Psychology Today’s latest issue discusses the double edged nature of virtues. Sometimes a virtue, either taken to excess or cherished too dearly, warps into a vice. The article gives several examples.
Fairness is a virtue. But it’s easy to become obsessive about fairness, especially when it plays in our favor. The article references a father who told his daughter he would miss her birthday because he had a business opportunity. ”When she dried her tears, she told him it was OK—as long as he missed her sister’s birthday, too.” Of course, the daughter could have been thinking more selfishly than fairly, but even if the father had made this call himself, it’s hard to say he was acting virtuously. In fact, I imagine with some thought, we could come up with some other reasons why fairness should be tempered (the justice/mercy problem springs to mind).
Another example from the article is agreeableness or niceness, which in more religious terms we could call meekness. Being really nice is good, but when it overtakes being assertive, we can not only harm ourselves, but others as well. As the article points out, people who are agreeable tend to have lower salaries and get fewer promotions, and in some cases can strain romantic relationships because they’re too dependent and clingy.
While the virtues listed in the article serve mainly in the corporate context, Mormonism prizes several virtues that didn’t make this list, such as obedience, faith, and charity. Perhaps these virtues can also morph into vices. Can we become obsessively obedient? Does an excessive reliance on faith corrupt it? Can the compulsive pursuit of charity become a vice?
A lot of elders on my mission liked saying, “If you’re 99% obedient, you’re disobedient.” Not only do I worry about the psychological ramifications of this statement (as, apparently, does Elder Holland), but I wonder if the statement excuses obsessive obedience.
The pharisees are the classic example of over-obedient followers. Not only did they obey the law, but they hedged the law with non-divine rules just to be extra careful. Ironically, as Jesus pointed out, their law hedging made them disobedient, because they became so focused on superfluous details that they lost sight of the actual law itself. Furthermore, their obsessive obedience made them intensely judgmental.
The pharisees are easy to pick on, but obsessive obedience may affect us in other ways. I’ve often noticed that many vocal ex-Mormons described themselves as formerly very obedient active Mormons. Furthermore, their obedience language often ties to black and white thinking. For example, many seem to take the statement, “Either the Church is true, or it is a fraud.” to mean the much more extreme: “Either the Church is totally spotless or it’s a pernicious lie.” If an obsession with obedience promotes this kind of all-or-nothing thinking, it may convert obedience from virtue to vice.
How about excessive faith? Paul tells us that the God ordained church leaders to keep us from being “carried about with every wind of doctrine” (Ephesians 4:14), so it makes sense to think that we can trust those leaders implicitly. On the other hand, Elder Uchtdorf recently pointed out that sometimes our leaders make mistakes. On the surface, it seems that Paul and Uchtdorf disagree. Can we trust our leaders, or should we remain skeptical? It could simply be that Paul instructs us to have faith, and Uchtdorf cautions us against excessive, or perhaps, blind faith. Is blind faith simply unrestrained, or excessive faith?
Of course, it seems counterfactual to suggest that we can have too much faith. After all, the scriptures are replete with miracles caused by great faith. On the other hand, most miracles take something more than faith (e.g. need, prior work on our part, etc.). Expecting that ample faith can solve our problems may be the grounds for relying too heavily on faith. In the last presidential election, some members fasted and trusted in God that Mitt Romney would defeat Obama, expecting their faith to be rewarded. Without getting too political (it’s just the first example that came to mind), perhaps these members trusted too much in their own faith. I’m sure everyone has personal examples of falling into a similar trap.
Charity rounds out this grossly incomplete list. Can charity become excessive? How can we possibly be too obsessed with obtaining the pure love of Christ? Or to put it in more practical terms, if charity means seeking others’ happiness, can we care too much about seeking others’ happiness? The Christian scriptures don’t entertain the idea; however, Buddhism does discuss the possibility of caring too much for others. One basic Buddhist principle is that we can’t help out others if we are in a state of mental or emotional chaos. We have to seek balance in our own lives before we can, and should, help others. In other words, if we neglect ourselves while caring for others, we commit a vice. While the Christian scriptures hold self-sacrifice in high esteem, Buddhist philosophy encourages us to sacrifice ourselves for the sake of others without throwing ourselves on the sacrificial alter in the process. Tangentially, I think this Buddhist doctrine is a prime example of what Joseph Smith meant by there being truth in other religions that we can, and should, add to our own, but that’s a discussion for another time. In any case, it’s hard to imagine cherishing charity to the point of vice, but perhaps we can.
Do you agree that an obsession with a virtue can turn it into a vice? Does that extend to obedience, faith, and charity?