Whence virtue?

Categories 1 Virtues

We recognise virtue, we value it, but how can we explain it?

Religion explains virtue by the existence of a God who is virtue. But this is an inadequate explanation for human virtue. It simple re-labels virtue and renders it arbitrary. Does the religious believer only act virtuously because God tells her to, and otherwise would she opt for vice? Projecting virtue onto an external divinity leaves no human agency. In this view, humans are, at best, moral robots, even if religion insists that they are failed disobedient perverse moral robots, who accept being told that X is good and then do the opposite! God may prescribe virtue, but what synthesis of virtue, for example of justice and mercy, is proposed in each real life situation? Prescribed virtue is never sufficiently situation specific. And if God is the source of virtue, whence vice? The religious moral scheme then needs the dualism of a devil as well as a God. Or virtue is ascribed to God and vice to fallen humanity in some bizarrely asymmetrical moral scheme.

Darwinian evolution is the usual recourse for secular thought. In this scheme, virtue is a random mutation which enhances human fitness for survival. Or it may indeed be an ‘exaptation’ ie an evolutionary change without any differential survival implication. Or it may even be a mutation with negative survival implications, simply requiring hugely more time before it leads to humanity’s demise. Perhaps vice is the mutation more effective for survival, although we could lump virtue and vice together as a characteristic of the human species labelled ‘moral awareness’. The lack of a billion years at hand means we can’t tell which is the case for virtue in the Darwinian scheme, and this gives the evolutionary account more leeway than we can handle. The main problem with this account is that it renders human agency redundant as much as the religious view. Can we consciously activate conscience and determine our moral disposition, or do our genes call the shots? Neither of the explanations of God or genes elevate the human being to moral agency.

A vague attempt at explaining virtue may be to regard it as an independent metaphysic. Like force, field, and probability, like mathematics, if mathematics is discovered rather than invented, virtue is a component of the set of independent metaphysics that as yet we have no account for. This comes close to admitting we don’t know the explanation for virtue, and that’s a credible and respectable intellectual position.

A more human explanation is that virtue is a cognitive human notion which we choose to embrace. Perhaps we observe and experience the total possible range of behaviour patterns, and favour virtue above vice. We simply like it, we like its outcomes. It’s arbitrary, but at least it’s human arbitration. It’s as though we could observe and experience all possible climates and weather patterns, and then choose the one we found most amenable, convenient, or enjoyable, the one we wish to live by.

So far we have four rival candidates for the explanation of virtue – religion, evolution, the cosmos, or humanity itself. The most meaningful, the most responsible option, is that virtue is a cognitive human choice. As, therefore, is vice. Virtue becomes our aspiration, our target characteristic, the spirit of humanity, an atheist spirituality.



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