The state of virtue

By Simon Beard
March 26, 2010

Thinking back a year or so, to the Convention on Modern Liberty, I am struck by the fact that the one thing that stands out in my memory was author Phillip Pullman's address, in which he laid out a vision of public policy as it could be if it focused on promoting our virtues, rather than protecting us from our vices (

This is not a new idea. In fact it is where our discourse on politics and policy first began. The earliest writers on politics, including the early Christian thinkers, seldom spent their time worrying about what to do with all the 'bad people' in society. Their concern was what sort of person was best for making a good society, and how this sort of person could be formed, helped and encouraged.

It is a sign of the state of our current 'public theology' that many now obsess far more about the ways in which society is vicious, rather than on building on the good within it, through which healing can come. Just as Labour did in 1997, so the Conservatives are now focusing overwhelmingly on the 'broken' things in society, with the implied certainty that only a change in government has the capacity to make them better. This is profoundly inadequate.

As Pullman concludes his address, "We are a better people than our government believes we are."

Last summer I wrote a research article for Ekklesia that tried to measure what I termed ‘Spiritual Capital’, and made the point that when you look at what really counted in people's lives, rather than how they where counted by a census, our levels of spiritual resource have not shown any significant sign of decline in the past 30 years. (

It is a conclusion I continue to stand by, but I suspect my approach was flawed. My desire was, and still is, to convince those who make public policy according to what can be most easily measured, that it is not only numbers that count. However the very act of supporting this with quantifiable evidence is, in a very real sense, to lose faith in the argument.

Virtue, which is more or less what Spiritual Capital means, is beyond quantification. Virtue is by nature:

* Voluntary – getting people to do the right thing is a way of tackling vice, but not of promoting virtue.

* Contextualised – virtue only exists in relationships, between one another, with the environment, with ourselves and with God. Virtue cannot be considered at the level of the individual as agent or consumer.

* Immaterial – A person's virtue exists in defiance of their material circumstances (whatever they are), it is not produced by them.

* Qualitative – even saying what is virtuous is a task to tax the brain of the best philosophers and theologians. Quantifying it in any meaningful way is beyond any of them.

Together, these factors illustrate that virtues are not just about what people do, or don’t do, but about the why and how of their decisions and about the character of those implementing them. If governments or societies wish to instill virtues in their citizens, they need to ask the same questions. As Pullman argues, they need to give people the choice to act well and to trust people to act responsibly. How a policy will make people feel is not a side effect, to be dealt with through advertising or consultation, but a crucial part of the policy itself. Why it is right for the government to do something is as important as what it does.

If the government seeks to remove risk from people’s lives and to guarantee their safety, even at the cost of their liberty, then it will not make people courageous. If the government seeks to force people into acting to promote what is perceived to be in their interest, then it will not make them prudent. If the government focuses on people's wants, rather than their needs, it will not make them temperate. Finally, if the government does not treat people justly, it will not make them just.

It cannot be enough simply to try to educate people into acting virtuously, as many on the left keep on advocating, through expansions of the national curriculum. The state must be willing to develop its own virtues and to live in a right relationship with its citizens. Of course, this cannot achieve everything we might want. There are things a state cannot provide, such as love. However, If we look at the effect of public policy on people's lives we must ask ourselves not only what the state is doing to materially support people in achieving health, wealth and happiness, but whether they are helping them to leave better, deeper and more resilient lives.

I hope I am not the only person who continues to be inspired by Pullman’s arguments or by that of Aristotle and Aquinas long before him. They point us towards a better world.

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