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. (more…)