The insufficiency of mere virtue

But the injunctions “Be virtuous,” “Be courageous,” “Be great-souled,” “Be liberal” do not tell us what to do in the sense of what to aim at; they rather tell us how we should behave in the pursuit of our aim, whatever it is. But what should that aim be?

— Alasdair MacIntyre, A Short History of Ethics


I’ve got a good idea for a game. Like all games, it needs rules, so I’ve got several. First, you’ve got to keep the ball within bounds; there’s a line painted around the edge of the playing field, and if the ball goes over the line it’s out of bounds. You can kick the ball, but you can’t touch it with your hands. Also, you’re not allowed to hit, kick, push, or spit on the other players. No steroids are allowed. Oh, and you have to wear a regulation uniform. Jumping is permitted, as long as you don’t jump too much. Excessive jumping is frowned on. That’s about it.

I know you’re thinking I must have forgotten to mention something — like what the goal is, how to win the game. Well, your goal is to score points, and you score points — (here’s the beauty of the game design) — by following the rules. The ref watches you while you play, and for every minute spent following the rules you get a point. Points are deducted for infractions — how many depends on how serious the offense — and in the end if you have a positive number of points, you win! (This is not an inherently competitive game. It’s perfectly possible for everyone to win.) Winning — ending with a positive number of points — is the main point of the game, but of course the more points you can get, the better.

That was the original version of the game, but I found that it had a few problems — the biggest one being that it was possible to win by just standing on the field doing nothing. So I added some more “positive” scoring criteria, to encourage players to actively play well rather than taking the negative path of merely avoiding violations. In the new version of the game, you also get points for helping other players. So, for example, if one of the other players has decided to try to keep the ball in the air for a full five minutes, you can get points by helping him do that. Or if he’s decided to stand perfectly still for the whole game, you can help prop him up — but of course don’t push him! Team spirit counts, too. Enthusiastically helping other players will get you even more points. You also get points for accuracy — for making the ball go precisely wherever it is that you want it to go — and for general grace of movement. In this new, richer version of the game, obeying the rules is the bare minimum expected; most of your effort will be devoted to being accurate and graceful and helping others.


A deeply unsatisfying game, obviously. A pointless one. But notice how much more intelligible it becomes with the addition of an objective goal, however arbitrary. Tell a player that his goal is to see to it that the ball enters net A more times than it enters net B, and suddenly all his grace and accuracy and teamwork become meaningful.

As with sports, so with war. Send an army onto the field with no orders but to be brave, loyal, and self-sacrificing, and nothing will come of it. But tell them that their goal is to capture Jerusalem — or to protect it from being captured, or whatever (just about any goal will do, really) — and you create a situation in which real bravery, loyalty, and self-sacrifice can appear.

The goal itself doesn’t really matter. The real point is not the achievement of the ostensible goal, but rather the virtue and excellence which are manifested in its pursuit. As Nietzsche’s Zarathustra says, “a good war hallows every cause.” The cause itself may be completely pointless — as, for example, in soccer or World War I — but it must not be thought of as pointless. Unless the participants really care about the ostensible goal, no “good war” will result.


Moving from sports and war to life in general, I find that most moral philosophy is as unsatisfactory as the imaginary game described at the beginning of this post:

Be virtuous.

In the service of what goal?


And how is happiness obtained?

By being virtuous.

So what exactly am I supposed to do?

Implied answer: Whatever strikes your fancy, so long as you do it in a virtuous way.


This can be done. A more-or-less arbitrary goal can be chosen and pursued, and the result can be a life of virtue and happiness. (It can be instructive to Google the phrases “the purpose of life is” and “he devoted his life to” — the sentences tend to end in totally different ways.) But it only works if you don’t think about it too much. The soldiers must never stumble upon the disillusioning thought, “This? Is this the face that launched a thousand ships?”


Filed under Ethics, Philosophy

3 responses to “The insufficiency of mere virtue

  1. Agreed. Most answers given are circular, but a robust answer would need not to be.

    On the other hand the ultimate (true) answer, if or when found, would function as an assumption – and could not be justified on other grounds, could be be explained in terms of other reasons.

    So, if someone keeps asking why, and keeps demanding an answer to why (or else rejecting the answer given) then this procedure can *only* lead to circularity.

    This is a version of the (true) argument that all (real true) knowledge can only terminate in divine revelation. And if there is no divine revelation, then there can be no real true knowledge (but this deficit could itself never be known).

  2. So, if someone keeps asking why, and keeps demanding an answer to why (or else rejecting the answer given) then this procedure can *only* lead to circularity.

    Well, yes, but that’s not quite my point here. I’m not asking why I should be virtuous but rather what exactly I should do — because virtue is fundamentally not a thing-to-do but a way-of-doing-things. To be virtuous, you need something to do so that you may do it in a virtuous way.

    If someone hires me and tells me simply that my job is to work hard and help my colleagues, my natural question would be not “Why?” but rather “Work hard at what? Help them do what?” — and “just work hard at working hard” is not an usable answer. I need not so much justification as clarification. It’s not that I refuse to work without a good reason, but that I just cannot work unless I have something to work at.

    And that’s the problem with most conceptions of man’s duty — including most religious ones. They neglect to mention what we’re actually supposed to do with our lives, what the goal is.

    • OK – I hadn’t picked up this point.

      I think the answer is that the answer differs for each of us – my recent postings on the subject of discernment and guidance have been somewhat addressing this, but I haven’t made it explicit.

      I have found William Arkle clarifying on this (in Geography of Consciousness, which is a somewhat mixed and difficult book but containing some remarkable analysis and insights) – essentially he points out that (having accepted first the reality of a loving God and that he has designed the world as a place for spiritual progression, learning and so on), we and the world have clearly not been set-up with the idea of producing a lot of identical people (‘clones’ as they tend to be termed).

      Rather, it looks very much as if each of us is intended to be unique – and Arkle links this to the purpose of life being to ‘make’ divine friends for God – because of course each friend would be intended to be different (no point in having identical friends).

      So, life is about ‘quarrying-out our own uniqueness’ through trial and error, aspiration and repentance etc. This is possible because we have both general guidance from God and also a bit of God in us – which works as an specific evaluation/ guidance system – including pointing us at specific goals.

      Organized religions, like all human institutions, have a (strong) tendency to lapse into neglecting individuality, and to push a cookie-cutter idea of identi-clones (in a nutshell, equating duty with obedience to general rules – which is both insufficient and lop-sided guidance).

      Anyway, I think this is how it works, or how it is meant to work.

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