Infinite virtue

The 20th century was unfortunately rich in utopian projects, which justified massive human misery roughly thus:

  • A society of infinite human virtue is possible
  • Creating that society requires finite human suffering
  • Infinite virtue minus finite suffering still equals infinite virtue

For the simple reason that infinity – x = infinity as long as x is finite.  A utopia is worth any cost paid along the way.

One of the necessary steps toward a perfect human society.

I believe the fact that calculations of this type led to tens of millions of 20th century deaths was pointed out in the unexpectedly wittily-written book Atrocities.  That book, like many other books, also gave me a little perspective on intercultural issues and things I’ve noticed while living in Japan.

I call the two similar phenomena that I’ve noticed unlimited virtue and entitled virtue.  I started this post with the concept of potential infinite virtue, which has had huge historical consequences, and I think these two concepts are related to it but the examples I see of them are rather trite.  I suppose that’s a relief.

Have you noticed how some societies seem to see in themselves certain qualities that are so innate and necessary to that groups’s existence that no number of counterexamples constitute disproof?  Unlimited virtue is a group’s perceived automatic and immutable association with a particular virtue, immune to counterargument.  Unlike the example of potential but unrealized infinite virtue that was the goal of the utopian projects, unlimited virtue is not concerned with human thriving in general but the stereotypical qualities of groups, such as cleanliness for Japanese, freedom for Americans, and maybe politeness for Canadians.  In these 3 societies and I suspect many others you can find people embracing of the stereotype as a characteristic or even unique quality of that society, even as (particularly from an outsider’s perspective) counterexamples seem rife.

What makes unlimited virtue more than just a quaint observation that stereotypes are often unfounded is that people perceive their assumed overabundance of that virtue as excusing or erasing apparent violations of it.  In other words, people believing that Japan is automatically always cleaner than every other place in fact makes it more likely that people will ignore dirt and sloppiness as inconsequential.  It never threatens their image of Japan as still essentially clean, much like no limitations on American freedoms can make Americans consider their society any less free.  Because infinity – x = infinity, x can get very large indeed without anyone considering it consequential – moreso than if the virtue were considered quantifiable and subject to reevaluation.

There are some perceived characteristics of groups which are also considered innate, but which are actually and sometimes very obviously maintained through massive effort.  Entitled virtue is virtue that like unlimited virtue is seen as innate, but people work to bring to fruition in order to claim that it was always there.  To give the tritest example possible, women in Japan are in the habit of speaking pridefully about their uniquely moist and supple skin.  They also go far out of their way to maintain their skin, making it perhaps uniquely moist and supple – old ladies wear long sleeves in summer and Imperial Gunner-like masks to protect themselves from the sun, and skin care products seem to take up about half of the floorspace of any given pharmacy.  There is no reason to think another society armed with the mindset animating all this wouldn’t also end up with soft skin, but ladies in Japan do because they think it is part of the definition of their gender and ethnic group.  It reminds me of Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers, in which a perception of “raw talent” is what sets people to practicing what becomes an exceptional skill, but the practice rather than that initial perception is what ultimately creates that skill.  Once the rituals and habits necessary to create and maintain a virtue become established then the virtue can be realized, while the perception that it is innate provides motivation for those rituals and habits.

This image comes from a site entitled “Make Room for Lady”, and “matte” can be read in Japanese to mean “wait”.  Quite a comedy of errors.

I don’t believe entitled virtue can apply to just any virtue achievable through effort – for the fiction to be maintained in most people’s minds that the virtue is innate, the effort that goes into it should be made out of view, behind closed doors.

With skin care, you usually only see people in their “finished” state, hiding all the work that led up to it to casual observers, and probably most importantly to other women.  In something parallelling the prisoner’s dilemma, in which individuals are forced into suboptimal choices because the optimal choice leaves them vulnerable to exploitation by others, individual women have little choice but to spend a lot of time on their skin care because they don’t want to be the only Japanese lady with sun-dried skin.

(I have a feeling women applying makeup in public is considered rude because it illustrates in detail the steps necessary to create the final state both men and women have conspired to pretend is automatic)

Other cases of entitled virtue may be good cooking/dancing/musical ability among certain demographics, or “smart kid” status in school, hard-won skills that people build in private in order to claim are their birthright.  Entitled virtue may be spoken of with pride but in fact exists as a kind of threat – fall in and work hard to maintain this fiction, or your status is revoked.  Novices to a particular society, or society in general, may simply buy the premise that it is an innate and automatic characteristic, but it would more accurately be seen as a type of motivation, both of wanting to realize a certain self-image and of wanting to belong to a certain group.  This may do some good for the individual or society (who doesn’t want soft skin?) but it is a mistake to accept the essentialist premise that all its practicioners believe.

Entitled virtue is capable of producing social good, but it’s hard to see how unlimited virtue could be a phenomenon with anything but negative results.  As in utopian societies, nothing much good can come from people imagining themselves to be permanently and categorically above reproach.


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