From my reading on the French Revolution over the past month, I have been impressed by how, depending on the context, qualities that could be vicious show themselves as virtuous, and vice versa. The revolutionary Georges Danton was a big man of prodigious appetites — to put it as neutrally as one can — and open to corruption, though the degree of his corruption is disputed. And yet, it was he who turned on his old ally Robespierre, in part because the incorruptible Robespierre’s fanatical virtue sickened and alarmed him. In the end, Robespierre observed, “Danton derides the word Virtue as though it were a joke. How can a man with so little conception of morality ever be a champion of freedom?”
Within weeks, Robespierre had Danton sent to the guillotine.
In retrospect, Danton is by far the more sympathetic figure because while personally corrupt, he was much more humane. It’s often hard, though, to discern the morally correct position in real-life situations. One man’s “principled stand” is another man’s “inhuman rigidity.” Remember the Clinton sex scandal? Many (but not all) conservatives (I among them) found it incomprehensible that anybody could look upon the rotten Bill Clinton with sympathy after all that. Look at what that piggish man did, how he dishonored his office, his wife, and himself! Many liberals (but not all) found it incomprehensible that conservatives were so small-minded and inhumane that they would destroy a president over his all-too-human sexual frailties.
There is no formula for these things. Err too much on the side of permissiveness, and you get anarchy, moral and sometimes otherwise. Err too much on the side of strictness, and you get cruelty and inhumanity.
This is not, by the way, strictly a left-right thing. In his time and place, Robespierre was a man of the extreme left, and certainly the vigor with which a certain class of American liberals pursue vice (e.g., “incorrect” thoughts and speech) via things like speech codes discredits any idea that moral policing is a habit of the Right.
I’m not sure what the answer is, but the longer I live, the more inclined I am to err on the side of mercy, not out of weakness of principle, but out of a growing awareness that principle is not always the most important thing.