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Virtue is its own reward (16th Century)

10th June 2019

Why should we be good? Perhaps when you were little you were offered a carrot (staying up a bit later), or a stick (confined to your bedroom), in order to make you do what your parents considered good behaviour. And if you asked ‘why?’ it is likely that they invoked their innate authority and said, ‘because I say so’, which when my father said it was quite enough for me!

In Primary school good behaviour may be rewarded with stars on a chart or ‘golden time’ and it works, because I’ve used such behaviourist techniques myself. Like Pavlov’s dogs it’s possible to get children to do what you want but does it make them good?

Immanuel Kant taught that for a person to be considered virtuous or truly moral they had to act freely and do what was right for one reason only, because it was the right thing to do and not for reasons of reward or avoidance of punishment. Also, other motives for doing good such as because it makes us feel good, may benefit us in the long run, in other words, enlightened self-interest, do not make for virtue. Kant recognised that true virtue is done without thought for reward and will focus on developing goodwill to fulfil our moral duties towards other people. This frequently requires that we put our own interests second and may well require a measure of personal self-sacrifice.

A morality based on rewards, punishments and following authority is arguably no morality at all because it puts self at the centre of decision-making. In contrast,  at the heart of Christianity and many other spiritual and religious traditions lies a morality based on acting selflessly and ‘loving our neighbour’, even if it may disadvantage us. Knowing we are doing the right thing should be reward enough and this is what is I believe is how ‘Virtue is its own reward’, is best understood.

We can observe and learn what this means and how it might be applied from those who have lived lives of service. Individuals who have acted without thought of self for others can inspire us in our own actions. Then we should reflect not so much on what others can do for us, but what we can do for others, because it would be the right thing to do.

Mrs Crossley