Virtue Verbiage: Thou Shalt Always Throw

Yesterday I found myself at a business consultant’s birthday party where I met a warm fellow who was eager to tell me about a book he has just written about caring. Like all consultants, he was able to describe how dysfunctional large organizations can be and quick also to identify the one thing that would cure them of their dysfunction. The problem, he said, is that people have forgotten how to care. Care was his solution, and he promoted it with great enthusiasm. On the back of his business card are his three C’s-courage, confidence, and care.

I started thinking about care-again, because I’ve thought about it before (see Careful caring). It’s one of those verbs that you can either qualify or not. I can care, period, or I can care for or about something or someone. Some verbs demand qualification. If I say “I throw,” you’re left wondering what I’ve thrown to whom. But if I say “I care,” you might wonder what I care about or you might not. To me that’s a problem. Care can be touted as a virtue. Good people care. Bad people don’t. But about what?

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This guy’s enthusiasm for care was demonstrated in the way he called me by my first name and asked me questions, but really, since he’s promoting a book, his questions all seemed like launch pads for his own points.

As the conversation went on I realized I wasn’t feeling all that cared-about. He talked for long stretches in what felt like prerecorded messages, the stock and trade of us consultant types. I’ve got mine. In fact one reason I started Mindreader’s was to catalog them. That way, rather than going long in conversation I can cite my own articles. It’s not a very successful technique, though. It’s a buzz kill for me to keep saying “Yeah, I wrote an article about that . . .” We who have a lot to say sooner or later have got to learn to control ourselves.

So standing there listening to his monologues and feeling my care waning, I said, “I want to try something in this conversation. There are two kinds of conversations from what I can tell. In one, people talk at each other in prerecordings; the other is like a jam session, a joint exploration where both parties are thinking and saying new things. I find the second feels more caring. In fact, I’ve written an article* about how to demonstrate in conversation that you want the second kind. I wonder if we could find a conversation that would be more of the second sort.”

I then posed my doubts about caring: “Caring does not seem like a moral principle to me-it’s more of a moral dilemma. Claiming to value caring doesn’t seem to be enough.”

He agreed, saying that care isn’t an attitude, it’s an action. He said that he tells his clients to remember people’s personal interests and refer to them in conversation. If a guy likes fine wine, be sure to bring up wine when you meet him next. That’s an active way of showing you care.

I said right, and since caring is an action and I have limited time and energy for actions, I’ve always got to decide where to invest them. So it’s a dilemma, not a virtue, and I asked if he agreed. He said yes-but immediately went back to promoting his book and talking about the Fortune 500 endorsements he had.

Obviously with a book about to come out, the man was in no mood to rethink his whole commitment to the idea of caring as a moral principle. I showed that I cared a while longer, listening with somewhat contrived attention until I went off to care about someone or something else.

Which is one reason I like Mindreader’s: even if there’s no room for some point in a conversation I can always put it here.

So here’s the idea: We should watch out for these optionally qualified verbs that become nouns that become moral principles. To declare that caring is a moral principle or a virtue is like declaring that throwing is a virtue. In fact, caring is a lot like throwing. You throw a little love, a little effort, someone’s way. Care for whom or what? Care how?

I throw the ball to Frank.
I care for Frank by looking after his cat when he’s out of town.

And care isn’t the only slippery qualifier-optional verb allowed to stand as a virtue.

Love who and how?
Protect what and how?
Serve who and what?
Give what to whom?
Defend what?
Be courageous about what?
Be confident in what?
Persevere in what?

These virtue verbs, when unqualified, stand as moral monoliths-and I mean that in a bad way. Mono-lith, originally meaning single massive stone. Stone doesn’t talk, and these moral monoliths, formidable as they are, tell you nothing about what to do. Care as a moral imperative is vacuous, devoid of meaning.

So my advice? How should you live a moral life? I say throw.

What’s that, you ask? Throw what?

Oh, sorry. Throw out all qualifier-optional virtue verbs. They’re questions and not answers; dilemmas, not virtues.

*There I go again.

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