Commentary Magazine

Tales of Virtue

The success of William J. Bennett’s admirable anthology of moral tales, The Book of Virtues1—which has become a major best-seller—is both heartening and puzzling: heartening because we want to think that people hunger for literature that teaches virtue, puzzling because it is not obvious why literature might have that effect.

Almost every account we have from psychologists of the moral development of the child emphasizes reinforcements and imitation. Children acquire rules of conduct by having compliance with those rules rewarded and violations punished and by observing and imitating the behavior of their parents and friends.

We are, however, neither rewarded nor punished in any palpable sense by stories about imaginary people. We may wish to imitate a fictional character who succeeds, but why should we identify with one who suffers? Bennett’s answer to this question is that such stories create “moral literacy”: they supply examples that tell readers how to recognize the virtues in the practical world, and they “help anchor our children in their culture,” a world of “shared ideals.” I believe he is correct, but his answer is open to several objections from skeptics.

To begin with, strict behaviorists will argue that children no more acquire moral habits from moral literature than they acquire athletic ability from reading the sports pages or musical ability from listening to songs. Living according to certain rules requires a certain biological endowment developed through the same experiences by which we learn to field a ground ball or play the violin—practice, practice, practice.

For their part, cultural relativists—or, as they currently fashion themselves, postmodernists—will claim that there is no culture of shared ideals, but only many competing cultures (or “interpretive communities”). Each has its own ideals, unique to its culture. It may be nice to acquaint children with their culture, but we should not imagine that there is anything fundamentally moral about it.

Finally, some philosophers and theologians will suggest that, while there are universal moral standards, moral stories obscure them precisely because they “anchor our children in their culture.” These stories are always about people like the people who read them. Rarely do the stories instruct white children to be fair to black ones, or Gentiles to help Jews, or Apaches to welcome the Navaho. And many of the most compelling stories are about courage, as if courage were praiseworthy apart from the cause for which one takes great risks. There may have been brave guards at Auschwitz or heroic Serbs shelling Sarajevo, but they do not deserve our admiration. An important variant of this objection will be the pacifist one: stories glorifying courage in battle inevitably glorify battle, and violence is wrong.

People who raise questions such as these will, I conjecture, be less likely to buy Bennett’s book than will people who accept his assumptions unhesitatingly, which means that it is probably enjoying better sales outside of university towns than in them. If I am correct, this tells us something about moral stories and even more about people who are drawn to universities.



Whatever strict behaviorists may say, moral tales must play some important role in human life because every culture has them. Bennett includes stories from the Apache, spirituals sung by African-American slaves, and of course many of Aesop’s fables. Greek literature began with the telling and retelling of the story of Ulysses, and the biblical stories of Ruth and Naomi, of David and Goliath, and of the travails of Job were spoken long before they were written. It is impossible to conceive of a society that does not have and preserve a legacy of stories. Humans need to explain, justify, and instruct.

Moral tales can affect us in three ways: by conveying a message, awakening a sentiment, or enlarging the universe. The most common message is one of consequence: good things happen to people who are good, bad things to people who are bad. This is the earliest form of learning and the most persistent and important one. It dominates the lives of very small children and affects importantly the lives of everyone else. In Bennett’s anthology most of the stories about consequences are stories written for children.

Thus, Robert Louis Stevenson cautions youngsters that “cruel children, and crying babies, all grow up as geese and gabies”; Hilaire Belloc tells them of Rebecca who died because of her annoying habit of slamming doors, and of Jim who ran away from his nurse and was eaten by a lion; Aesop warns them that greed can cause us to kill the goose that lays the golden egg. The Three Little Kittens did not get any pie until they had found their mittens; St. George inherited a kingdom as a reward for having slain the dragon; and Walter Raleigh acquired a knighthood in exchange for having spread his cloak for Queen Elizabeth. The Little Red Hen got to eat the bread she baked; the dog, cat, and pig who refused to help had to go without. And of course the ants survived the winter owing to their foresight while the grasshopper perished owing to his inability to defer gratification.

Some may wonder whether these tales should be called “moral” at all. They are at best about prudence, at worst about calculation. Moral action, in this conception, must be about hard choices and personal sacrifice. One is reminded of Immanuel Kant’s argument that moral action must be the result of pure reason: you can only be said to have acted morally if you can honestly declare that you didn’t enjoy a minute of it.

But this conception is mistaken. Acting morally often requires us to calculate in the sense of taking the long rather than the short view. And Aristotle counted prudence as a virtue—not, to be sure, as high a one as justice or even friendship, but a virtue nonetheless.

Prudence involves self-command or self-discipline, which is the subject of the first section of Bennett’s book of readings. As adults we may regard the story of the Three Little Kittens or of the Red Hen as childish and that of the little girl who died from the habit of slamming doors as cruel. But these stories, whether childish or cruel, portray the first steps that everyone must take toward the larger and more difficult problems of self-command: controlling our greed, learning what is good for us in the long run, avoiding the temptations of addictive substances, and remaining faithful to our principles even when another course would be more popular. Morality is not the enemy of utility, but its ally; it converts self-interest into enlightened self-interest or, as Tocqueville put it, self-interest rightly understood. Self-command is about growing up and becoming mature.



Some people never become mature. They remain childish in an especially impoverished sense—not only do they subject all their actions to the calculus of narrow self-interest, but they do so without the trusting innocence of the small child. The section on self-discipline ends with selections on this topic that are very adult. In an excerpt from the Platonic dialogue, the Gorgias, Socrates explains to Callicles why a temperate life is a surer route to happiness than a self-indulgent one. There is no true happiness to be found in the pursuit of immediate pleasures, for our wants are endless but our means are limited. Aristotle says much the same thing with his famous doctrine of the mean, and he goes on to praise Pericles for having had the ability to manage a household or a state based on practical wisdom about what was good for himself and for others. In Ecclesiastes the Bible says it poetically: “For every thing there is a season.”

Adults who are purely consequentialist are not simply childlike, they are, in the extreme case, antisocial and even criminal. In fact, a leading characteristic of those children who are likely to become delinquent is a heightened degree of impulsivity that they are unable to outgrow.

Since the wholly impulsive person never can find sufficient resources with which to satisfy his impulses, he can never be satisfied and thus can never be happy. And since impulsive action leads to unpredictable consequences, such a person can never learn to govern his behavior on the basis of the consequences: what happens to him seems almost random. It is a feature of many criminals and gang members that they feel themselves to be governed by external, unfathomable forces—“luck”—and so they ascribe the good fortune of others to their good luck. This, of course, justifies the criminal in taking things from people with “good luck”: since nothing was earned, they believe, nothing is deserved.

Moral stories about the practical consequences of our actions are vivid and memorable ways of teaching about consequences. A child soon learns that to touch a hot stove means to get burned, but it is harder to learn that failing to work means no wages and failing to control one’s appetites means later discomfort.

Moral stories, however, are not all consequentialist. Some evoke our sentiments on behalf of people who have endured great hardship or won great triumphs in circumstances we can never be in ourselves. And even when we can imagine ourselves being faced with similar challenges, we do not take these stories as merely prudent guides to right conduct.

Indeed, I believe it would be impossible to read through Bennett’s collection without experiencing on many pages the deepest emotions. Hans Christian Andersen’s tale of the poor little girl who freezes to death while lighting matches to keep herself warm, all the while seeing transcendently lovely sights of Christmas and her grandmother; Leo Tolstoy’s story of the cobbler who discovers the virtues of compassion; Walt Whitman’s lament (“O Captain! My Captain!”) on the death of Lincoln; the frightful story of the fate of the Donner party; the New Testament account of the betrayal of Jesus by Judas; Homer’s portrayal of the fidelity of Penelope to her husband, Ulysses, and his triumphal return; Nathan Hale’s memorable words at the time of his execution; the lyrics of Julia Ward Howe’s “Battle Hymn of the Republic”—some or all of these stories and poems will affect the soul of everyone who has a soul.



But why do we feel such sentiments? Whence the emotion that supplies sentimental reinforcement for moral tales? It is partly our capacity to imagine ourselves in the situation of others: we can conceive of the horror we would feel were we a member of the Donner party trapped in mountain snows; we can summon up the anguish we would experience if for years we heard nothing from a spouse who had gone to fight a war in a distant land. Adam Smith made this capacity for imagining the misery of others the source of our moral sentiments.

Sometimes the capacity to feel as others must have felt can be evoked simply by a news account. If we learn that an infant has died of exposure, and we have an infant, we easily imagine the grief that we would experience had it been our child, and not a stranger’s, that had perished so tragically. But mere accounts of most tragedies are rarely sufficient to produce in us more than a momentary emotion, and that is likely to be a fleeting sense of relief that we were spared. Adam Smith recognized as much when he noted that a news report of the death of 100 million Chinese would cause a man in Europe to reflect but briefly and without deep emotion on the precariousness of human life.

It is different with the accounts (all included in Bennett’s book) of the Spartans at Thermopylae, Horatio at the bridge, Barbara Frietchie confronting Stonewall Jackson, Admiral James Stock-dale in a Vietnamese prison, or Father Maximilian Kolbe who volunteered to die in an Auschwitz starvation bunker in place of a Jew who had a wife and children. What is conveyed by these accounts is not merely news, but a story: a compelling narration that by art and artifice engages our sentiments and makes us feel deeply about people, even those in circumstances that are utterly foreign to us. Moral stories have an effect precisely because they are stories—that is, because they are capable of evoking feelings of awe, despair, triumph, and anxiety. Science and journalism can convey practical wisdom but they cannot, unless they partake to some degree of art, stir our passions.

Among the passions that a story can evoke is admiration for courage and a noble spirit. I confess that I do not fully understand the source of the approbation we give to nobility, but I believe that its appearance in our own development marks the point where we cease to be mere calculators. A few of us never cease being that; upon reading these stories, such people will either ask what Horatio, Frietchie, Stockdale, and Kolbe “got out of it” or dismiss them as “suckers.”

Human society would be impossible were that reaction commonplace. Happily, most of us are not cynics. We respect men and women of honor, often with little regard for the cause for which they were prepared to sacrifice themselves: even an Etruscan can admire Horatio’s defense of a Roman bridge, even a Confederate can respect Frietchie’s proud display of a Union flag, and perhaps even a North Vietnamese can appreciate Stockdale’s stubborn defiance of his captors. It is not important to know whether the invasion of France by Henry V was a just or unjust war in order to thrill to his magnificent speech to his soldiers before the battle at Agincourt.

Our admiration for courage and nobility is not personally useful; when facing danger, the only “useful” thing to do is run. Our mutual admiration for courage is, in part, what prevents us from running. (Henry V may have been trying to reawaken that social constraint among his yeomen so as to steel them against the charge of the French knights.)

Now this may have a larger social value: in battle, the greatest casualties are suffered by the side that breaks and runs. Most of the deaths in many of the most fearsome struggles occur after the losing side has begun to retreat. And yet admiration for courage cannot be simply a social value, for though courage helps maintain the solidarity of our own ranks, we also admire it, up to a point, in the ranks of the enemy. Many British pilots valued the daring and skill of some of their German opponents in World War II, and vice versa. The courage we admire in an adversary is the kind that bespeaks not only an ability to overcome fear but a respect for a code of honor: fight hard, ask no quarter, but do not wilfully kill an innocent party or a soldier who has surrendered. We distinguish between courage and sadism.



All the moral sentiments that are awakened by tales of courage, nobility, loyalty, and perseverance presuppose, I think, a shared sense of honor. It is less necessary that we judge the cause served by the brave or noble person to be right than that we judge his behavior under the circumstances to be honorable. We even distinguish between degrees of honor among criminals. No one can justify the world of The Godfather, but we still prefer Don Corleone to Don Barzini.

“Honor” is a word that has fallen on hard times. For millennia the highest compliment that could be paid to a person was to say he was honorable. Today, in much of Western culture, we dismiss the desire for honor as nothing but a thirst for glory, especially (and worst of all) military glory. We regard the quest for honor as backward, even reactionary, and often militaristic; the word is associated with feudalism and warrior cultures. As a result, it is hard for the contemporary mind to find in the saga of Ulysses (or Sir Galahad, or Beowulf) what centuries of our predecessors found there: the thrill of men seeking the highest esteem of their compatriots in supreme tests of courage and perseverance. We would rather our heroes today be sensitive.

We have, then, changed, but perhaps less than we suppose, as the continued popularity—in video rentals and television reruns—of movies about heroes testifies. Educated people often dismiss John Wayne, Gary Cooper, and Clint Eastwood as amusing but one-dimensional, overly violent, and politically backward heroes. We try to persuade ourselves that we prefer Alan Alda. But the hero drama persists: it appeals to something deep inside us; and we seem no more able to articulate what we find so compelling about it than are the heroes themselves.

If Bennett had been able to include a video component in his book, I would have urged upon him the scene in High Noon when Gary Cooper tries, not very well, to explain to Grace Kelly why he must stay and fight when no one—not she, not the townspeople—wants him to. Cooper cannot, any more than Wayne or Eastwood or the rest of us, give a philosophically sophisticated account of honor, but we know it when we see it. And so does all the world.

The chief complaint the modern mind has directed at the people and societies that have elevated honor to a high level is that, besides being violent, they are parochial. We may to some extent admire the hero who fights against us, but we give much greater esteem to the hero who fights for us. How you felt about Pickett’s charge at Gettysburg depended importantly on whether you were a Confederate or a Unionist. The Charge of the Light Brigade had a different meaning for a Briton than a Russian. Courage, duty, loyalty: these are to an important degree parochial virtues. They do not lend themselves to becoming universal principles. Kant may have shown that lying can never be moral because we cannot universalize the rule, “always lie,” but he cannot by the same means show that cowardice can never be moral. We can easily imagine preferring a world in which we are always brave and our adversaries always craven.



Of the ten virtues around which Bennett’s compilation is organized, at least five are valued more greatly among friends and countrymen than among strangers: compassion, responsibility, friendship, courage, and loyalty. We think well of strangers who display compassion, are decent toward their friends, and accept responsibility, and we express perfunctory admiration of a foreign hero, but we attach much greater importance to these qualities among kith and kin. The closer we are, emotionally and socially, to another person, the greater the importance we attach to compassion and loyalty and friendship. As we draw more tightly the ties that bind us to our friends and families, we exclude people who are neither friends nor family. These virtues are, to an important degree, boundary-maintaining: that is, they operate by making us attach greater value to a “we” and a lesser value to a “they.”

Four other of Bennett’s ten virtues—self-discipline, work, perseverance, and honesty—we admire in all who display them, in large part because such qualities are useful to us. It is convenient to encounter in a foreign city someone to repair our automobile who is diligent, reliable, and honest. The tenth, faith, we may or may not admire universally, depending on who believes what.

In modern times, the greatest challenge to any conception of virtue is to find a basis for the proper recognition and treatment of strangers. We—that is, Westerners who have accepted the Enlightenment view that all men are entitled, at some fundamental level, to equal respect—want to give a principled account of our obligation to others. That is what liberalism, properly defined, is about: granting to all men and women the status once reserved only for free men in one’s own community. The effort to do this has been largely based on providing a new interpretation of the idea of justice. If justice means giving to every person his due, we have to find a way of defining what is due.

That is not an easy task. To judge from the stories gathered in Bennett’s book, it is not a task for which we can get much help among the tales, poems, legends, and homilies of our or any other culture. In fact, Bennett does not even have a section entitled “Justice,” though he includes some important accounts of it, such as the excerpt from Plato’s Republic. One might also put under this heading the story of the Pied Piper of Hamelin as a cautionary tale about what might happen when you violate one command of justice—namely, to pay your debts even to total strangers. (If you have forgotten, in the case of the village of Hamelin you lose all your children.)

I do not think the omission of a large selection of stories about justice is an oversight on Bennett’s part. Justice among strangers has rarely been the object of stories that have acquired a lasting, emotional hold on our memories. Moral stories are, for the most part, family stories. Children are taught by these stories to be wary of strangers, since strangers are often a threat to them.

The Grimm brothers made this the theme of many of their familiar tales. In one, it becomes clear why mice should never set up housekeeping with cats even when the cats make pretty speeches to them. In another, Hansel and Gretel learn to be wary of old women living in the woods who offer to feed them; the reader is taught that brothers and sisters must rely on one another, and never on strangers or even, in this case, on their own parents. Of course, some strangers are better than others, such as the frog that turns into a handsome prince. But the ugly frog never was a threat to the beautiful princess; it did her a favor and all she had to do in return was grant a small reciprocal favor, one for which she was hugely rewarded.

If on closer inspection a stranger turns out to be an honest and needy person, then these tales teach that we ought to extend to him our compassion. People who are relentlessly selfish and cruel even in the face of innocence are punished, as was Scrooge by the sight of Marley’s Ghost in A Christmas Carol. But Dickens’s story, like most stories of how one is to treat others, is not about justice, it is about ordinary decency. If Tiny Tim and Bob Cratchit had not been such utterly lovable and innocent persons but instead rather unpleasant and burdensome neighbors, Scrooge’s conversion might be said to have involved an awakened sense of justice rather than the restoration of a forgotten sense of common kindness.



The chief reason, in my view, why Bennett does not include a section on justice is that the sense of justice cannot be adequately conveyed by stories. Justice requires an argument, an argument that makes us see beyond our immediate circle of family and friends and nation. There have been moral tales about courage and honor and friendship since the beginning of time, but there have only been moral arguments about justice since a handful of ancient Greeks began asking these questions a few centuries ago.

Perhaps the two most important examples of appeals to justice in Bennett’s book are Martin Luther King, Jr.’s speech, “I Have a Dream,” and Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. Both are moving and important, but neither is a story. They are arguments, as is the account of the refusal of Rosa Parks to yield her bus seat to a white man. I hope William Bennett makes it his next literary task to devote a whole volume to such arguments. But I predict that such a book will not, like this one, become a best-seller. That will be a commercial confirmation of how much harder it is to devise universal rules than to reawaken universal sentiments.


1 Simon & Schuster, 831 pp., $27.50.

About the Author

James Q. Wilson, a veteran contributor to COMMENTARY, is the Ronald Reagan professor of public policy at Pepperdine University in California.

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