John Bradshaw’s book Reclaiming Virtue: How We Can Develop the Moral Intelligence to Do the Right Thing at the Right Time for the Right Reason is delightful, eye-opening, and infuriating. In the months — and I do mean many months — I’ve dragged myself through its pages, I’ve alternated between shouting for joy and throwing the book against the wall in frustration. For all its faults, however, Reclaiming Virtue provides the clearest vision of goodness I’ve read to date.
Best known for his PBS-TV shows on family dynamics in the 1980s and 1990s, Bradshaw has worked as a psychologist, teacher and addiction counselor. His books include the bestselling Homecoming: Reclaiming and Championing Your Inner Child, Healing the Shame that Binds You (Recovery Classics), and Creating Love: A New Way of Understanding Our Most Important Relationships.
In Reclaiming Virtue, published in 2009, Bradshaw makes the case for putting the pursuit of virtue at the center of our culture. He describes what he means by “virtue,” which isn’t at all what I expected he would say, and then he details how a person can go about becoming virtuous and help one’s children become virtuous. The key, Bradshaw writes, is learning moral intelligence.
Bradshaw’s insights are fascinating, but the book is handicapped by the quality of the writing. In 482 pages, Bradshaw charges forward, doubles back, repeats himself, repeats himself again, and then bogs down in detail that might better have been left for another book. The sometimes plodding, often repetitive prose led me to toss the book away in disgust three times. Each time I threw it away, though, I came back because I couldn’t force myself to abandon Bradshaw’s ideas.
At the core of his thinking is the concept of virtue. I’ve never had much love for the idea of virtue. The word always reminds me of SNL’s Church Lady, who delights in scolding others for their sins.
But Bradshaw doesn’t define virtue as the act of abiding by a list of rules like the Church Lady does. For Bradshaw, virtue is a habit, a strength, even a skill. Virtue is a person’s ability to be prudent, courageous, just, self-controlled and compassionate, among other things. The one thing virtue isn’t, Bradshaw says, is the kind of obedience the Church Lady celebrates.
One of the most effective and compelling aspects of the book is Bradshaw’s discussion of cultures based on the kind of non-thinking obedience Dana Carvey satirizes in the Church Lady. Such cultures claim to be raising moral souls, when in fact they are the ones most likely to produce people who inflict harm on others, Bradshaw says. Cultures of obedience can even be breeding grounds for terrorists.
Bradshaw backs up his argument with psychological studies, but he also writes about his own experience. Raised as a strict Catholic and educated for the priesthood, Bradshaw struggled for years with alcoholism and sexual addiction. His life fell a part even though his own moral education was rigorous. In school, for example, he had to memorize the Ten Commandments and Catholic catechism.
I was called upon to recite these while a nun held a ruler poised to hit my open palms if I faltered. Once these rules were memorized, it was my duty to obey them without thought or question. In fact, questioning was considered a mark of disobedience and a lack of faith. Good moral behavior was simply a matter of obeying the rules with little or no understanding of many of them. The goal of my childhood moral teaching was to make me virtuous. But this way of teaching moral values, based as it was on blind obedience, did not make me virtuous. Nor did it make my friends or the people I counseled (religious or otherwise) virtuous.
What confused me was that the choices that challenged me as a moral person were often not clear and certain. If moral law were a system of absolute rules, there would be no need to deliberate or anguish over what choice was the best for me to make; there would be no need for freedom of choice. But living a good life involved complexity, ambiguity, and risk, and I often found myself puzzled.
A morality based solely on obedience produces stunted adults who can’t cope with complexity, Bradshaw says.
Obedience and respect for authority are a necessary part of the process of growing up morally, but if we stop there, we become arrested at a developmental stage that predisposes us toward the rigid polarization of rightdoing (good) and wrongdoing (evil).
True moral intelligence doesn’t come from following a list of rules, nor is it innate, Bradshaw says. Instead, we can only become morally intelligent by understanding ourselves. We have to confront our emotional problems, we have to understand our inner lives, and we have to exercise our moral muscles. One of the things I love about Bradshaw is that he suggests the delightful idea that it actually takes practice to learn to live morally.
Bradshaw provides hundreds of pages of detail on how one goes about learning to be virtuous. I don’t have the room or the inclination to repeat his discussion. I’m not certain I agree with every task he puts forth, but what I think is important for this review – and my quest – is to acknowledge Bradshaw’s key insight: Goodness is attainable, but only if we understand how our own psychology guides our actions, learn to heal our emotional wounds, and put time and energy into becoming virtuous.
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