Why Virtue Requires an Imperfect World
NOTE: Today we continue our four-part series by philosopher Fr. Robert Spitzer addressing the question, "Why Would God Allow Suffering Caused by Nature?" Instead of focusing on the existence of moral evil, or suffering caused by the free choice of humans, he examines why an apparently good God would create an imperfect world replete with natural disasters, physical disabilities, and unavoidable heartache. The series will continue on each of the next two Fridays.
Weakness and vulnerability (arising out of an imperfect natural order) are the conditions necessary for two of the cardinal virtues – courage and self-discipline (the so-called “stoic virtues”). Notice that these virtues define our character precisely because they are chosen in the midst of adversity. They define our ability to “pay a price” for our principles and ideals. This “price” gives existential weight to our principles and ideals, for we cannot hold them cheaply.
This is particularly evident with respect to courage. The principles of love and truth and justice are good in themselves, and they are honorable in action, but when I have to choose them in the midst of the possibility of injury, embarrassment, mortification, or death, then I am not merely admiring them for their intrinsic goodness; I am truly making them my own. The greater the price that I must pay to live the principles and ideals that I admire and honor, the more they become part of me, the more they define my being by the “hard choice” I make. If I choose an honorable thing because I honor it, it speaks only partially to who I am; but if I choose an honorable thing not only because I honor it, but because I want to live it even at the cost of injury, embarrassment, or death, then it truly defines me. Ironically, an imperfect natural order (which gives rise to the real possibility of injury or death) not only gives rise to the possibility of courage, but also to that courage lending existential weight (and therefore dignity) to my choice of the honorable thing.
Is it worth it? Is it worth injury and death to choose the noble thing in the midst of adversity? Only the reader can answer for him or herself. Would you rather have a very, very safe world where you can only be a bystander? Or would you rather have an unsafe world where you can enter into the fray and see who you truly are – how you truly embrace the honorable – even at the cost of injury or death? What would you want for your children – a safe world without the possibility of challenge or self-sacrifice? Without the dignity and self-definition of challenge and self-sacrifice? Or an unsafe world, holding out the possibility and actuality of that ultimate dignity?
I know many atheists are reading this article, but let us presume for a moment that you have faith in an unconditionally loving God who wants to share that love with you for all eternity. If so, then you cannot limit the project of self-definition through suffering and sacrifice to this life alone. The suffering you endure for the sake of the noble, for the sake of love, and for the sake of the kingdom of God defines your being into eternity. It is an indelible mark of who you are forever; your eternal badge of courage. Therefore, the religious perspective goes far beyond the stoic one because it sees eternal consequences and eternal self-definition in acts of self-sacrifice.
Now, ask yourself the above set of questions once again, through this eternal perspective: Would you rather have a very, very safe world where you can only be a bystander? Or would you rather have an unsafe world where you can enter into the fray and see who you truly and eternally are – how you truly and eternally embrace the honorable – even at the cost of injury or death? What would you want for your children – a safe world without the possibility of challenge or self-sacrifice? Without the dignity and self-definition of challenge and self-sacrifice? Or an unsafe world, holding out the possibility and actuality of that ultimate and eternal dignity?
We now move to the second stoic virtue, namely, self-control or self-discipline. It is like the obverse of courage. While courage is the pursuit of virtue over against the possibility of pain, self-control is the pursuit of virtue through the avoidance of pleasure. Many philosophers have recognized that an unmitigated pursuit of pleasure can interfere with, or even undermine the pursuit of what is most noble, most pervasive, and most enduring. Yet, these pleasures cannot be said to be intrinsically evil. Food is obviously a good to human beings seeking nourishment; but an unmitigated pursuit of food (to the point of gluttony) will likely undermine (or at least slow down) the pursuit of the noble. A glass of wine may be good as an element of a convivial meal; however, a half-gallon of wine is likely to result in a fight where once there was friendship, and a rather unproductive morning. The same holds true for most sensorial pleasures.
Similarly, ego-satisfactions can also play a beneficial part in life. Success in a speech might encourage one to do more speaking. Achievement in studies might encourage one to pursue a Ph.D. Praise from others could build up self-esteem. But an unmitigated pursuit of success, achievement, and praise (as an end in itself) will produce unmitigated egocentricity with its consequences of jealousy, fear of failure, ego-sensitivity, blame, rage, contempt, inferiority, superiority, self-pity, and all the other negative emotions which accompany these unmitigated pursuits.
Both sensorial and ego pleasures are a mixed blessing – in their proper perspective they can bring happiness, conviviality, and encouragement toward certain forms of achievement; but pursued as ends in themselves, they will very likely interfere with, and even undermine the pursuit of what is noble, pervasive, and enduring (what is most meaningful and purposeful in life).
This gives rise to the question of why God didn’t create a more perfect human being in a more perfect world. Why didn’t God just give us an “internal regulator” which would not allow us to eat too much, drink too much, desire too much? Why didn’t God put us in a world with just enough resources to satisfy our sensorial and ego-longings just enough for health but not enough to undermine our deepest purpose in life? We return to the same words we have seen time and time again – “choice” and “freedom.”
Choosing to delimit pleasure can be as challenging as choosing pain. Yet one does not have to look very far to see that the delimitation of pleasure for the purpose of the noble is just as self-definitional as choosing pain. There is a definite cost to delimiting pleasure – sometimes it comes in the form of saying “no” amidst an irresistible urge which has taken over the imagination; sometimes it means dealing with an addiction (a habit of overindulgence); sometimes it means feeling profoundly unfree because I deny myself what I am free to pursue; sometimes it makes me look like a “prude” (delimiting pleasure when my friends are not); etc.
The key difficulty with self-control (delimiting pleasure for the sake of the noble) is that it lacks the intrinsic rewards of courage. Courage looks difficult while self-control seems relatively easy; courage seems heroic while self-control seems ordinary – so much so that when one lacks self-control, one is criticized for being immature or sub-par; courage looks like it goes beyond the call of duty while self-control seems to lie perfectly within the call of duty. Seemingly, there is nothing really special about self-control. But this lack of intrinsic reward makes it all the more difficult.
So, why didn’t God just create us with a behavioral governor inside our brains? Why didn’t God create a better human in a better world without the possibility of unmitigated desire for pleasure? Why didn’t God just create us like cows – when we’ve had enough, we just stop? Because God wanted us to define ourselves in terms of ordinary, non-heroic choices. God wanted us to choose the noble in utterly ordinary circumstances, but with a cost – to choose the noble over against another scotch; over against another amusement; over against another material purchase; over against anything else which would undermine our pursuit of the noble. In the day-to-day, ordinary, non-heroic choices we make, an essence (self-definition) begins to form, etched in our character beyond mere thought and aspiration, through the constant pursuit of the little things that enable nobility to emerge from our souls.
We might fail in this pursuit countless times, but our perseverance in struggle, our perseverance in the midst of failure, can be just as effective in etching self-definition into our eternal souls as perfect control and perfect success. In God’s logic of unconditional love (which includes unconditional forgiveness and healing), our acts of contrition, our hope in forgiveness, our perseverance in the struggle for self-control, and our undying desire for the noble are all “part of the cost” of virtue, which makes that virtue more than a mere thought or aspiration. This struggle is the cost which etches that virtue into our very eternal souls – the precious cost of self-definition.
For this reason, God has created us with the capacity for all seven “deadly sins” (gluttony, lust, sloth, greed, anger envy, pride) and a capacity to desire more than we need even to the point of undermining a good and noble life. God has done this to give us the privilege and freedom to choose the noble over against the possibility of the ignoble so that our virtue (or at least our struggle in pursuit of the virtuous) might be our own; so that it might be etched into our eternal souls; so that it might be part of our self-definition for all eternity.
Next week, Fr. Spitzer will explore how an imperfect world produces unconditional love.
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