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Heroic Virtue and Ordinary Virtue

Although I have really been enjoying The Ezra Klein Show’s series on moral philosophy, it took me a few weeks to listen to the episode with Wayne Hsiung, the founder of Direct Action Everywhere who will go to trial soon, facing up to 60 years in prison for rescuing dying animals from a factory farm and documenting it. Because I am a vegan who does not break into factory farms to rescue animals and document animal abuse, I kind of didn’t want to listen: my life would be harder if I were an extremist, and so I don’t want to want to be an extremist, and I don’t want anyone to seduce me into becoming an extremist. But that wasn’t the impact the show had on me. One thing I continue to learn is that I don’t have to react to other people’s moral choices from a dichotomous mindset: either “I should be doing what that person is doing (but I’m not, so what’s wrong with me?)”, or “that person should be doing what I’m doing (but they’re not, so what’s wrong with them?).” I felt I could recognize something of this mindset in Klein’s repeated attempts to figure out what makes Hsiung tick: “Why are you the way you are (and why aren’t I?)?”

As I was listening to the show, and connecting parts of the Hsiung episode with the earlier episode with philosopher Peter Singer, the Roman Catholic concept of “heroic virtue” kept coming to mind. Singer’s philosophical arguments in favor of kidney donation to strangers made Klein a little uncomfortable. He admitted that, even though his 9-month-old son’s kidneys are fine, he would not be willing to donate a kidney to a stranger, because someday his own son might need that kidney.

Much of Singer’s philosophical project is rightly concerned with encouraging individuals to widen their circles of compassion, to try to get people to care as much for distant creatures as they do for their family. And yet something starts to niggle at me when I consider that an exemplar of what I consider secular heroic virtue—someone such as Hsiung, who will likely do some jail time for his crime of saving a near-death piglet; or like Zell Kravinsky, who donated one of his kidneys to a stranger—they must be childless, mustn’t they? (In fact, no, but more on that later.)

What is heroic virtue, anyway? Joseph Wilhelm, in the 1917 Catholic Encyclopedia, explains that an ordinary virtue can “attain the grade of heroicity when practiced with unflagging perseverance, during a long period of time, or under circumstances so trying that by them men of but ordinary perfection would be deterred from acting.” Wilhelm provides three examples: “Martyrs dying in torments for the Faith, missionaries spending their lives in propagating it, the humble poor who with infinite patience drag out their wretched existence to do the will of God and to reap their reward hereafter, these are heroes of the Faith.” But it’s notable that the rolls of Catholic saints are filled with martyrs and missionaries, not with “the humble poor who . . . drag out their wretched existence.” Some heroic virtue is more equal than others.

In any religion with a tradition of monasticism, family life is seen as antithetical to true progress in religion . . . in practice, historically, this is sexist. Basically, whatever sacrifices I make for my children are examples of “ordinary virtue” . . . we only get to “heroic virtue” when the sacrifices are made for strangers (or “god,” or animals). There is something to this, because it’s good to get away from tribalism – but to the extent that this idea of virtue shuts out people with significant caregiving responsibilities, we need to watch out for it. People who volunteer a few hours a week and post it on Instagram can get lots and lots of praise nuggets, but someone who spends every waking hour that is not devoted to paid work taking care of a child or an elderly parent gets nothing (in terms of social validation, which we can’t pretend isn’t important). Something is amiss here—a devaluing of the sacrifices involved in “ordinary virtue.”

Zell Kravinsky, the kidney-donation evangelist and philanthropist, does in fact have a wife and four children, and they are disturbed by his desire to give everything away, up to and possibly including his one remaining kidney, if someone needed it who could do more good in the world than he can. Jason Fagone’s story gives a sense of the incompatibility of heroic virtue with family ties—Kravinsky’s wife, for one, appears thoroughly sick of her husband’s eccentricities.  Siddhartha Gautama abandoned his wife and family; Jesus denied his mother and his brothers in Mark 3 and Matthew 12; that same Catholic Encyclopedia entry says that Abraham’s willingness to slaughter his own son out of obedience to God was heroic virtue.

Very showy examples of virtue attract attention, and I am 100% impressed by Hsiung’s commitment to justice and compassion for animals. But I’m not willing to feel bad that I myself am no exemplar of heroic virtue (though who knows? donating a kidney does sound good). Much of my very ordinary virtue derives from the care that I give to others; the world of philosophy needs more attention to the ethics of care and feminist philosophers’ attempts to tilt the balance from ideas of virtue and morality that assume a privileged male actor to the many ways others and Others demonstrate virtue. In other words, Ezra Klein, I don’t think you should feel bad that you want to hold onto that kidney in case your son needs it—it means you’re thinking like a mom.


4 Replies to “Heroic Virtue and Ordinary Virtue”

  1. I’m always glad to see more from you, and this is a good start to a new year of posting!

    As I read your post again, something that has scratched at the back of my mind from time to time does so again: how much of such virtue-signaling stems from a fear of inadequacy? That is, how many of the “heroically” virtuous engage in their heroics specifically because they do not have the “less equal” (to play off your comment) heroism of faithfully and diligently discharging familial and social obligations? (I do not mean by this to assert that family and/or social engagement is inherently virtuous–I see entirely too many examples of them being the opposite in my line of work–but they deserve far more credit than they are usually given, I agree.)

    Is the label even something meant to ameliorate a fundamental uncertainty, perhaps?


    1. This is a good point — I know that people who don’t have children are often treated really badly by others (constant questions and critical comments about reproductive decisions, etc.), so there could be an element of virtue-signaling in some individuals . . . but I don’t want to say that heroic virtue, risking-your-whole-life virtue, is merely virtue-signaling — I guess because I’m truly impressed by heroic virtue.


  2. My mother has long been in kidney failure, and she goes to dialysis 3x a week for 4 hours a go. When she was first diagnosed with 2% kidney function, my sister and I both refused to be tested as potential donors, because we knew my mother would not comply with any instructions (and also our husbands objected strenuously). Indeed my mother was struck from the kidney transplant recipient list after 2 years because…she would not comply with any instructions. Yet what if everyone judged everything on a case-by-case basis? If you’re noncompliant, if you’re a drug user, if you’re a man who has sex with men, if you’re under 18, if you’re a woman, if you’re [insert condition here]—eventually you just have to go with “you’re human and you’re worthy.” Except I got to judge, and I deemed my mom unworthy.


    1. It’s interesting to me to think about the implications of this for paired kidney exchanges ( — in that case, each potential recipient has one person willing to “vouch” for them with a kidney. No one who knew your mom would vouch for her by giving up a kidney, and eventually the medical establishment came to recognize what you already knew. This sounds stressful — I’m sorry.


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