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Archive for August, 2021

VIRTUE ETHICS, PART I

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 (hopefully, 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.  It does!’  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 concludes: ‘Education without values, as useful as it is, seems rather to make man a more clever devil.’

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What is the ‘Good Life’?

I am considering three ingredients that if, over time, they are balanced, complementary and in alignment that one by-product might well be a ‘Good Life.’  Are these the ‘only’ ingredients?  Are these the ‘key’ ingredients?  I don’t know; I am not sure.  My life experience is such that these three are crucial for me if I am going to experience the ‘Good Life.’  I do invite you, Gentle Reader, to emerge the ingredients that must be balanced, complementary and in alignment in order for you to experience your ‘Good Life.’  Here are my three:

Provide Enough.  I must be ‘provided enough’ if I am going to experience the ‘Good Life.’  As I look out upon my/the world I am aware that if one is not provided enough then misery is the by- product.  I have learned that I cannot, on my own, provide enough – either for me or for the other(s).  What is it that I need (not want, not desire, but need)?  I need to be provided enough opportunity – opportunity to grow and develop the talent, skills and capacities that will help me address my highest priority needs.  I need to be provided enough opportunity to then use my talents, skills and capacities to address the needs that exist in my/the world.  Both needs must be addressed – mine and the needs of the other(s) – if I am going to experience the ‘Good Life.’  For others they will need to be provided enough food, shelter, good health, education, freedom ‘to’ and freedom ‘from,’ and they will also need to be provided enough opportunity to develop their talent, gifts and capacities so that they can also address their needs and the needs that exist in their/the world.  There is also a crucial question here: What is enough?  Who determines this?  I live in a culture where ‘enough is not enough;’ there is never enough.  I have held this question for years.  Sometimes I have a real sense of what is enough for me and at others times I know that what is ‘enough’ is not enough (my desires and wants take over). 

Identity.  I am thinking of an African tribe where the greeting is ‘I see you!’  This ‘seeing’ provides the one being seen with an identity.  I am thinking of another culture where the ‘naming’ of the person is communal in nature.  I am thinking of another culture where the new-born is welcomed with the belief that he or she has come to them because they need his or her gifts (and one task of the community is to help the person identify, develop and use their gifts to meet the needs of the community).  Part of my identity comes from my name – my given name, my middle name, and my family name(s) – I say the plural for family names because it is not just my father’s family name that is important it is also my mother’s family name (even though I do not formally carry this name).  Part of my identity is the result of the many relationships I have had since my birth.  I have chosen part of my identity; the motivations for this are many.  Part of my identity comes from the stereotypes, prejudices, judgments and ‘naming’ that others ‘put upon me’ – as we know, some of these take root and frame our identity.  Some questions I continue to hold include: To what extent do I choose my identity?  To what extent have I accepted the identity others have ‘put on me’?  To what extent have I ‘resigned myself’ to my identity?  To what extent do others resist my choosing to ‘alter’ my identity? 

Four Dimensions.  In previous blog entries I have addressed these four dimensions; for our purpose today I will briefly explore them again.  I call these my P.I.E.S.  These are the four dimensions that contribute to my wholeness as a human being.  My experiencing the ‘Good Life’ is directly related to whether I am nurturing them more than depleting them – and as an imperfect being I will do both.  I am the steward of each of these dimensions.  I am the steward of my Physical dimension, my Intellectual dimension, my Emotional dimension and my Spiritual dimension.  Not only am I entrusted with these – to nurture them more than deplete them; I am asked to make sure they are balanced, that they complement each other, and that they are in alignment. 

These three – Provide Enough, Identity, and Four Dimensions – are, for me, integral to my responding to the question: What is the ‘Good Life’? 

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What is ‘the Good Life’?

As human beings, at our healthiest we are living paradoxes.  We are virtue and vice, we are light and darkness, we are good and evil.  A few years ago a guy named Aristotle offered us another way of looking at this; he said that we live in tension within a multitude of polarities and that our task was to find and live by the ‘Golden Mean’ [This ‘Mean’ was not the middle, but was the ‘Mean’ that is the healthiest for me as a fully human being].  So, for example, ‘Courage’ is the ‘Mean’ between ‘Cowardice’ and ‘Rashness.’  Depending upon ‘who I am’ my ‘Courage’ will reside closer to one of the extremes than to the other – thus, Socrates’ (and the Oracle at Delphi’s) suggestion (requirement?) that one must ‘know thyself’ becomes important.  ‘The Good Life’ then is composed of paradoxes and polarities and it is our challenge to find the ‘Golden Mean’ that best serves who we are.  Thus, a starting place involves getting to ‘know one’s self.’ 

What do we need to know?  Consider that it will be helpful to know the following: Our Core Values – those 2-4 values that to the best of our ability we will never compromise; Our Core Guiding Life-Principles – those 2-4 Principles that we rely upon to provide us guidance as we move through life; Our Core Deep Tacit Assumptions – those 2-4 assumptions about ‘the world’ and about ‘others’ that influence our choices and our judgments.  There are a number of others that it will be helpful for us to know but these three will be enough to get us started – the questions for each of us include: How well do I know these? How do they affect me and others? Do they get me what I want?  What do I want?  Here are three examples, one from each of the categories above.

Core Value: A ‘Core Value’ might be ‘integrity.’  The polarities are: Lying  . . . Truthfulness.  Why ‘truthfulness’ as one polarity.  Kant might be of help.  Kant said that no matter what, it is our duty to always, I MEAN ALWAYS, tell the truth – even if it will cost someone his or her life.  For me, I can image a number of scenarios where I might well choose to lie and to do so rooted in integrity.  So, for me, being unconditionally truthful is not a ‘Golden Mean.’ 

Core Guiding Life-Principle: What enables me to embrace a ‘Core Value’ of integrity is that it is rooted in a Core Guiding Life-Principle: To act with integrity at all times.  Because I am a living paradox (i.e. I am imperfect) and because I have choice I might choose not to act with integrity.  One by-product of not acting with integrity is ‘guilt’ (justly ‘earned’) and thus ‘recompense’ and ‘forgiveness’ and ‘healing’ and ‘reconciliation’ also come into the picture. 

Core Deep Tacit Assumption: For me one is: Human beings are inherently good.  There are folks who believe that we humans are inherently ‘evil.’  I also assume that human beings are inherently trust-worthy [because we are living paradoxes I also know that some will choose not to be trust-worthy and that some, because of a physical or emotional disorder will not be ‘trust-worthy’ but it seems to me that it is not because of ‘choice.’] 

Given this, we will continue, next time, with our exploration of: What is ‘the Good Life’?    

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What is ‘the Good Life’? 

In our culture all we have to do is turn on the T.V. and what is offered as ‘the Good Life’ screams at us, over and over again.  Because we are told, over and over and over and over, that we will experience ‘the Good Life’ if we seek to smell a certain way, if we have enough hair, if the hair we have is colored a certain way, if we take any number of pills (the speaker’s voice becomes softer when the ‘side-effects’ are listed), if we dress a certain way, if we drive a certain car, if we use a certain credit card (don’t worry about the balance on your card for there are any number of folks that can help you reduce your monthly payment ), if we sculpt our body a certain way, if we shave off nature’s ‘hair’ (whether you are a man or a woman, certain body hair, if not removed, will certainly keep you from ‘the Good Life’), if we drink the right alcoholic beverage (in moderation, of course), if we buy the winning lottery ticket, if we make sure that our houses are protected with certain alarm systems, if we join this ‘dating service’ we will – whether we are young, old, black, divorced, single, white, Christian or Jewish – meet the perfect person for us, if we have ‘identity protection,’ [given all of the above it is a wonder we have a sense of our identity anyway], if we buy our energy – we no longer have to take care of ourselves so that we have enough energy.  Ah, this list could go on and on. 

In our culture ‘the Good Life’ is also defined as having the ‘power,’ the ‘status,’  the ‘money’ and the license [I was going to type ‘freedom’ but freedom is joined at the hip with responsibility and what is held up to us is ‘license’ which means we have the right to do whatever we want – we can be as uncivil, as mean-spirited, as demeaning, as demonizing, as hateful, as marginalizing and as insensitive as we want; we are NOT our brothers keepers – no wonder the ‘stranger’ is having such a tough time, we are not even our brothers keepers…of course there are some who say that ‘the stranger’ is our brother]. 

This ‘Good Life’ also leads one into fear (especially of the ‘stranger’) and into attempting to ensure ‘protection from’ (again, the ‘stranger,’ or old age, or illness, or hair loss, or wrinkles, or …).  The ‘Good Life’ offers us an ‘illusion’ of ‘no worries’ and yet, attempting to live out the ‘Good Life’ as I have described it actually contributes to our anxiety and worry [and there are pills that can help us manage our anxieties and worries – so, again, ‘no worries’]. 

I am smiling – it is a ‘sad smile.’  On the one hand we are told, over and over, to trust that all of the things I have mentioned above will indeed lead us to the ‘Good Life.’  On the other hand, we are full of distrust and cynicism when it comes to certain people, not products: politicians, people who sell_______[you, gentle reader, can fill in the blank], attorneys, for some the police, for some the clergy, for a growing number, the stranger, for some those who are ‘different’ [again, Gentle Reader, you can fill in the adjective – Jew, Muslim, Catholic, Fundamentalist, Ex-Con]. 

Should it not be the other way around?  Should we not question, doubt, be skeptical about ‘things’ and be more trusting of ‘human beings’?

Of course, I might be wrong about all of this.  Perhaps my ‘rant’ is simply my own cynicism manifesting itself.  Perhaps I ‘don’t get it’ – it won’t be the first time.  Perhaps if I ‘really understood’ then. . .  Perhaps, PART II, will help me – and you, Gentle Reader – consider a different response to the question: What is the Good Life?   

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