2019-12-31

Unifying Negative and Positive Virtue

When most people think about virtue, they think of refraining from specific bad behaviors. They think of a sort of self-denial. The ideal of this kind of virtue is the nice guy who does very little, but never sins. This is the virtue of John Harvey Kellog, who advocated eating vegetarian foods to sap sexual vitality to prevent masturbation and fornication.

There’s another interpretation of virtue, though, as forceful vitality. The more you do, the more you’re able to do, the more powerful your spirit, the more virtuous you are. This is closer to the old roman “virtus”, meaning approximately high-impact public manliness. Note the common root with virility: “vir”, for full manhood. Another old word with the right sort of meaning is the greek arete, meaning excellence, especially fulfilling purpose.

Bear with me while we take a survey through various intuitions to try to sharpen and unify our concepts around virtue.

The above correspond roughly to what we might call negative and positive virtue:

Negative virtue assumes you have a well-established behavioral specification to stay within, you are relatively close to meeting it, and your attention just needs to be turned to fixing a few deviations from this specification. Imagine for example you are working some job where you produce widgets on an assembly line, or fix cars, or whatever. Or, in more moral terms, you have a well-established conception of life, with specific sins and infractions to avoid. You basically know what you are doing, but you make mistakes. You may not have to do anything at all. Negative virtue is about minimizing those mistakes.

What happens when you are very far from the specification? What is the internal structure of the specification? Where does it come from and why is it a good idea? Bear these in mind as we think about this.

Positive virtue does not assume you know by default what you are doing. You are faced with the hard task of accomplishing some novel and good result. Your specification is in what kind of results you’re interested in, not how to get there. Positive virtue is open-ended. From the perspective of positive virtue, you are very far from any kind of perfection, and the important thing is building small value-creating complexes of functionality.

These are both obviously important. You can’t just focus on not making moral and practical mistakes, because the bar for the good life is higher than that, and “mistake” isn’t really a useful framing of having no particular high-value skill. On the other hand, you can’t just focus on the high value skill complexes, because you need to fit into a larger social order and otherwise function on a bunch of obvious basics.

Another thing to consider is that negative virtue is meaningless and impossible without positive virtue. The specification that negative virtue urges you to meet is the internal structure of some larger system of positive virtue that is accomplishing something. Discipline doesn’t matter if you don’t have some dangerous energy to bring into order.

Somewhere in here there is the true concept that we should be paying attention to, which is somewhere in the area of functional order. Positive virtue is about building new functional order. Negative virtue is about adhering to the specifications of existing functional order, especially that which you are embedded in.

We can develop these ideas further another time.