November 9, 2012

A picturesque of virtue

When we start to think about virtue we may think first of obvious heroes, known for their noble deeds. But there are also less active dimensions of virtue, and they are important resources for living well the inevitably large parts of our lives in which we are relatively passive or even helpless.

Let us focus therefore on virtue as it may be manifested in someone whose hands cannot reach the levers of the world. Think of someone very aged and infirm, perhaps unable to move her own wheelchair, and perhaps suffering such memory loss that someone else has to be responsible for many of the decisions in her life. Such a person, I believe, can still be virtuous, and even an inspiration to others. She can still be considerate of those who see her and care for her, and thus need not be altogether without a decision-making dimension of virtue. But if we see notable virtue in her, much of it surely will be in her attitudes, and they may be attitudes to things that she cannot do much about.

Suppose she appreciates whatever good things she is still able to enjoy, is grateful to those who care for her, is delighted when she hears someone else’s good news, and never enjoys hearing of another person’s misfortune. I believe all of that is virtue—not because it shows a disposition to perform noble deeds, which may be mostly beyond her reach—but simply because those are ways of being for things that are importantly good.

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