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When Virtue Is Really A Vice

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When Virtue Is Really A Vice

Virtual virtue is any mental, verbal or otherwise low-effort way of doing good.

For example, praying for Paris, or this new way of showing solidarity by superimposing a French flag on our Facebook pictures.

Virtual virtue is troublesome. To get a sense of it, picture going to a movie, identifying with the hero’s hard virtuous acts, walking to the car after, getting hit up for change by a homeless person, and saying “No way! I just saved the world from evil. I’ve already done my part.”

Virtual virtue has long been a troubling issue. Concern about it inspired Abraham’s rejection of false idols, the Christian iconoclastic movement (removal of icons from churches) in reaction to Islam’s icon-free religious success in the 1000’s, and Luther’s criticism of “frequent communion” by which he meant going to Church on Sunday, feeling all virtuous and indulging in vice the rest of the week. Empty gestures, for example recycling making people feel like their drop in the recycling bucket gesture is all the difference they need to make.

Virtual virtue is a virtue when, having identified with the side of virtue, we must follow through with other virtuous deeds. Salespeople, charities and con artists employ this effect: Get people to give you a little something, and then when you ask for more they’ll give it to avoid the cognitive dissonance of changing from generous to ungenerous. In this way virtual (inexpensive) virtue becomes a complement to real virtue: My little act of kindness compels bigger acts of kindness.

Virtual virtue is a vice when it’s a substitute for real virtue, as in the panhandler example.

We can also ask “Is virtual vice virtue a or a vice?” Virtual vice is imaging doing nasty things, playing violent video games, listening to violent music, identifying with anti-heros or watching violent porn.

Here’s the odd thing: It too can be a virtue, but is by opposite means:

Virtual vice is a virtue when it’s a substitute for real vice (doing it instead of doing nasty things in the real world), but is a vice when it’s a complement to real vice (it inspires nasty behavior in the real world.

And virtual virtue is the opposite: It’s a virtue when its a complement, not a substitute for real virtue, and is a vice when it’s a substitute, not a complement for real virtue.

In sum:
Virtual virtue is virtue when it complements real virtue.
Virtual vice is a virtue when it substitutes for real vice.

[Jeremy Sherman]

Vital stats: Berkeley, 57, partnered, three children (M34, M28, F24), married once for 17 years.

Educationally: Ph.D. in evolutionary theory, masters in public policy

Vocationally: MBA professor of strategic foresight, business consultant and communications trainer, academic researcher.

Historically: I’ve taught over 250k college-student/hours in psychology, sociology, rhetoric, philosophy, advertising, economics, history, English, cultural studies, marketing and strategy. I founded a non-profit environmental lobbying organization in DC, worked as a business consultant and public affairs director for large companies, ran a foundation, designed and implemented water projects in Guatemala. For seven years I lived on the world’s largest hippie commune, and was an elected elder there at 24.

Authority: None.

I never refer to myself as an expert in anything, but rather a specialist in those questions that interest me (see below). I write with no authority. I read lots but cite rarely in my articles which should be read as opinion pieces, not declaration of scientifically proven fact. I will not pull rank on readers: My ideas are only worth considering only if they’re based on good reasoning. I change my ideas over time. Caveat emptor. They say “don’t believe everything you think. I’ll go one further: I don’t believe everything I write, in that for every argument I make, I aim to be able to express convincingly the counterargument. I try to live by the F. Scott Fitzgerald quote: “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.”

Self-expressively: I’ve written over 600 articles for Psychology Today, coined over 400 psychology neologisms. I write songs and limericks. I play bass and sing in jazz, Latin, funk, and Nigerian groups three nights a week.

Intellectually, yet intimately, my middle-age spread spans several life-sized questions.

* Most cosmically, how did mattering emerge from matter?, life from non-life? mind from chemistry? economics from physics? information from energy, questions I address as a member of a 16 year research project with UC Berkeley scientist Terrence Deacon.

* More practically, though not unrelated, how do and how should we shop among interpretations, deciding what’s significant and how to respond to what life deals us?

* Also practically and related, what is a butthead other than someone we butt heads with? since in a free society we should define morals negatively–not what you should, but what you shouldn’t do. We say “don’t be a butthead,” but define buttheads subjectively as people we butt heads with. I seek a more objective distinction between what’s morally in and out of bounds.

* How do and should we balance the ambigamist’s tensions and what is the underlying structure of such tensions? For this I use the Serenity Prayer as a template, and think about levels of analysis (going meta).

I’ve written five books, only one published but the rest out soon one way or another.

Negotiate with yourself and win: Doubt management for people who can hear themselves think.

Purpose: A natural history

Doubt: A user’s guide; a natural history

Mind readers dictionary: Terms for reading between the lines with greater comprehension.

Executive UFO: A field guide to unidentified flying objectives in the workplace.

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