As I and my generation have come of age in the past ten years, we have brought about significant changes in how we define ethics in American society. We’re still in the middle of those changes, and it may be premature to start commenting on them already. Yet, as someone with experience in both of America’s ideological worlds – raised in conservative suburbia, then educated at large public university and now surrounded by urban progressives – it has become important for me to try to understand what is driving the emerging definitions of right and wrong, and to decide where I stand in relation to them, especially as a Christian. I think one of the most paradigmatic changes happening is the shifting of emphasis from personal virtues to social virtues.
In part 1, I’ll try to define these terms. In part 2, I’ll look at some of the dangers brought about by the new morality and argue for a more balanced relationship between the two types of virtue.
By personal virtues I mean moral values that every individual ought to practice, thought of as universal and not considered in light of who the individual is or what part of the world they are interacting with. These are the virtues that religion and philosophy invented: patience, self-control, generosity, kindness. They are what a person has when he or she is a “good person.”
By social virtues I mean moral values that, unlike personal virtues, do not aim at individual character development, but rather at the perfection of social systems. In practice, they depend on who an individual is in the world, and who they’re interacting with, centering around categories of identity including race, sex, class, sexual orientation, gender (non)conformity, geography, politics, religion…etc. The socially virtuous person is the person who acknowledges what we refer to as patriarchy, white privilege, and heteronormativity and who recognizes the harm these cultural systems have inflicted on people in certain identity categories.
In response, the socially virtuous person seeks to reject and replace these systems with the virtues that contemporary academia, and my generation as a whole, invented: using socially sensitive language (such as gender neutral terms and preferred pronouns), creating art and media that challenge identity-based character tropes, honoring those whose identities have been subject to compounded social exclusion, and generally redefining what is considered “praiseworthy” on the basis of who one is and what one has experienced rather than a standardized measurement of “merit.” Underlying this ethical system is the recognition that cultural values (especially in 21st century, multicultural America) don’t arise out of a vacuum, but are imposed by powerful people on less powerful people and are thus loaded with inherent bias. Therefore, creating a more just society involves not only helping less powerful people become “successful,” but also redefining what we think of as success. At least in theory, white-straight-men relinquish their power to define “what matters,” and give it to everyone else to define for themselves. (In practice, I think the new definitions of “what matters” still tend to come from concentrated centers such as academia and popular media, which may be an inescapable feature of any ethical system.)
Because these cultural systems are so pervasive and have such immense explanatory power, discovering them feels like truly understanding the world for the first time. Thus, becoming socially virtuous in this way typically begins with a sort of “conversion story,” e.g. I once was blind to systemic racism but now I see. It also demands continual moral improvement: you start by recognizing economic gender discrepancies, but you later progress into deeper levels of insight into gender performance and masculine fragility. Again, these insights are persuasive and even captivating because of their power to explain “society”: why women aren’t CEOs, why crime is so high in urban black neighborhoods, why white men voted for Trump.
In the next post, I’ll look at what can happen when only social virtues are emphasized and personal ones are lost.