Geoffrey Long
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On being virtuous.

I've been thinking a lot lately about the idea of virtues, and what it means to be a good man. Living in Chicago in a fairly multicultural neighborhood is a new and fascinating experience, which makes me feel more reconnected to what it means to be an American, as opposed to the fiercely partisan life that is almost inherent to living in Washington, DC.

(Note: I've cleaned up this entry a little bit to break it up into more readable subsections and add 'friendly' back into the Scout Law, which I'd inadvertently omitted the first time around. The memory is not what it used to be. Thanks to Bill Coughlan for catching the error.)

George W. Bush, Osama bin Laden and the Scout Law

Once upon a time, I was a Boy Scout. I made it all the way to Star (and was only a merit badge or two shy of Life) before other interests took hold and I moved on to other things. I still remember a lot of the Boy Scout teachings, though – not so much how to tie knots (although a do know to take a tin full of dryer lint along on camping trips to use as tinder in lieu of tiny branches), as the morals and ethics that they try to instill. The eleven points of the Scout Law go something like this: "A scout is trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean and reverent."

This is a good start for living a virtuous life, but it still seems lacking. It bothers me that nowhere in the Scout Law is there any mention of ambition, intelligence or curiousity. Ambition is a strange element, often spat at others as an accusation, which is strange. Should we not, as Americans, be ambitious? There is a school of thought that says that ambition is often the drive to succeed at the cost of others, but what then is the drive to improve not only your own life, but the common denominator of human existence as well? Is that not ambition? And why wouldn't intelligence and curiousity be on that list as well?

If you look at President Bush and then consider the twelve points of the Scout Law, he appears to do a decent job on most of them. Yet I cannot look to him as a good example, or any kind of inspiration aside from, perhaps, a cautionary tale.
If you look at President Bush and then consider the Scout Law, he appears to do a decent job on most of these twelve points (excepting, of course, trustworthy – it still bothers me greatly that there's never been any real, satisfactory answer to the scores of black voters that were turned away from the Florida polls back in 2000). Yet I cannot look to him as a good example, or any kind of inspiration aside from, perhaps, a cautionary tale. Further, our current administration is an excellent example of powers run amok – despite the numerous offenses that the administration has committed, including the aforementioned electoral manipulation, ordering the creation of false evidence to justify the war in Iraq, repeated attempts to dissolve the separation of church and state, laying the groundwork for the reinstatement of the draft, the ridiculous abuse of Presidential power for the personal gain of Halliburton and its employees, and any number of other things that I'm sure Michael Moore will, for better or for worse, trumpet up to the highest skies in Farenheit 9/11, still no Democratic officials in Washington have called for any kind of impeachment hearings or calls of no confidence in the leadership abilities of this administration. This is something I simply do not understand.

The point is that a man can have ten points of the Scout Law pretty much down and still not be really and truly a good man. You can be loyal to your friends, help little old ladies across the street, polite in conversation, refrain from kicking puppies, a good listener, outgoing, smart with money, determined to stand up for what you believe in, wash your hands after every meal, and go to church on Sunday, but if what you believe in is actively detrimental to the common good, your life is doing more damage than good. If you compare Osama bin Laden to President Bush, you see two men that both ardently, vehemently believe that what they are doing is correct, and that they are justified in the killing of other people. Both men have the blood of thousands on their hands. Both men believe themselves to be great leaders, and both men have thousands of people following them, waving flags and cheering at the tops of their lungs every time they say a word.

According to the Scout Law, young men should be obedient. I believe that current events have shown exactly how dangerous obedience can be, when it involves taking orders from a religious zealot, be it Osama bin Laden or President "If You're Not With Us, You're with the Terrorists" Bush.

It bothers me even more that it's not hard to imagine how essays like this could be considered treasonous in our current administration. That bothers me the most of all – that I even need to worry about this kind of McCarthyism in what is supposed to be a free America. "If you aren't with us, you're with the terrorists" is not something you should ever hear come from the mouth of the leader of the free world. That mindset is the worst perversion of democracy, the worst form of powermongering – in the name of "Freedom," our President wants to take away our freedom to think for ourselves and criticize the actions of our government. This is not virtuous behavior, and is definitely not the behavior of someone who should be the greatest, most honorable and most inspiring man on the planet: the President of the United States.

So, instead of getting all worked up into a lather without presenting any preferable alternatives or solutions (like Mr. Moore tends to do), what would be a good set of virtues? What characteristics should the leader of the free world, or any good man, embody?

Benjamin Franklin tried to live his life according to thirteen virtues: temperance, silence, order, resolution, frugality, industry, sincerity, justice, moderation, cleanliness, tranquility, chastity, and humility. This could be a better start – 'industry' tends to satisfy my previous inclination to incorporate some form of ambition. What Mr. Franklin does not include, bizarrely, are wisdom and intelligence, which is very odd given what we know of Mr. Franklin's character. Chastity is also an odd inclusion, although one suspects he might not be only referring to it in the sexual sense. And does 'sincerity' mean simply meaning what you say, and not to 'spin' anything, or does he intend to extend that to include honesty and trustworthiness?

One part Boy Scouts, one part Benjamin Franklin

Perhaps the best solution is to take both of these elements, Franklin's virtues and the Scout Law, and combine them. Doing so, we get the following:

  • Trustworthy
  • Loyal
  • Helpful
  • Friendly
  • Courteous
  • Kind
  • Obedient
  • Cheerful
  • Thrifty (x2)
  • Brave
  • Clean (x2)
  • Reverent
  • Temperant
  • Silent
  • Orderly
  • Resolute
  • Industrious (i.e., Ambitious)
  • Sincere (Honest?)
  • Just
  • Moderate
  • Tranquil
  • Chaste
  • Humble

To which I would add:

  • Intelligent
  • Wise

There is some room for debate as to whether or not intelligent and wise are even separable; I would argue that it is possible for someone to be very knowledgeable (have memorized a lot of data) but still be utterly unable to determine what to do with it (have no wisdom whatsoever), and that therefore they are indeed two separate virtues.

I have ommitted obedience due to the argument I made earlier. Any great man should, at any point in his life, be free to take a step back, look at the world with as objective a standpoint as possible, and judge for himself whether or not the orders he is being given conflict with his other virtues, most importantly including wise and just.

Another modification that should perhaps be made are to the virtues of reverence and humility. I left both of them in the list because I do believe in God, and I believe that the majority of the teachings of the Bible are a terrific outline for living a life that is productive, happy and virtuous within a society of men. However. I also believe that much the same thing could be said for the teachings of the Torah, of the Buddha, and of just about every religion on the face of the planet. Where everybody runs into trouble, though, is when those religions become co-opted by zealots out to manipulate the masses into following their orders. According to Karl Marx, "Religion is the opiate of the masses" – a virtuous man should be wise enough to also realize when the teachings of his religion are being corrupted and being used to manipulate him. A clue: whenever a religious passage is cited that can in any way, shape or form justify the killing of another human being because of a difference in their religions, skin colors, sexual preferences or backgrounds. As a rule of thumb, the virtuous man should be reverent of the spirit and the wisdom, not of the men preaching it.

Another virtue should, therefore, be something like tolerant or open-minded. I'm not sure what the language should be here – it is such a short jump from tolerant of other cultures to permitting other cultures to exist that I usually refrain from the term 'tolerant'. What, then? Is it better to say 'accepting'? 'Worldly'? Or are all of these simply extensions of the wisdom inherent in not being close-minded? Could one consider not subscribing to the superiority of your own race/sex/sexual preference/religion/country as an extension of humility?

These modern virtues and the American President

Even with these questions, this list seems to be a much more complete set of modern virtues. How, then does our current President stack up compared to this new model of a virtuous man?

Not well, I'm afraid. Here are some hypotheses on how a virtuous man should behave, as opposed to what's actually been happening.

A virtuous man should not slaughter his neighbors over resources, but should consider the larger picture and embrace those resources not currently being tapped. Instead of going to war over oil, the virtuous man would consider the root problem and fiercely and adamantly pursue new energy programs, such as hydroelectricity and wind turbines.

A virtuous man would never declare, "If you are not with me, you are with my enemy."
If elected under questionable circumstances, a virtuous man would not further entrench the corruption in the system by squashing the stories in the media and sweeping the whole thing under the rug. Instead, upon being elected he would do everything in his power to examine how and why the problems occurred, and investigate any and all claims leveled against him to determine why and how anyone might have been deprived of their right to vote. A virtuous man would have publicly and openly ensured that such a catastrophe would never happen again.

A virtuous man would never declare, "If you are not with me, you are with my enemy." A virtuous man would wisely realize that anyone who is not with him could just as well still be undecided – and openly declaring them to therefore be his enemy quickly makes that decision for them. A virtuous man is a uniter, not a divider.

A virtuous man, when met with opposition, calls out differences of opinions and philosophies into the light and discusses them openly. A virtuous man does not order the creation of false evidence in order to support a claim that he may believe to be true but lacks the real, true evidence to support it. A virtuous man, when presented with evidence that contradicts his belief, is open to the possibility that he might be wrong.

A virtuous man, when presented with massive, overwhelming evidence that an action that he had undertaken was in error, would do everything in his power to make things right. A virtuous man takes responsbility for his mistakes. A virtuous man would apologize to the families and friends of the thousands of people whose deaths he had caused through his errors, and do everything he could to make things right, even if that meant resigning his position. He would not scramble to release more fearmongering reports and vehemently insist to the world that he was right, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

A call for a modern virtuous candidate

Given these notions, I cannot in good conscience call our current President a virtuous man. I do not have a firm belief that John Kerry is a virtuous man, either, and that makes me sad. I would like to believe that he is, but so far I have not been convinced by the evidence presented. Nor do I have an overwhelming belief that a truly virtuous man would win a popular election, which makes me even sadder.

I would like to believe that America, if presented with a truly virtuous leader, someone who embodies all of these characteristics, would sit up and take notice. I would like to believe that we are not a country of overweight, greedy followers who will blithely sit by as we arrogantly transform our allies into enemies for the sake of our own bullheaded glory. I would like to believe that America is still the land of the free and the home of the brave.

I would like to see a real, true leader of the free world step up and take the oath of office as President of the United States. If you are out there, please step forward. The world needs you, and it needs you right now.

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On Virtue... from Adventures in Troubleshooting on June 26, 2004 3:01 PM

Geoff Long has a good examination of virtue up at his blog. He's come up with an interesting moral code. While I firmly disagree that Bush and bin Laden are morally equivalent, Geoff's examination of two venerable old codes: the Read More


I have to disagree with you on this. As a Boy Scout leader for many more years than you were a boy scout, I believe that if a boy (girl, adult, etc) follows ALL the boy scout laws, then he(she) becomes more tolerant, loving, etc. They are not to be chosen among and take only those you like best. In addition, being intellegent does NOT make one wise - most of the really intellegent people that i know do not have a lick of common sense, which, IMHO, makes one wise. And referring to a previous post about how the bachelor life sucks, I have one thing to say - you made your bed, now you have to lie in it.

One more comment - the boy scout law does not advocate blind obedience. If you use your common sense and the intelligence that God gave you, then you should be able to make a wise choice about being obedient.

I will admit to having some serious problems with both Boy Scout policies and the oath itself (though I will defend their right to exist as an independent organization, so long as they do not receive preferential treatment by the government).

But even so, I think you're giving Duh-bya a bit too much credit.

Trustworthy? Not in a million years (as you pointed out).

Loyal? Here he's dead-on: He's loyal to his friends at the expense of everyone else (not to mention the Constitution), but he is loyal.

Helpful? Only to those aforementioned friends.

Friendly (you omitted this one)? By all accounts, he is that; one more point on his side.

Courteous? On a personal level, perhaps, but I wouldn't call accusing the world of being cowards particularly courteous; he's got all the dimplomatic ability of a bulldozer.

Kind? To those friends, yes, but to everyone else, "Let them eat cake."

Obedient? Not in the slightest, particularly when you figure a President is obligated to be obedient first and foremost to the Constitution. And I don't know that obedience is necessarily an outright character flaw -- I'd argue that blind obedience is flawed, but not necessarily considered obedience.

Cheerful? Well, he does have that moronic grin pasted on his face pretty much all the time.

Thrifty? Not even close; he's spent our nation into bankruptcy.

Brave? Hmm... ducking out of military service during Vietnam... don't think we can really call him brave; foolhardy on occasion, but brave? Nope.

Clean? Okay, we'll give him this one.

Reverent? Zealous, yes, but reverent? I don't know; "reverence" at least implies some solemn reflection (and respect) that I just don't see.

Adding Franklin's "extras" in, we have...

Temperant? Um, he was an alcoholic, though I'm willing to give him half-credit for sobering up.

Silent? Well, this he is, but usually because he has no idea what anyone around him is talking about.

Resolute? Oh, this one he's got in spades. He's resolute no matter how much he's proven completely wrong.

Industrious? Not even close. He's basically been a layabout his entire life, and has succeeded despite not exerting any personal effort.

Sincere? Um, this is Bush we're talking about, right?

Just? In no respect whatsoever. He acts with all the abandon of a dictator, arbitrarily deciding which laws just aren't going to apply to him.

Moderate? No way. He has no tolerance for any position other than his own (or, more accurately,, his handlers'). He'd use a sledgehammer to swat a gnat.

Tranquil? Hmm... his personal demeanor, perhaps, but I hardly think we can call an abject warmonger "tranquil."

Chaste? At least in the last twenty years or so, I think we can give him this one.

Humble? Is this a joke? He thinks God personally appointed him emperor.

I don't even think I need to mention your additions, Intelligent and Wise. I don't think anyone's been able to use those words to describe Bush without a snicker.

Now, does Kerry embody these factors? Maybe, maybe not. But when you've got even a partial unknown on one hand, and a known villain on the other, I'm willing to accept a little uncertainty.

He can't possibly be worse.

Sorry, ksama, I think you're wrong. First, as I wrote in the essay, there are big holes in the Scout Law which I believe make it incomplete and, in places, dangerous. I think I made my case for these – just saying that "you can't pick and choose" isn't enough to convince me otherwise.

Second, I actually wrote that yes, intelligence and wisdom are two separate things:

"There is some room for debate as to whether or not intelligent and wise are even separable; I would argue that it is possible for someone to be very knowledgeable (have memorized a lot of data) but still be utterly unable to determine what to do with it (have no wisdom whatsoever), and that therefore they are indeed two separate virtues."

If you read that passage, you'll see that I didn't assert that they were the same thing – quite the opposite.

Third, as far as bachelor life is concerned, it sounds like there's more to that story than you know, so I would appreciate your not being all 'holier than thou' about it.

And fourth, I think that the 'obedient' was slipped into the Scout Law for two reasons: one, to help parents keep the little whippersnappers in line, and two, to help groom them for their future days as cannon fodder. As far as I'm concerned, obedience isn't a virtue, unless you're a dog. If someone tells me what to do, I'd betterl understand their reasoning for it, or they'd better be making it damn worth my while. Otherwise, to me it's a waste of the free will God gave me, and therefore a sin.

(Boy, that oughta rile up some of the more conservative readers out there...)

Bill: D'OH, I knew I forgot one. Dang! Oh, well... Glad you had fun with this, anyway. And pretty good points on all fronts.

That said, whenever someone says something like "He can't possibly be worse" chills go down my spine. It's like someone saying, "How bad could it be?" In my opinion, no matter how bad it gets, it can always get worse.

I would suggest that everyone following this discussion see Michael Moore's new film. There is evidence in it to make your case Geoff, and most people who like to think and reflect on the times we live in will find the movie full of great bits to gnaw on. :)

With regard to Franklin's virtues: intelligence and wisdom are contained within the list, and do not need to be listed. Intelligence is found in "order", "frugality", and "justice". Intelligence helps bring Order to chaos and is necessary for the administration of Justice. To act Frugally requires intelligence as well.

Wisdom is found in "silence", "sincerity", and "humility". To know when to be silent and when to speak is a sign of great wisdom. A wise man knows that sincerity will carry him very far and make friends, while dishonesty will bring him to a short end with many enemies. A wise man has humility to know that he does not know, and to recognize that his path is not the only path. Wisdom is one of the hardest and most important virtues to work towards.

The world needs all kinds, but I agree with you that we need leaders who inspire us to greater virtue, not necessarily greater "family values".

-Nick F

Well said, Nick.

That was beautiful, Nick. Very nice.

Indeed Geoff, you've touched on something deeply significant for me, and I think this is a VERY valuable post. Well written.

Thanks, Tom. I'm contemplating trying to expand this out into a n even longer essay, but with less emphasis on the politics and more on the elements of personal ethics.

Thank you Geoff and Shannon, just trying to add to the conversation.

Reasoned discussion among friends is important, it drives civilization along. :)

-Nick F

First of all, to counter Nick's argument, I would say that intelligence and wisdom should be made separate entries. While elements of them can be found in other criteria, I don't think those particular criteria are all-inclusive. Just a thought.

Of course, in my correcting of Geoff's omission, I made an omission of my own: Orderly. Of all those, it's one that I really should make mention of. Most significantly, I should make a notation of the difference (in connotation at least) between "order" and "orderly." "Orderly" signifies organization, clearness of thought, and such. Hard to argue with. As for Duh-bya's abilities, I'd say he hasn't shown much of this, as evidenced by his bouncing around in policy, inability to remember simple things like how to pronounce -- or even come close to pronouncing -- "Abu Ghraib," and so on. His handlers are certainly orderly, which brings me to the second part of my comparison: Order.

Order is not -- in and of itself -- a positive thing. To pick the most extreme of examples, Nazi Germany was certainly ordered, but one could hardly say it was a good thing. Okay, now let's abandon such extremism (which I used merely to illustrate my point) and get closer to the grayer realm of reality.

The Discordian Society -- of which I am a member in good standing (or sitting, as we tend to be a fairly relaxed bunch) -- is dedicated to the proposition that order and disorder (or chaos) are not synonymous with good and bad (or evil). Duh-bya's handlers are prime examples of the philosophy of negative order, or order at the expense of the societal good. Examples abound -- the Patriot Act (and its never-totally-abandoned sequel, Patriot II), the Total Information Awareness program, the de facto withdrawal of the United States from the Geneva Convention... all of which increase order -- with the proponents as the beneficiaries of said order.

Similarly, disorder can be a positive force. Hell, the very notion of Jeffersonian democracy is inherently disordered, at least in comparison with the prevailing governmental systems of the time.

I won't continue to rant on the topic in this forum, but suffice it to say that while I'd consider "orderly" a virtue, I would not afford similar consideration to "ordered."

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