Virtue as vice

A sobering Hallows’ Eve thought … virtue and taste are both, in their ways, deep-seated cultural elements, and not as easy to separate as we might assume. And it’s all too easy for taste to lead and define virtue, rather than the other way round.

It is not hard to raise questions about the value of eating fish, or about the ecological consequences of mining quartz for those crystals that make us feel so at one with the earth. And is it really worth the petroleum, the pollution, the environmental wear and tear, to import drinking water? Such questions would be inevitable, if these were not the tastes of people who are strongly identified in their own minds as virtuous, and if these were not in fact signs by which they make themselves recognizable to others and to themselves as virtuous. For a very long time this country has figured in the world as a great appetite, suddenly voracious, as suddenly sated, disastrous in either case. The second worst thing that can be said about these virtuous people is, they have not at all escaped the sins of their kind. The worst thing that can be said is they believe they have escaped them.

from “Puritans and Prigs,” by Marilynne Robinson, in The Death of Adam: Essays on Modern Thought, 2000

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