Archive for April, 2014

Aristotle’s life and writings continues to be a major tap root for Virtue Ethics. Aristotle desired that people live a life of ‘meaning’ and hence of ‘happiness.’ Thus, one’s end in life is to give one’s life ‘meaning’ and to make it about something. Consider, that when we wish someone a ‘good life,’ one thing we clearly wish for them is that their lives be rich and fulfilling for the unique individuals they are. According to Aristotle, as humans our distinctive mode of life is to be able to live by ‘practical reasoning’ (this is, according to Aristotle, our ‘function’ in life – to be reasonable, rational beings). If we live this way we will experience a ‘fully human life.’

‘Happiness,’ therefore, is two things at once: it is the final end for a life of ‘practical reasoning’ and it is a ‘good life’ for the person living it. What does this mean? Aristotle helps us; he identifies what can be called ‘formal constraints’ on the kind of ‘good’ that happiness is. Consider the following:

· Happiness must be an ‘active life:’ we live by choosing and acting.
· Happiness depends on what a person does with his or her own life, not on what someone else is doing in his or her life (someone else cannot give nor take away our happiness).
· Happiness depends on how one acts; it is more stable than ‘luck.’
· Happiness must be good ‘in its own right’ (e.g., ‘money’ is not good in and of itself).
· Happiness must be ‘final’ or ‘comprehensive:’ happiness is good for its own sake; it is never for the sake of anything else.
· Happiness must be ‘self-sufficient:’ because happiness is final, it is therefore the greatest thing one could want in life. ‘Self-sufficiency’ here does not mean being rich or powerful or having no need of others – it means ‘having all one needs for the sake of the life one is living’ (a fulfilled life – a life full of ‘meaning’).
· Happiness is being ‘fully human’ – a living paradox.

Aristotle’s constraints rule out any number of candidates for happiness: moneymaking, prestige, indulgence or consumption (this, Aristotle says is for cows), luck (which, as many of us know, is quite unstable and unreliable), chronic lethargy (waiting to be taken care of). Aristotle also asks us to consider that none of the above could be ‘something we want everything else for the sake of’ AND it is impossible for all of us to have even one of these (how could we all have all of the money). On the other hand, we can each live a life that is fulfilling, a life that is rooted in rational thinking, wisdom and ‘healthy’ emotions (‘virtuous activity’ is what Aristotle calls this). ‘Virtuous activity’ is, for Aristotle, the most important ingredient when it comes to ‘happiness.’

What are some of the traits – characteristics – of such a virtuous person? Aristotle calls these traits ‘excellences’ and they include the following: fairness, honesty, generosity, even-temperedness, friendliness, proper pride and an appropriate sense of shame, courage, temperance and ‘practical wisdom.’ These are the ‘virtues’ – the virtues of character and practical intellect (we need both says Aristotle; having just one will not enable us to live a life of ‘happiness’ – a life of ‘meaning’).

Understanding the virtues in this way has several important implications for virtue ethics. For example, it provides us with a distinctive picture of the virtues: the virtues are human ‘excellences,’ and this means they are both ‘deep’ and ‘broad.’ They are deep in so far as they are steady and reliable, and intelligent dispositions, rather than mere habits (they become ‘second nature to us’); they involve caring strongly about certain things and reasoning wisely about them. They are broad in that they have a broad reach involving one’s emotional reactions, attitudes, desires, values, etc. In addition, these ‘excellences’ of character are inseparable from the excellence of practical wisdom. As Aristotle puts it, the virtues of character give us the right sorts of ends, such as helping a friend (being generous) and practical wisdom (in Greek, ‘phronesis’) enables us to deliberate intelligently about those ends, such as what would really count as helping as contrasted with merely having one’s heart in the right place.

Virtue ethics does concern itself with what is right and what one ought to do, but in virtue ethics the focus is on how to deliberate well about such questions, for which rules are generally insufficient. Virtue ethics is concerned with what an act says about the person who acts; this tends to shift the attention onto the life-long process of personal development. Virtue ethics offers us action guidance less by giving us rules to follow than by telling us how to become people who can do what rules never can.


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Most ethical decision-making is concerned with ‘doing;’ it is ‘action-centered.’ Our friend Aristotle invited us to consider that ethics is primarily a way of ‘being;’ who I am will determine what I will choose to do. Perhaps more importantly, I choose to be a certain way even if I do not achieve my goal. I am, in other words, faithful to who I am even though I might not be effective. Mother Theresa reinforced this when she told a young BBC reporter: ‘I am not called to be effective, I am called to be faithful.’ One of the things we are ‘faithful’ to is our virtues (more than our vices).

What sets virtue ethics apart – say from deontology or utilitarianism – is that it treats ethics as concerned with one’s whole life (with one’s ‘being’) and not just those times when one is faced with an ethical dilemma. The question is not simply: What do I do when I am faced with an ethical dilemma? It is not a question, in this sense, it is a statement: I will approach all of life’s choices rooted in certain ‘virtues’ – kindness, compassion, caring, empathy, wisdom, courage, justice, and integrity. Rightness of actions is important AND the ‘why’ I choose the actions I choose reveals my character; the tap roots that support and nurture who I am. ‘Rightness’ is about what I choose to do; ‘Virtue’ is about who I am, my character.

Consider that ‘virtues’ are those character traits (or character strengths) that are essential if one is going to live a life that is fulfilling; a life in which one cares about the right things and has the wisdom and skill to act intelligently about those things. In order to live this way I must know myself – as a living paradox of virtue and vice – and I must commit myself to developing and engaging my virtues more than my vices [since I am an imperfect human being, one of many I think, then I will at times choose to engage a vice over a virtue].

Virtue ethics did not begin with ‘What is the right thing to do?’ It began with ‘What is the best way for me to live?’ The first is focused on ‘ethical reasoning’ – which is important for anyone who desires to behave ethically. The second is a broader question; it concerns what to do with one’s life; how should I live so that my life is fulfilled. As William James noted: ‘Live as if what you do will make a difference.’ The question that seems to emerge: ‘What sort of character do I want to develop?’ How do I care about the ‘right’ things and how do I develop the wisdom and the practical skills to judge ‘what is right’ and then to act accordingly (remember, that when I act I must be rooted in ‘being faithful’ and not become seduced into ‘being effective’ – the ‘ends’ do not justify the ‘means’).

Aristotle reminds that: ‘Educating the mind without educating the heart is not education at all.’

C.S Lewis adds: “Education without values, as useful as it is, seems rather to make man a more clever devil.”

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What then occurs is truly transformational: One gets recognition from others not on what you TAKE – like the baboons – but on what you GIVE. Even among primitives today, a great recognition is given to the person who kills a big animal and then distributes the ‘kill’ to others [frequently the person also takes the smallest share for himself]. [AN ASIDE: I well remember my father – the ‘breadwinner’ – who made sure that all seven of us had ‘meat’ and only then would he take a smaller portion for himself. I was also impressed by his behavior.] The baboon nourishes himself by gluttony man nourishes himself mostly on self-esteem [although today, in our culture, it does seem that we behave more as the baboons as we glut ourselves on ‘things,’ on ‘money,’ on ‘status’ and on ‘power’].

If these groups were to survive – and thrive – they needed the security of internal peace and cooperation and they had to ensure that all had enough to eat.

This gave rise to the two great uniquenesses of human life: food-sharing and cooperation – these are unknown among the subhuman primates. To the baboons if they could understand all of this it would still be a mystery and would seem tame and weak. But the result of such organization is anything but. . .the fact that we might hunt them and they not us is one result.

Given all of this, it is easy to imagine that the hunting band could then go on and develop even greater brain size and sensitivities, once it had made these basic social inventions. The fashioning of better tools and the planning with others for the use of these tools in the hunt sharpened dexterity and foresight. Hunting develops tenacity and cunning: which one of several possible paths did the animal take? How badly is he wounded? If we track him into that area what will we have to watch out for, what would be our chances of getting back – with the game, without the game, etc.? There is a great complexity of analysis, planning and conjecturing in simple hunting activities. When I had the privilege of spending some time in Australia, I learned that the Australian aborigine had a richness of perception, a refinement of analysis, a wisdom of his world, that would make most of us seem like an imbecile in that setting.

It does not seem possible today to untangle the influences on the early growth of mind: all the hunter’s activities were mutually reinforcing and grew within cycles of repetition. Our uniqueness as human beings is not due to any single activity. The ‘home’ of the clan became a safe place to relax and renew; not only to create tools, but to re-enact the hunt with story and ritual; not only to distribute the ‘spoils’ of the hunt, but to glorify the hunters with story that became myth. It seems that man became man in a total celebration of himself, in inner urges to distinctive self-expression.

Our primitive ancestors provided us a gift: a blueprint for cooperation, safety and physical, intellectual, emotional and even spiritual development. To what extent are we, now a global community, using the gifts they provided us? This question gives me pause!



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For more than forty years now I have been fascinated with anthropology; I have spent many hours searching and seeking to understand the insights that this amazing discipline offers us to consider.

Consider ‘MAN’ – We used to believe that at some point in time a large-brained upright primate arrived on the evolutionary scene, and that this large brain enabled him to learn to use tools, develop complex speech, see the difference between the way things are and the way they ought to be – and so, laugh and cry, carve and draw, and hold rituals to honor those who died and the ‘ancestors’ who have gone before [I have friends who believe that the Old Testament contains historical fact and so ‘evolution’ as I am thinking about it does not, could not, exist; they care about me and are supportive of who I am and they do find my taking the time to think about evolution in this way as a waste of my time].

Anthropologists have suggested, if not believed, that man’s large brain is a rather late development. They suggest that first we had an upright animal who learned how to use tools and to hunt, and this seems to have provided the stimulus for developing the brain [the ‘man-apes’ of Africa had a brain half the size of our brain]. The man-apes developed a taste for meat and as they sought out more meat to kill and eat, they had to develop more and more sophisticated hunting skills. Over time these gatherers, now hunters, began to take possession of their world; they became its ‘masters.’

It seems that in order to become truly efficient hunters these folks had to develop new forms of social organization – their increasing skill depended on new inventions of a social kind. There are some who believe that we humans share much in common with baboons: rugged individualism, indiscriminate sex, selfish grabbing of food and females, fighting for domination of the weak. As inviting as these analogies are, they are wrong. We humans developed away from the apes precisely because we had to hunt meat!

This is the idea that causes me to stop, step-back and reflect. If one wants to hunt in this sophisticated way one cannot be a baboon, or act like one. For one thing – a big thing it is – if males wanted to get larger game they needed to cooperate with others; the larger and more dangerous the game the more intimate the cooperative relationships were required. This also meant that you could not go back to the camp and fight over the kill or over the females. The group of individuals had to become an interdependent group – a tribe or a clan. These folks had to learn to function as an organized unit – one that prepared together, worked together for the common good, and hunted as ‘one.’ This required the emergence of agreed upon social relationships and rules that would support them. The social codes included the invention of sexual codes which established harmony and cooperation in mating units and these units formed the foundation for the group, the tribe, the clan, etc. [to be concluded in Part II]



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