On Virtue and Moral Panics
I. What Is Virtue?
Whilst morality these days is seemingly reflected by shared notions of an all-encompassing social good, conscience — the fountainhead of moral credos — is a wholly individualistic creature.
Right and wrong cannot be intuited but must be reasoned. Heart pangs might suggest it’s wrong to hurt another but it takes the analytic processes of the mind to understand exactly why this is wrong: because running roughshod over another sets a precedent that undermines one’s own security.
That analytical process is something that can only be undertaken by the individual not in the least because an individual’s welfare is the yardstick against which morality is measured.
Virtue is the sorting out of one’s feelings and emotions as they arise in interaction with the wider world. Virtuous action is a kind of mediated process, requiring the individual consider not only their own thoughts and motivations and actions but those of the people and objects with whom they interact. In all these variables the individual must search for something that resembles their conception of moral virtue.
This is, in part, why Aristotle describes virtue as “a state of character concerned with choice, lying in a mean, i.e. the mean relative to us, this being determined by reason, and by that reason by which the man of practical wisdom would determine it.”
Virtuous action has many constitutive parts: doing the right thing “at the right times, with reference to the right objects, towards the right people, with the right motive, and in the right way.” (The Nicomachean Ethics) One must muddle their way through identifying all these elements in order to identify and pursue the pass of virtue.
Virtue, clearly, is egocentric, which explains why virtue can be simultaneously (and seemingly paradoxically) both absolute and relative. Virtue is an absolute: there are many ways to be wrong and only one way to be right; it is unequivocally wrong to harm the right’s of another, for by doing so one jeopardizes one’s own welfare.
But the application of virtue is relative: the objects, people and motives involved in moral dilemmas differ greatly. The moral choice of a son faced with the question of pulling his brain-dead mother off life support is different than that made by a soldier under fire faced with the question of abandoning a fallen comrade and saving the rest of his platoon.
Both cases concern the preservation of life and rest on the moral precept of life’s sanctity. But the variables at play lead to a different set of choices and consequences and each man must grapple with the choices available to him — choices that are further differentiated by the moral reasoning of the mind confronted by them. Given the same situation, individuals with different value sets will find virtue in different choices.
The takeaway here is that moral values are binding on the individual who has reasoned through them, not the greater community.
II. Faux Virtue and Moral Panics
This, though, is not the operating assumption of a country consumed with moral panics and culture wars, wherein the supposed erosion of influence of certain ways of thinking is made tantamount to their assassination.
Organizations both private and political increasingly operate under the assumption that it is their job to promote a certain moral perspective. In the case of private actors, this is not necessarily a problem as the private realm is one of pluralistic competition. No one can force a consumer to patronize an establishment with whose moral ideas they disagree. For example, it has recently been the choice of the NBA to prioritize its access to the lucrative Chinese market over concerns for free speech and respect for individual sovereignty. Fortunately, the NBA cannot compel those who find its toadying to repressive regimes morally repugnant to watch its broadcast or purchase its licensed products.
But in the case of private actors, the invocation of morality is a much greater threat to the welfare of the individuals who make up society.
The invocation of “the greater good” is seen, particularly where public policy is concerned, as the ultimate and unassailable justification. Take the recent panic over e-cigarettes. In the rush to ban vaping products, politicians are prioritizing public health over the welfare of companies like Juul. Nevermind that the products being banned are not linked between the “vaping illness” the news would have its viewers believe is sweeping across the nation like a new-age plague. It is black market vape pen cartridges containing oil-soluble THC products that are causing this illness. These cannot be sold legally in the United States; regulation dictates that all vape pen cartridges contain only water-soluble products.
But moral panics rarely care about facts: which puts them squarely in opposition to the pursuit of virtue, which is grounded in reason.
The fact that companies like Juul are being persecuted and, thanks to the actions of virtue-signalling politicians, driven out of business doesn’t seem to matter very much: at the end of the day, the community is supposed to be placated by the supposed morality underlying its actions. Nevermind that the black market products actually responsible for harming people continue to be freely available, regulation having no effect on illegality. Nevermind the basic injustice of playing fast and loose with facts and demonizing an industry for a crime it hasn’t committed. Nevermind the dangerous precedent this sets for the rule of law.
But this is the problem with groupthink, or, perhaps more appropriately, groupfeel.
It relies on a faulty logic that assumes that, because individuals are constitutive members of a broader community, their interests are naturally aligned. Vaping is Bad. Banning it is Good for Everyone. Nevermind the personal stories of individuals who quit much more harmful cigarettes thanks to vaping products and believe they can have a positive influence.
A group, though, is the product of its constituent parts. It’s why the performance of sports teams can fluctuate wildly between seasons. Yes, success relies on the performance of the team as a whole. But that means the individual members who makeup the team must each perform their individual function to their full potential. If one team member has a bad day, the team’s output is reduced.
A whole is the sum of its parts. Society is nothing more than an expression of the individuals that make it up; this does not in any way mitigate the uniqueness or sovereignty of those individuals but accentuates it.
The so-called “social good” cannot be served by anything that denigrates a single member of that community.
Moral panics and an attitude of public do-goodery erode the ability of individuals to define virtue and pursue it for themselves. By assuming the interests of all are aligned, morality-driven regulation strip individuals of choice. Their perspective is essentially railroaded by the self-same authority that claims to be acting in their interests. Yet, should they attempt to voice those interests they are dismissed. One need look no further than Vicki Porter, an ex-smoker who testified before Congress as to the positive impact vaping had on her life, to see the truth of this. Porter’s personal experience was dismissed by Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-MI) who questioned whether she was a “conspiracy theorist.”
Moral panics and virtue-driven legislation twist virtue, which has not only real-world consequences but philosophical ones as well. This pretense at the virtuous distorts the egocentricity of true virtue, which is rooted in the rational process and an awareness of the relationship between the self and the wider world, and can only be undertaken by and applied to the individual.
Public morality attempts to bind individuals to a conscience other than their own. It attempts to make individuals accountable to a moral choice in which their intellect and input has played no part. This erodes, rather than promotes, virtue.