The Opposite of Virtue: A Leveled Approach


This notion from Sam Wilson’s primer on transaction goosed my gray cells: “I encourage you, O dearest reader, to consider justice to be an additional salient dimension here. There is nothing that inheres to any of these three a particular notion of justice.”

“Well, yeah,” I said to myself. “Let’s talk about that.” So I tried, and my first attempt, subtitled, “A Volley,” left me dissatisfied. As they say in comedy: if the joke bombs the first time, repeat it until they laugh. But first, a graphic.

Here’s how I understand Sam’s taxonomy, of sorts: Action

Anything can do action: humans, mammals, snails, the wind. Humans, I believe, carry out their existence transacting. That’s the first half of my post. The second half of my piece is concerned with the difficulty of aligning oneself justly, or morally, or with virtue in order for transacting and exchanging to go on. While I do distinguish among the three, I do not see hard, fast lines separating them. Honest people, for example, do not steal. Moreover, honest people help those near to them prosper. And so, I asked, whence theft? Theft is not merely the absence of virtue, it is an action driven by a will to harm someone near at hand (virtually or presently). I mean, we watch each other like hawks to ensure that one does not make away with the other’s hawklings. Do we not presume to do so because we use virtue to temper our own nature to steal, also presuming that not all temper that nature?

Adam Gurri commenced to ask some questions which I did not understand, which told me that I probably laid an egg. Therefore, to illustrate…

A Story

“Once upon a time” is inappropriate here, even though it functions as a parable, because the following story is typological, meaning that, even though it is made-up here, this case recurs often enough to make it into clinical studies as textbook. Without further ado:

A man volunteered at a food bank, throwing his passion into it. He loved the institution itself because it managed care for the indigent, which is just what stoked his passions. Unmanaged care, such as handing out money to the homeless, seemed to him inefficient, and studies showed him that such care might not be care at all, but enabling bad things, moral and economic. A food bank could actually help those who cannot help themselves.

After a year or so, he was elected, unopposed, to be the treasurer of the board (the food bank was organized as a 501(c)3, which requires regular meetings and officers). The task of treasurer seemed easy enough: record inflow and outflow, make deposits, and disburse funds according to the board’s actionable items. Well, seeming and being are miles apart in volunteer organizations. Inflow and outflow rarely coincide.

For example, the Rotary Club in town donated five sides of beef for distribution, which meant that the food bank had to turn on the freezer, which meant that the utility bill saw a spike, which meant that the treasurer had to report that there was no money to pay the bill. He lost sleep over the possibility of the food bank being in arrears, or worse, being forced to close. Suddenly, he was presented with a check for $10,000. Mrs. McGillicuddy (R.I.P.) had included in her estate those funds for the food bank because the organization had provided for her once future son-in-law when he had lost his job at the plant. The treasurer was overwhelmed with joy so that he wept. The bank account was flush for a few months, and then, rinse, repeat, emotional ups and downs.

Not too long afterward, the ledger book was full, so he needed to buy a new one. He took $5 from the petty cash box to help pay for it, and as a goodwill gesture to the food bank, he repaid the $5, thinking to himself that it was a good deed to have bought the ledger with his own money, without pestering the board with the need nor the expenditure. After all, he loved the food bank. But it was too late.

He borrowed another $5 once, this time for a soda pop and a candy bar after a late night helping stock the shelves. He repaid it. The next time, he did not repay it; he justified it to himself as a kind of payment for all the good work he was doing. At the next meeting, someone noticed the slight discrepancy between inflow and outflow. He explained it away as a mistake in accounting for an inflow or outflow somewhere; besides, it was only a few dollars. The board seemed unconcerned.

Afterward, however, whenever he “borrowed” money, he altered the recording of inflow, hiding receipts and other paperwork to conceal his earnings. No one seemed to notice.

Many years later, a new director came onto the board, and she noticed that the accounting had become messy. A few questions later, she felt compelled to call the district attorney. Sure enough, in the investigatory audit, they found that $5 had metastasized into over ten thousand dollars a year. Justice came upon him. The reputation of the food bank plummeted, with the result that it could no longer help as it once did.

And here, the story varies: sometimes he is dismissed in bitter disgrace, with an impossible burden of repaying the theft; other times he is put on trial and found innocent (embezzlement can be difficult to prove to a jury); other times he is put on trial and found guilty (embezzlement can be proved in some cases).

The pattern: a virtuous man or woman left without proper oversight is overcome by theft. How?


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