By Neil Dhingra 

Daniel Daly’s brilliant book The Structures of Virtue and Vice provocatively asks why it is frequently if depressingly much easier to be vicious than to be virtuous. The ready to hand answer is because of “structures of sin,” but that raises an even more challenging question: What exactly are these “structures?” Then, how might these “structures” constrain our actions without going so far as to preempt any moral agency and trap us in fated inevitability?

As a Catholic theologian, Daly certainly does not believe in deterministic impersonal forces, but, on the other hand, he rejects understanding our world as simply the aggregation of individual actions. After all, individual actions are always conditioned. Our children might aspire to be medieval knights, but, in the absence of the social context that undergirds the practices, institutions, and values of knighthood, they most likely cannot become knights without departing into fantasyland. More realistically, our children can become college students as they enter a complex set of preexisting social relations — student-professor, student-advisor, student-associate dean — that collectively interrelate to form a structure that both constrains and enables their actions. Thus, somewhat optimistically, Daly writes about their specific roles, “Students are empowered to complain to and about, but not terminate, a given professor.”

Daly defines “structure” as a reality that emerges from these relations without being reducible to any single relation or isolated agent. “Higher education” emerges in part from students acting as “students,” complaining or otherwise, which can only be understood by the position of “student” in relation to the positions of “professor” and “associate dean,” as well as all those cognitive categories and claims that undergird the dense web of relationships at their college. The emergent reality — that ecosystem of “higher education” — then downwardly affects its component parts, including all the agents that constitute it, who may now follow the practices and norms of what is an increasingly highly structured and hopefully accredited organization. They, however, do not follow robotically, and their agency can further shift the structure. This analysis is critical realism, an analysis of neither individual agents nor monolithic and god-like structures, but of their continuing and mutual influence.

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An agent can stand back from this structure but likely not without significant difficulty. Thus, Daly notes the development in Catholic moral theology that recognizes, as Pope Francis writes, “Isolated individuals can lose their ability and freedom to escape the utilitarian mind-set, and end up prey to an unethical consumerism.” A healthy relationship with God’s creation practically requires “community conversion.” We might even speak, with Pope John Paul II, “In a certain sense, of the ‘moral conscience’ of society” (my emphasis).

After all, we can imagine communities and societies distinguished by structures that foster virtues centered on the love of God and all those whom God loves, as opposed to other structures that viciously seem to damage relationships. Positively, Daly asks us to imagine a Little League player who as a “teammate” is enabled to develop patience while waiting in line for batting practice and through self-sacrifice for the collective team goal. The player develops character as the overarching structure moves him to always consider his teammates’ well-being, promote their dignity through ordinary and repeated acts of encouragement, and, finally and most importantly, develop friendly relationships with them.

Virtue never works automatically or mechanically; Daly clarifies that structures can only be “metaphorically virtuous or vicious.” (As John Paul clarified, we can speak of the moral conscience of society only “in a certain way” [quodammodo]. Moral conscience applies more straightforwardly to persons.) Still, our worlds are potential monasteries or anti-monasteries. As all social positions, whether designated hitter or abbot, shape actions and moral character and our receptivity to the grace of God, St. Benedict “made it easier for his monks to be good,” and the local Little League coach can act similarly. On the other hand, bad structures can poison our relationships to God, teammates, and other human beings, the created world, and our own selves.

Thinking about structures as well as agents lets us evaluate otherwise nearly unevaluable moral acts. Daly asks us to imagine a professor — an ecological ethicist — who is environmentally-conscious but whose path to tenure seemingly depends on taking several airplane flights a year to present papers at conferences, deliver lectures, and perform other far-flung professorial tasks. The structure — “Higher Education,” again — severely constrains his agency, here his ability to do intellectual work while abstaining from carbon consumption. What should Professor Doe do? Daly suggests that Doe can maintain his large carbon footprint while actively trying to accomplish structural change, because meaningful change will here necessarily be structural, not the result of his withdrawal from society. Meanwhile, Doe should still try to bike and remain vegetarian to continually foster friendship with a created world from which he otherwise might be alienated by “Higher Education.” The question for Doe is about forming a character shaped by manageable promotion of the good, both in structures of virtue and through his own dispositions, even amidst sub-ideal (and warming) conditions.

While Daly’s book promisingly lets us analyze moral acts in difficult circumstances that would challenge the more traditional language — complicity, cooperation — of Catholic moral theology, I was surprised to see several mentions of Ursula Le Guin’s classic story, “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas.” They are all negative. “Like those who walked away from Omelas, a ‘retreat from society’ will change nothing.” “The virtuous citizen of Omelas would organize others in a bid to free the child from his unjust prison sentence.” Simply avoiding complicity and cooperation, Daly suggests, remains insufficient. But, sometimes, is walking away all one can do?

Le Guin’s story is about a mythic and festive utopia whose citizens’ happiness disturbingly seems to depend upon the suffering of a “feeble-minded” child kept in a basement. “They all know that it has to be there. … The terms are strict and absolute; there may not even be a kind word spoken to the child.” When some Omelans learn about the child’s misery, they grow upset but come to accept their “helplessness” before what seemingly must be done. However, others from Omelas walk away, into the darkness and to a place seemingly unimaginable, if still with purpose. As mentioned, for Daniel Daly, those who walk away culpably fail to change the structures of Omelas. The American criminal justice system would tend to agree — walking away by itself will not save a mafioso from criminal liability.

If those who walk away were to stay to reform Omelas, as Linda Simon suggests, they would first need to “work together to imagine another kind of supernatural force.” (“You can define your God,” as William James once wrote.) But, given that the narrator clearly states, “One thing I know there is none of in Omelas is guilt,” these walkers will have to reimagine everything without possessing any motive. The act of walking away may in fact expose them to guilt over the child’s suffering for the first time, and it thus lacks all exchange value. Or they must think in completely new categories, given the utilitarian mind-set of Omelas has reached the cold finality of balancing the happiness of an entire city against the suffering of a single, out-of-the-way individual. So, when these walkers walk away, they must travel to the unknown and as Alexander Keller Hirsch recognizes, to the possibility of “shattering self-loss.” If they return or create new possibilities elsewhere — and Le Guin wrote another story about “one of the ones who walked away from Omelas” — it must be after severe discontinuity akin to crisis.

Theologically, this reading of the short story suggests that we may find ourselves amidst apparent structures of virtue that are deeply if elusively broken and cannot be reformed from within. (Le Guin tells us that those in Omelas “know compassion” and are even “so gentle with children” because of what they believe must be done to the suffering child.) In these circumstances, we must instead trust in something like the unconditional grace of God to establish a new foundation in Christ. As Bonhoeffer writes, there can be no method to this. Instead, “A way must be traversed, even though, in fact, there is no way that leads to this goal; this way must be pursued to the end, that is to say, to the point at which God sets an end to it.” All we can do is virtuously remove obstacles to prepare a way out of the city into the darkness and (temporary) exile where we hope to find transformation, not despair. In this context, it is perhaps worth noting that Daly’s book does not mention what seems outwardly the closest religious parallel to Omelas — the presence of covered-up sexual abuse in seemingly thriving congregations, dioceses, and even religious orders, if less in the form of utilitarianism than a similarly glittering clericalism.

Another possible disagreement: at one point Daly mentions Alasdair MacIntyre’s work on narrative, but he corrects MacIntyre to suggest that the importance of narrative lies in its communication of norms, portraits of exemplary characters, and thick descriptions of the virtues. I think this misses another role of narrative, which is, as MacIntyre writes, to learn in deliberation with others specifically from our mistakes and failures. Daly grasps the difficulties in being good. His Little League example suggests that friendship with one’s teammates can be bounded by both a set of cruel exclusions within the team and vicious interteam hostilities without. However, for Daly, this is a call to carefully reexamine and restitch social relations: “The position of teammate can be transformed to eliminate any vicious norms, practices, and exemplars that are sewn into it.” For MacIntyre, these dangers mean that our practical reasoning is always liable to go badly wrong.

Discussing C.L.R. James and his devotion to cricket, MacIntyre recognizes that cricketers could absorb a British school tradition that nevertheless remained paternalist and imperialist, and they might furtively change their game from the meaningful pursuit of excellence to the means of competition for money, power, and influence. James discovered this through his capacity to reason with others — whether cricketer or novelist, here by “his naïve surprise at finding that his American political allies did not share his abhorrence of cheating.”

Tellingly, when discussing Professor Doe, that beleaguered environmentalist seeking tenure, Daly presents a typical case of an academic defined by an abstract position that rather straightforwardly constrains his ability to remain carbon-neutral even as it may enable him to play a useful role in conceptual development, cultural change, political reform, and activism for the environment. The schematic case study does not allow us to identify errors in practical reasoning that might confront a real Professor Doe — environmentalism as bound up with elite self-definition and corporate public relations, or perhaps Doe himself becoming unintentionally self-righteous and arrogant through academic advancement. These errors may only become evident through narrative as Doe deliberates with others over time over the shape of his life. Likewise, Daly praises the Benedictine monastery as a place that quite plausibly makes it “easier to be good and more difficult to be bad,” but he doesn’t discuss how Benedictine monasteries have gone badly in the past, perhaps by making it easier to be good by deemphasizing human integrity altogether (“sink down into the dust of your own nothingness”).

Generally, these errors in practical reasoning reveal a misperception of goods, and that the reasoner must detach from a particular good — even the illusive appearance of monastic holiness — to become “open to a final good beyond all such goods, as good desirable beyond all such goods.” For MacIntyre, this can mean a life narrative in which one writes a book that has no foreseeable chance of being published, or grasps the tragic character of human existence, or becomes a decidedly unreliable political ally. As Jennifer Herdt writes, pushing MacIntyre even further, this becomes a negative theology “which approaches God by renouncing the idolatry of finite goods” and which has an “ecstatic character” that moves us past preoccupation with conventional ideas of flourishing.

Can this too lead us away from Omelas?

Daly’s brilliant book persuades me that critical realism may be the best way to think about those “structures of sin” that incline us to viciousness. On the other hand, I’m far less optimistic about our capacity to effectively implement structures to promote virtue and discourage vice. At times, one might have to walk away, hopefully in the direction of God and not final breakdown and despair. One might have to rely on the complexity of narratives to see how these structures actually work and not our assumptions of how they should in this broken and duplicitous world. Being good has never been easy. It can require detachment.

About The Author

Neil Dhingra, a Roman Catholic, is a doctoral student in education at the University of Maryland.

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