Friday, September 29, 2017

Loss of vice and growth of virtue

Here is a pattern in the moral life. People have a conversion experience and puts away “the gross sins of the flesh” like robbery, drug abuse, violence or fornication. And then they struggle for decades with faults sins like laziness, unkindliness, vanity, impatience or judgmentality. What’s going on? It seems like at the outset they put away the bigger moral faults, and then they were left with smaller ones. Why is it that it takes so much longer to fight off the smaller ones? Why doesn’t it get easier, given that the faults are smaller? This is frustrating!

Instead, the experience sometimes seems to be like when you take a piece of unstretchable rope by two ends and pull. It is easy to get the initial big sag out. But as the sag gets smaller, it gets harder and harder to get it out.

Here is a thought. There are two ways of quantifying one’s moral state: the degree of vice and the degree of virtue. And the two are not related in a simple way, with one being the negation of the other. In ordinary circumstances, it doesn’t take much virtue to exclude murder from one’s life. But it does take a lot of virtue to exclude vanity from one’s life. To cease murdering is to lose much vice but is not to gain much virtue. To cease being vain, though, is not to lose much vice but it is to gain much virtue (is this true if one is still murdering, though?).

The “ordinary decent person” is perhaps not much more vicious than St. Teresa of Calcutta or St. Francis. But the “ordinary decent person” is far less virtuous.

Note that this is true even if we limit the discussion to what one might call “obligatory virtue”, i.e., the virtue that is opposed to vice rather than supererogatory virtue. The virtue involved in eliminating vanity is an obligatory virtue, though the virtue involved in giving up property for the sake of God and the poor, as St. Teresa and St. Francis did, is supererogatory. Yet the ordinary person is far less obligatorily virtuous than St. Teresa or St. Francis.

There may be an inverse relationship between vice and obligatory virtue: the more you have of the one, the less you have of the other. But a small increase of vice can correspond to large losses of virtue, and vice versa. It’s be a bit like that between the amount of sag in the rope and the horizontal force you need to push the ends with to balance the rope. As the sag goes to zero, the horizontal force goes to infinity.

The frustration I mentioned in the first paragraph then may be misplaced. For while it may seem like the moral life stalls after an initial burst of energy, the stalling may only be there if we measure the progress by the amount of vice. But if we measure by the amount of virtue, there might be steady increase throughout, just as a rope may linearly increase in tension, even though the sag seems not to be changing much.

(But may God have mercy on us!)

(While pushing metaphors perhaps too far, note that on the other hand the sag can’t go to infinity if the rope is unstretchable, since eventually we run out of rope. Likewise, perhaps, there is a limit to our vice, set by our nature. This fits with the idea of evil as a privation of the good.)

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