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What Good Is Virtue?
Contending with Socrates’ conundrum
Ancient philosophies, explains Henry Sidgwick, “proceed on the assumption that man, as a reasonable being, must seek his own highest good in this earthly life, and therefore that any laws he has to obey must be shown to be means to the attainment of this good.” (Outlines of the History of Ethics for English Readers, 7)
Socrates, the first great moral philosopher, held that the highest good is happiness. But how, he asked, can we achieve happiness? Not by piling up desirable things like wealth, health, and beauty. Wealth can be a curse if you don’t use it in the right way. Happiness doesn’t come merely from having good things, but from using them in the right way. This requires virtue.
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The claim that happiness requires virtue seemed implausible to many Greeks, who took it as obvious that “many wrongdoers are happy.” But if Socrates’ first claim raised eyebrows, his next claim astonished.
Virtue, he argued, is not merely necessary for happiness, but sufficient for happiness. If we have virtue—which, for Socrates, ultimately just meant wisdom—then we have everything we need to ensure a good life.
Can it really be true that a virtuous man could be poor, sick, friendless, even tortured on the rack…and happy? Aristotle didn’t think so. Though he thought virtue was the most important ingredient of happiness, he nevertheless argued that it is totally implausible that a virtuous man suffering evils and misfortunes could be happy. Virtue is necessary for happiness—but the conditions of your life matter, too.
On one level, what Aristotle says sounds obviously right. But we shouldn’t be too quick to dismiss Socrates. If morality defines a goal we should pursue and the means for achieving that goal, then it seems like a problem if its means don’t actually lead to the goal. Is a math formula really a good math formula if it leads to true answers only sometimes?
And more than that, it really does seem true that virtue brings happiness. Socrates really did seem fulfilled by his life even as he drank the hemlock. Howard Roark, the hero of Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead, really did seem serene even as he labored in a quarry, speaking of how the pain went “only down to a certain point.”
Effective Egoism, I’ve argued, demands dedication to virtue. If you aren’t living virtuously, you aren’t pursuing your happiness. Most people find that incomprehensible. Like Socrates’ fellow Athenians, they believe that an egoist must embrace violating moral principles if it leads to values like money. It’s why, they argue, egoism is immoral.
And, on the other side, modern Stoics insist that the egoist is wrong for valuing things besides virtue. Following Socrates, they insist that virtue is the only thing that matters for happiness. If your soul is in the right state, then the external conditions of your life are not important.
Both objections to Effective Egoism are wrong. In each case, Socrates was on to a profound truth about virtue, but to reach the full truth we can neither outright reject his arguments nor accept them uncritically.
Virtue Is Necessary for Happiness
For an Effective Egoist, happiness is your moral goal and it comes from the achievement of life-promoting values. But what are life-promoting values?
The Greeks took certain objects and states as obviously good for you: money, power, pleasure, beauty, honor—getting those things was good for you regardless of how you got them. Socrates’ great insight was to grasp that happiness involves building a whole life, and to judge that an object is actually good for you requires assessing its overall impact on that life. Money without wisdom can ruin a man. The sheer fact that you obtain an object of desire says nothing about whether it truly contributes to your happiness.
According to Effective Egoism, there are three fundamental values that you must achieve in order to live and enjoy life: reason, purpose, and self-esteem. They are fundamental because they make possible the achievement and enjoyment of every other pro-life value. If you do not cultivate a reality-oriented mind, if you do not formulate a vision of life and go after it, if you do not make yourself into someone deserving of happiness—then you will not be able to achieve a self and a life that you love.
If you do secure these fundamental values, then that makes possible all of the other values crucial to a happy life: a fulfilling career, a fulfilling romance, close friends, beloved art, and everything else that contributes to your flourishing.
But achieving your values, including your fundamental values, requires dedicating yourself to moral principles. As I wrote in “The Human Way of Life”:
Pragmatism is impractical: you can’t foresee all of the consequences of your actions, and all-too-often choices that seem low-stakes and innocuous turn out to have major consequences you did not predict.
Virtues solve this problem. They are causal principles that identify the actions that lead to life-promoting values. They tell you which choices will lead to long-range achievement and success, and which will lead to long-range frustration and failure.
Because reason is your basic means of survival, your fundamental virtue is rationality: the virtue of using reason as your only guide to knowledge, values, and action.
Every other virtue is an aspect of rationality: it specifies what it means to be rational in light of some specific fact about human nature. This includes virtues such as honesty, integrity, independence, productiveness, justice, and pride.
You cannot achieve values without practicing virtue. A vicious person may be able to achieve some out-of-context goal, like money. But such goals won’t add up to a harmonious constellation of life-promoting values. A bank robber has money, sure, but he also has a looming prison sentence and inescapable self-loathing. (See, for example, my article “Bernie Madoff, Steve Jobs, and Wall Street Greed.”) For money—or anything else—to be a value, it must be obtained and used virtuously.
But an Effective Egoist doesn’t see virtue merely as a means to values, the way he sees going to the dentist as merely a means to dental health. His attitude toward the money stored in a bank is not, “If only I could get it without risking greater harms!” His attitude toward a potential romantic partner is not, “If only I could lie my way into bed!” He loves living virtuously: virtue becomes part of his self-conception and part of what he wants out of life.
Happiness, I said, involves building a whole life, and life is activity: the activity of pursuing, achieving, and enjoying values. But that’s just a description of virtue. If there was an easier way of keeping our teeth healthy than going to the dentist, we would do it. Virtue isn’t like that. It’s not simply a means to our goals, but an inseparable part of our ultimate goal of happiness. Living virtuously is itself a value—not because virtue is an end in itself or its own reward, but because it is the activity that makes possible the achievement and enjoyment of every other value.
What do I want out of life? I want love, and creative achievement, and memorable experiences, and comfortable living with touches of luxury. But I also want to be a certain type of man. I want to be honest, courageous, just, proud. Being that type of man is what will allow me to achieve my values, and it’s what makes my life a value worth sustaining. Virtue allows me to achieve great things and be worthy of great things.
So, should I steal a million dollars if I can get away with it? Questions like this are utterly daft. To sacrifice virtue for some alleged value makes no more sense than giving up my eyesight to gain an art gallery.
An Effective Egoist has a vision of a life he wants to build—a vision comprised of grand-scale values and the virtuous activity that will help him realize and enjoy those values. Anything that is not part of that vision has no value. A million dollars or a billion means nothing to him—not if it means throwing away his vision of life.
Virtue Is Sufficient for Happiness…Sort Of
So virtue is necessary for happiness. But is it sufficient?
In one sense, no. You can be fully rational, fully honest, fully productive, fully just, and still have important values not yet realized. You may not have the romance you desire. You may not have a job you find satisfying. You may be living in a dreary and drafty one-bedroom apartment as you work your way through school. You manifestly don’t have everything worth having in life.
But in another sense, virtue is sufficient for happiness. If you are virtuous, then even if the existential conditions of your life are not satisfying, the condition of your soul is. You will have achieved the fundamental values of reason, purpose, and self-esteem. The result will be a deep serenity and love of life. I like the way philosopher Leonard Peikoff puts it:
A man of this kind has “achieved his values”—not his existential values, but the philosophical values that are their precondition. He has not achieved success, but the ability to succeed, the right relationship to reality. The emotional leitmotif of such a person is a unique and enduring form of pleasure: the pleasure derived from the sheer fact of a man’s being alive—if he is a man who feels able to live. We may describe this emotion as “metaphysical pleasure,” in contrast to the more specific pleasures of work, friendship, and the rest. Metaphysical pleasure does not erase the pains incident to daily life, but, by providing a positively toned context for them, it does blunt them; in the same manner, it intensifies one’s daily pleasures. The immoral man, by contrast, suffers metaphysical pain, i.e., the enduring anxiety, conflict, and self-doubt inherent in being an adversary of reality. This kind of pain intensifies the man’s every daily defeat, while turning pleasure for him into a superficiality that “goes only down to a certain point.” (Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand, 340)
The Stoics are wrong. Existential values are values: wealth, health, love, fulfilling work, pleasure—all of these things matter in life. No, you cannot sacrifice virtue to achieve them because sacrificing virtue means you won’t achieve them—or, if you do, they won’t bring you joy. But the whole reason to cultivate virtue is precisely so you can live a life rich in values.
And the Stoics are wrong in one further way: there are conditions in which virtue will not even bring you metaphysical pleasure—namely, conditions in which it’s impossible to pursue values. If you are trapped in a concentration camp, or diagnosed with an incurable, intolerable disease, or if you lose a value so vital to your life that life no longer has anything to offer you, then virtue will not bring you happiness in any sense. Peikoff again:
Virtue does ensure happiness, at least in the metaphysical sense—except when life itself becomes impossible to man because, for some reason, the pursuit of happiness becomes impossible. (Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand, 341)
Virtue is for living, and will not bring you happiness if you can’t live.
The Virtue of Pride
An Effective Egoist is not a shrewd utility maximizer, eager to cut corners in order to gain “low pleasures” or “high status.” He is a man of stature. He seeks nothing but the best, and makes himself worthy of the best. What he seeks above all else is self-reverence. It is the reverence that comes from creating a flawless moral character.
Religious morality robbed the virtuous of stature. This is a point Nietzsche got right. In religious morality, he observed, “a touch of disdain is associated with the ‘good’”: the virtuous man is not noble and proud but “good-natured, easy to deceive, a little stupid perhaps.” (Beyond Good and Evil, 260) See: The Good Place or essentially any modern attempt to depict a moral hero.
We should revive Socrates’ conception of virtue—but amend it with a deeper understanding of the nature of virtue and its role in achieving the values that make up a truly human life. What virtue guarantees is the best spiritual and existential state possible to you given the circumstances you face—a state is that deeply fulfilling even in trying times.
But virtue’s power comes from the fact that it is the path to life-enhancing values. It does not exempt you from the need to achieve life-enhancing values. And while nothing can give you full control over the achievement of such values, virtue gives you all that could ever be asked: fundamental control.
Effective Egoism 101
The conception of earthly idealism I champion was defined by Ayn Rand. Here are three key works that summarize her perspective:
Faith and Force: Destroyers of the Modern World by Ayn Rand
Causality vs. Duty by Ayn Rand
The Objectivist Ethics by Ayn Rand
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