Decadent Virtues

New-Age Froth and Feel-Good Ethics Come to the Fore

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LONDON, OCT. 22, 2005 ( Western Europe and the United States are decadent societies because they have abandoned a morality based on the traditional virtues. So says a book just published by the London-based Social Affairs Unit, «Decadence: The Passing of Personal Virtue and Its Replacement by Political and Psychological Slogans.»

Edited by Digby Anderson, the volume brings together authors from a variety of backgrounds and views. A first section contains essays on the «old» virtues, such as prudence, love and courage. The second deals with the «new» virtues, centered on the environment, caring, therapy and being critical.

The book does not pretend to give a complete analysis of any of the virtues, and the authors of the chapters differ in their approach to the subject matter. Readers could also disagree about some of the interpretations of the virtues. Overall, however, the book provides a stimulating reflection on the dangers of discarding the tried-and-true virtues for passing fads.

In the introduction, Anderson explains that the old virtues were genuine ones, in that they demanded of people specific types of behavior. The new ones, in contrast, often fall into the category of slogans or rhetorical appeals. Or, if in some cases they do contain elements of true virtue, they tend to elevate a trivial aspect into the main virtue.

Kenneth Minogue, a retired professor of political science at the London School of Economics, addresses the virtue of prudence. After looking at its classical origins in Aristotle and its subsequent modifications, Minogue observes that prudence was particularly important in balancing conduct by coordinating the virtuous acts of a person.

That concept of prudence came under challenge in the 18th century from utilitarian philosophers, who tried to substitute it with a scientific system of maximizing happiness. More recently, the modern world has interpreted prudence as the avoidance of risk, and instead of a virtue we now have statistical analysis and probability theory.

Another way in which the virtue of prudence has been weakened is through the increasing role of the state. Instead of personal responsibility we now have an ever-increasing regulation of conduct by governments.

Sentimental ethics

Digby Anderson, until last year director of the Social Affairs Unit, looks at the Christian virtue of love in one of the book’s chapters. This virtue, he explains, has run into difficulties because it can only be understood and lived within the context of a broader Christian theology. Once belief in God, heaven and sin disappear, then love, along with many other virtues, vanishes.

In its place we have a populist sentimental ethics, or a secular rights-based ethics. Some of the traditional language of the virtue of love remains, but it is superficial, without a metaphysics or solid anthropology to ground it.

So, instead of a virtue that puts God in first place and requires us to love our neighbor, we now have a love that liberates us from rules, encourages us to follow our feelings and exhorts us to be nice to people.

The virtue of thrift is examined by Theodore Malloch, chief executive officer of the Maryland-based Roosevelt Group. Frugality, or thrift, has its origins in the Calvinist tradition, according to Malloch. It was based on the idea that a person’s worth is not determined by how much he spends, but by the wisdom shown in discharging responsibilities in the context of being a steward of God’s creation.

For a person motivated by such a vision an unlimited desire to possess goods is seen as denoting spiritual instability. Modern society, however, has reversed things and sees having more possessions as a sign of success. Thus, restraint has been replaced by profligacy, and thrift by indebtedness. «In such a moral universe, desire is the only real absolute,» comments Malloch.

This indulgence of our appetites, he adds, too often leads to corruption and decay, both personally and collectively. In the end, just as the material objects we buy are discarded rapidly, so too people can be cast off.

Caring virtues

Peter Mullen, rector of the Anglican church of St. Michael’s in London, takes a critical look at the new virtues of «caring.» The new caring society, he notes, is based on euphemisms and sentiments, instead of a community of faith.

Death and personal tragedies, for example, are not dealt with by reference to faith, but consigned to the attention of grief counselors and therapists. Instead of being consoled by the promises of eternal life contained in the Gospel, people are now comforted by promises of healing and energizing.

The grief-counseling business does, in fact, conjure up vague religious feelings but empties them of all doctrine and Christian teaching, leaving just a sham of religion.

Based on his 35 years of experience in parish work, Mullen warns that grief counseling is pretentious and designed just as much for the attention-seeking of the counselor as it is for the benefit of the bereaved. In the end we have «New Age froth instead of the promises of the gospel,» he writes.

Another aspect of the caring society is that we are expected to feel moved by the death of every celebrity or public figure. The result, however, is that our emotional response is cheapened through exaggeration.


Mullen also criticizes the self-centeredness of the new spirituality. The old religious idea of acting virtuously for its own sake, or for God’s sake, has been replaced by the psychotherapuetic notion of virtue for our own well-being.

Self-respect has been replaced by self-esteem. Self-respect used to come from the peace of trying to live a virtuous life and having a clear conscience. Now it means just feeling good about ourselves and lacks any moral content.

Traditional religions told their followers that we are fallen and in need of spiritual help, and explained the realities of sin and forgiveness. The new gospel of self-realization, in contrast, denies any personal deficiencies and sells a series of techniques that will enable us to realize our potential. In the process the concepts of right and wrong fall by the wayside.

The psychological thrust of the new virtues is dealt with in a chapter by Frank Furedi, professor of sociology at the University of Kent. The traditional teaching about the seven deadly sins, and the countervailing virtues, has been turned on its head, he notes.

We are warned against too much kindness, as it can lead to compassion fatigue. Diligence is sometimes dismissed as an example of someone suffering from a perfectionist complex. Humble people lack self-esteem, and chastity is a sexual dysfunction. «Virtue is not so much its own reward, as a condition requiring therapeutic intervention,» he concludes.

Modern therapeutic culture also encourages the open and uninhibited display of emotions, Furedi observes. Acknowledging our feelings is presented as an act of virtue. And the subsequent encouragement to seek therapy or help has acquired a connotation akin to the act of admitting guilt.

There is, therefore, a tendency to inflate the problems of emotional vulnerability and to minimize the capacity of the person to cope with distress without the help of outside therapy. This culture of therapy also brings with it the idea that people are not the authors of their lives, but the victims of consequence. Virtue is thus replaced by therapy, leaving us all the poorer as a consequence.

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