Circumstance Follows Virtue

At my previous job, I worked with an interesting man. He was not all that intellectual or cultured, but there were a few key facts that set him apart from the other technicians:

  • In his presence, less would go wrong. Things would not break or fail, major spills and disasters didn't seem to happen. The other men had regular disasters, spills, breakages, and failures.

  • His tools did not break, nor did they go missing. The other men often had to come to him for tools, because their own were missing or broken.

  • His workplace was always sparkling clean, never covered in crusted chemical spills and dust and grime like the other men. They seemed to have messier work, somehow.

  • The problems he solved always turned out to have simple and elegant solutions. The other men seemed to have much more difficult problems that would take more men more time with more complex solutions to solve.

Explanations can be put forward for this anomaly; some kind of magical luck, maybe the work he got was just different and he'd lucked out with the good tasks, maybe the workplace dynamic was subtly oppressing the other men because they were the wrong ethnicity or class. Many excuses can be made for the men having a hard time, and much praise can be withheld from those who seem to have it easy, but I find that the most versatile and satisfying explanation is that a man's material circumstance usually follows from his virtues. My opinion is that my colleague's material circumstances followed naturally from him being more competent than the others:

  • My colleague's work was less prone to catastrophe not by luck, but because he was more aware of the possibilities inherent in the things around him, and took subtle actions to head off catastrophe in advance. So many and such subtle actions that it would not be feasible to demonstrate or explain them to a skeptic or measure them as they happened, but the result was apparent, and if you knew what to look for, so were the actions taken to achieve that result.

  • His tools were intact and organized not because he used them less or had more relaxed work, but because he made a point of keeping them clean, using them properly, and putting them back where they came from every time, even at the expense of the short term job.

  • His workspace likewise was clean not because he wasn't working on messy problems, but because he took care to drain the mess out of a part before transporting it, always put a rag under it, always planned the job so that mess could be avoided, always cleaned up after himself, and regularly polished and reorganized everything to remove the mess that had slipped through the cracks.

  • The solutions he came up with were simple and elegant not because the problems were easy, but because he was creative and diligent, and took the time to do it right.

In broader discourse and arguably in workplace relations it is unfashionable and unwise to advance such hypotheses that attack the character of men already in hard circumstances. But for those of us interested in actually understanding the world, building our companies and institutions to take account of reality, and becoming better people, the truth must come first.

So let's conclude that the truth is that circumstance follows from virtue, sometimes in subtle ways. What else might this explain? When looking for "competence" or "virtue" or whatever we call it, what else besides a man's work should we look at? Here are some more examples:

  • Some men live paycheque to paycheque. Others have mysteriously accumulated a comfortable pile of wealth, even with lower incomes.

  • Some men regularly clash with coworkers, wives, and friends. Others just glide through interpersonal relationships.

  • Some men run out of groceries, or forget to pay their bills. Others somehow never have these things sneak up on them.

  • Some men occasionally get delayed by bad traffic. Others somehow manage to make it to appointments on time every time.

  • Some men can't find any time to read that book or build that prototype they wanted to. Others manage to squeeze it in between a full time job and family.

  • Some men are overweight because they can't afford to eat right. But others spend less on food, and are more fit.

  • Some men always have a good excuse. Others always have good results.

Now obviously there is variation, and no particular instance of bad outcomes is perfectly indicative of someone being a bad person; sometimes people are legitimately waylaid by circumstance, but I've noticed that when it is possible to get to the bottom of things, circumstance is usually overvalued as a popular explanation, and virtue usually has more to do with it.

As for what we are to take from this line of thought, the point is not to throw ourselves upon the sword when we can be suspected of having perpetrated our own miseries, nor to critique others. What I'm getting at is that our excuses for failure may be socially useful to save face, but they aren't true. There are people who did better and didn't need to make excuses. The connection between actions and results can be mysterious and hard to name or quantify or operationalize, but it is there, it is strong, and a virtuous man's judgement can navigate it easily.