Virtue Ethics: The Dilemma of Postmodern Democracy (Portrait of a Graduate Series)

christian lingnerBy Christian Lingner, School of the Ozarks Class of 2014

History reveals three main ways in which societies can be structured or governed. Probably the most historically popular system is that which governs through a top-down approach, employing regulations and obligations to force the common people to comply with the government’s wishes. Another possibility is complete anarchy, simply letting people do as they wish without the accountability of a government. Of this second option I would say that it has never been attempted, but such a statement proves redundant, since it is by definition a “non-attempt” to begin with. I suppose it might be more accurate to say it has never been successful, at least in all documented history, to have no form of government, a fact evidenced by the universal existence of authority structures in every kind of culture. Therefore, the last option is to try to develop the character of the people so they live in accordance with a standard higher than the arbitrary law of the government. As a result, the power of the government is regulated from dictator to benefactor, where the people receive security and order from government authority without their rights being infringed vertically or horizontally.

Such a government the Founding Fathers of the United States of America aspired to establish when they drafted the Constitution in 1787. Benjamin Franklin once wrote, “Only a virtuous people are capable of freedom. As nations become corrupt and vicious, they have need of masters.”[1] Franklin recognized what modern men have long since forgotten, that virtue and democracy are inseparable and coessential. The lack of a consistent moral ethic among the people necessarily leads to the government extending its role from knight to nanny—from the honorable position of protector and guardian of the castle to the hand-swatting, de facto mother of the bedroom responsible for teaching proper conduct to the child not yet unable to judge appropriate behavior on its own. Today’s “nanny effect,” with the government providing a sort of synthetic morality through extensive regulation and force, is the result of a breakdown in the people’s shared virtue, which in turns necessarily precipitates the loss of shared liberty.

Steven Garber quoted Robert Bellah who remarked, “The freedom of our day is the freedom to devote ourselves to any values we please, on the mere condition that we do not believe them to be true.”[2] Indeed, the conundrum of our postmodern age is that people claim to believe in many things, but do not assert them as anything more than mere preference. In a civilization once known for its undying devotion to inquiry and growth, the western democratic world has accepted the one philosophy which eliminates any possibility of meaningful conversation or progress by extending the principles of democracy too far. We have redefined democracy as that which gives each man the right to share his beliefs, as long as he doesn’t believe everyone, or anyone, should share them.

While this worldview carries the day on an individual basis, one byproduct of the postmodern philosophy is a sort of social determinism, which by ignorance or arrogance elevates the ideas of our time in history over those found in the past. Some years ago, Robert Hutchins described social determinism as the belief that ideas go out of date as societies progress, or the idea which “claims that intellectual activity, at least, is always relative to a particular society, so that, if the society changes in an important way, the activity becomes irrelevant.”[3] This is especially true of the last half century or so, as the entire landscape of human development and experience has erupted along with the sudden explosion of technology. Indeed, it would be easy to dismiss the past as out of date since it is out of style. People seem almost as eager to shelve the whole of western thought as they are to laugh off their fourteen-year-old self who posted embarrassing statuses and pictures on Facebook. If they take the occasion to scroll down the timeline far enough, they merely shake their heads and quickly take the opportunity to point out how far they have come, how much progress they have made.

Progress. What a beautifully optimistic and ambiguous word. The one rule of modernity, now running rampant throughout the postmodern world, is the ideal of progress. Of course our western democratic world wants more than anything to believe in social determinism, because we blindly adhere to the belief that any change is progress. It seems we must perceive time as a linear progression moving steadily from the bottom left corner of the chart, representing the beginning of time, to the upper right hand corner, representing our generation. We are bent on believing that all of history has been a prolonged refining period and suddenly, during the enlightenment, gold emerged from the fire between the trembling tongs of the modern sophists. After all this time, all the conversations, all the mind-bending and hair pulling, the truth has been found: it does not exist. The epiphany of Protagoras echoed down through the ages and found the ears of the men who mistook his Refutations as their own work, their original culmination of western inquiry, his words ringing true in the minds of the tired scholars of the classics: what is true for you is true for you, what is true for me is true for me. Surely the weight of the world fell off their shoulders for a moment as they leaned back in their Ivy League offices, removed their glasses and wiped bloodshot eyes with the cuffs of their shirtsleeves. Humanity had become tired of learning and searching for truth, and therefore, under the mantra of enlightenment, unfortunately resorted to the only philosophy that could inhibit all real progress by saying everything is true.

But surely, not even they believe any change is progress. In a culture that tends to accentuate each man’s differences and minimalizes the ways we resemble each other, we forget that in addition to what we have in common with one another in our daily lives, all of humanity shares its history. This infuriating fact is the thorn in the side of every relativist who quickly sweeps under the rug any remnants of ethics as the next generation walks unknowingly through the door. There is an exception to the optimistic rule of our age: progress is only progress if it does not come as reform. They claim that just as a man cannot effectively run forward while looking backward, so a society cannot advance while focusing on the past. In The Case for Christianity, C.S. Lewis was quick to retort, “We all want progress, but if you’re on the wrong road, progress means doing an about-turn and walking back to the right road; in that case, the man who turns back soonest is the most progressive.”[4] Our western culture has told each man that progress is simply picking any road he prefers, as long as it isn’t in the footprints of his ancestors. The postmodern thinker has forgotten that he need not run forward when looking back. He seems to have overlooked that he can stop “progressing” in his accustomed way, and turn a looking glass to the illuminated horizon at his heels to look for new paths.

Our modern conception of progress is nothing but nonsense because it lacks the one prerequisite of achievement and growth: a static goal. Just as the miscalculation of many Americans today, including many elected officials, is to mistake democracy as the goal of democracy, so western civilization has become infatuated with mere change or novelty as the goal of progress. Democracy is a means to another end, the preservation of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Likewise, change must occur when it is necessary for progress, like a boat is necessary to cross a river. However, a moving boat is not necessarily making progress simply because it is moving, for progress must be judged on the movement of the boat in correlation to its destination, namely, the far bank. It has become remarkably clear that the only way for the world to change for the better is to take the most unpopular of all paths. We are in need of the ancient remedy, the father of renaissance and evolution; our world is in desperate need of reform.

Reform is the only answer for an incoherent, ill-advised time, such as the one in which we live, because it implies a previous form, a preceding shape one can model and understand and perfect. It is time our western democratic world begins to reject the idea that new ideas are inevitably better ideas and start asking the past to give its well-deserved input and provide us with the silhouettes of our fathers. However, this is not all, for the next unbearable step must be made: while the world works its hardest to remove moral responsibility from men by making everything permissible, if we ask the parliament of tradition, they resound that they are not the creators of their form, but they discovered “good” through reason or revelation. Right and wrong, the basis for true progress, were not created, but rather discovered by primeval men asking the same questions we are today, but who were humble enough to recognize the truth when it was beneath their nose. Since then, the accumulated wealth of wisdom they acquired and preserved has been the basis for cultural, intellectual, and moral education in the western sphere, what men in the past have been perfectly content to call tradition.

In his book Orthodoxy, G.K. Chesterton famously wrote, “tradition is only democracy extended through time.”[5] He goes on to explain that tradition is naturally linked to the ideology of democracy because it is merely giving a voice to the opinions of those who have come before, especially that aristocracy which continues to live on through the great literary works of western civilization. Chesterton was, as he wrote a little later, unwilling to “submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about.”[6] Amidst London streets walked this giant over a century ago, asking the most important question of our present age: is it not better to look to tradition for an understanding of what is right and wrong, in order that each man and each generation is not responsible for creating a new (and likely inadequate) version of what all of humanity has been searching for over the past few millennia? Philosopher Garret DeWeese wrote much more recently that tradition is “the collected wisdom transmitted through a culture, and since true wisdom when employed results in successful living, tradition serves as guardrails or lane markers, keeping the wise on the road that has the greatest likelihood of leading to success.”[7] His words can be boiled down to the recognition that tradition is the common ethic of a culture passed from generation to generation, and in western civilization, tradition preserves common virtues which allow the rights and privileges of men to continue to be recognized and valued. With his definition in mind, it is time to consider glancing over our shoulder to the curbed, Roman roads of our patriarchs and retrace their footsteps as they toiled along the path of thoughtful discovery. No longer can a rejection of tradition be tolerated, for reality will not stand it much longer. The tattered fringes of ancient morality have girded our irresponsible democracy thus far, but we are rapidly running out of fabric to cling to, and postmodern anarchy is the logical consequence of our current accepted premise.

Democracy will not survive without a shared common morality, and a shared common morality will not be attained without a resurrection of those currently residing beneath six feet of earth. Fortunately, we do not have to use shovels and archeology to revive the wise minds of old. Perhaps, for a start, the brush of a hand across the dusty, fragile cover of a classic work and the soft shudder of turning pages will suffice. A revitalization of what Robert Hutchins called “the great conversation” must begin with individual decisions to partake in the spirit of inquiry which guided and motivated the truly influential and innovative minds of the past. Since our education system has not given the past few generations the academic resources to delve into the great books of the past, the arduous task of adult reeducation is the immediate key to beginning the reformation of western thought and revival of democracy.

However, we cannot be deceived into thinking that democracy will be saved if we merely accept an intellectual understanding that tradition will help us save democracy. As Mortimer Adler writes in How to Read a Book, “intellectual virtues without the moral virtues can be viciously misused, as they are misused by anyone who has knowledge and skill but doesn’t know the ends of life.”[8] A return to tradition is necessary for the continuation of democracy because the great minds agree that there is nothing that can lead to democratic success except the masses placing moral virtue as the greatest good, their ultimate goal, static through the ages. The shape of pre-postmodern thought was foundationally built upon the notion that the good life and true liberty and happiness are derivatives only of virtue, both on the individual and cultural level.

Before proceeding any further, let’s take a moment to consider a few of these main points. First, postmodern thought has resulted in its logical societal result, the ignorant arrogance of social determinism. Second, we must trade in our optimistic and ambiguous view of progress and come to the understanding that progress is dependent on a static goal or shape, and this true type of progress is properly called reform. We then argued that democracy must be extended back through time, in order that tradition, “the collected wisdom transmitted through a culture,” might be able to delineate to us its perspectives on that shape. Therein we find the great conversation, where the ideals of growth and progress are founded on an assumption of virtue as the ultimate source of good. These are all critical steps in understanding the problems of our postmodern, democratic culture. However, all of this analysis would be in vain if we did not make the final courageous leap into the proverbial and often disillusioning pool of metaphysics.

Why does any discussion on ethics always seem to feel the necessity to jump from common sense and pragmatism to asking questions about transcendence and detached standards of right and wrong? This is why: practical people do not pursue virtue unless they understand a particular standard as particularly right, resulting in the depth of conviction necessary to pursue it. Virtue, as defined by N.T. Wright, is “what happens when someone has made a thousand small choices requiring effort and concentration, to do something which is good and right which doesn’t ‘come naturally.’”[9] As a rule, man has never, on his own accord, felt natural doing what is right, and our culture is an extension of this common rule. We have no patience to waste time and energy pursuing difficult goals that we do not understand as necessary, and our age is plagued with the idea that virtue is both impossible and unnecessary, especially since there is no universal standard of the good, the right and the just. Therefore, since we do not value virtue, what chance have we of taking the time to practice virtue?

One answer I have already suggested: some unselfish people may pursue virtue because they believe it to be the only saving grace of democracy, making “goodness” a necessary evil, to put it in paradoxical terms. Unfortunately, we have reason to believe that intellectualism will not result in the type of moral transformation required for the preservation of democracy. Virtue must be defined, and if we rely solely on education to determine that definition, then soon the whole of virtue will be taught a thousand different ways, in much the same way that Christianity splintered into a thousand different denominations the moment the authority of orthodoxy was relinquished. What you have are a thousand different versions of the truth, or more accurately, at least nine-hundred and ninety-nine which are at least partially wrong, partially untrue. Therefore, we must adopt the aforementioned philosophy of a static goal, a definitive and universal understanding of virtue by which anyone can look and judge everything else, including the educational system.

This impasse, the understanding that morality cannot be taught, is where ethics becomes necessarily tied to metaphysics, to the idea of a transcendent standard which any man can look to and find the motivation and desire to be held accountable. What this universal standard will be in the future is not yet certain, but it is certain that there will be no future for democracy without the rapid emergence of one. This is why Christianity was essential in the development of western civilization, because it provided a basis and motivation for the pursuit of virtue and a soul for the discipline of morality. The mind of Socrates found heart in Jesus. The virtue of Plato found righteousness in scripture, and “the good life” of classical philosophy found salvation and hope in Catholicism. Even the Founding Fathers, many of whom were deists, understood that Christianity must be supported by democracy, for otherwise morality would fail dramatically and leave America disintegrating under the stress of a fractured and disunified public.

The question left unanswered is one each man must investigate for himself: what will the soul of moral reform be in this independent, democratic era? I have already advocated where I believe we must start, in the writings of western tradition where virtue is touted as the only route to true liberty and happiness. However, he must not stop with mere inquiry of the truth, or else I have now destroyed my own argument by suggesting each man must find his own truth. Instead, I am suggesting that each man must seek the truth, come to conclusions, and believe in them as truth. He then must take his creed and share it with those around him, engaging in dialogue with persons in opposition to his views, amending what needs revision when necessary, and developing persuasive arguments for those judgments he understands as immutable. With the survival of democracy hanging in the balance, men must employ their endangered rights and privileges by actively and vocally pursuing the truth, recommencing the search for virtue alongside the discoverers of old. And maybe, just maybe, along the way this disoriented nation will recover its soul.



[1] Jared Sparks, ed., The Writings of Benjamin Franklin, vol. 10 (Boston, MA: Tappan, Whittemore and Mason, 1840), 297.

[2] Steven Garber, Visions of vocation: common grace for the common good (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Books, an imprint of InterVarsity Press, 2014), 45.

[3] Robert Maynard Hutchins, The Great Conversation: the substance of a liberal education (Chicago: Encyclopaedia Britannica, 1952), 8.

[4] C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York, NY: Touchstone, 1996), 36.

[5] G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy (San Francisco, CA: Ignatius Press, 1995), 52.

[6] Ibid, 53.

[7] Garrett J. DeWeese, Doing Philosophy as a Christian (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2011), 60.

[8] Mortimer J. Adler, How to Read a Book: the art of getting a liberal education (New York, NY: Simon and Schuster, 1940), 84.

[9] N. T. Wright, After You Believe: why Christian character matters (New York, NY: HarperOne, 2010), 20.


Adler, Mortimer J. How to Read a Book: the art of getting a liberal education. New York, NY: Simon and Schuster, 1940.

Chesterton, G. K. Orthodoxy. San Francisco, CA: Ignatius Press, 1995.

DeWeese, Garrett J. Doing Philosophy as a Christian. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2011.

Garber, Steven. Visions of vocation: common grace for the common good. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Books, an imprint of InterVarsity Press, 2014.

Hutchins, Robert Maynard. The Great Conversation: the substance of a liberal education. Chicago: Encyclopaedia Britannica, 1952.

Lewis, C. S. Mere Christianity. New York, NY: Touchstone, 1996.

Sparks, Jared, ed. The Writings of Benjamin Franklin. Vol. 10. Boston, MA: Tappan, Whittemore and Mason, 1840.

Wright, N. T. After You Believe: why Christian character matters. New York, NY: HarperOne, 2010.

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