Where have all the virtuous role models gone?

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I recently spent a day at the “World Happiness Summit” in London. As you might expect from “the happiness event of the year”, much of the content was rather uplifting and enjoyable. And, as you might also expect, there was something a bit cringeworthy about some of the proceedings (one consultancy boasted about guiding its clients through their “purpose journeys”), as well as a smattering of the downright preposterous (“please turn to the person next to you and ask one another: are you constipated?”).

But the words that really stayed with me came from Vivek Murthy, America’s surgeon general, who spoke about the link between social disconnectedness and depression, and the way in which serving others can alleviate this. Murthy argued that young people needed to be given a new definition of success, one less connected with the acquisition of fame and fortune and more with contributing to the world. This would not only help those around them, but enhance their own happiness and wellbeing too.

“We need to tell our kids a different story about success . . . that says being kind matters, that says serving others is a cool and honourable and exciting and desirable thing to do,” Murthy said. “At various points in the past we have valued this more than we do now. We held up leaders like Mandela and Martin Luther King and Gandhi, not because they were rich, not because they were famous, but because of their passion to serve and the sacrifices they made to lift up other people. We’ve got to make that important again.”

Murthy was making a crucial point: not only are none of the people he mentioned still alive, but there are arguably few today able to fulfil this role — that of the charismatic leader whose virtue, courage and heroism can inspire great numbers of others. Russia might have had such a person in Alexei Navalny, but he died, tragically, in February.

And as people gorge on their Easter eggs, few will give so much as a passing thought to a religious figure whose sacrifice for others — for all mankind, in fact — this most sacred of Christian festivals is supposed to commemorate. No, virtuous role models, whether sacred or secular, are in short supply these days. Why?

Part of the answer is the internet. Being a paragon of virtue was easier in the time before the baying mobs of social media arrived on the scene. Today, it is almost impossible for anyone in a prominent position to survive without having their character and integrity called into question before too long because of some error of judgment or instance of “wrongthink”.

But another part of what’s going on here lies in our shifting moral philosophies. As the west has moved away from ethical outlooks that focus on virtue and towards a utilitarianism that emphasises the outcomes of our actions rather than the content of our characters, we are less inclined to look for exemplars of virtuousness to emulate. In a world in which you can maximise your positive impact simply by making a ton of money and distributing it effectively, being an admirable person seems less relevant.

Polling group Gallup, which had run an annual survey since 1946 asking Americans which man and woman they most admired, abruptly ended it in 2020 (the year that a certain Donald Trump happened to have been voted by the public the “most admired man” for the second year in a row). When I asked why this was, a spokesman told me that “Gallup routinely evaluates the usefulness of its historical trend questions when setting priorities and decided against updating the ‘most admired’ questions in recent surveys”, without providing any further details.

It strikes me as significant that the company is no longer bothering to keep track of who America’s role models are. Even the word “admirable” has itself has gone out of fashion: Google’s Ngram viewer, which tracks the frequency with which words are used in books between 1800 and 2019, shows a precipitous drop in its use during that period (big declines can also be found for “virtuous” and “honourable”).

As Aristotle was saying more than two millennia before Murthy, a virtuous life, though perhaps more effortful, leads to true happiness and fulfilment. Our role models need not be perfect — indeed, imagining them to be so can bring difficulties of its own. But having exemplars whose characters we can aspire to emulate is a crucial component in our own moral development, and in our path towards living a life of virtue and what Aristotle called “eudaimonic” contentment.

Without such figures and the moral standards they set, the door is left open for a different kind of role model entirely, one that is sadly all too recognisable today: leaders who exhibit — and signal — impressive levels not of virtue, but of vice.

jemima.kelly@ft.com

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