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Ethics and Morality

Greatness or Virtue?

Two models of achievement.

Brideshead Revisited movie scene
Brideshead Revisited
Source: Brideshead Revisited movie scene

A student of mine once wrote in an essay that it was not her goal in life to be a virtuous person and that what she wanted was to be successful. I found that an unusually clear-eyed statement of what is perhaps a widespread — though often unacknowledged — preference. I would guess that whatever people may dream about, very few dream about becoming a virtuous person. While we may want to correct various flaws such as being too anger-prone or impulsive, most of us probably want to be successful, popular, and so on. Why aren't we more focused on becoming virtuous? Should we be?

One reason we aren't may be that we think we are already good enough, morally speaking. When it comes to morality and character, we have a tendency to apply (to ourselves) a standard that’s not very high. Thus, we look around and see people who seem much worse than we are – corrupt politicians, for instance, or those who resort to physical violence – and we get assured that we don’t need to improve since we are not that bad. We don’t take the best people we can think of as a model. That is not how things generally work when it comes to goals such as success. If your best friend from high school is now a famous novelist or the owner of a multi-million dollar company, you are unlikely to ignore that and tell yourself that at any rate, another one of your classmates is an unemployed divorcé, who has lost custody of his children and whose mother has disowned him. When it comes to status, it seems, we want more than to be one rung higher up the ladder than the people at the bottom.

In a section called “On the Corruption of our Moral Sentiments” in The Theory of Moral Sentiments, Adam Smith suggests another reason why we prefer rank to virtue. He observes that social rank and status get more respect than wisdom and virtue do. The two kinds of respect – moral and, for lack of a better word, social – are not the same, but they are frequently conflated, in his view:

Two different models, two different pictures, are held out to us, according to which we may fashion our own character and behaviour; the one more gaudy and glittering in its colouring; the other more correct and more exquisitely beautiful in its outline: the one forcing itself upon the notice of every wandering eye; the other, attracting the attention of scarce any body but the most studious and careful observer. They are the wise and the virtuous chiefly, a select, though, I am afraid, but a small party, who are the real and steady admirers of wisdom and virtue. The great mob of mankind are the admirers and worshippers … of wealth and greatness. The respect which we feel for wisdom and virtue is, no doubt, different from that which we conceive for wealth and greatness; and it requires no very nice discernment to distinguish the difference. But, notwithstanding this difference, those sentiments bear a very considerable resemblance to one another … (and) inattentive observers are very apt to mistake the one for the other. [1]

The sort of "corruption" of our moral sentiments Smith talks about may have its roots, at least in part, in aesthetic preferences. Most of us like flashy things — stories about royals, celebrities, and good-looking, fashionable people. Those things are attention-grabbers of the popular imagination. While there is clearly a market for stories about good deeds, most anyone on the planet can probably name many more celebrities of the traditional sort than exceptionally virtuous people.

Smith’s analysis can be seen as a counterpoint to the claim about morality Nietzsche made: Nietzsche argued that traditional morality or what he called (unkindly) "slave" morality — Christian virtues such as charity and altruism — is the morality adopted by the masses. [2] Since most people cannot excel, Nietzsche maintained, they downplay the importance of excellence. Smith suggests that something quite different is true: Most people do not extol charity and altruism but rather, worship a certain kind of flashy "greatness" and even tend to see greatness as a moral merit.

Smith’s description probably captures the world today better than Nietzsche’s. (Though things are complicated. For instance, we have the phenomenon of “virtue signaling,” which can be seen as an attempt to get social status – rather than moral respect and self-respect – by persuading others of one’s own virtue.) What would the world be like if our sentiments did not get systematically distorted in the ways Smith describes, and we chose virtue? Would it be better, all things considered?

That depends on what benefits would accrue to society as a whole if people aimed primarily to be virtuous. Would it be better if a gifted singer spent her time on helping others rather than on developing her talents? In some ways, yes, surely. All things considered? It is not clear. Psychologist Gerd Gigerenzer has argued that in an uncertain world, it may be preferable to employ heuristics that deliver good enough results rather than to aim at the best possible results, morally speaking. Gigerenzer calls his preferred strategy “moral satisficing,” to be contrasted with “moral maximizing.” [3]

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[1] Smith, A. (1759/1976). The Theory of Moral Sentiments. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

[2] Nietzsche, F. (1887/1998). On the Genealogy of Morality. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett.

[3] Gigerenzer, G. (2010). "Moral Satisficing: Rethinking Moral Behavior as Bounded Rationality," Topics 2 (3), 528-554.

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