VIRTUE: FOR TOO MANY AMERICANS, the word suggests only a bygone bluenose era, prim lectures on sexual purity -- at best, something you ""lose'' when you finally give in or give up. But for the ancient Greeks, the great medieval theologians and a growing number of contemporary philosophers as well, virtue has little to do with sexuality. For these thinkers, the cultivation of virtue makes individuals happy, wise, courageous, competent. The result is a good person, a responsible citizen and parent, a trust-ed leader, possibly even a saint. Without a virtu-ous people, according to this tradition, society cannot function well. And without a virtuous society, in-dividuals cannot realize either their own or the common good. That, in theory, is what the ""politics of virtue'' is all about.
But before politicians embrace virtue as their latest election-year slogan, they would do well to tune in to contemporary philosophy. Despite the call for virtue, we live in an age of moral relativism. According to the dominant school of moral philosophy, the skepticism engendered by the Enlightenment has reduced all ideas of right and wrong to matters of personal taste, emotional preference or cultural choice. Since the truth cannot be known, neither can the good. In this view, the most any government can do is carve out rules that -- like a traffic cop -- ensure that a rough justice prevails among its citizens. Within agreed- upon social limits, therefore, people are free to make what they will of their private lives. In the United States, this outlook has produced a strong emphasis on rights over responsibilities, and it influences much of contemporary political theory.
Against this moral relativism, advocates of the ""ethics of virtue'' argue that some personal choices are morally superior to others. The issue, as they see it, is not the right to choose but the right way to make choices. The disorder of contemporary American society, they insist, is proof that the ""Enlightenment Project,'' as philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre of the University of Notre Dame puts it, has failed. What he and a variety of other influential thinkers like James Q. Wilson of UCLA, Martha Nussbaum of Brown University, Charles Taylor of McGill University in Canada and Bernard Williams of Oxford in England propose is the renewal of the idea of virtue -- or character -- as the basis for both personal and social ethics.
For the ordinary citizen, virtue is easily confused with ""values.'' Since personal values differ, Americans argue over whose values ought to be taught. But ""values'' is a morally neutral term that merely indicates preference and can be quite banal. To choose vanilla over chocolate is not the same as deciding how to raise children, though both express values. A virtue, by contrast, is a quality of character by which individuals habitually recognize and do the right thing. ""Instead of talking about "fam-ily values','' says Wilson, ""everybody would be better off talking about the virtues that a decent family tries to inculcate.'' To Wilson and thinkers like him, these are the four classical virtues, old as Aristotle and just as compelling today: prudence, justice, fortitude and temperance.
But they do need modern translation. Prudence, for example, is not cautious calculation but practical wisdom -- recognizing and making the right choice in specific situations. It is the master virtue that makes all others possible. Justice, as the Greeks thought of it, includes fairness, honesty and keeping promises. Fortitude is courage -- guts -- not only in combat but, as Lincoln exemplified during the Civil War, in pursuit of the right path despite great risks. And temperance involves much more than moderation in drink. It is self-discipline, the control of all the human passions and sensual pleasures -- anger and frustration as well as food, drink and sex. A person of good character, then, is someone who through repeated good acts achieves an appropriate balance of these virtues in his life. Like a successful tennis professional, the virtuous person plays a consistently good game.
Traditional though they may be, the four virtues are not written on stone tablets. In ""After Virtue,'' the most widely read American book on moral philosophy of the previous decade, MacIntyre points out that different societies emphasize different virtues -- and often add new ones. Loyalty, for example, was a highly desired virtue in the clannish world of Homeric Greece as well as feudal Europe. Obedience to God's commands was central to ancient Israel. Christianity added three theological virtues -- faith, hope and charity -- to Aristotle's four. To this day, Catholic candidates for sainthood are judged by those seven virtues -- plus one that the Greeks never admired: humility. And in his own influential book, ""The Moral Sense,'' Wilson adds compassion as the virtue by which we habitually extend to strangers that concern we readily show for family and friends.
Can virtue be taught like academic subjects? This is what a number of public- school districts are asking themselves in response to parental demands that the classroom foster the formation of good character -- as it did in the 19th century. Plato, whose philosophy focused on ideas, was inclined to think it could. But Aristotle was the wiser man. Unlike science and other intellectual pursuits, he reasoned, moral virtue is acquired only through practice. ""We become just by doing just acts, temperate by doing temperate acts, brave by doing brave acts,'' he wrote. Children, Aristotle observed, learn virtue by following rules of good behavior, hearing stories of virtuous people -- like those in Bill Bennett's book -- and imitating virtuous models: parents, friends and worthy public figures. A child born to bad parents or a citizen of a corrupt society, he concluded, had little chance of becoming a virtuous adult.
In short, an ethics of virtue cannot be learned alone. Nor can it be taught from textbooks. Good character comes from living in communities -- family, neighborhood, religious and civic institutions -- where virtue is encouraged and rewarded. For much of American history, that responsibility fell disproportionately on women: in the home, of course, but also in Sunday schools and one-room schoolhouses. But contemporary America is as far from its small-town past as ancient Athens is from midtown Manhattan. Sociologically, all of the core institutions that once transmitted moral education are in disrepair. The family has fractured; neighborhoods have disappeared or turned surly; many schools can barely educate, and even many churches wonder what to teach. ""You can't have strong virtues without strong institutions,'' says Jean Bethke Elshtain, professor of political science at Vanderbilt University. ""And you can't have strong institutions without moral authority.''
But many Americans are unprepared to recognize any moral authority outside themselves. Even so, they are not without their val-ue systems. Believers have their God, movement feminists their liberation, intellectuals their ideas, professionals their careers. In ethics, says MacIntyre, what we have are merely shards of competing moral traditions, none of them coherent. Among them the most prevalent is ""the ethics of authenticity,'' a phrase that Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor uses to describe those whose controlling moral purpose is personal self-fulfillment. But even this narcissistic goal, popular since the '60s, cannot do without the virtues it refuses to recognize. As Wilson puts it, ""Self-fulfillment presupposes that you have a self worth fulfilling.''
The ethics of virtue has its problems too. Sometimes virtues clash, as justice and compassion often do. Choices must be made, one good placed above another. Judgments must be made, too, on the behavior of others in society, even if it rubs the tarnish off their self-esteem. No ethical system is perfect, which is why religion persists, with its ethic of forgiveness. But the rising national debate over character may bring at least this much: a public rethinking of the kind of people we really want to be.
The strength of mind and courage to persevere in the face of adversity
Self-discipline, the control of all unruly human passions and appetites
Practical wisdom and the ability to make the right choice in specific situations
Fairness, honesty, lawfulness and the ability to keep one's promises