Can moral virtues become outdated?

by Emrys Westacott

UnknownA virtue is a quality that people consider valuable, admirable, or desirable. Human beings exhibit various kinds of virtues, many of which are specific to particular roles or activities. A strong throwing arm is a virtue in a baseball player. A good memory is a virtue in a stage actor. Some qualities, however, such as courage, kindness, or generosity, are typically viewed as moral virtues.

It isn't easy to specify just what makes a virtue a moral virtue. Like certain talents, qualities such as empathy or cheerfulness may be gifts of nature or ingrained by a certain upbringing, and they can also be deliberately cultivated. So the difference between moral and non-moral virtues doesn't lie in their origin, or in the degree to which one is responsible for possessing them.

Moral virtues do tend to be qualities that it is thought good for everyone to have; but that is also true of such things as intelligence or physical fitness. In general, though, we think of particular skills as valuable for some people who engage in particular tasks, while moral virtues are qualities that it is good for anyone and everyone to have. They are those excellences that help one to be a good human being (rather than just a good x) and to live a good life. Something like this underlies the way Socrates talks about virtue in Plato's dialogues.

These days, we tend to think of moral virtues as traits that directly affect our dealings with others; they are traits that make someone a more valuable colleague, neighbor, friend, companion, or compatriot, or fellow citizen. If we adopt Peter Singer's notion of expanding the circle of moral concern, we will also count among "others" humanity as a whole, and at least some non-human animals. But philosophers, like Aristotle, the Epicureans, and the Stoics conceive of moral virtues more broadly still, as including traits that have to do with how fulfilling a life one leads. Thoreau, for instance, who could reasonably be described as a modern stoic, views curiosity about the natural world, or an ability to appreciate beauty, as moral virtues in this sense.

Can a moral virtue become outdated? However one conceives of the moral virtues, this is an interesting question to ponder.

Anyone who is committed to the existence of an objective moral order–which includes most orthodox religious believers–will probably say no. An objective moral order, like God's will and true love, is not the sort of thing that "alters when it alteration finds." It is, instead, viewed as a fixed star that provides reliable guidance to all of us at all times.

There are good reasons, though, to think that at least some moral virtues have a sell-by date.

The value of non-moral virtues changes can obviously change over time. Consider specific skills such as the ability to navigate by the stars, or excellent penmanship. These were once genuinely important skills for certain people to have. Today, they are not needed except in very unusual or artificial circumstances (e.g. in a lifeboat, or in a penmanship competition). The same can be said of natural talents. Being good at mental arithmetic is not especially important once everyone has calculators. The ability to tune a musical instrument by ear is not needed once electronic tuners are available.

There are two ways in which moral virtues can become outdated: (a) due to a change in the material circumstances in which people live; and (b) due to a change in people's beliefs and attitudes. Obviously, these will often be connected, with the former often bringing about the latter.

Consider the case of chastity before marriage. In the West until quite recently, this was considered an absolutely essential virtue in women. A women who had had sex before marriage was "spoiled goods," and imperfection on this score was a dealbreaker–witness Angel Claire's abandonment of Tess in Hardy's Tess of the D'Urbervilles. To the Victorian mindset, which lasted longer than Victoria, who died in 1901, the sexual activity of single young women today would have been horrifying. The main explanation for the shift in moral perception is presumably the ready availability of contraception, especially the pill (which was approved for use in 1960). Although attitudes had been changing gradually, especially following World War II, it was removing the fear of unwanted pregnancy that was the real game changer.

In some parts of the world, of course, sexual activity by an unmarried woman can still occasion shame and even a so-called "honour killing." But in places like Europe and America, hardly anyone would call off a marriage upon discovering that the bride to be was not a virgin. (It's true that the British royal family checked that Diana Spencer was a virgin before she married Charles–but they are often a bit behind the times.)

Faith is another virtue that has lost much of its importance in the modern world. According to generations of biblical scholars, Abraham's unquestioning obedience to a divine command that he sacrifice his son marks him out as exemplifying the "man of faith." Today, his behavior would be universally viewed as exemplifying mental illness. Unknown-1Doubting Thomas, the disciple who wouldn't believe Jesus had risen from the dead until he could verify the claim for himself, has generally been viewed critically. Jesus tells him, "Blessed are they who have not seen and yet have believed." But Thomas could reasonably stake a claim to be the patron saint of what we now call critical thinking. Ever since the scientific revolution and the Enlightenment, the prevailing view has been that it is good to think critically, and wherever possible, to base one's beliefs on empirical evidence.

One traditional virtue that presents an especially interesting case is frugality. Throughout history, the majority of people have been extremely poor if judged by modern standards. They possessed little, and major purchases like a house, or even a horse, would be completely beyond their means. Being able to manage on a little by practicing frugality was thus an important quality, especially in a prospective mate. In a man, frugality indicated that he would not squander money at the tavern and the card table. In a woman, it signified careful management of household resources.

Today, though, "frugal" is not a term that features very prominently in personal profiles uploaded to dating websites. "Fun loving," or "loves travel and eating out" sound a lot more attractive to most people. The reason is not hard to fathom. Today, the majority of people in prosperous societies, while they would not consider themselves rich, do not expect to be living with their backs to the wall, darning socks, patching clothes, and reusing coffee grounds. Our lives are more secure than those of our forebears, and our recreational opportunities much greater. So frugality, for many people today, is less a matter of repairing, reusing, or doing without, and more a matter of getting a good deal on round-trip tickets to some holiday destination.

Chastity, faith, and frugality, then are examples of virtues that have to varying degrees gone out of fashion. Nevertheless, there are still plenty of others that seem to be more or less timelessly desirable qualities: for instance, courage, kindness, honesty, fairness, friendliness, or generosity. It may be possible to imagine a society in which these traits are viewed negatively; but such a society is not one that any sane person would want to live in.