
That being said, let me start from a different point, and we might find ourselves working backward toward virtue. That may help us.
I think most of us would agree that we want the world to be a better place. No matter how you felt about 2018, it would be a good thing if 2019 was better. I would certainly hope you don’t want the new year to be worse. And, while there are some areas that I know we would disagree on, I also know that there were plenty of things we could agree on that would definitely make this world a better place. As an obvious example, the world would be a better place if fewer people were homeless or weren’t hungry at night. If we could help those people, the world would be a better place than it is currently where they experience homelessness and hunger.
If that’s true that we want the world to be a better place, then it is not hard to move to the conclusion that we are concerned about human flourishing. My examples above are physical, but it goes well beyond that. I think we can simultaneously agree that the world would be a better place if people did not have to battle with sadness and grief. The world would be a better place if we could all find joy. We’re not just talking about physical things and physical human flourishing. We are talking about all areas of human flourishing.
Therefore, when we think about what is virtuous, there has to be a dimension of virtue that is chiefly concerned with this area. Virtuous beliefs are, among other things, going to be beliefs that encourage human flourishing. Fundamentally, I think this makes a great deal of sense. After all, wouldn’t whatever is right actually be good for humanity?
If you have a hard time accepting this, consider the things that we call bad. When you think about a natural disaster, it destroys our houses, property and sometimes takes away human lives. When you think about theft, it is taking away what belongs to someone else. When you think about abuse, it is damaging another person. Bad things are the types of things that interfere with all the good things about being human. On the flipside then, I do not think it is very much of a stretch at all to conclude that virtuous things are that which encourages human flourishing.
The question then advances to a discussion of human flourishing. How does humanity flourish? What things should we do to create the best possible situation for as many people as possible in 2019? If we can figure it out, then I think that we are moving in the right direction.
I don’t know that the answer can be that we simply have a world where we all have everything we want. While we may disagree on what exactly is good, there are unfortunately some people who want some of the bad things I outlined above. There are some people that want to harm other people or take property from other people. Therefore, we can’t simply have a definition that says that anything virtuous is whatever I want. It just doesn’t make sense unless we abandon our belief that there are some things that we can possibly want that are bad.
What then makes humanity flourish? For one thing, I think a clear result of human flourishing is that everyone has enough to meet their physical needs. When I think about Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, it is hard to even talk about the higher levels of good when physical needs are not met. That’s a good place to start. However, there is a lot more to it than that. This might be a controversial thing to say, but you very rarely hear about people starving to death in United States of America today. I’m sure some people probably do, and that is a horrible thing, but most of us have the ability to have our physical needs met. Perhaps they are not met well or adequately, but in the richest country in the history of the world, even the poorest among us have a standard of living that goes well beyond many people in other parts of the world. Yet, we are not flourishing. Even many of your middle-class families might not say they are flourishing even though they are in a financial position where they have their physical needs met. There must be more to human flourishing than simply meeting our physical needs although I think that is part of it without a doubt.
If that’s true, then we have to get back to this idea of virtue being rooted in either psychology or morality. There may be a lot of overlap between those two fields, but it obviously goes well beyond the physical. It is partially physical, but it is also something that goes on in the mind. It is necessary that virtuous things relate to decisions we make, things that we do and beliefs that we hold.
We can’t just solve the problem of being oriented towards that which is good by meeting physical needs. We need to come up with some guidelines of the good actually is. I have already shown how it is not a good idea to base good on my own individual wants. That doesn’t work out very well, and it is self-defeating. However, I’m going to try to outline some things that help us define the good.
First, it does not cause harm without suitable justification. I have no doubt that soldiers cause harm to other people, but because they are defending vulnerable people who they love, I would call that suitable justification. Police officers apprehend people and take away their freedom. That is harm, but they are justified in doing so if the person is truly guilty of a serious crime. That’s why we cannot just make a blanket statement that that which is good does not curse harm. Sometimes there are justifiable reasons to cause harm, and we may even say that they are good reasons.
Second, that which is good thinks about the interests of other people. We all have some degree of self-interest, and it is not always a terrible thing. If we had no self-interest and gave away all of our food to the poor, our lives would be rather short. We need at least a little bit of self-interest to continue living. However, that which is good considers other people as more important than ourselves. If I am going to do something that helps me but hurts hundreds of other people, I shouldn’t do that thing. It may be in my self-interest, but, understood from a societal perspective, I think we could agree that it is not a good thing to do.
Even if we just stopped after these two points, there are plenty of applications for the year ahead. If you think I’m right, then why don’t we start to do things that don’t hurt other people and actually try to help them out? That’s a great way to start. That would orient our year towards virtue without a doubt. If we start reducing our anger and building communities in the interest of doing better for those around us, undoubtedly the world would be a better place. I think it is hard to disagree with that contention.
That being said, you might think this is all well and good, and you might be willing to go along with me so far. After all, I really said anything that would ruffle too many feathers yet I don’t think. However, we all know that there is a lot more to virtue than this. There are many more thorny issues that I haven’t even gotten close to, and they are the things where we are going to disagree. All I have proposed to you so far is that it is necessary to love your neighbor as you love yourself. That sounds awfully familiar. You have all heard that before from the mouth of Jesus Christ, but you might not have heard the first part of that same commandment.
Jesus was asked what the greatest commandment was. It was kind of a trick question to be fair, but He gave a two-part answer. “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength. The second is this: Love your neighbor as yourself. There is no commandment greater than these” (Mark 12:30-31, NIV).
The first part is where you are going to run away from me. You might be all for loving your neighbor. Most religions have been. If you read the appendix at the back of The Abolition of Man by C.S. Lewis, you will find all kinds of things where people agree. This is one of them. Most of the world’s great teachers of come to this conclusion.
The first part is much more revolutionary, but we need to love God with everything we have. You might not want to love God. However, I would contend that without that, we are not going to be able to get anywhere near the virtue revolution in 2019 that I’m suggesting we need. Why?
God provides an objective basis for morality. Other gods can do that as well. Allah, for example, can make a similar claim. However, having a lawgiver is necessary if we are going to have the virtue revolution. We need to have a fixed point that we are moving towards. Otherwise, we are going to be moving in a million different directions. We might have some things we agree on as I outlined above, but there are going to be times we disagree. Without some type of point to move towards, it is really hard to make any forward progress.
Beyond that, I think if you actually test the claims that are laid out, you will find that they move us towards the situations that we all agreed on the bills. They move us towards things that are good. I’m not going to outline all of the evidence here for you in this post that I have already gone on far too long, but simply check the facts. When people live in the way Scripture outlines, you see these things come to be. Of course, take under advisement what I wrote about last week. Make sure that you are not basing your perception of what Christianity is and people who either assume or abuse membership. Study its claims yourself based on the primary source document. You might be pleasantly surprised what you find.
I hope that this post is made you think a little bit about virtue in 2019. If we don’t have virtue, reduce anger or building community is going to do all that much good. We need to make sure we are moving in the right direction, and that is what I would encourage you to consider as we start the new year tomorrow.