Politics & Policy

Got Virtue?

First Daughter Karen Grant (Mary Mouser) in ABC’s Scandal (ABC)
A new set of “virtues” is undermining the traditional virtues. But some Americans are fighting back.

‘I just saw the dirtiest sex tape, and it stars your daughter.”

The story line on a typically cartoonish recent episode of ABC’s over-the-top prime-time Scandal was totally realistic, even mundane. This is the air many young people breathe. Writing about the virtue of temperance in a new collection of essays, The Seven Deadly Virtues, Andrew Stiles, himself a millennial, describes how “everyday conversations are often just an endless discourse on the question: ‘How drunk was I last night?’”

This Snapchat-like snapshot of America in 2014 underscores how deeply complicated is the work of renewing, rebuilding, repairing, and replenishing family life in a culture that has organized itself around a new set of virtues. Jonathan Last, the editor of the collection, argues that freedom, conscience, progress, equality, authenticity, health, and nonjudgmentalism are “the seven cardinal modern virtues.” The problem with having these as our organizing framework, he maintains, is they are largely superficial, concerned with “the outer self . . . the part of ourselves that the world sees most readily.” They certainly are “insufficient” for fostering the moral supports a democracy needs. 

For the fictional First Daughter in that Scandal episode, her escape from the Secret Service was a desperate girl’s declaration of independence, echoing a familiar staple of our times — the good girl “gone wild” — which does no daughter any favors. In fact, “If you go by the received wisdom,” Matt Labash writes on his assigned virtue, “chastity is the thick-ankled stepsister of the virtues. With an identical beginning and ending, along with the same number of syllables, chastity has the phonetic ring of the sexier virtue, charity. Except when you practice charity, you get pats on the back and deductions on your taxes. Being chaste just gets you odd looks and suspected of being a weirdo.”

The drug-addled First Daughter’s transaction with two boys that night was taped by one of them because that’s what we do now. Instead of encountering one another and creation, we click a photo or record the scene. “We increasingly live amid the ether of the cloud and the pixilation of the screen, forgetting that our greatest tools for communicating with each other as human beings are not our sleek smartphones and laptop computers, but our less-than-perfect faces, gestures, and voices, even when we are at our most annoying,” writes Christine Rosen in promoting fellowship. “It is only when we are face-to-face and physically present with one another that we can experience the kind of genuine fellowship that has been the hallmark of civilization.”

Where did we traditionally learn how to love one another at our most annoying? The family, of course. What the family looks like today is a many-flavored display, as people do their best in the situations in which they find themselves. The condition of the family is not helped by the modern “virtues” rewriting and undervaluing the traditional virtues, and poisoning the wellsprings of human flourishing: life itself, marriage, the uniqueness of each individual man and woman and the treasure of their coming together and growing together to raise children.

Talk of the family so often today gets wrapped up and trapped in debates about contentious issues. But family — like life, of course — is not just about sex. Lost in the political headlines of the season (typical for the last weeks of any campaign cycle) is the possibility of a robust debate. In Virginia, Republican Senate candidate Ed Gillespie has worked to push along such a conversation about the dignity of work in his campaign stops, in his economic plan, and in one speech in particular this month at Liberty University. Pope Francis often talks about unemployment being an evil we face today; unemployment can sap a man’s hope, especially if he is just starting out in life. The pope went so far the other day as to say that there is no family without work, speaking to both the hard work of family life and the practical and even spiritual need for work in the life of a family. “I don’t think we make the case strongly enough from a conservative perspective,” Gillespie told me when I recently paid a visit to his Lorton, Va., campaign office, “that true social justice is enabling people to have the dignity of work, to be able to provide for themselves and their families, and that our policies need to make that possible.” Economic policies need to help, among others, “someone who is a single mother who is facing the challenges of being a sole provider and a single parent.” She needs to “be able to make ends meet while keeping [her] job and hopefully moving up in the work force,” he said. “And that’s particularly important if you believe in fostering a culture that respects and protects innocent human life.”

Work is never the sexiest of topics, but it is essential to our lives, and to the life of the family. It’s a scandal when we don’t insist that it be taken more seriously, that conversations be more rigorous.

Gillespie worries, among other things, that we may be losing our “work ethic.” It’s because of his gratitude to his parents for their modeling of hard work and sacrifice that he wants to do something to help other families at this point in history.

“It is gratitude that allows us to appreciate what is good, to discern what should be defended and cultivated,” Last writes in his new book of virtues. As we face a culture of changed values, what’s old can be key to our renewal. It’s certainly a worthy alternative.

— Kathryn Jean Lopez is senior fellow at the National Review Institute, editor-at-large of National Review Online, and founding director of Catholic Voices USA.

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