Rarely has the idiom “virtue is its own reward” looked better than it does in light of the sex scandals sweeping the nation. The so-called “prudishness,” of a previous generation and the respect most men were once taught to have for women — and which Hugh Hefner and his disciples of “free love” mocked — are looking better with each passing day.
Conservatives have been told they can’t impose their morality on others, so how is its opposite working out for individuals and the culture?
Washington Post columnist Christine Emba writes, “Now could be the time to reintroduce virtues such as prudence, temperance, respect and even love.”
“What’s love got to do with it?” asked Tina Turner? Everything. If you love somebody or something — from institutions, to people — you are bound to treasure them, as opposed to what you dislike, don’t respect and treat like a disposable item that is useful for the moment, but is discarded when it has served your purpose.
Who decided traditional virtues were no longer viable and should not be taught to schoolchildren? Was a study conducted that found young people were being damaged from learning how to live and respect one another? Were they expected to catch these virtues on their own without guidance from elders? If so, why do we teach table manners, not interrupting when someone else is talking, sharing and many other things to counter what our lower nature doesn’t teach us?
The idea behind virtue being its own reward is that people who pursue virtue enjoy a layer of protection from the sins now being exposed in so many, from Washington to Hollywood and in between. People who are faithful to their spouses in marriage, honest in their financial dealings, respected for their character and integrity in public and in private don’t have to worry about being “embarrassed and ashamed,” as Sen. Al Franken said of his behavior toward some women.
Former Secretary of Education William J. Bennett published “The Book of Virtues” in 1993. It is a collection of moral tales designed to instruct us on the benefits of virtue and the consequences of its opposite.
The chapter titles reveal a list of ancient truths that seem increasingly scarce in modern society. They include some of the things Ms. Emba notes we are missing in today’s culture: Self-discipline, Responsibility, Courage, Honesty, Loyalty and Faith. Question: Would anyone argue these virtues have exceeded their “sell-by” date? It turns out that living by one’s own moral code, or none at all, has been a disaster for individuals and for the nation.
In the introduction to his book, Mr. Bennett writes of the necessity of reaching “the inner part of the individual, to the moral sense.” Today, he writes, “We speak about values and the importance to ‘have them,’ as if they were beads on a string or marbles in a pouch. But these stories speak of morality and virtues, not as something to be possessed, but as the central part of human nature, not as something to have, but as something to be, the most important thing to be.”
In the train wreck of our present culture, we are witnessing the failure over the last 50 years to instruct and discipline our children in ways that as adults they are more likely to embrace the values that can lead to a virtuous life. Why did we expect any other outcome after mostly abandoning these virtues? If you penalize and discourage virtuous things you will get less virtue; conversely, if you subsidize and encourage virtue, you will get more of it.
The scandals playing out in newspapers and on TV speak to this. The question now is will we “repent,” as the Scriptures advise, and seek a new path which, in fact, is a very old path that leads to a more virtuous life, or continue down the current path which leads to destruction?
• Cal Thomas is a nationally syndicated columnist. His latest book is “What Works: Common Sense Solutions for a Stronger America” (Zondervan, 2014).