Alain de Botton has found another piece of religion he thinks atheists should adopt. He thinks we should claim the idea of virtues for ourselves–with changes, of course. In fact, he’s listed ten of them.
They are…simple. I mean that in a couple of ways. They are not only obvious choices for virtues (you won’t find any surprises on that page), but they are also presented simply. An example:
1. Resilience. Keeping going even when things are looking dark; accepting that reversals are normal; remembering that human nature is, in the end, tough. Not frightening others with your fears.
Hurrah for resilience! Hurrah for people who keep going in the face of continued setbacks! Hurrah for the people who stick anything out, no matter how ugly! Hurrah for the people who exhaust their resources! Hurrah for the people who suffer fear in silence!
Or, you know, not.
Look, resilience has distinct advantages in a lot of situations. Being broken by the small things isn’t anything anyone looks for. Being stopped by every trifle doesn’t get you very far. But sometimes quitting really is the best solution to a problem. Do you want to keep beating your head against an abusive “friendship” trying to get it to change? Is that a virtue?
There are times when treating resilience as a virtue is dangerous. There are times when it’s too much. Then, calling it a virtue is an active harm.
Elevating resilience to the level of a virtue does more than just change it from a tool into a fetish. It also casts lapses in resilience as lapses in virtue–sins. This does what religion all too often does, forces people to choose between what is good for them in any one situation and avoiding sin/maintaining virtue.
That isn’t merely a situational problem either. Resilience has been a hot topic in psychology for at least a couple of decades. We know that resilience can be a powerful thing, so we’ve studied how people can have more of it. The factors that increase resilience are largely beyond anyone’s control. How you are raised, how much trauma you’ve experienced when you encounter a bad situation, how well others support you–these aren’t choices that people make.
Under those circumstances, raising resilience to the level of a virtue as de Botton does is cruelty. We’ve had enough of religions setting arbitrary standards that people can’t meet just by trying, haven’t we?
To give just one more example from the list of a virtue that is and isn’t:
5. Politeness. Politeness has a bad name. We often assume it’s about being ‘fake‘ (which is meant to be bad) as opposed to ‘really ourselves’ (which is meant to be good). However, given what we’re really like deep down, we should spare others too much exposure to our deeper selves. We need to learn manners, which aren’t evil – they are the necessary internal rules of civilisation. Politeness is very linked to tolerance, the capacity to live alongside people whom one will never agree with, but at the same time, can’t avoid.
Politeness isn’t only a virtue, though not because it’s “fake”. It’s no more fake than anything else we do for a purpose.
Politeness is a set of behaviors that serve a purpose. de Botton is close on that purpose, though I think he’s going a bit grand with “civilization”. Few rules of politeness are that universal. Still, politeness is that set of behaviors that allow a society to function without constantly haggling about how it should be done. It’s a codified nonverbal and verbal language that tells you where you stand in a transaction.
Politeness isn’t always honest, of course, which is where the “fake” charge comes from. That’s not its biggest problem, though.
Sometimes we need to haggle over how things are done in a particular society. Societies contain injustices. They can head in a direction that is doomed to failure or even catastrophe. Sometimes there is simply a better way. Sometimes there is virtue in the haggling.
We can’t do that, however, when politeness–separate from the specifics of its function–becomes a virtue. Then the slowing down, even if we gain insights we wouldn’t moving at full speed, becomes the sin. Agitation becomes the sin. Negotiation on how we are treated becomes the sin.
This simple list also doesn’t even begin to address the virtues inherent in the “negative” emotions. There are none without uses. Fear is critical in good decision-making, even if it shouldn’t be allowed to rule us. Anger has accomplished much that is good. Even jealously tells us something about our own needs and desires that we can put to good use. Where do we give these useful negatives their due if we raise one set of traits and tools above the others?
I think atheists can generally benefit from talking about the things we want in our lives. I think we can benefit from a more complex understanding of what makes life good than religion allows us. But I think de Botton is taking the wrong lesson from people who celebrate “sin” when they leave religion. It isn’t that they’re now reveling in “bad”. It’s that they’re finding that the religious prescriptions for what is “good” or “bad” aren’t complex or nuanced enough to describe the realities of life.
Sadly, I think they’ll find the same from de Botton.
H/T Ron Lindsay