The Problem of Virtue
I have been grappling with virtue, primarily as a problem. I was getting confused or so it seemed. Then I asked myself, regarding William Colby and his career with the CIA and especially with regard to Vietnam: What led William Colby to think that he could “save” or “civilize” Vietnam, improve it, ameliorate life there, bringing to it the good things that modernity promised? Well, he thought that because he thought of himself as virtuous; that is, he was educated in a way the Vietnamese weren’t, he was well brought up, he was intelligent in an enlightened way, he was compassionate, he was a family man, he was liberal, and he was religious. So, he was convinced that he could successfully intervene in Vietnam and elsewhere in the world via the CIA, thereby improving Vietnam and the world via his interventions. That was his conviction and remained his conviction despite the debacle of US involvement in Vietnam.
But he was wrong because he didn’t understand what virtue is or what it isn’t, and that it’s not enough. He hadn’t thought through his conception of, his possession of virtue and, therefore, he was unaware of its “limitations,” of its character. As a result, he was led into savagery via, e.g., the Phoenix program, which he mistook for necessity. His virtue(s) blinded him to the fact that he had choices, choices that would have allowed him to reject the savagery he embraced as necessity in Vietnam and elsewhere.
To recognize these choices, however, required that Colby leave “the cave” and ascend toward the light. That is, Colby would have had to “philosophize,” or question and transcend the world view he took for granted and in which his conception of virtue was embedded.
Of course, his official position with the CIA and his commitment to the US agenda in Vietnam did not allow him to do that. His official position and his commitments required that he resist those choices that were available to him, had he been able to see them. And to see them, he would have had to see his virtues for what they were, conventions created by society because they seemed useful. Colby was, therefore, blinded by his virtue and his blindness proved deadly, tragically deadly, for the US but especially for the Vietnamese.