The ultimate safeguard

Could the promotion of virtue help deter heinous crimes?
Zac Alstin | Mar 27 2015
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No one can yet say why Andreas Lubitz chose to crash Germanwings Flight 9525, killing himself and 149 others. We want to know the cause of his actions in part to satisfy our own sense of an orderly and explicable universe, but more pragmatically to try to prevent such things from happening again. Lubitz is by no means the first pilot to suicidally betray his duties and basic morality in such a way. As yet there are no indications of psychological distress or of terrorist inclinations, two causes for which we do have answers, systems, and responses – albeit imperfect and incomplete.  So at present we are haunted by the more disturbing possibility that some undetectable, untreatable, simply malicious act of volition was behind it all.  Like the mysterious tragedy of Malaysia Airlines flight MH317, what we fear most is an unknown cause, a risk we cannot identify.

Our societies have systems in place for identifying and dealing appropriately with terrorism, dangerous psychological distress, and now, in response to this disaster, various national carriers have implemented new rules to insure against unpredictable acts of violence by individual pilots or co-pilots.

We have excellent systems for managing risk, identifying threats, forestalling disaster. But while we know how to deal with people “going bad” in particular concrete ways, we do not know how to make people want to be good. We no longer have a shared concept of virtue despite depending on the virtue of others to greater or lesser degrees in nearly every aspect of communal life.

The British writer and journalist G.K. Chesterton identified this morbidity within modern ethics as far back as the 19th Century:

“A great silent collapse, an enormous unspoken disappointment, has in our time fallen on our Northern civilization.  All previous ages have sweated and been crucified in an attempt to realize what is really the right life, what was really the good man. A definite part of the modern world has come beyond question to the conclusion that there is no answer to these questions, that the most that we can do is to set up a few notice-boards at places of obvious danger, to warn men, for instance, against drinking themselves to death, or ignoring the mere existence of their neighbours.”

Chesterton’s observation rings true today. We know that the vast majority of people will not commit suicidal mass murder, become terrorists, or lash out amidst severe psychological distress. But this norm we take for granted, and in taking it for granted are poorly equipped to extol its virtues to those who perhaps fall on the boundaries of the norm, who might not realise or internalise the obvious goodness of caring about the lives and happiness of others.

How important – even in purely pragmatic terms – is the virtue of charity, of care and desire for the good of others? And yet, perversely, how little do we cultivate this virtue in our society? We celebrate heroism, extraordinary acts of courage, and those who work selflessly for the good of others; yet it is precisely in extraordinary contexts that we celebrate such actions when instead we ought, as far as possible, to instil the ideal of benevolence in our national character. We are taught in countless explicit and implicit ways to worry about making a living, making a profit, seeking personal wealth and financial security. But not a fraction of that effort is seriously engaged in making us better, more loving, more virtuous people.

For Chesterton the cause of this failure was clear: as a society we can no longer agree on a moral or spiritual ideal. Describing the playwright Henrik Ibsen as exemplary of this modern trend, Chesterton wrote that he:

“has throughout, and does not disguise, a certain vagueness and a changing attitude as well as a doubting attitude towards what is really wisdom and virtue in this life-- a vagueness which contrasts very remarkably with the decisiveness with which he pounces on something which he perceives to be a root of evil, some convention, some deception, some ignorance.”

We are the inheritors of this negative morality and this doubt, as evidenced by our fixation on shame, censure, and horrible consequences as the key levers of our social mores. Drink driving, smoking, obesity, speeding, binge drinking, and domestic violence: our public campaigns are defined almost entirely in negative terms, highlighting the dangers, ugliness, and disorder but failing to provide any countervailing positive ideal to round out our moral motivation and direction.

In the absence of a genuine positive ideal toward which we can strive, we are left simply hoping that the majority of people will “do the right thing” sticking to the obvious virtue of the golden or silver rules, at the very least not doing to others as they would not like done to them.  But our failure to identify and inculcate virtue is a glaring omission, at odds with our extensive efforts to identify and intercept harms.  As Chesterton concluded:

“All I venture to point out, with an increased firmness, is that this omission, good or bad, does leave us face to face with the problem of a human consciousness filled with very definite images of evil, and with no definite image of good.”

We may never know the reasoning behind Lubitz’s horrendous choice, but that doesn’t mean we can’t do more to deter people from horrific actions generally – not through fear of consequences alone, but in light of higher virtues and ideals that inspire our commitment and devotion.

Zac Alstin is associate editor of MercatorNet. He also blogs at zacalstin.com

This article is published by Zac Alstin and MercatorNet.com under a Creative Commons licence. You may republish it or translate it free of charge with attribution for non-commercial purposes following these guidelines. If you teach at a university we ask that your department make a donation. Commercial media must contact us for permission and fees. Some articles on this site are published under different terms.

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