When Is It Virtue?

Ideally, we live by a moral or ethical code.  I first began questioning the idea of virtue when I saw the movie, Dangerous Liaisons, with Michelle Pfeiffer.

In the movie, a young married woman is seduced and betrayed by a womanizer as part of a challenge between him and another noblewoman.  She is depicted as innocent and virtuous.  As the movie continued, I came to realize that she had never been tempted.  Her world was so circumscribed that she’d never needed to examine her own feelings, evaluate situations, or make decisions with consequences.  She just followed the rules: social, cultural and religious.  She was a good and virtuous woman.  I contend that she’d never before had cause for self-awareness and she’d never been exposed to temptation.

So, is it truly virtue if you’ve never been tempted?  Are you virtuous if you’ve never had to decide for yourself, never had opportunity?

According to Wikipedia, virtue “is moral excellence. A virtue is a trait or quality that is deemed to be morally good and thus is valued as a foundation of principle and good moral being. Personal virtues are characteristics valued as promoting collective and individual greatness. The opposite of virtue is vice.  The four classic cardinal virtues are temperance, prudence, courage, and justice.”

Also according to Wikipedia, temptation “is a desire to engage in short-term urges for enjoyment [vice], that threatens long-term goals. In the context of some religions, temptation is the inclination to sin. Temptation also describes the coaxing or inducing a person into committing such an act, by manipulation or otherwise of curiosity, desire or fear of loss.”

I believe that everyone who refuses to think for themselves, who blindly follows rules or dogma, who gives up their free will to another is NEVER virtuous in any sense.  If you’ve chosen your path with an awareness of the alternatives, you are virtuous in the context of your circumstances. (And, I do realize that this could be used to call Hitler virtuous.)  To be truly virtuous, you need to apply that self-awareness to the wider world.  You need to value things besides yourself, whether they are exactly like you or not.

This is a complicated topic discussed by people throughout history and from perspectives well beyond my own.  However, I think the final criteria for virtue is whether you adhere to it when no one else is there – when you could get away with doing whatever you want.  I believe, when you take responsibility for your own actions because you’ve chosen them from among the alternatives, when you live by whatever conclusions you’ve reached, you’ve surpassed virtue.  You are ethical.