Vice President Dick Cheney was famous for once saying "conservation is a personal virtue, not a matter of public policy" or something with that same intent. Now I'm not going to question the motives or virtues of Mr Cheney, with whom I do disagree on more than a few things, but it does raise an interesting question: where do personal virtues cross that line where they should be a matter of public policy? Here are some of my thoughts on personal virtues.
Honesty is a personal virtue. We are told that we should always be honest, but yet all of us lie at one time or another, and in point of fact being dishonest in some circumstances can probably be considered more virtuous than telling the truth (anyone who has or has had children knows what I am referring to when they eat their child's first culinary creation). Honesty is also a virtue that is a matter of public policy: when you are stopped by a police officer, you are required to be honest when he asks you questions. When you are in court, you are expected to be honest, else you will be charged contempt of court. I'm not lying here, although I will not claim to telling the truth all the time.
Another contradiction to Mr Cheney, in that charity is a personal virtue, but if you itemize your federal taxes you know doubt realize that the federal government encourages charitable giving via a tax deduction. I don't give enough, which I publicly confess. Years ago I would give to the Church on a regular basis, but that's slowly changed. I know that's not necessarily a good message, but I have a very difficult time supporting my Catholic Diocese when the leader of the Diocese seems to contradict Church teaching on the rights of workers to unionize and the right of all believers to use their God-given brains and hearts to weigh moral issues in an election. Anyway, recognizing that my level of charitable giving as decreased over the years, I've made the decision this year to being contributing regularly to a Charity (St Jude Children's Research Hospital). "Where charity and love prevail, there God is ever found" goes the hymn I learned in Church as a child.
I believe in the soul-building value of working hard. Mind you, I don't think that working hard without gain is smart, so I'd qualify this virtue to mean that it's important to work hard as a means to an end. I fall short in this regard all the time, but I temper that personal disappointment with the knowledge that each and every day I can wake up and trying to get it right on a new day.
I personally believe in conservation, both as a virtue and as a matter of public policy. Simply put, the public good is served by not wasting resources. Conservation is one of those things that we, as a people, can do to tangibly help those that come after us. On a personal level, I am more or less a fanatic about recycling, as my children can attest. I will go so far as to pull plastic and glass out of garbage cans to put them into recycle containers. Why? It just makes sense to me. It also plays into my thoughts overall about excessive consumption.
I recently bought (from www.evolvefish.com) a bumper sticker that says "An economy based on the consumption of fixed resources will consume itself", which I think is a great thought. Maybe because I grew up without a lot I am more sensitive than most of this notion of constant consumption. Now I do like my toys: I even have an MP3 player with wireless Internet access; however my consumption isn't ever spur of the moment and is always done in consideration of what I need and can use vs what I simply want. Have I always done a good job of passing this virtue onto my children? Hell no. But my work in that regard is like someone trying to shovel water: it's just fighting against this all-conquering tide. In the case of consumption, that "tide" is reality all of the consumption-based society in which we live. Our children are taught from an early age by society and the media that consumption can make you happy, cool, popular, well-skinned, etc. It's up to us to get smart, as we grow older, to realize that the "big lie" exists in our consumption-based society: you can not consume yourself into happiness.
This is probably the most important personal virtue that I think anyone can ever have. I greatly admire people who strive for independence. Note that I said "strive", in that I realize all of us need help every now and then. I try to instill this virtue in my children, both overtly (by telling them that I want them to be successful in their lives on their own) and covertly. Conversely, I find it sometimes difficult to deal with the chronically dependent.