Thursday, 22 August 2013

On the importance of virtue

In his presidential inauguration speech of 2009, Barak Obama highlighted the issues raging in America. He stated:

'That we are in the midst of crisis is now well understood. Our nation is at war against a far-reaching network of violence and hatred. Our economy is badly weakened, a consequence of greed and irresponsibility on the part of some but also our collective failure to make hard choices and prepare the nation for a new age.

Homes have been lost, jobs shed, businesses shuttered. Our health care is too costly, our schools fail too many, and each day brings further evidence that the ways we use energy strengthen our adversaries and threaten our planet.' (

If it were me who was set to inherit this mess, I think that I would politely decline and go back to bed for a long, long time hoping the situation would be better in 50 years. But Obama--a far more courageous man than me--responded to this situation by appealing to virtue. Now virtue is an old fashioned word that we don't use much these days. It's like the altruistic elements in a human being: gentleness, kindness, love, peace, patience, self-control, etc.

But I think that anyone who has grown up in the West doesn't have much inclination toward virtue.

In a consumeristic, egocentric culture, we strive for success and ambition. The so-called 'American Dream' is to have all the money, stuff and property that you can get. Don't get me wrong, in and of itself that is not a bad thing. However, at what cost?

At a corporate level, multi-billion dollar corporations employ thousands of people around the world. Who is put first, though? Is it the company or the people?

For example, Apple strives to be the best and most innovative technology company in the world. And, for the most part, they do a fine job (I wrote half this blog on my iPad)! But at what cost? They pay some of their 'employees' pittance and need to have suicide protection nets around their factories because of the mind-numbing work they do (see for example, or if you prefer videos from comedians, Of course this isn't just an Apple thing. A great number of other companies do it too. But at what cost?

Of course the response in America is always the same...set up better ethics courses! The problem with this approach, and I know because I have done a university course on ethics, is that it solves nothing! Rather, I think that a more pressing question needs to be asked which will yield far more interesting results, 'Who are you and who do you want to be?'

This kind of question is mature. It forces us to look at who we are, and not just what we do. It causes us to ask the hard questions, and maybe make some hard decisions.

There was a company owned by a man named Aaron Feuerstein. In the late 90's, his textile factory burned to the ground. He had the option of selling off his company and retiring with a large wad of cash. However, he chose to personally invest in his employees, and at great cost to himself and his company, he kept paying his employees until they could re-build a brand new state-of-the art building (

The issues that we face in the 21st Century, New Zealand as a country and also as individuals, require a mature response. There are too many bullies in the playground who don't care who they hurt so long as they achieve what they want. But what of virtue? Over 2,000 years ago, Plato, Aristotle and a bunch of other boring, stuffy philosophers recognized that for a community to be strong, virtue was necessary. The same can be said of Christianity. Virtue is not merely the niceties on top. It is a fundamental aspect of who we are which shapes how we live and the community that we become.

I think that now, as any other time, is important to ask ourselves seriously the question, who am I and who do I want to be? Do I want to be more like Feuerstein or Apple? Beware, though. This kind of question requires an honest answer.

1 comment:

  1. Seb, I think you are wrong in saying that you would go back to bed for a long, long time. You are a very courageous man, willing to tackle big problems - and you are full of virtue as well.