A family relation of the philosopher Elizabeth Anscombe told me the following story. A young lady approached Professor Anscombe and explained her worry—an existential worry: “I don’t think I am very virtuous,” the young lady confessed, clearly disheartened by her self-assessment. “And why do you think this?” asked Professor Anscombe. The young lady then proceeded to explain that a virtuous person, it seemed to her, was someone who, when confronted by temptations, acted in a way that he or she understood to be right—however strong the temptation to do otherwise.
How, then, could she be virtuous? If she were virtuous, she would want to do those things that she knew to be wrong, but against such desires she would opt to do those things she knew to be right. But, this young lady explained to Professor Anscombe, the very idea of doing things she knew to be wrong was accompanied by a tremendous sense of misery. She didn’t nobly struggle against evil desires because she didn’t have any such desires—she was happy being good. “But what you describe of yourself,” replied Professor Anscombe, “is virtue.”
Essentially, this anxious young lady had made the Kantian mistake. For Immanuel Kant, acts have ‘moral worth’ when, on experiencing the impulse to do that which the agent knows to be wrong, he does that which he knows to be right—out of a sense of duty.
To understand the content of the action itself, the agent can undertake a brief thought experiment to know if he is correct in his judgement of what is right and what is wrong. He can formulate from a consideration of his potential action a maxim which he can then ‘universalise,’ asking himself: “is this a just and good maxim for all people, in all places, at all times?”
For example, if he were tempted to steal a pint of milk, he might utter: it is permissible for any individual to take up to one pint of milk without having to pay for it. Then, he can ask himself: “Can I rationally intend that this maxim become a universal law?” If he judges that the universalised maxim derived from his proposed action could after all be a ‘law of nature,’ then he may justly take the milk without paying. If, however, he judges to the contrary, he must pay for the milk despite his wish to do otherwise. It is in making such a choice in opposition to his malignant desire that he proves his will to be good—that he is rendered virtuous.
For Kant, the man who is pleased by doing what is good is not virtuous in the strict sense—his actions don’t have ‘moral worth.’ Such a man, in choosing what a bit of abstract theorising would reveal to be morally right, is simply doing what he happens to like. In turn, for Kant, good action is not principally the path to being a happy and flourishing person, but the path of interior struggle to fulfil duties. And when the struggle stops, so does the virtue.
Classical realist thought generally offers a different view. In this broad school one encounters distinctions between the ‘intemperate person,’ the ‘weak-willed person,’ the ‘strong-willed person,’ and the ‘virtuous person.’ The intemperate person not only desires to do that which is morally wrong and what corrupts him as a moral agent, but has no sense of the immorality of his choice—indeed, he celebrates his immorality and deems himself good in the process. The weak-willed person knows that his choices are bad for him, for others, and bad in themselves, but his will—and whatever upright sensibilities he has—simply cannot stand up to temptation and the impulses of his appetites, and he is routinely ensnared by his passions. The strong-willed person is the person on the path to virtue; he is still constantly tormented by his ignoble desires and inclinations, but time and again he opts for what he deems to be good, despite the fact that he finds little excitement therein compared to what he finds in the unfettering of his baser impulses. The virtuous person, however, is the person who identifies goodness with his happiness, and thus his interior life has stabilised in a state of harmony with what is good.
In the Kantian model, there is a puritanical and unhealthy privileging of the third man over the fourth man. In Kant, we find a typically Prussian celebration of the strong-willed person. Of course, the above overview is rather theoretical, and in reality the distinctions between interior moral conditions are fluid. Being the wretches we are, our moral lives are always lived on a knife edge, and a small change of circumstances can topple our interior lives in an instant. For this reason, the old masters not only talked about “avoiding sin” but “avoiding occasions of sin.”
Something of the Kantian ethic can be seen in the character of Boromir in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. He desires the Ring, but in the end (perhaps having failed to make a universal maxim from the action to which his yearning would lead) submits himself to the guidance of Lord Elrond and agrees to support the hobbit Frodo as a member of the Fellowship. Thereafter, he daily struggles with the temptation to take the Ring, and daily overcomes this temptation. Boromir is a man with a strong will, but eventually he succumbs and attempts to snatch the Ring from Frodo. For the classical ethicist, Boromir strove for virtue, but he never truly possessed the virtue that he sought to cultivate. (Boromir, however, atoned for his wrongdoing by sacrificing his life defending the hobbits Merry and Pippin, and he received absolution from Aragorn before perishing).
Later in the saga, we meet Boromir’s younger brother, Faramir (whose character was ruined by the Peter Jackson films—which are otherwise admirable). Faramir is a humane and well-rounded aristocrat. He is not only a courageous soldier who protects the peoples of the West from the assaults of Mordor in the ravaged borderland of Ithilien, but he is a philosopher, historian, “gentle in bearing, and a lover of lore and of music.” He is devoted to his father, his ancestors, and his country. Faramir leads the only liturgy in the entire Trilogy, during which he and his men pray, turning “to that which is beyond Elvenhome and will ever be,” namely Valinor—the seat of the gods. Faramir is perhaps the most wonderful character in the whole story of Lord of the Rings (he even keeps a well-stocked cellar of fine wine).
Kantian ethics is often felt to be a certain safeguard against hard utilitarianism and consequentialism. But unfortunately, Boromir was also a utopian, and therefore unavoidably a consequentialist too. He looked to an imagined future of supremacy for Gondor (where his father ruled as Steward), which—he conceived—might be established by use of the Ring. He envisaged a seemingly good end, and therefore the use of evil means would be justified, or so he thought. He demonstrated his willingness to destroy something actual and good, namely the Fellowship, for something imagined and precarious.
Faramir, on the other hand, does not look forward to an ideal future whose realisation is far from guaranteed, but looks back in order to determine what is required of him in the present. One of the first things the hobbits learn about Faramir is that he is a scholar of history. Faramir is not tormented by fantasy and appetite, but executes what prudence demands in the face of the actual situation.
Faramir is not a man struggling to be good. He is a man who is good. He has conquered himself over decades of self-sacrifice as a Ranger, and now governs himself, and thus he is a man in a state of flourishing. Boromir had immediately thought of how the Ring might serve the ambitions of Gondor, but when Faramir discovers—due to the careless chatter of the hobbit Samwise Gamgee—that the Ring is within his reach, Faramir (recalling his earlier declaration that he would never use any “weapon of the Dark Lord” for some apparently good end) says the following:
“Not if I found it on the highway would I take it,” I said. Even if I were such a man as to desire this thing, and even though I knew not clearly what this thing was when I spoke, still I should take those words as a vow, and be held by them. But I am not such a man. Or I am wise enough to know that there are some perils from which a man must flee … do not even name this thing again aloud. Once is enough.
Faramir is a man who has formed the habits of right thought, right speech, and right action. He is a man, as C.S. Lewis would put it, with a chest. Faramir stated that he would never use anything made by Sauron, and by his word he deems himself bound—not because he has deliberated and come to a satisfactory abstract maxim, and not on account of having struggled and overcome his ravenous urges, but because he cannot fathom acting otherwise. Where Boromir strove for virtue, and never attained it, Faramir effortlessly acts in accordance with the requirements of prudence and justice, because virtue is already his. As he notes, he doesn’t just dislike sin, he dislikes occasions of sin: “there are some perils from which a man must flee.”
The self-mastery and sheer goodness of Faramir is further shown in a dialogue with Samwise at the close of the chapter:
Sam hesitated for a moment, then bowing very low: “Good night, Captain, my lord,” he said. “You took the chance, sir.”
“Did I so?” said Faramir.
“Yes sir, and showed your quality: the very highest.”
Faramir smiled. “A pert servant, Master Samwise. But nay: the praise of the praiseworthy is above all rewards. Yet there was naught in this to praise. I had no lure or desire to do other than I have done.”
We might be tempted to think that Faramir is making the Kantian point—that his action was not of ‘moral worth’ because it was not born of struggle. But rather, to Faramir it is simply not obvious that his virtue is commendable, for it is not something other than what he is. The virtue he displayed is not something he is struggling to cultivate but is the very actuation of what he is—it is what enables him to live at the service of others. Indeed, Faramir is so ‘dead to himself’—as the old terminology would put it—that he is entirely intentionally directed towards the other. To his mind, what is praiseworthy is not his own action—which he has never cared to consider—but the wholesome character of his clumsy guest.
Whatever power, glory, prestige, riches, etc., might have (momentarily) come by possession of the Ring have no attraction for Faramir. Indeed, later, when his father dies and he becomes the Steward of Gondor, he happily gives up his power to the rightful King—something his father was not able to do—and in obedience to the King he rules the principality of Ithilien, a fiefdom within Aragorn’s empire. Having fallen in love with, and married, the great shieldmaiden and Witch-King-slayer, Éowyn, his heart is full, not with the deceptive glories of the world but with her love, for which he has made room by the full gift of his very self. As King Aragorn’s chief advisor, Prince Faramir went on to spend the rest of his days raising his two sons with his beloved wife—and hunting the remaining orcs.
The character of Faramir presents to us in a tale what Professor Anscombe conveyed to the young virtuous lady who didn’t know she was virtuous. Faramir is a good man not because he is in a state of moral struggle, but because he is a man in a state of flourishing, transformed by having made goodness his own. We need stories. It is not enough to have a conception of virtue; we need to witness a virtuous person. It is not enough to know truths; we need truths embodied, for embodied are we. This is one of the great gifts found in storytelling, and why—as a friend of mine put it—reading Lord of the Rings makes you into a man.