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I've started reading Robert Bork's Slouching Towards Gomorrah (which is so far not as much of a screed as I had anticipated), and I came across a reference that set me thinking in the short walk from my room to the computer room, tying together a bunch of things I had been thinking.

Bork is criticizing modern liberalism, and laments (for the moment as a passing reference in a long list of signs of moral decay) the decreasing importance of self-restraint to Americans. My first reaction, seeing as I'm a liberal (a radical, if Prof. Figueroa is to be believed), was to ask why self-restraint was inherently good. Self-restraint means denying yourself happiness, and as a utilitarian I propose that happiness is the highest goal. But then I realized that I do in fact consider self-restraint to be a virtue. One of the highest virtues, in fact. I admire people who keep kosher not because I think there's anything inherently good in never mixing meat and cheese, but because of the self-discipline it requires.

You've probably guessed the resolution -- self-restraint is good because it allows us to deny a little happiness now in order to obtain more happiness later. I quickly saw it too, but then I started to think about what it meant. Self-restraint is not a virtue because it's a good situation. It's a virtue because it leads to a good situation. The nature of self-restraint, wih its clear separation of means and ends (a separation that's often more rhetorical device than reality) makes explicit the theme of the concept of virtue. Virtues are skills.

That idea resonated with me because of an observation I had made about my aspirations in life. When I look back at what I'm most proud of, it's not the things I did, it's the things I was able to do. My set of commentaries is not as important as the fact that I can write a reasonably well-argued assessment of an issue. The Potato God Worship Center, My Apology, and debitage are not as important as the knowledge of HTML I gained in building them. The same holds true when I look forward at what I'd like to do with my life. My list of goals doesn't have entries like "go skydiving" or "own a nice house." It has entries like "speak Uzbek" and "play jazz piano."

Which leads to the conclusion that virtues aren't everything. You (you plural, as utilitarianism teaches us that one's own happiness is no more valuable than another's) need to balance being virtuous with benefitting from virtue.


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