When virtue is compelled, there is no virtue

If you were to watch British television at the moment, you would see that virtually every public figure is wearing a small red poppy. Poppies are worn at this time of year as we approach Armistice Day. They are worn to remember our war dead and to raise money for a veterans’ charity. I’ll be wearing one on my lapel at work and at church until Remembrance Sunday.

Most people support this symbol and a slight majority will wear one. Remembering the war dead seems like a praiseworthy thing to do. There are a few dissenters, however.

A few — and I have sometimes flirted with this idea — believe that we have overly fetishised the “glorious dead” of war and by doing so continue to perpetuate the lie that to die in battle for one’s country is an honour. This sentiment serves not the troops, but their masters. The troops should be spared such dreams of glorious death.

Some have denounced “poppy fascism,” including Jon Snow, a Channel 4 newsman who last year famously refused to wear one on air. It wasn’t the poppy that irked Snow, but rather the cultural imperative to wear one even if you don’t want to. Snow makes a good point. It is unthinkable — a few radicals like Snow notwithstanding — that a public or media figure would be seen without the poppy at this time of year. I suspect, for example, that the BBC news studio keeps a large supply of new ones to apply as part of their make-up routine.

But if virtue is compelled, then it isn’t virtue. If a BBC journalist, or an MP, or whoever — and for whatever reason — does not wear a poppy, their bosses, the media, the churches, and the public should avoid any witch-hunts and let them do as they wish. That includes any, like Jon Snow, who wish to voice their opposition. For unless we are truly free to dissent without sanction, then any support for the poppy appeal, or any other cause our peers deem to be “moral,” is morally neutral and offers no moral reward.


  1. I remember having to wear a poppy years ago. I was “auditioning” for Girls’ State. The audition included some brief oration about how wonderful America is, and then (no kidding) the recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance. Yes, I stood there with hand over heart and recited the pledge alone in front of fifteen older ladies who were judging me, I suppose, on my degree of patriotism based on how sincere my recitation was. I wish I could have churned up some tears, but alas, I just spoke earnestly. I passed the audition, went to Girls’ State, and can’t remember much at all about the experience. But I do remember reciting the pledge in front of a group of judges.

  2. Rameumptom says:

    I suppose this would be akin to wearing a flag pin in the USA. Obama set off a firestorm several months ago for refusing to wear one. He stated he didn’t need to wear one, to demonstrate his patriotism.

    Others refuse to stand for the National Anthem, salute the flag, etc. I suppose there will always be someone in discord with the national sentiment.

    I, for one, do honor the dead from our wars. Not as heroes, but as sacrificial lambs. In some instances, their deaths have ensured my freedom to protest, or live in peace.

  3. Absolutely. In addition, a behavior that was once a symbol of a virtue becomes the virtue itself. We ought to always go back and look at the virtue, rather than the symbol thereof.

  4. There’s a big difference between not standing for the flag during the national anthem and not wearing a flag pin.

    Namely, procedures for standing for the flag or anthem are codified: http://www.law.cornell.edu/uscode/36/301.html

  5. As for me, I don’t wear pins with my suit. I also don’t wear a watch or class rings or tie tacks (and my wedding band needs to get resized, so I’m currently ringless).

    It doesn’t cheapen my patriotism, my marriage covenants, my allegiance to my almas mater (plural?), or my acceptance of any number of kitschy LDS messages.

  6. Steve Evans says:

    Couldn’t agree more. We have no claim to the moral rewards of virtue when such virtue is considered mandatory.

  7. I wear a watch as a symbol of my allegiance to punctuality, and Switzerland.

  8. I saw the title of this post and thought Ronan had become an Objectivist.

  9. Interesting use of “should” in the US Code section, queuno — especially when no penalties for violation are listed, and especially when other sections in that chapter identify the national motto and the national tree. Next year Congress will probably add a section specifying whether flag pins “should” be worn on the left or the right lapel.

    When somebody chooses not to observe some widely-observed cultural detail, whether it’s poppies or standing for the anthem or wearing CTR rings, no one but the non-observer really knows why he makes that choice: does he not know? not care? reject it because virtue shouldn’t be compelled? reject it because it’s too popular to be cool? I don’t care which it is, really, and I think my only sanction is a private judgment that the non-observer is socially clumsy. On the other hand, if the non-observer noisily proclaims his reasons for rejecting a common observance, my private sanctions run more to strong resentment and a desire to avoid the boorish politics of the maverick.

  10. DavidAK,
    I read Atlas Shrugged the way I read Mein Kampf.

  11. Steve Evans says:

    …under the covers with a flashlight, wearing a sequined leotard?

  12. Yeah, it’s a bit funny to have a law without a penalty. I guess it does provide a way to formally identify boorish behavior at sporting events.

    (Our local NHL team’s fans make it a point to yell loudly “STARS” when that word comes up in the Anthem. Always makes me cringe, on the few occasions I’ve attended a game.)

    I think I’d disagree with the assumption that one is socially clumsy by not following the herd. Do we consider the person wearing a blue shirt at Church to be making a statement, socially clumsy, or just likes wearing a blue shirt (or doesn’t like wearing a white shirt)?

  13. No, Steve, like he reads everything: with his lips moving.

  14. Maybe the key is “widely observed”. Is “widely observed” a simple majority? 60%? 75%? I wouldn’t say that flag pins are “widely observed”, even in North Texas. If usage is barely a majority, then there are practically as many people not wearing one as wearing one…

    This is where I remember the joke about how a majority means you have 2 wolves and 1 sheep voting on what to eat for dinner.

  15. “Society” IS “the herd,” queuno! Someone who doesn’t follow the herd because he doesn’t know better is socially clumsy; if he doesn’t follow the herd because he is making a statement, then he risks being worse a boor. (With your specific example, men who wear blue shirts only to make a point — especially if they announce that’s what they’re doing, and why — are, I’m afraid, boors. While there is nothing at all wrong with wearing a blue shirt, there IS something wrong with telling the men who wear white shirts, or the women who urge them to, that they are mindless, foolish members of a herd. Wear the blue shirt if you want to, but don’t tell the other guys that they’re jerks for not following your lead.)

  16. Ardis, I agree, if someone is publicly trying to make a point.

    But just because a man shows up on Sunday quietly wearing a blue shirt does not mean he’s a boor or making a statement. Or is he?

    I know our last two comments crossed, but getting back to society being the herd — don’t you have to have a certain adoption rate (market penetration, fill in whatever similar term you prefer) before you consider it standard? Ronan cites that a “slight majority” wear poppies?

    Is a slight majority considered a standard, a cultural mandate? I read that 80% of Americans have cell phones — do my parents, who are open about the fact they don’t have cell phones, being cultural boors by not joining the herd?

    I think that before we start defining boorish behavior as a function of not following a cultural standard, we’d better define cultural standard.

  17. (Or better stated – when is someone obligated to follow the herd? When the herd says so? That seems so … unamerican. And anti-Mormon…)

  18. For unless we are truly free to dissent without sanction, then any support for the poppy appeal, or any other cause our peers deem to be “moral,” is morally neutral and offers no moral reward.

    Perhaps on causes like a poppy or a flag pin, but when that compulsion extends to larger issues I think you are being overly generous when you call it morally neutral.

  19. Very well stated, Ardis. I agree completely.

  20. Yes, Jon Snow’s desire to refrain from a particular cultural norm (wearing poppies) should be respected and encouraged. Absolutely.

    However, I also applaud the creation and celebration of community traditions. Even if the underlying symbol is “morally neutral,” social traditions can be inherently valuable. They bring people together; they provide a sense of belonging. And no, I’m not talking about mindlessly “drinking tainted Kool-Aid.” I’m referring to such morally neutral traditions as, say, celebrating Halloween.

    So, I think I agree with the thesis. Invite all, compel none.

  21. When someone abstains from the ward Halloween trunk-or-treat, and declines to give a reason, are they anti-Halloween? Making a statement about sugar?

    My family didn’t go to the ward campout, which by all reports, was attended by a large majority of ward families with children. Are we compelled to offer a justification so as to risk not appearing to be mavericks? (We had a couple of very legitimate excuses for not attending.)

    When is someone allowed to not follow the herd? Only when they provide non-maverick justifications? Should one have to justify his behavior to not follow the herd?

  22. Mandatory vitue is not virute at all.

  23. By the way, Ronan, if Mr. Snow’s only objection is to the societal compulsion to wear a poppy, what does he propose as an alternative method of honoring the fallen? Or is his real objection to being forced to participate in something that he perceives is an endorsement of “the old Lie; dulce et decorum est pro patria mori”?

  24. Do we not get faith after the act?

    Actions even coerced actions do lead to faith and virtue. Not always but many times. I have talked to many people that didn’t learn the value of service until their parents forced them to help others.

    But if virtue is compelled, then it isn’t virtue – What this really means is that we can’t learn anything by doing which is completely false.

  25. This is why I am a supporter of Atheism. Atheist activists are concerned about the fact that, in many ways and many contexts, atheism is not socially acceptable. They wish for it to be socially acceptable, to live in a country where an atheist could be elected to congress or the senate or as president. I share with them this desire, because a society where atheism is a non-stigmatized life choice is also a society where the choice to believe in God and to embrace religion is more meaningful. How meaningful and virtuous can religious affiliation really be in a society where non-affiliation can carry punitive social consequences?

  26. btw, I’m not personally an atheist, if anyone was wondering.

  27. Whoah, Ardis, not that way; the wind is blowing in this direction today.

  28. Hunter,
    Mr. Snow, I believe, wears the poppy off the air. He could not get away with this at the BBC, btw. The BBC would probably say that he was free to not wear the poppy if he so chose, but that if he didn’t wear it, he wouldn’t be able to be on TV.

    I’d say that compelled virtue is not yet a virtue.

  29. The BBC would probably say that he was free to not wear the poppy if he so chose, but that if he didn’t wear it, he wouldn’t be able to be on TV.

    And because of this, the fact that BBC anchors wear the poppy says nothing about their virtue or the virtue of the corporation.

  30. Three cheers for the rallying cry against compelled virtue. Let’s remember it the next time your taxes are raised to pay for expanded social programs.

  31. Ronan

    That is direct contradiction in how you teach virtue.

    The recipient feels virtue as does the giver. If that isn’t virtue you have a strange way of looking at the world.

    If it is taxes you are referring to it is socially unacceptable to enjoy paying taxes so even if you do it honestly which is a virtue you still don’t have to like it and can feel compelled but honesty is still a virtue you have. Of course you can make an argument the other way but that is why statements like this are load of crap.

  32. I’m amazed that taxes are the first thing some people think of after reading this post. AMAZED. I suppose Ronan’s post is a Rorschach test of sorts. Good luck to ye, folks.

  33. Following the herd is not always a bad thing, to be sure. Last I checked, we’re all part of a certain herd of which 2/3 of eligible participants decided to join.

  34. Let’s remember it the next time your taxes are raised to pay for expanded social programs.

    Unless you voted for the candidate who would impose the taxes to fund the social programs.

    Seriously, though — taxes? Talk about looking beyond the mark…

  35. John Mansfield says:

    On a related note, Marginal Revolution points to a dermatological speculation:

    People with Botox may be less vulnerable to the angry emotions of other people because they themselves can’t make angry or unhappy faces as easily. And because people with Botox can’t spread bad feelings to others via their expressions, people without Botox may be happier too.

  36. Taxes. LOL. No talk of TAXES! Or of the US election!

  37. I’m torn on this one.

    Agency is critical to the plan of salvation.

    But sometimes we really do learn by doing (a la John 7:17) and receive a witness after a trial of faith (which can mean that we won’t always FEEL like doing what we are asked to do).

    But if I follow just because everyone else does, and my heart is closed because I “feel forced” then will I be open to the doctrine and confirmation that could follow? Maybe not. But maybe I will. I think it can depend on the person and the circumstance.

    How many times have I engaged in service because I knew I should, or because the group was doing something…starting out sort of grumpily and ending up feeling the Spirit, happy that I went?

    How many times have I gone to church because I know it’s what I should do, simply because I knew it is part of the deal, and end up being grateful that I did, even if I wasn’t really feeling like going at first?

    We are told we can gain testimony by bearing it. That means to me there might be a leap of faith in there somewhere.

    Hm. I think there is more nuance and gray here than the original post seems to propose.

    I also think that there is possibly a difference between “virtue” that is culturally defined and virtue that is divinely defined, or at least one with a bit more doctrinal connection. I might never really catch the vision of wearing a poppy, and the Spirit may never really confirm such an act to me because red poppies really may be a nice gesture of remembrance, but have no doctrinal connection to anything. But what about following prophetic counsel? That to me seems like something in a different ball park.

  38. OK the flip side of this whole discussion is can a virtuous person be compelled? If he is going to be fired for not wearing the poppy but he really wants to wear it… Was he compelled?

    I generally look at these type of absolute statements as flawed. Forcing Snow to wear a poppy doesn’t say anything about virtue at all. He could be but he may not be either.

  39. m&m,
    I am certainly not suggesting that one shouldn’t do good unless one’s motives are perfectly noble. Nothing would ever get done otherwise! Nor that we shouldn’t compel certain people, say our children, to do good even if they don’t want to. But ultimately, if something is to be truly good and truly virtuous it must be engaged in without compulsion or threat of sanction.

  40. Ronan I can’t agree with this at all. This would imply that BYU dress and grooming standards really don’t reflect virtue and that can’t be right.

  41. Single Sister says:

    If I am at a sport or game of any kind and another country’s National Anthem is played, I stand. Because I feel compelled to? No, because it is the respectful thing to do. I don’t wear a poppy because I feel that some person is going to say something to me if I don’t. I wear it in memory of my Grandfather (who fought in both World Wars), my two Great-Uncles who are buried in France and all of the other men and women (civilian and soldier) who died in the conflicts. It always amazes and annoys me when cultural (or religious) symbols for good are used by people to make political statements. Surely there are bigger things to make fusses about? Wear a poppy for goodness sake. Stand when yours or someone else’s National Anthem is played. Even if it doesn’t mean something to you, it may mean something very big to someone else who is watching you. I guess I’m just not getting it….

  42. Aaron Brown says:

    Reasonable people can diagree on all this, but I’m sure we all agree that if you’re on the BYU campus at 6:00 pm, the National Anthem starts playing, and you don’t stop walking and stand reverently, then you lack virtue by definition and are going STRAIGHT TO HELL.


  43. Single Sister,
    I will be wearing a poppy. I believe it to be a virtuous thing to do. I also believe that it is virtuous in large part because it is not compulsory for me to wear it.

  44. Single Sister says:

    Ronan, but don’t you think it’s “virtuous” (for lack of a better word) to be part of the culture? Or perhaps to support others who are remembering? Sometimes part of being “virtuous” is making a sacrifice to do something just because it means something to someone else.

    Aaron, when I went to Ricks College (now BYU Idaho), whenever the American Anthem I stopped and stood (I didn’t want to in that 40 below weather sometimes), simply because it would have been disrespectful to my American friends and to my host country. I didn’t think that the people who didn’t stop were going to Hell. I just thought they were disrespectful jerks ;-)

  45. Eric Russell says:

    if virtue is compelled, then it isn’t virtue.

    Not necessarily. If the action still would have been done without any compulsion, then the action is still just as virtuous. Compulsion itself doesn’t modify the moral content of an action, it only masks a potential lack of moral content. Thus, conclusions such as

    it is virtuous in large part because it is not compulsory for me to wear it.

    are illogically formed. It does not follow that a right action without compulsion is any more virtuous purely by virtue of its lack of compulsion.

  46. Several parts of this bite me the wrong way. First, I’m not sure this is just about private virtue. The poppy is about remembrance of those who fought and died as UK or BE soldiers–something that continues today in Iraq and Afghanistan. The BBC is not a private corporation; thus to be on it is to represent a part of the official establishment of the UK state. It seems to me entirely appropriate that it expect its key representatives to join in recognizing the service and sacrifice of other servants of the state.

    Second, not only now but during the period of WWI–when most of those remembered by the poppy died–the UK has been a democracy. It seems to be something near an abdication of responsibility for citizens (er, subjects) to disclaim the role of soldiers’ masters.

    Third, is it an honor to die? No, but I’m pretty sure that the poppy has never been seen as meaning as much–it is more about honoring those who were willing to put themselves at risk (the majority of the Brits how served in WWI were volunteers; certainly that’s true today–something most citizens won’t do). Ultimately it’s about respecting those individuals–and particularly remembering those who did not return from this service. Incidentally, ‘attacking’ the idea that this kind of service is good and virtuous is bad for the mental and physical health of soldiers in combat, should it ever ‘succeed.’ There is a great difference in remembering and praising soldiers–and particularly those who give everything the would have had–and being anti-war.

    Incidentally, attitudes not all that different from those you are expressing have wrecked the MOD…http://www.standpointmag.co.uk/node/53/full

  47. Eric Russell says:

    Single Sister,

    I think you’re not getting it. If a right action is done because it is the right thing to do, the action has moral content. If a right action is done purely because negative social consequences will occur, and would not of been done in the absence of such consequences, then the action has no moral content.

    There is indeed some moral content in a right action that is done out of solidarity with a community or on behalf of others. But if that action were such that it would not have been done in the absence of those motives, then the action lacks the moral content that it ought to have.

  48. TMD,
    Um, I support the poppy and wear it with pride. I don’t think this was a post about poppies.

    I’m going to bed now so can’t defend the sentiments I have been trying to convey. Let they forever be an enigma wrapped in a riddle wrapped in the Guardian newspaper.

  49. In a weird way, this is why I refused to earn my Young Womanhood award. I felt such intense pressure from leaders/parents to just go through the motions and earn it, and reap the attendant social benefits, that it seemed to me that any possibility of authentically cultivating a relationship with God thereby had been precluded. Acquiescing would have felt like mocking God to placate adults; the pressure left no space for me to experience my actions as authenticity. I didn’t want my relationship with deity hijacked and streamlined into a public obstacle course with a charm bracelet at the end, so I obdurately refused.

  50. Latter-day Guy says:

    I didn’t want my relationship with deity hijacked and streamlined into a public obstacle course with a charm bracelet at the end, so I obdurately refused.

    That was fantastic. I’ve also heard that expressed (by my brilliant older sister) as “No thanks, I don’t need jewelry to tell my when I’m being righteous.”

  51. Peter LLC says:

    Let they forever be an enigma wrapped in a riddle wrapped in the Guardian newspaper.

    The Guardian? That liberal rag has wavered more on its support of the war on terror than Mitt Romney on a windy day. Ronan, why do you insist on disgracing the memory of those who have made the ultimate sacrifice? For shame!

  52. Latter-day Guy says:

    RE:43, AB, Only if you are within sight of the flag. If you’re just hearing the weirdly distorted anthem from the south of campus, no pause required.

  53. Kiskilili, I’ve sometimes wondered about some boys and their Eagle Scout rank. I’ve sat in on a bunch of Eagle Scout board of reviews, and it is obvious that for some, they really want to do it, and love the process. For others, it is an item to be checked off a list their parents gave them. The former is what scouting should be about and is virtuous, while the latter is not about virtue at all.

  54. It’s a good thing duty to god has no real requirements no damage to the virtuous for accepting that.

  55. #48 Eric,

    Bull – If I am forced to do something and go all in and give it an honest effort then HONESTY is a virtue and has moral content. You need to experience some life the world is not that black and white. To say can’t find something of moral value when someone is forced is total garbage. If they grow in the process and experience a change then there is absolutely moral value. It depends where your heart is afterwards. Of course if your heart is still hard afterward then you can make that argument but to paint all acts with the same brush.

  56. I doubt that being forced to earn a Duty to God award does damage to the virtuous. I just think as pressure increases in the direction of coercion, the possibilities for meaningfulness get squeezed. Maybe someone earns an award or wears a poppy under duress and finds value in something they otherwise might not have done, as m&m suggested above. But when pressure is applied, the action becomes, more and more, an item to be checked off a list, as kevinf put it.

    In any case, not all leaders implement programs in a domineering manner.

  57. Eric Russell says:


    Thanks for responding. I’d love to engage you on this topic, because it’s one of my favorites, but I’m afraid I have no idea what you are talking about.

    I sense that we are probably both misunderstanding each other here, but I will point out the following. When I speak of “moral content” I do not refer to results or repercussions. Good things can indeed result from a morally vacuous decision. I refer instead to the moral value of the action at the time of decision. Moral content refers largely to motives. The purer ones motives for a given action, the greater moral content that decision has.

  58. Here’s another example–apologies in advance to Ronan if this is too far off the topic of poppies, but I think it’s relevant.

    When I was a Laurel our YW leader set a goal one year for every YW to read the BoM by year’s end. I was this weirdly religious teenager who had finished it more than once by the time she even asked, so it was not an issue for me. But as the end of the year got closer and virtually no one had finished, our well-intentioned YW leader started holding sleepovers at her house in which people read aloud as fast and breathlessly as possible for as much of the night as they could stay awake. As long as you were in the room, regardless of what you were doing, that counted.

    One of my best friends put her foot down and refused to read it. She said she would read her scriptures regularly in private, but she would not participate in a BoM party and she would make no effort to finish by the end of the year. She deliberately threw a monkey wrench into the program, and, emotionally, I understand exactly why she did it.

  59. Excellent points, Kiskilili. If the central point of this post were not true, Lucifer’s plan would be the ideal.

  60. I compel virtue all the time.

    Quit hitting your brother!

    Yep gotta pay tithing on your allowance

    Nope no rambo movies

    Refrain from peeing on the wall!!

  61. Methinks I am not a virtuous woman.

    I do a lot of things because I’m expected to, but– that’s okay. I’ve lost my holier than thou attitude because of it.

  62. Wasn’t Lucifer’s plan to compel in all things? Allowing no choice ever?

    Eric, My point is that good can come from some coercion. I don’t believe coercion is necessarily acceptable means of getting things done but children are often not ready to make the best decisions for themselves and need some encouragement. It doesn’t take too much to go too far but to say as an absolute seems wrong to me. But you can argue that a missionary is only coerced until they want to be there but I am looking at the whole mission not just a small part of it. Clearly the point that coercion as a means of motivation is a questionable way to go.

    Requiring an employee to wear a pin that customers think is good doesn’t even come any where near Satan’s plan. The assumption that wearing the pin in the first place must be either a virtuous or non-virtuous act is itself is a stretch. Without coercion the church would collapse. Every Bishop I have had has complained about having to use it to keep things running.

  63. Wear the poppy, for goodness sake. Just be sure to memorize Dulce et decorum est, and be prepared to recite it to any who think you’re just a mindless follower of the herd.

  64. Eric Russell says:

    Bob, I don’t disagree with anything you said there. I think we’re addressing different facets of the matter.

  65. I wear a blue shirt to church sometimes, but then, I am a boor, so that shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone. I’m not trying to make a statement or anything, I just can’t bring myself to care…

  66. It is all about your position in the society that has a behavioral norm.
    If you are the principal of a school, should you wear school colors on school colors day? (I’m talking elementary) Yes. If you do, you have school spirit. If you don’t, then why not? People look to you and wonder why you don’t.
    If a teacher doesn’t wear the school colors, his/her student might ask her “Did you forget it was school colors day?”
    If a student doesn’t wear the colors it is probably no big deal. Many student will have come to school in regular clothes because they forgot, they don’t have any clothes in the right colors, they didn’t want to dress in those colors, etc.
    There is a big difference in “statement” or “non-statement” between a bishop showing up in a blue shirt, a GA showing up in a blue shirt, a vacationer showing up in a blue shirt, an investigator showing up in a blue shirt, an executive showing up in a blue shirt, a refugee showing up in a blue shirt, a teenager showing up in a blue shirt, YM Pres. in your ward showing up in a blue shirt, my ward showing up in a blue shirt.
    A TV personality, a presidential candidate, these are all different positions in society and so their adherence or non-adherence to societal norms make difference “statements.”

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