Whither virtue?

I’ve been pondering (off and on, mostly off) this question of suffering and compassion – this idea that you can’t have one without the other, or that the one makes the other worthwhile, or acceptable, or the world that includes it more attractive. Swinburne said, as we saw:

Theodicy provides good explanations of why God sometimes – for some or all of the short period of our earthly lives – allows us to suffer pain and disability. Although intrinsically bad states, these difficult times often serve good purposes for the sufferers and for others. My suffering provides me with the opportunity to show courage and patience. It provides you with the opportunity to show sympathy and to help alleviate my suffering…Although a good God regrets our suffering, his greatest concern is surely that each of us shall show patience, sympathy and generosity and, thereby, form a holy character.

As noted before, I think that’s disgusting, but it’s also true that I see what he’s getting at, especially in the last sentence. But that’s the part I want to question, and perhaps object to. The traditional theodicy view, if you like: that god wants us to have free will and wants us to have (meaningful, free) good (or holy) characters, which will include such virtues as patience and compassion and generosity, and that therefore suffering is necessary.

But the trouble with that is that, if there were no suffering, would patience and compassion and generosity be virtues? Would they be part of a holy or good character? We think they would, of course; we think they are intrinsically good, and attractive; but if we didn’t need them, would they be? I’m not sure they would. If there were no suffering, which would include hunger and deprivation of all kinds, then what would patience and compassion and generosity even be? What would they even mean? We wouldn’t need them, we’d have no use for them, they wouldn’t even have a context that would make them meaningful. Which sounds horrible – a world where we couldn’t be good in ways that we recognize, where there would be no scope for active energetic effortful goodness, sounds like an appalling flat affectless world, a world of cardboard dolls. But then – that’s because this is the one we know, so we’re conditioned to need it and expect it. We do have suffering and deprivation, so we do consider patience and compassion and generosity to be virtues. But if we didn’t, we wouldn’t. Which amounts to saying we would be completely different kinds of entities, and can’t even really imagine what goodness and badness would be in such a world. But that’s just it. What Swinburne is talking about is a very human idea of what a good or holy character is, because it’s one that matches up with our needs and lacks and all-too-familiar miseries. But why assume that if there is a god, that is god’s idea of a good character? What if god has a quite different idea of good character, one that we wouldn’t even recognize or understand, and one that doesn’t depend on suffering to make it either meaningful or possible?

In fact most of our virtues, perhaps all of them, depend on our mortality and other limitations. They wouldn’t be virtues if we weren’t fragile and needy. Courage, kindness, dedication, loyalty – we wouldn’t need them, so wouldn’t see them as virtues.

That’s another objection I have to Swinburne’s take – it’s just too local, too limited. I think it’s more interesting to try to figure out if there are any virtues that don’t depend on our condition, that really are inherent goods, even if we don’t need them. I can’t say I’ve been able to think of any. If there aren’t, we’re left with a circle, it seems to me. We have to have suffering so that people will be compassionate, but we wouldn’t need or even like compassion if we didn’t suffer, so why do we have to have suffering so that people will be compassionate if we wouldn’t want compassion if we didn’t suffer? I can’t say I can see why.

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