VMI and Jean Valjean

As I prepared to graduate from VMI in 1990, with my eyes on marriage and a commission and life, my father made the off-hand remark that I was about to start learning the lessons from Rat Year. As I had been legal for drinking for a year, I was still in the phase of thinking my father as not quite as smart as I was. I was very wrong then. Those lessons from Rat Year that come to mind concern moral character.
Moral character or character is an evaluation of a particular individual’s stable moral qualities. The concept of character can imply a variety of attributes including the existence or lack of virtues such as empathy, courage, fortitude, honesty, and loyalty, or of good behaviors or habits. Moral character primarily refers to the assemblage of qualities that distinguish one individual from another—although on a cultural level, the set of moral behaviors to which a social group adheres can be said to unite and define it culturally as distinct from others.
What is perhaps the second-greatest lesson from VMI is one of balance. People can be over-empathetic, too brave, too spartan, unconcernedly honest and loyalty unto blindness. Balancing these virtues and incorporating them into a way of life is to live according civic virtue. The balance allows one to view a situation and to place weight on a virtue or ethical belief to resolve the situation accordingly. Many of our mature readers will say this is ‘viewing the world as shades of grey.’ For folks who are out of balance, there is no grey, or black or white. They are too into the dark to see any color whatsoever.
We could effectively end ISIS today with weapons of mass destruction. Doing so will also cause the deaths of many non-combatants, the agricultural economy and means of civilizational support. Which is more important? Death of ISIS or life for its victims?
Consider Jean Valjean. Victor Hugo hooks the reader into the initial premise of the story by use of a test of the reader’s own moral philosophy. Valjean is too poor to ensure life to his sister and her children. The children are essentially defenseless, ready to be devoured by the evils of society and nature. Valjean attempts to ensure the life of the children by stealing a loaf of bread. The bread is deliberately inconsequential: you can go to the store and buy a loaf yourself and give it to a poor person (and why don’t you?). Valjean is caught while stealing, and is emprisoned. In some countries the penalty for stealing a loaf of bread was death. Valjean doesn’t die, but the reader must consider the vulnerability of the innocent children who would certainly die.
What is more valuable: Life, or the civil value of not stealing from another? What virtues are in play here? Honesty (not stealing), loyalty to Valjean’s sister and children (another man’s children by a woman not his wife), the readers’ empathy.
What would you do?
Most folks would place a weight on one virtue, one civil value, and accept that the rest, while valuable to life and civil order, must be set aside in this instance. Because you may believe that Valjean should have the bread to ensure life, you don’t necessarily condone theft across the board. Because you value mercy in this situation, you don’t deep-six justice forever. In the military of the 1990s and campaigns in Afghanistan, Iraq, the Philippines and other places, one faced similar challenges since the bad guys always placed their HQ in orphanages, between the elementary school and the only hospital in the region. Take out the villains, or accept a soldier won’t go home?
What would you do?
Robert A. Heinlein alludes to this conflict in his monologues on Civic Virtue by Dubois in “Starship Troopers.” Civic virtue is the habit of living one’s life according to a moral philosophy based on objective truth (true whether you want it or not) and in harmony with the preservation of good civilization. Today those who claim to be our betters vilify these harmonies as “ISMs.”
Conservatism emphasized family values and obedience to the father and the state. Nationalism carried by masses of people made patriotism an important civic virtue. Liberalism combined republicanism with a belief in progress and liberalization based on capitalism. Civic virtues focused on individual behavior and responsibility were very important.
Reconsider the questions above. Is an American Marine’s life more valuable than a Iraqi baby’s? These questions call for a solid foundation that is harder than diamonds, tougher than a paratrooper. This conflict will eventually break every human being. Objectively, the choice will result in death and you own that decision. To avoid the hard truth folks turn to redefining it. The objective becomes subjective. The other name for subjective truth is “lie.”
When objective truth is replaced by subjective truth, which is where a person says ‘this is true because it makes me feel good about myself,’ then society loses the capacity to live with each other. Each individual lives according to what they feel is right, which is soon corrupted into living according to convenience and that which promotes the person’s self-value over those of family and neighbors.
Folks who live that way sure don’t seem happy, do they? Always angry, always grabbing for more, always trying to take from you so you can’t live as you wish. By the state of universities today, you’d never know that Dred Scott and Plessy vs. Ferguson and Jim Crowe were in fact evil, bad things. If you only get the news from ABCCBSNBCCNNAPUPIReuters, you’d see that the campaign for POTUS is down to a sexist boor and that rather quiet unknown woman married to Bill Clinton, who will advise her to repair your healthcare, employment, and keep your neighbor’s dog from crapping in your yard. Today, we don’t hear about Jean Valjean’s moral conundrum, just about his skin color which presumes his politics.

About DaveO

Retired soldier, micro-farmer, raconteur and pet owner from the great state of Oklahoma. Wandered in as a frequent commenter and have been enjoying blogging ever since.
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