The Denial of Virtue


When a New York City man risked his own life to save a stranger on the subway tracks, the New York Times interpreted his behavior not in terms of virtue but as a product of certain ‘hard-wiring’ he happened to possess. In denying virtue, the Times followed a school of thought that is pervasive in social science (referred to in this paper as the ‘individualists’) who, for example, explain charitable donations by pointing out tax deductions, explain volunteer work by revealing the opportunities contained therein to meet other singles, and so on. Actually, the assumptions and arguments which ground this widespread ‘denial of virtue’ are both empirically and normatively flawed, and the theory itself is belied by data about people doing good for moral reasons. Evidence drawn from personal introspection, from empirical studies of human behavior, from analysis of voting as a civil act, from interpreting peoples’ reaction to Alzheimer’s disease, from critical inspection of the logic of ‘individualist’ social explanations, and from a normative criticism of the products of the ‘individualist’ approach all support a rejection of the ‘individualist’ approach. The deniers of virtue should heed the evidence and pay mind to the amoralizing consequences of their erroneous theories.

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Correspondence to Amitai Etzioni.

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Etzioni, A. The Denial of Virtue. Soc 45, 12–19 (2008).

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  • Virtue
  • Social science
  • Sociology
  • Moral behavior
  • Economics