Tuesday, July 31, 2012

When Virtue Pays II: The Right Thing and the Wrong Reason

If it is an acknowledged truth that virtue does pay, it is equally true that to become virtuous for the sake of the payment is practically speaking impossible. Indeed, it is worse than impossible: it is dangerous.

About a quarter of the way through Anna Karenina, Kitty Shtcherbatsky "falls in like" with another girl.

No, they're not really Russian.  But every time I searched "Anna Karenina" 
all I got were pictures of Elizabeth Swan.

Kitty’s attraction to the girl, Mademoiselle Varenka, is based on Varenka’s “interest in life, a dignity in life,” an interest and a dignity which Kitty cannot feel or share.  Hoping to gain something of the same serenity that Varenka displays, Kitty sets about imitating Varneka’s service of others--with disastrous results.  The consumptive painter whom she wished to help is smitten by her; the painter’s wife grows jealous.  Kitty blames herself.

“And it serves me right! And it serves me right!” Kitty cried quickly, snatching the parasol out of Varenka’s hand, and looking past her friend’s face.

Varenka felt inclined to smile, looking at her childish fury, but she was afraid of wounding her.

“How does it serve you right? I don’t understand,” she said.

“It serves me right, because it was all sham; because it was all done on purpose, and not from the heart. What business had I to interfere with outsiders? And so it’s come about that I’m a cause of quarrel, and that I’ve done what nobody asked me to do. Because it was all a sham! a sham! a sham!…”

“A sham! with what object?” said Varenka gently.

“Oh, it’s so idiotic! so hateful! There was no need whatever for me…. Nothing but sham!” she said, opening and shutting the parasol.

“But with what object?”

“To seem better to people, to myself, to God; to deceive everyone. No! now I won’t descend to that. I’ll be bad; but anyway not a liar, a cheat.”

Kitty committed what Eliot famously calls “the final treason:” she did a good deed for a selfish end, and she is duly punished.

You know you're wondering.
I'll tell you.  It's ye olde 1973 statue of St. Thomas a Becket near St. Paul's Cathedral in London.
Yeah. (1) Suddenly those Olympic ceremonies seem less of a shock and more of an ongoing trend. 
(2) Paging Bruce Denny. If you need a lawyer I know where to find one.
Oh, wait ...

The truth of the matter is, most of us would like to be thought well of. The good opinion of others is one of those things which seems desirable in itself; furthermore, it is in some degree necessary to us. Without a moderately good name—without a minimal reputation for honesty, for example—none of us would be able to hold down a job. And for most of us, there is some additional incentive to behave ourselves for our group, whether that be family, faith, school, or country. My siblings and I (for example) were always uber-conscious of behaving ourselves at “grownup” parties, not so much because of what awaited us at home if we didn’t, but because we wanted to be thought of as “Those Joneses!” and not “Those Jones!” Similarly, when John Q. Catholic has an affair and the neighborhood hears of it, his reputation is besmirched AND, in the minds of his neighbors, all other Catholics are tainted by association. Of course, this phenomenon works in positive ways as well. I’ve read it written (wish I could find the source, but no such luck) that one of the great causes of the breakdown of racism in America was black families moving in next door to white ones, and each finding out that the other was, well, normal.

 Well, equally abnormal, anyway.

The problem arises when one’s reputation grows from its humble natural position as (on the one hand) the consequence of one’s virtue and (on the other) the means to some distinct and valid end, and becomes an end in itself—the Kitty Shtcherbatsky case. The danger is that, whenever we become conscious of our reputation as it exists in the minds of others—whenever circumstances bring us to consider the impressions that our actions have made—that we will be tempted to produce more of those impressions, simply for the delightful purpose of being admired. It is true that virtue will pay, but dangerous to assume that virtue will pay.

Fortunately, most people (myself included) are deplorably bad at manufacturing and incepting impressions of themselves. Even a lot of politicians aren’t very good at it, since voters instinctively recoil from the smarminess that tends to exude from their well-groomed coats like musk from a rutting deer.

Who?  Me?  Yeah, those are fangs in my mouth.  So?

And indeed, this is a good eudaemonist would expect. For if virtue is what makes you happy, and what makes you happy is virtue, then it stands to reasons that the pursuit of anything but virtue—even the appearance of virtue—will fail to satisfy.

“But, but, but!” you say. “Doesn’t Aristotle say that a good reputation is part of what it is to be happy? Didn’t you just admit its importance above? After all, if your reputation stinks, and you can’t hold a job, and everyone thinks of your family as Those Joneses and considers the Church that you hold dear to be a bastion of immoral hypocrites—you can’t really be happy, can you? And anyway the whole point of the eudaimonic theory of virtue, as opposed to the nasty Kantian one, is that it’s OK to pursue happiness instead of just doing your stinking duty.”

Eeeeeyes … and no. Or, to put it as Aristotle himself would have put it … In a way, yes; and in a way, no.

Music tomorrow and a conclusion on Friday!

I know, I know, you're so disappointed ...


  1. Disappointed? Goodness, no. If only for that hearty conjuction of "Kantian" and "nasty", this has been quite a satisfying read!

    But if you're about to suggest that, having finished The Ball and the Cross (it was awesome!) I should now look at that Karenina thing... You see, having grown up in a more-or-less happy family, and knowing a number of both happy and unhappy other families, I just couldn't get behind or past that silly declaration on the first page... but I digress.

    1. No, I'm not much of a fan of Kant. Though I WAS speaking in someone else's voice there.

      Reading AK myself for the first time, and I'm about halfway through. I don't know yet. A lot of friends rave about it, bbbbbut the gut predicts that in the end I'll still prefer Dostoyevsky.

      Glad you liked B&C!

      Now, Truth or Consequences. You're not another guilty reader of Auntie Seraphic, are you?

    2. Goodness me, it's Truth and Consequences, for there will be consequences either way. Otherwise we couldn't be chivalric, nor cavalier.

      I'm a perfectly innocent reader of Auntie Seraphic! Over there, as in many older places, I just go by "Some Guy On The Street", with or without capitals. Which isn't to say that I couldn't be doing aught more-evidently-useful than reading the sensible things she has to say; but, sometimes... well, I'm sure you understand.

    3. "Truth and"? That's not how I was taught to play the game! However ...

      Then that makes me innocent too. I always feel a little guilty reading her (especially since the blog went pink!!), but my defense is that well, yes, she is eminently sensible.

      Anyhoo, it's nice to know where mysterious commenters come from.