Where virtue finds expression

Matthew Loftus writes on culture:

We have to ask how public goods and virtuous behavior come to be. And that must always bring us back to community, and to whether our cities and towns are organized in ways that make us good neighbors.

Conservative discourse has of late found itself unable to describe how virtue is formed, even as it presupposes that virtue and the institutions that form it are necessary for any meaningful political order. We can bluster on about the role of faith, family, virtue, self-discipline, and community in maintaining economic and social flourishing, but then we actually give very little regard to such institutions when we talk as though people would abandon them all for $185 a month and some food stamps.

We recognize rightly that, as moral agents, humans are to be held accountable for their actions. But at their worst, both liberals and conservatives treat virtue and economic self-sufficiency as a closed system—either supposing that people will just behave virtuously when you subsidize them hard enough or that personal character only grows under threat of deprivation. Neither account actually describes how the state interacts with all of the intermediary institutions that shape the decisions we can make or how we make them. Economic agency is exercised through the employers who offer jobs. When those institutions disappear, the virtues they supported can go with them. Likewise, neither a check nor a job can substitute for an intact family.

Even if we can agree that the current welfare regime doesn’t encourage virtue, we have to give a constructive account of one that will. …

If we actually want to deal with the cultural malaise that has fueled the messianic politics that threatens our republic, then we will have to reverse the trends that create more distance between the disciplined and the undisciplined. That will probably require a greater supply of good neighbors than we currently have on offer.

Virtue is neither an idea nor an abstraction. It is formed in the soul in relationship with other people.

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