Commentary Magazine

Conservatives Against Virtue

AP Photo/Elaine Thompson

At some point over the past two or three years–I’m not sure when exactly–“virtue” became a dirty word on the American right. There’s not a little irony in this development. If there’s one commitment that is supposed to tie the various strands of American conservatism, it’s the cultivation of the human virtues–those habits of the human spirit that aim at its perfection: Prudence, justice, courage, and temperance, according to the classical definition.

But not anymore.

Maybe it’s because, for good and ill, the party of the right has tied its fate to Donald Trump, a figure seemingly out of one of those 19th-century novels that study the virtues by describing their absence in the protagonist’s soul (Vanity Fair comes to mind). Talk of temperance rings hollow when the president of the U.S. is so manifestly incapable of mastering his instinct for insult and vulgarity. The word “prudence” grates when the president turns to the most ham-fisted means for achieving even reasonable ends. And so on. Worse, some on the right have conflated “virtue signaling”–the moral preening of progressives about vegan food and feminist dating and so forth–with virtue as such.

So it didn’t come as a surprise to me when an acquaintance, normally a sound conservative, accused me of having joined the “virtue vultures” over my objections to Trump’s treatment of illegal-immigrant children at the border. As COMMENTARY readers know, I have some sympathy with the immigration frustrations that catapulted Trump to the White House. Native populations in the West have a right to demand an orderly immigration system–to know who is crossing their borders and for what purpose. The liberal, transnationalist effort to erase borders is dangerous and, ultimately, futile. Let me stipulate, too, that a certain percentage of the children crossing the border are unaccompanied or accompanied by people other than their natural parents. No doubt, separation is necessary in some cases.

Nevertheless, the systematic, indiscriminate tearing asunder of natural families, even temporarily, is a grave wrong. As the Catholic University theologian Chad Pecknold has argued, “the separation of children from their parents—due to the fact that said parents may or may not be guilty of misdemeanors—is wicked. Regardless of differences of opinion on how to enforce real national borders, the intact family is the pre-political common good of all.” The state proceeds from the natural family. It can’t, and mustn’t, destroy its own building block: the family. This a matter of political justice. But Trump’s hard-line policy also runs afoul of prudence, since the public relations outcry makes it that much harder to forge a comprehensive solution to the immigration problem.

Justice. Prudence. Those pesky virtues. Those pesky virtue vultures.

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