By Alesha Serocyznski, Science of Virtues scholar
This past week, a co-mentor, David, and I had a very
interesting discussion with a group of high school boys. We are reading through
the book Ship Breaker by Paolo
Bacigalupi, a National Book Award Finalist and winner of the Michael L. Printiz
Award for Excellence in Young Adult Literature. This captivating debut novel is
about a very economically depressed, post-apocalyptic society where early
American indentured servanthood and Darwin’s notion of survival-of-the-fittest
assume new, and particularly disturbing, qualities.
In the opening chapter we meet Nailer, the adolescent male
protagonist, and Sloth, his not-so-sluggish or dim female co-worker. Almost
immediately, Bacigalupi creates a chilling and suspenseful situation where Sloth
must choose between saving Nailer’s life or potentially garnering enough
financial resources to free herself and her entire family from economic
slavery. Needless to say, the parallel contemporary ethical dilemmas are
But David put an interesting and provocative spin on our
discussion by asking the boys what virtues each of the characters displayed in
the scene, and one of our participants provoked even further contemplation by
proposing that, in this instance, Sloth was hopeful.
“Hopeful?” I queried.
“Yea, hopeful,” he replied. “She had hope that the oil and money
would make her a Lucky Strike, too. She would be rich and free. No worries,
Fortunately, the boys were quick to recognize that Sloth had
forsaken other equitably important virtues like fidelity, justice, and charity;
and in doing so, eventually compromised the integrity of her misplaced hope.
But this conversation gave me pause, primarily because I am as guilty as the
next person of believing that the virtues are almost universally and
ubiquitously good. This may not be the case, however, and this example
compelled our group to think further about incidences when an overemphasis on
one virtue compromised the merit of the others. Stop reading for a minute, and
imagine comparable situations in your own life, or in our collective history…
Of course, I immediately thought of Hitler and his regime,
whose fanatic fidelity led to the loss of millions of lives. Just one Socratic
question pulled this response from another boy. A third noted an even more
personal example—where fidelity to one’s friends can get you in trouble,
expelled from school, even arrested. At this point I caught the eye of a fourth
boy who had just shared with me before group that he was arrested two weeks ago
for claiming ownership of a joint found in his sister’s car. Neither he nor I
can predict what this act of familial fidelity will cost him over the next few
years—jobs, educational opportunities, even his own hope.
Aristotle himself recognized the need for exercising all
virtues in tandem (Nicomachean Ethics, 1941/350
B.C.); and both Jesus and Solomon warned us of the perils of misplaced virtue
(John 5:45; Proverbs 11:23, respectively). Indeed, it seems that Solomon’s
excessive fidelity to his 1,000+ wives and concubines compromised his own
divinely-inspired prudence, and led to little hope and much despair at the end
of his days (e.g., Ecclesiastes 7: 23-29; of course, most of us would question
the prudence of so many alliances when so few of us today can remain faithful
to just one).
I think this may be at the heart of many of our gut
reactions this past month to Richard Miller’s proposal that sociopaths can be
empathic. Doesn’t empathy imply a sort of virtue; that is, pursuit of the good for
all (cf. the “good life” for just one person, i.e., the sociopath)? Perhaps
Nancy Snow will take up this topic of hope as virtue versus vice, because it
deserves a more critical and thoughtful discourse than I can generate in this
blog. Certainly, I hope to generate caution among us scholars of virtue; that
we are careful to remember that the over-reliance on one virtue can quickly
lead to companionable vices. I know that in my project participants, I want to
generate the virtue of hope that is part of a collection of virtues—a virtue
tool belt, we tell them—that will help them exercise temperance in their
fidelity, prudence in their charitable justice, and fortitude in their own life
hopes and dreams—for the collective, not just the individual, good.
(1941). Nicomachean Ethics. In R.
McKeon (Ed.), The basic works of Aristotle. New York: Random House.
(Original work published 350 B.C.).
Holy Bible, new international version.
(2002). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
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