APPLYING ‘VIRTUE’: Use Judgment, Please

Published on January 13, 2015

by Jesse Fennig
Clash Daily Contributor

The curious thing about arete [virtue] is how true virtue is rarely strict. The virtuous action in one case might be completely vicious in another. By now, we’ve all heard stories of police overreacting with children, and treating children like hardened criminals. These are cases of a virtuous action being made vicious by misapplication, and an example of the breakdown of arete in society. I mention this not to accuse police of misconduct, but to illustrate a clear example of something that very few people think is reasonable. This is the flaw in having a rulebook, rather than a playbook, for arete. Of course, the opposite flaw is that a playbook lends itself to abuse — if you don’t have strict guidelines, then interpretations and arguments creep in, and the original ideas are lost.

This is where discussions of arete always break down — where does one draw the line between virtue and vice? What, exactly, is the desired end result of aretaic living?

Going forward, I’m going to operate from a simple assumption — the goal of aretaic life is for humans to live in a functional society with the maximum material, personal, and social freedom and benefit practical. If you disagree with that as a goal for society, that’s fine — write your own article.

As a side note, this definition still leaves aside issues of spiritual virtue for the moment, and that is quite intentional — social development should be informed by the spiritual values of those who make up society, but it should not be dictated by those values.

Naturally, absolute freedom of action in any of those three dimensions is neither possible, nor really desirable. That’s okay — in no society in history has any reasonable, thinking person actually advocated absolute freedom of action. Yes, there have been people who advocate true anarchy, or other similarly silly ideas, but you’ll note that the first thing they always propose is some mechanism that will non-governmentally limit certain freedom of action — most anarchists still think that murder and theft are bad things, after all.

So where does this leave us? We can’t build a strict rulebook for arete, and we can’t throw out a rulebook altogether. We want a free society, so that people can choose their own paths, but we need practical limitations on behavior, so that those paths don’t interfere too much with the paths of others.

This demonstrates the parallels between arete and the laws governing society — law that is too strict becomes, as T. H. White famously phrased it, “Everything which is not forbidden is compulsory”, and law which is not sufficiently strict becomes a failed state.

Straddling the line between virtue and vice, between law and anarchy, requires it’s own virtue — judgment. This is why laws can never create an aretaic society — if the people who make up that society are not virtuous, then no code of behavior, laid out in the law, can ever make them so. Judgment is required for law to be just, and judgment must be developed within a framework of arete.

In the strange way that arete has of being self-demonstrating, it too has a vicious form. Judgment can lead to paralysis by analysis, where the actor becomes unwilling to take action because of insufficient information, and it requires good judgment to decide when it is time to make the call, despite incomplete data.

Judgment is the virtue that allows a police officer to decide that perhaps the letter of the law does not need to be applied in this case, or that allows a teacher to withhold discipline for the good of the student. It’s the virtue that makes the difference between a rulebook and a playbook, and it’s probably the most lacking virtue in modern society. It can’t be defined by rules, only taught by example, and so the simulation of virtue that is taking over in modern life does not account for it.


Jesse FennigJesse Fennig is a thirty-something who spent his childhood in Africa, his youth in Ohio, and has not yet spent his adulthood, so is unwilling to commit to a statement about it. He spends altogether too much time thinking about the “whys” of modern society, and a lot of energy writing about them. His collected writings (such as they are) may be found at When not expressing sweeping opinions on the failings of society, he restores antique woodworking tools. He’s better at fixing them than using them.