Maybe our way of thinking about virtue is connected to old stereotypes.
prof. Carmelo Vigna
For this reason, we do not love it as much as we should, even though virtue is what we are searching for unknowingly every day. Knowing more precise information about virtue could therefore be useful.
We are almost all inclined to admire a “virtuoso” violinist, even if we are reserved when virtuosic nature appears to be an end in itself. Indeed, we want the “virtuoso” violinist to also be an intelligent interpreter. Their virtuosic nature makes us automatically think of “technique”. We allude to their knowledge of their instrument, to their capabilities in producing sound, just as we allude to their skilled manual dexterity. In general, we think that the technical is a necessary condition, but not sufficient alone to make a good interpretation. Like when we see an athlete with a strong body, but also want them to have a good race strategy (energy levels, control over opponents, etc.) and a concept of their sport which sounds noble.
This “virtuoso” leads us to the first, oldest and simplest way of understanding virtue: this way of saying that virtue is equal to excellence, the virtuous person is the one who does better than others. There is therefore virtue in every action: the cobbler who is virtuous in repairing old shoes, the housewife who is virtuous in making soufflé or lasagne, the doctor who is virtuous in making a dermatological diagnosis and the surgeon who is virtuous in suturing wounds, etc.
If we are only talking about the concept of excellence, we can even find excellence in wrongdoing: the virtuous killer or Mafioso; the one killing in an infallible way, the other unbreakable in keeping up a feared and respected gang. Men are often fascinated by virtue in this simple and primitive form. A large part of dominant culture is made up of this type of virtue. Because of this we are fascinated by cunning, uncatchable criminals, from the leader who wins his war despite causing millions of deaths to the fraudster who is never caught red handed to the gun fighter who is the best shot. A large amount of cinema today, more than in the past, makes use of these clichés. The great success of a film like “The Godfather” proves this.
We must acknowledge that noting excellence is certainly necessary, but not enough to morally define virtue. Indeed, excellence only shows someone as above others, but doesn’t say in what sense. Ethics, instead, speaks directly about what should and should not be done, so it aims to show what is good and should be done and what is bad and should be avoided. It is, thus, easy to understand what constitutes ethical virtues: they are forms of excellence in good deeds. If keeping a promise is a good deed, those who keep promises at the right time, at the right place and keep them fully are ethically virtuous. However, to be able to do this requires a long time in training.
There is one widespread prejudice which must be discredited, which sees good actions and virtuous actions as one and the same. Doing a good deed is quite common (and, naturally, worthy of praise), but not easy; doing a virtuous deed is not so common, but it is very easy. There is a certain paradox in all of this, but the paradox disappears if we think that an action is as easy as it is spontaneous and is as spontaneous as much as it repeated. A good deed, considered in isolation, cannot be the fruit of repetition, so it very often becomes psychologically “costly”. For example, we might offer to help to look after a more or less seriously disabled person for an afternoon, but the cost seems very high and it is unlikely that we will be able to make this honourable gesture again soon after, but this is not the case for those who have chosen it as their vocation and are skilled in this task. That is not to say that it doesn’t also tire them, but is less tiring than for those who do it occasionally.
Another example can give an idea of the importance of virtue. Walking is the result of training, and it is a virtue, just as speaking a certain language is. We are trained in both by our parents from infancy. Think of the difficulties we would face if this training had not taken place. We find it hard to imagine not walking, but we can understand the idea of not speaking as soon as we think of a country of which we do not speak the language. We are left helpless and paralysed.
The same as we have just said for using languages also counts for training in virtuousness in our moral lives. Indeed, ethical virtue makes it easy to do good deeds and avoid bad ones. If we think of deeds, sometimes even more than words, are a form of communication with those around us, we quickly understand the enormous importance of virtue to live well. Communication is sent, like when we speak to someone in our mother tongue, or vice versa, if no communication has been cultivated, we are left easily frustrated: we wish to communicate something, but instead we are left babbling incomprehensible things when we are forced to use an unknown language. Misunderstanding seems inevitable; people get annoyed and complain about us after a while.
We said before that virtue is excellence in a certain gesture and that ethical virtue is excellence in good deeds. Good gestures are many, very many. We can put them in a certain order, making them clear. This means that virtue is always practiced, when it is practiced, in the plural. Virtue does not exist, but virtues do. Indeed, we are virtuous in some things and not others, or at least not always in the same way. Some people, for example, are more courageous than patient, others are more generous than kind, others are more honest and loyal than merciful, etc. But the plurality of virtues is not missing an internal system. There is also an order of importance among virtues. This explains why those who have the most important virtues normally also quickly acquire those of less importance. For example, someone who has cultivated the virtue of justness, is also attentive and considerate in dealing with others, and someone who has the virtue of strength is also capable of avoiding danger, etc. From a Christian perspective, those who have cultivated charity have connected all virtues, so they should hold a nature tendency towards all other virtues.
The problem with virtue is not so much a problem of discerning between a good or bad deed, but a problem of training through repetition of the good. In other words, it is problem of education. Indeed, to begin with we can repeat a good gesture only if someone helps us to, just as we learnt to walk or speak: without parents we find it hard to reach one or the other.