There can be little doubt that we live in a society that lacks virtue and that such a lack of virtue is causing the downfall of our society. While there are those who would disagree with my assessment, the fact is those who disagree are part of the problem.
By denying an ethical standard based upon virtue – which is external to humans and leaves humans attempting to achieve a standard – many people are turning to Hedonism, where man becomes a measure of himself. Hedonism teaches that so long as you’re not harming anyone else, what you’re doing is ethically good. This is the predominate ethical standard in America and is sadly being co-opted by Christians as well. Whereas one used to engage in moral actions for a multitude of reasons, including a desire for good judgment in the afterlife, in modern times men are only moral so long as it is within their best interests to be moral. At the point morality would prevent a hedonistic desire and violating such a moral code would come with little to no consequences, modern man then acts out against that moral code.
We see it in our CEO’s who will bring in $9 million in bonuses a year, but then put a pay freeze on their employees paychecks or induce economic panic by saying that their company teeters on the brink of bankruptcy and therefore needs a bailout. We see it in the MTV culture that has turned sex into a recreational tool or a commodity to get what they want rather than a mystical act that brings husband and wife together. We see it in our young teenagers and in our Congress, who often only differ in their vocabulary, but not attitudes and thought processes, in wanting everything to go their way rather than come to a compromise. Our society is becoming more individualistic because it’s becoming more hedonistic. At some point, hedonism will lead to dire consequences.
How much longer before our young people begin to ponder the possibilities of eradicating those who are of lower intelligence? After all, such people require sacrifice and require us to help them. Perhaps our society will refuse to devolve to a position where we are eradicating undesirables, but can we not see how we’re moving towards a classist society? Again, the hedonism of America is beginning to procure a class society where the rich can avoid the poor. We send our extremely poor to public schools, but we should never pretend that they get the same education as the child of rich parents, who generally send their children to private schools. A hedonist looks at such a situation and asks why people can’t have disparity in education, never realizing that it creates a permanent disparity between the classes, which soon become castes that people are not allowed to leave.
In a society that strives for virtue, where man isn’t the measure of himself, but rather is measured by the Divine, greed is abhorred as is acting in one’s own self-interests. While there are still rich and poor, the rich tend to do what they can to help the poor. The poor will always exist no matter how virtuous or good a society is (a fatal flaw in the thinking of socialism – it’s Utopian ideal), but how the poor are dealt with and cared for will change from society to society.
A virtuous society would call for us to act in moderation in all things and this is why hedonism reacts to virtue ethics with vitriol. Should you ever propose that virtue ethics be taught at your school as a mandatory class, you will have the litigious defenders of this age descend upon you with lawyers and publicly shame you for being an absolutist. Our society enjoys its vices, so much so that the vices have become virtues. But in living for ourselves our society has become emptier; there are more divorces because absurd personal needs aren’t being met, there are more students isolated from their parents because their parents have chosen not to grow up, there are more 20-somethings who are still in high school (via maturity level, not academic level) and haven’t developed into adults. Society doesn’t demand change or demand that people change their ways because we see all of this as a “journey” that everyone needs to figure out for himself. But where has that gotten us? Certainly we are on a journey, but rather than taking a journey that leads our society into a golden age, we have embarked on a journey to a cesspool. Yes, our society is on a journey, but it is more of a death-march than a journey.
Hedonism is killing our society because it promotes individualism, which does not allow for social responsibility. One could say that hedonism makes us more like the beast because it results in self-interest, but even the beast understands the moral obligation to its species. Even some beasts will protect their young and sacrifice for others in the pack. Hedonism, therefore, makes us lower than many other animals, a base species that while technologically intelligent, lacks wisdom and is therefore foolish and absurd.
Virtue ethics, however, is the soothing balm to place on the hedonistic infection of our society. While it requires self-control and does not allow us to pursue our desires and wants, it does produce a better society. When people are more concerned about achieving a life that reflects justice, temperance, courage, and prudence more than achieving a life that allows them to live for themselves, society tends to function in a way that ensures the good of all. Virtue ethics requires us to work towards the common good (not the greater good, which is more of a collective hedonism for a specific group), which does require sacrifice from everyone, but eventually achieves a societal balance. Such an ethical system not only ignores adultery, broken marriages, and selfish greed, it abhors it, it lambasts it, and seeks to eradicate such hedonism.
If our society is to survive then we must ignore the legislative talks of our rulers making the claims that they can make our lives better. No amount of legislation can help us at this point. If we are to have a reform in our government, a reform in our schools, and a reform in the social relationships within our society, it must begin with virtue ethics becoming the core ethical standard for the majority of Americans. But this would require us to drop our hedonism, which is bad for business (people will not spend as much money if they are virtuous), so I fear that I will not see such an ethical change in my lifetime.