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Objective Virtue

James LynchThe following Gutenberg student post was written as an assignment for Tim McIntosh’s sophomore writing class. The assignment is intended to help prepare students for writing to a public readership. The views within do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of Gutenberg College.

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Andrew Kern, founder and president of the CiRCE Institute, wrote an article, You Are What You Behold: And They’re Beholding You, discussing how to teach virtue to students. His method is not “scientific,” which may be hard to swallow for most modern audiences. Generations have been conditioned to believe that without a scientific method, or experts to stroll in, teaching anything—much less virtue—is next to impossible. In any case, many believe virtue is dead or relative to individuals. But virtue is not dead. People are just not taught to value virtue.

Some readers might disagree that we are not taught to value virtue. They value virtue; they would like all people not to cheat or steal from them. Most people desire their fellow man to be virtuous to them, but they value virtue only because it benefits them, not because of the inherent value of virtue.

People are also selective concerning which virtues they value. Plenty of virtues are not valued at all. Prime examples are chastity, purity, and forbearance. People will not need convincing that the first two virtues are not cherished; most would scoff at the mere idea of chastity or purity. Forbearance is simply the ability to resist instant gratification.

But people should not pick and choose virtues; to do so undercuts the whole point of what a virtue is. One hole in Kern’s article is that he did not define virtue. (In his defense, he was writing to a Christian audience and probably assumed they shared his definition of virtue.) I would define virtue as an objective human behavior or mindset that is favorable and pleasing in the sight of righteous men and God.

Most people would more or less agree with  my definition of virtue except for the part concerning objectivity. Kern claims that anyone can teach virtue, but I think teaching virtue is only possible if the concept of virtue is universally understood, or objective.

Why should the concept of virtue be objective and not subjective? Because ideas that are objective are indisputably part of reality. People cannot argue about the existence of something objective; they can only discuss the importance of that something. On the other hand, subjective ideas are passing fads. For example, “I like the color red” is a subjective statement that could change in time, whereas “The stop sign is red” is an objective claim of reality. Subjective concepts are created by man; objective concepts are discovered by man. Subjective concepts will fade with the passage of time, or else we would be still suffering from the fashion of 1970s. (If this is not proof of a merciful God, then I have no idea what is.) Objective concepts stand the test of time.

1970s fashions

Kern suggests teachers or parents can teach virtue simply by embodying it. If teachers spend time with their students while embodying virtue, then students will imitate the teachers. But how do people embody virtue? Kern looks to the Apostle Paul for support: “Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble… if there be any virtue and if there be any praise, think on these things” (Philippians 4:8-9). Everyone knows, or has at least experienced, what happens when you devote yourself to a subject, whether it be work, a hobby, or a project. You become its slave; you cannot help but embody whatever the subject is and exhibit it.

Sure, telling teachers to exhibit virtue is interesting, but why not tell the rest of us, too? Kern wrote his article with teachers and parents in mind. But while he is trying to convince parents and teachers that teaching virtue is possible, it is hard to believe that he would not apply the necessity to show virtue in one’s life to everyone. So then, I would change Kern’s original title from You Are What You Behold: And They’re Beholding You to You Are What You Behold: And the World Is Beholding You because anyone can embody virtue.

But, again, how can we embody virtue? Doing so requires no method or system. Simply think about virtue until it shows in your actions. You do not have to do anything special; you just live life, go to work, and play sports while you live virtuously. That does not sound like it would make a big difference. However, this is when virtue being objective is important. Being virtuous in a world denying the objective existence of virtue will not go by unnoticed; it would be like trying to conceal a black dot on a white canvas. People will notice the very thing you are embodying, and they will imitate the virtue they see in you.

 

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