So Marc Guerra (America’s leading theologian) and I are finalists for a big SCIENCE OF VIRTUE grant at the University of Chicago. Although I doubt we’ll win, we deserve to win. That’s because we alone are defending the one true “stuck with virtue” science of virtue. It’s the “stuck with virtue” approach that distinguishes postmodern conservatism from porcherism, neoconservatism, neoorthodoxy, anti-progressivist founderism, tea-party techno-libertarianism, evangelical worldviewism, paleoconservative traditionalism, and so forth. Here are our proposed opening comments (which can be changed, so please comment):

We don’t think we live “after virtue,” as Alasdair MacIntyre claims. We haven’t lost our ability to experience or to articulate our perception that the best way to feel good is to be good. People are still stuck with and ennobled by living morally demanding lives. Life is in some ways easier but in others harder than ever before. We live neither in some techo-utopia nor in some techno-wasteland. Virtue is alive in the tacky McMansions we find in sprawling exurbs. Even the sophisticated Europeans who talk sometimes as if they are living some postfamilial, postreligious, and postpolitical dream still can talk about what they know about the line between good and evil found in every human being’s heart.

In a time of unprecedented abundance and freedom that’s largely the product of the modern, technological approach to the world, we do find it harder than ever to know who we are. And so we find it harder than ever to know what to do. But we’re still stuck with answering those questions to live well—or nobly and happily—with what we’ve been given. There’s little that’s more hellish than my being stuck with the perception of “pure possibility,” the perception that every door is open to me with no guidance at all concerning which one to choose. That’s the lesson, for example, of the novels of our physician-philosopher WALKER PERCY, not to mention the philosophic film GROUNDHOG DAY. The pure democracy imagined by Socrates or communism as imagined by Marx or the realm of techno-freedom imagined by our libertarians (all of which amount to the same thing) are all descriptions of the hell we have mistaken for heaven when we misunderstand who we are.

The hopeful perception of pure possibility, of course, is the characteristic delusion of our exceedingly high-tech time. We really aren’t Nietzsche’s last men or living at Marx’s end of history. We don’t live unobsessively picking activities almost at random from a huge menu of choice. We still have display “bourgeois virtue”—the industrious, productive virtues—to flourish. We’re still moved, whatever Allan Bloom says, by love and death. And we’re anxious and disoriented because we’re more unclear than ever about how to live with the knowledge and longings that we can’t help but have. Both morally and economically, we in some ways experience ourselves as more on our own than ever. We too often, in the name of autonomy, reject as authoritative the guidance nature—our social natures— gives us, and we’re dogmatically skeptical about the possibility that our longings point us in the direction of God. But much of what we think we can reject or discard remains real or real enough.

So it’s obvious to us that the biotechnological promise to free us from the constraints of virtue for the happiness that accompanies pure freedom will never be kept. We’ll never achieve immortality—or some absolute transcendence of the limitations of embodiment. The best we might achieve is a kind of indefinite longevity, which would make death seem more accidental and so our beings more contingent and our moods more anxious than ever. And even if our moods become chemical silly putty in our hands, we still wouldn’t have what it takes to choose the moods that make us most happy with being who we really are.

We, in our pride, don’t want the zoned-out contentment we imagine cows have. We want to remain alienated enough to appreciate Johnny Cash, without going through the hell of being Johnny Cash. We want to be artistic and sensitive as we can be while being, unlike John, cheerful and productive members of our high-tech society. And anyway, if our moods got too good, we would stop obsessing enough to fend off the real threats to our very being—like terrorists, asteroids, and such. The search for the perfect mood inevitably leads us to realize that the good stuff (like love and pride) depends on the hard or bad stuff (like worthwhile work and death), and once we achieved that sort of wisdom, it seems to us, we wouldn’t want our moods chemically altered after all.

We have an inalienable right to our moods, in part, because they aren’t random collections of chemicals but natural clues to the truth about who each of us is. We also have a right to our moods because what we’ve been given by nature, if used well or virtuously, is good enough. Nature, Darwin was right to say, intends all the species to be happy by living according to nature. But Solzhenitsyn added, of course, that we weren’t born only to be happy, because we were also born to die.

So we’re stuck with virtue as human beings. There are natural reasons for that. We’re hardwired for virtue, so to speak, because we’re hardwired for a kind of language and or speech that opens us to the truth about ourselves and our world that no other animal can acquire. And we really can’t change our hardwiring in a way that will make us both human and happy—and we want both—without virtue.
So we need, above all, a science of virtue that incorporates what we know through natural science, philosophy, theology, and the humanities generally. We need to get over the modern error that the best way to get ourselves happy is to free ourselves from our natures. And we need to get over the error that by nature we’re pretty much one species or one mechanism among many.

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Articles by Peter Lawler

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