The Death of Character

The relation between virtue ethics and moral virtue is so well established in existing literature that no further explanation is required here, and no examination of warrant can strengthen or dilute it (see “A Virtue Ethics Primer). But it seems necessary to trace the historical reasons why the very concept of moral virtue is a nonstarter in the current culture, one that has only the vaguest notion of the meaning of either morality or virtue. In contradistinction, virtue ethics sees moral virtue as something quite explicit and necessary: the lifelong process of habituating one’s preference for real over apparent goods, an effort that reason must arbitrate and will must sustain (see Needs Anchor Morality”). Reason must distinguish between desires and needs and will must discern whether contexts demand commitment or compromise. Character is to virtue ethics what personality is to contemporary culture: the writing of experience upon identity. The difference involves the intentionality of that process.

Conscious construction of character was central to the efforts of classical moralists. Both the Stoics and the Aristotelian ethicists thought it the fulcrum and lever of the good life. Even the Epicureans, notorious as careening hedonists, thought it well worth the effort to discover and cultivate virtue. In sum, the classical view consisted of a reasoned constraint of desire and a patient fealty to fate, all built upon a continuing analysis of experience.

The task assumed a different tenor during the long dominance of the various gnostic disciples of received virtue, including the religious absolutists of the medieval era. If good character is either an unearned gift deriving from faith or fatally polluted by sin, the means to negotiate its reception must change as must the moral agency that supervises it. If the wages of original sin are defective natures, then the cure could only be prescribed from above. Even the revival of Aristotle that supercharged the birth of the Renaissance could not fully resurrect what became known as the “natural virtues,” clearly considered inferior to the supernatural ones.

The quickening of secular humanism that began in the fourteenth century was transformed by the Reformation’s horrors and the resultant transfer of moral agency from authority to the individual (see Premodern Authority”). The dawning awareness that moral goodness must be discovered for oneself rather than passively accepted from above produced a renewed interest in how that could be accomplished, and the only historical precedents could be found in the thinking of the pre-Christian philosophers of the classical era. The Enlightenment prompted a revival of interest in classical morality in particular, but it added its own timely stamp to that of earlier moral philosophers whose works were as well-known to the educated man of the eighteenth century as the latest Hollywood power couple is to us. The Greeks had sought arête, the cultivation of the complete and well-rounded person, though their pursuit had a proudly aristocratic stance. To the Romans, virtu was the goal, equally aristocratic perhaps but with an emphasis on civic virtue and fortitude. The 18th century digested these exemplars through the words of Aristotle, Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius, and Cicero, and added their own twists. Just as Greece and Rome had their various schools of moral philosophy, the Enlightenment produced variations on the theme. Kant’s duty ethics attempted to universalize the stern virtu of the Stoics in accord with the militaristic flavor of Prussian life. Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill went another way, fully embracing the implications of private moral agency and rule by majority to posit an ethic ostensibly enslaved to reason, though utilitarianism seemed mulishly resistant to reason’s yoke, at least as Mill envisioned it (see “Three Moral Systems). In practice, Kant’s system echoed the darkest notes of Stoic temperance, offering persons very little motivation to steer desire to the categorical imperatives of duty. Mill’s utilitarianism reversed that emphasis in the Epicurean tradition by elevating desire to the highest good while diminishing duty to a passive acceptance of majority will and in all other contexts devotion to private goods.

Aristocratic values were less prized in this new age of the social contract and self-advancement more, so we find Benjamin Franklin in his Autobiography laying out his adolescent plan for self-improvement, complete with daily checklists of individual virtues and a nearly religious devotion to the perfection of his own nature. But whereas the ancients had viewed the effort as worthy for itself, their eighteenth century acolytes regarded it as the means to the end of material wellbeing.  These proposals reached history’s first mass audience during the nineteenth century, an age of dizzying change and implicit contradictions, many of which these moralists induced by their oppositional nature. Add to them a revival of gnostic passivity popularized as Romanticism, western civilization’s first mass movement. Its mode of dissemination obscured its absurdity. Poetry and novels are hardly the stuff of serious philosophical discourse, but make no mistake: Romanticism was a moral theory that bypassed the uncertainties and limits of reason for the certitude of intuition whispered to the receptive heart. Its path to truth and goodness echoed Plato, Augustine, Aquinas, and Calvin but without the bothersome intrusion of sin or error: one received truth and goodness as the unearned gift of the pantheist god of nature who whispered or screamed it to the emotions. What Calvin saw as the divine and mysterious selection of the elect was coarsened by the Romantics into an easy, universal availability of virtue communicated through union with nature, exoticism, novel experience, and emotional excess. This wide road to enlightenment not only spared partakers the trouble of thought; it also guaranteed certitude just as the old authoritarian dogmas had done in those bad old days before reason had introduced its shaky alternatives (see “The Fragility of Religious Authority”). And the topper was the elimination of human frailty!

Such nonsense could hardly escape the bothersome intrusion of reality, and so Romanticism was tempered after a generation with a critique that attempted the impossible: a reconciliation of populist Romanticism with Enlightenment notions of progress and reason. This unctuous emulsion was Victorianism (see “The Victorian Rift”). Its effort to domesticate emotion and to both enshrine and emasculate intuition in service to a modulated reason framed every cultural pursuit, but its view of character was complicated by a bipolar approach to authority. It seemed apparent that Romanticism had utterly rejected the commands of authority in any of its forms: religious, civic, or moral. And reasoned experience had formed the summum bonum of the post-Reformation mind disgusted with the inability of authority to resolve disputes in the public sphere (see “Modernism’s Midwives”). This transfer of agency from above to the mind of the individual should have produced in time a means of analysis that might identify true goods and the habits of mind to procure them, but the oil-and-water mood of Victorianism produced something quite different: a stultification of virtue that attempted to submit its development to the purview of authority. One only need read the poetry of Tennyson, the fiction of Tolstoy, or the popular newspapers of the second half of the nineteenth century to see how Victorianism domesticated Romanticism in service to authority, and also to see how absolutely archaic such an effort appears to us today. Duty, Honor, Womanhood, Valor, Nation: these capitalized abstractions became as solid as stone to Victorians exposed to a rearguard effort to link the gnostic certainties of emotion to the traditional power of institutions in violation of every Romantic tenet and every rational categorization. In terms of warrant, it was worth the ridicule its children would heap upon it. In truth, it is hard to discern whether Derrida hated it more than Byron would have. Our culture finds it as antiquated as puttees and leeches. All the king’s horses and all the whiskery old men could not put authority together again, could not return moral agency to its commands, and therefore could not institutionalize the development of character.

After the Great War that buried Victorianism for once and for all, the concept of character underwent a change. Empirical science had challenged its nature just as science had assumed the mantle of justification for goodness claims in the fin de siècle (see “The Limits of Empirical Science”). The Romantics, like the religious absolutists before them, had regarded character as a passive vessel into which a divine brew is poured. But the source of that fount would be stopped by the horrors of war, the hypocrisies of Victorianism, and the discoveries of science. The twentieth century came to regard character still as a passive bestowal but one imparted by the environment, not God.

The lodestone of this reorientation was Darwin, whose notion of natural selection made organisms the victims of their environment rather than its makers. Events at the dawn of the 20th century would kill providence, and what could survive of Romanticism was only a sterile intuition without divine direction. We know this as existentialism today, but the idea of a moral vacuum had deep roots. Hegel and Nietzsche had prepared the culture by first depersonalizing and then denying the directive voice of God. Other prewar influences also plowed the ground for the coming passive view of personality. The emerging human sciences portrayed persons as the hardened clay of psychic forces, many of which they could not comprehend; of race, ethnicity, or gender; or of economic pressures that channeled their consciousness. These many streams denied the individual what modernism had painfully won: the ability to direct experience by a reasoning process that appropriated moral agency for its own sense of the good. As Victorianism ended its sclerotic reign with curses for its hypocrisies and an unbridled sense of optimism for the new century, western culture and the modernist axioms upon which it was built were dealt a double blow. If universal reason and examined experience were its foundation, what could judgment reveal of what had been built on them? Hypocrisies had tied Victorianism into Gordian knots of contradiction that Western powers had imposed upon the rest of the world. When modernist axioms were dutifully employed to find truth and goodness, when empirical science actually employed reason to examine experience, it found environment squeezing personality like putty from a tube into the molds of nature or nurture. In the pasty product, reason seemed composed of the same soft stuff, responsive to environmental pressures and so powerless to shape character. It seemed impotent to grasp moral truths through the perceptual wall of each person’s environment, trapped as it was inside the psychic barriers of childhood or tribe and formed by them. And even when intentionally employed, what had it produced but enigmas? Reason’s failures were amply illuminated by Einstein’s theory of general relativity. It seemed even space and time must prove contradictory to the mind’s mirror of them. But nothing reflected absurdity more than World War I. So this was what the world had come to, what modernism’s vaunted science and enlightened politics had wrought? Mustard gas, no-man’s land, the machine gun, the submarine, and the same withered old men hunched over maps at Versailles? Nothing represents the era better than the ninety-three hearings of the U.S. Senate’s Nye Committee, who met more than a decade after the war to determine just why it had been fought. Thirty-eight million had died. The death of Victorianism and the deaths from World War I fertilized a second thought revolution nearly the equal of the Reformation crisis of authority that had made modernism possible. They wiped the slate clean, and so postmodernism strutted upon the stage (see “Postmodernism Is Its Discontents). Central to its axiom of private experience and cultural dominance was the passive formation of personality. And that marked yet another casualty: the death of character.

The twentieth century is postmodernism’s creation even though its doctrines remained fluid until the last decades of that miserable era. Personality in postmodern terms is a product of culture or an expression of private preference. The postmodern theorists found layer upon layer of manure in exhuming Victorianism with all its burdens of sexism, colonialism, capitalism, racism, and modernism. Everything stank of hypocrisy. Notions of character formation in that foolish time had been fatally wounded by self-interest, presumption, and privilege masquerading as institutional authority of state, church, and formalized family.  All that elevated Victorian language about honor and duty was cover for cooption, the iron fist in the velvet glove of exploitation. To the theorists of postmodernism, personality was the detritus of brainwashing or the surrealist pastiche of circumstance, and in the second half of the last century the evidence of advertising. No moral statement could convey anything other than the evidence of its own pollution. Even the term “moral” reeked of self-deception or worse. Every prescription was seen as but a snare and a delusion. “Values” were to “morality” what “personality” was to “character.” Choices could not be “wrong.” They could only be “inauthentic,” for in the age of the virtual circle, the only test of truth and goodness must be the principle of non-contradiction (see What Is the Virtual Circle?”). The only postmodern sin became hypocrisy. When culture dictates behavior, transgression cannot be deemed “immoral,” only “inappropriate.” Persons do not exhibit “character.” In this age of rampant capitalism, they become “a brand.” Since the presumptions of postmodernism predicate behavior as the evidence of external imprinting, responsibility for choice must prove murky. Now this presents a real problem for a legal system erected on the older modernist notions of individual responsibility for behavior, one Western judicial systems are still grappling with (see The Foundations of the Law: An Appetizer”). Their results are inconsistent enough to call the justice system into question for incarcerating entire groups of persons whom juries find culpable but whom the larger culture considers victims of their environment. Why the juries who find them guilty, the legislators who write the statutes, or the judges who impose their sentences are not thought equally victimized by their environment is never explained. Perhaps the paternalism required to distinguish victim from oppressor has proved difficult to eradicate, and so postmodernists who assume the privilege of defining the terms of privilege and privation also allow themselves the privilege of waiving their own fundamental theories so as to isolate blame from responsibility. It is hard to tell. In the larger culture, we both disdain moral absolutes and employ them whenever we find others’ behavior objectionable to standards we acknowledge to be arbitrarily imposed by circumstances. Even after Freudian theories have been largely abandoned by professionals in psychology and Freud’s theories discredited by cognitive and behavioral practitioners of the human sciences, educated persons still project them upon persons they disagree with. This speaks not only to our own hypocrisy but also to the shotgun paradigms of the human sciences (see The Calamity of the Human Sciences). The only authentic moral orientation is alienation; only ironic detachment is appropriate.

We can see what that orientation produces: distrust, suspicion, contempt, and nihilism. Since persons must still negotiate issues of truth, goodness, and beauty, they are left with only pragmatism to guide their choosing, and in cultures saturated with materialism and capitalism, that can only mean an empty consumerism that mistakes choice for value (see The Problem of Moral Pragmatism”).  Such vacuity allows all the older options to rise again in opposition despite their former disrepute , particularly since the culturally favored ones seem so deficient (see “Postmodernism’s Unsettling Disagreements“). Pockets of earlier values survive in some traditional communities and families and are thrust against the axioms of postmodernism in defiant appeals to the morality of some earlier age. So we see religious absolutism and an originalist Romanticism emerge to challenge the clear deficiencies of pragmatic materialism, cultural relativism, and the politics of identity.  Amidst the irrationality that is postmodern thinking, we even see here and there a defense of a classical conception of character.

I wish to advance a full-throated support of that conception, not only as a reply to postmodernism but also as a defense of modernism against appeals to authority. If we are to see the human person as malleable but also self-directed, the product of her own moral agency applied to experience, we must also consider her to be by definition more than the passive product of external environment, else what is agency but programming? If we reject the determinism that frames the natural sciences in favor of uniquely human freedom, how can we reject the responsibility for choices that freedom allows (see “The Determinism Problem“)? If we reject that freedom in favor of postmodernist identity theory, why do we spend our waking moments pondering choice and exercising what we stubbornly call “preference”? But freedom and responsibility are only one antinomy of postmodernism. In devoting thousands of pages to persuading their readers of the correctness of their arguments, they commit the same offense against reason that their progenitor Marx did: they contradict the suppositions of their own theses by submitting them to the rational approval of their readers. If the dialectic is truly inevitable and world revolution truly the result of impersonal economic forces, why write Das Kapital? Why attempt to convince the spring tide to rise or the winter sun to set? If character is truly the product of culture, why articulate the process you think responsible? Why seek to sway it? Why devote thousands of pages to events you think to be as inevitable as erosion? And if morality is merely an emotive expression of arbitrary favoritism, why should law and custom pretend to hold persons to some common standard of proper behavior or punish those who violate that standard? Postmodernism mocks the possibility of justice by the same arguments by which it appeals to it. Every appeal to universal human reason is also its enshrinement (see “The Tyranny of Rationality”). Postmodernism refutes its assumptions with every truth and goodness claim, which may explain why its history is one of endless dispute, fracturing theories, and a pseudo-religious demand for orthodoxy. I am reminded of Freud’s distribution of club rings to his acolytes and the wholesale conversions of the Structuralists to post-Structuralism and then to the fantasyland of deconstructionism (see “One Postmodern Sentence”). By their own lights, their paradigms must be culturally determined or subjectively preferred, must be as pliable and distorted by semiotics as the grand narratives they oppose, must be propounded with irony, understood through the lens of cultural bias, and defended through the aporias of defective reasoning and self-interest. Postmodernists wage a war on universal reasoning by means of classical rhetoric and argue for the primacy of culture and private experience in language that demonstrates the capability of their champions to conceptualize notions that explicitly reject their contentions. Most damaging to their case is the argumentative tenor of their ever-shifting theses. To what faculty in their readers do such arguments appeal if not the very rational agency they contend to be dictated by subculture and tribe? And what are we to make of the success of their arguments other than that this agency is universally distributed in denial of all claims to the determinative nature of culture or the formative influence of environment on persons’ minds? Isn’t the freedom to be rationally convinced firmly demonstrated by the presentation of argument? Isn’t it equally demonstrated by the freedom to construct it?

The damage these contradictions produce is far too extensive to explore here, but nothing can be more damaging to rational agency than the assumption that reason itself is as variable as individual experience, and nothing can do comparable damage to moral agency as much as its characterization as a kind of environmental damage. But to take only one from a legion of examples, consider the current dismal state of liberal arts education at the university level. What was once seen as a bulwark of civic inculcation and as the framework upon which to build a lifelong project of self-formation, the same valuation that prompted public K-12 education,  is now seen as the bastion of empty sloganeering and self-righteous indignation with no relationship to reality. Supposedly educated persons openly challenge the very concept of liberal education, calibrating their analysis by return-on-investment figures and disparaging the arts and humanities as worthless parasites upon the STEM or business curricula. This indicts what they call their own education. The sad thing is that their charges ring true, for the only valuable product of today’s liberal arts education is a fierce devotion to equality, though without any convincing rationale for its increase in a society so deeply committed to liberty (see “The Riddle of Equality”). The liberal arts faculty and curriculum are so permeated with the axioms of postmodernism that its millions of words generate only heat without light. This is less education than propaganda. And that is a double offense, for a liberal arts education by its nature requires commitment to universal reason and its potential to find true goods in experience.  That argument needs to be made and persons most willing to make it need to be soundly educated in the traditions of a hard-fought and necessary battle for the independence of their own reasoning, a history of which they seem entirely unaware. In the current intellectual climate, we cannot expect that to change.

The axioms of modernism seem to me irresistible (see “The Axioms of Moral Systems”). If we indeed inherit moral agency as a product of our nature and if we must then steer our choices by that agency, it seems unavoidable to me that some consistent goal must direct our efforts (see “The Moral Bullseye”). Given the history of the last century, it is perhaps a reach to then postulate that such a goal should be consistent with not only others’ private ends but with public ones as well and with governments’ obligations to justice (see “Natural Law and the Legality of Human Rights).

I should stipulate that not one word of this analysis contributes to moral virtue. That achievement is entirely a matter of habitually acting in accordance with common standards of morality, which is another way of saying in pursuit of universal human needs. The position I have been laying out here is not a moral one but is rather conducive to intellectual virtue, the development of rational awareness of truth and goodness. I am convinced that the great gulf in contemporary thinking consists of false assumptions about truth and goodness and that the corrective to such assumptions is an appeal to universal reason applied to private experience. Aristotle made it quite obvious that such a realization does nothing to cultivate real character, which can only be found by prudential reasoning applied to experience. This implies a round robin of cause and effect with each exercise of intellectual virtue supporting subsequent efforts to habituate virtue and each failure in that effort stimulating further self-analysis conducing to succeeding cultivations of habit. None of this lifelong process is thoughtless or effortless, and all of it is facilitated by cultural values that build reasoning and celebrate public morality as necessary to a utility of furthest ends. The postmodernists had a valid point about hypocrisy and cultural contradiction, though their response has done nothing to resolve the errors that produced it. A century later, we are if anything more confused and alienated in consequence. But in the absence of a wholesome culture that does nurture that knowledge, it seems clear to me that the first step to rectifying our missteps is to examine our own presumptions with the goal of correcting them. Such an effort is a long way from integrity, the habitual pursuit of real goods, but it recognizes the role of character in intentionally shaping it.