By Kentaro Toyama
Virtue, not technocratic solutions, is what I claimed our world needs more of, but I'm not saying anything new. Virtue goes back at least two-and-a-half millennia.
Western accounts of virtue start with Aristotle, but to honor Jim's relationship with China, let's go back instead to Confucius. Depending on what you paid attention to in school, you might remember Confucius by the Silver Rule ("Do not do to others..."), his exotic concepts (e.g., filial piety), or a series of grammar-challenged jokes ("Confucius say...").
Confucius did have a lot to say, but if there is one principle that runs through his philosophy, it's that personal virtue is the way to the good life and the good society. He posed the cultivation of virtue as a superior alternative to the manipulation or coercion of behavior through policy. [Right: Chow Yun-Fat as Confucius in a movie that reportedly replaced Avatar in Chinese theaters by government decree.]
As an excuse to insert some Chinese characters in Jim's absence, I'll highlight three virtues from Confucius's thought that I believe are the basic building blocks for all other virtues: One is rén (仁), benevolence or compassion. Another is self-control, which Confucius believed was enforced and nurtured by adhering to proper forms of behavior, or lǐ (礼). And, the third is wise judgment about how to turn benevolent intention into action of a kind that avoids the proverbial road to hell.
Concern for virtue simmers within the public sphere, and it bubbles over on occasion. In fact, the last nine weeks of Fallows bloggers have alluded to virtue several times, though rarely by name: John Tierney asked how college students can be stressed more while studying less, and he was deluged by students lamenting their own and their faculty's lack of self-control. Chuck Spinney, on a post about the Pentagon's failure to keep transparent accounts, cites a lack of benevolent intent: "it [the Pentagon leadership] does not want to fix it."
I sympathized especially with technologist Shelley Hayduk. Despite her advocacy of software to manage information overload, her passionate exhortations were decidedly non-technological: "it might mean downgrading and shutting off noisy alerts, even losing a gadget or two"; "achieving serenity is about taking control [...] rather than [information] controlling you". She closes with a quote from Aldous Huxley which could have been from The Analects of Confucius: "There is only one corner of the universe you can be certain of improving, and that's your own self."
Despite these occasional mentions, public discourse about virtue is muted. To abuse a recent parlour game, below is a graph of the rate of occurrence of the words "virtue" and "technology" in Google's Ngram Viewer, which plots frequency of words occurring in books over time. We see a rapid rise of technology in the last forty years against a two-century slide in virtue. (Is it a coincidence that the crossover happens around 1970, the same year I called out in yesterday's graph? Somewhat similar results are had with "virtue" against "institutions," "policies," and "systems.")
But is virtue still relevant today? For many people, talk of virtue brings to mind chastity belts and shining armor. I prefer definitions, however, that distance themselves from the moralizing (a point I'll return to in the next post). One such definition is provided by Julia Driver, a philosophy professor at Washington University in St. Louis. While many virtue theorists insist that virtues are intrinsically and morally good, Driver defines virtue strictly in terms of outcomes. To her, a virtue is a "character trait that systematically produces good consequences." A trait is a virtue only if it tends to cause good consequences.