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Make Virtue Ethics Great Again
Something I’ve noticed lately is an increasing number of people unable to take any action in their lives. I don’t mean they don’t do stuff, but that they don’t change anything, despite claiming dissatisfaction with the status quo. Why is that?
As far as I can tell, chronic anxiety arises from inaction, and inaction arises from not having a consistent way to make decisions. One that carries more weight than any other is a lack of any kind of belief system.
Religion has steadily fallen out of favor for decades now. This doesn’t surprise me. What does surprise me is how few people make any conscious effort to replace it.
A belief system, whether “prepackaged” in the form of a religion or something self-constructed, is probably one of the most important ingredients in a satisfying life.
There is no inherent meaning in the world. There is no universal goal that all of us are angling our way toward.
There are some biological ones like the drive to reproduce or acquire more resources, but those are red herrings. Pursuing them for their own sake inevitably leads to regret.
Instead, it’s up to each of us to create that meaning for ourselves. Not only do we have to decide what’s important and worth spending time on, we have to thoughtfully construct the best approach to do so.
Belief systems are how we do that. They give us good reasons to take one course of action over another, and progressively construct more elaborate decision trees in our lives.
Much like a GPS provides the best route to a chosen destination, belief systems both remind us of where we want to go and help us get there. They allow us to easily choose one road over another, and to find our way back to the road if we get lost.
A single north star like “always be kind” or “help others as much as you can” is a great start, but fails to cover the full range of situations that humans inevitably find ourselves in.
In theory one could “buy-in” to an existing religion for its belief system, but I think most people feel disingenuous committing to a religion for the moral precepts alone. Religions cannot really be “unbundled” from their supernatural aspects.
So how should we think about crafting some kind of belief system?
As the old saying goes: “If you want it done right, you’ve got to do it yourself”
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Ben Franklin’s 13 Virtues
Ever since I read his autobiography, I’ve been fascinated by Ben Franklin. Franklin (somewhat of a skeptic himself) devised his own set of virtue ethics in a quest for moral perfection.
With the kind of arrogance only found in 20 year olds, he laid out his plan:
It was about this time I conceived the bold and arduous project of arriving at moral perfection. I wished to live without committing any fault at any time; I would conquer all that either natural inclination, custom, or company might lead me into. As I knew, or thought I knew, what was right and wrong, I did not see why I might not always do the one and avoid the other.
Here are the 13 virtues Franklin came up with:
The story of why he added humility as a 13th virtue I find particularly funny:
My list of virtues contained at first but twelve; but a Quaker friend having kindly informed me that I was generally thought proud, that my pride showed itself frequently in conversation, that I was not content with being in the right when discussing any point, but was overbearing and rather insolent, of which he convinced me by mentioning several instances, I determined endeavoring to cure myself, if I could, of this vice or folly among the rest, and I added Humility to my list, giving an extensive meaning to the word.
In reality, there is, perhaps, no one of our natural passions so hard to subdue as pride. Disguise it, struggle with it, beat it down, stifle it, mortify it as much as one pleases, it is still alive, and will every now and then peep out and show itself; you will see it, perhaps, often in this history; for, even if I could conceive that I had completely overcome it, I should probably be proud of my humility.
Shortly after beginning the experiment, Franklin realized that he was prone to more “moral mistakes” than he thought, and eliminating them seemed impossible. Nevertheless, he kept using the system throughout his life. Reflecting back on it later in life he recounted:
Tho’ I never arrived at the perfection I had been so ambitious of obtaining, but fell far short of it, yet I was, by the endeavour, a better and a happier man than I otherwise should have been if I had not attempted it.
Yeah, I’d say things turned out okay for Ben. His “failing to achieve moral perfection” turned out to be one of the most productive, inventive, revolutionary (literally) lives in the history of the human race.
The OG Virtue Ethics
Franklin’s system was itself derived from a much older one. The original idea of virtue ethics was conceived by Aristotle around 340 B.C.
Aristotle’s system takes a different view and observes that many virtues exist in a area of moderation between two extremes.
Consider Franklin’s virtue of frugality. At the one extreme, you have people who thoughtlessly spend too much money on useless things and don’t have enough left over for the important stuff or accumulate mountains of personal debt.
At the other extreme you have people who deny themselves any sort of enjoyment today in the name of some imagined future. Neither extreme is particularly healthy. Any virtue taken to an extreme becomes a vice.
Without a belief system people tend to act on whatever impulse occurs to them in the moment. In Franklin’s words, they follow whatever “either natural inclination, custom, or company” lead them into.
This gets exhausting. It can feel like a lot is happening, but you’re not actually getting anywhere.
Aristotle laid out 11 virtues, but there are certainly others that could be invented.
The Golden Mean is an idea commonly taught in elementary school, but never seriously considered as something to be adopted, modified and used in daily life by the individual. I think that’s a mistake.
Virtue Ethics acknowledges the inherent subjectivity we face in situations every day. There are no hard and fast rules that apply in all cases. Believing there are only leads to frustration and confusion.
A system like this not only requires doing the right thing, but “doing the right thing, in relation to the right person, at the right time, to the right extent, in the right manner, and for the right purpose.”
Giving money away may always seem like a virtuous thing to do. But not if it is done solely to ease the guilty conscience of the person giving the money away.
Being easy to get along with may always seem like a virtuous thing to do. But not if it means you’re actually just letting people walk all over you.
At the other extreme, standing up for yourself may seem like a virtuous thing to do, but not if it means you become overly demanding and selfish.
Other moral doctrines have to make blanket statements that apply to everyone at all times because it is “one size fits all” and relies on external enforcement to work. The individual is not accountable to his or herself, but to a deity whose judgment is to be feared.
Virtue Ethics seems much more human to me in that way. It trusts the individual’s judgment and makes the individual alone accountable for his or her actions. This feels like an adult way to treat people. Indeed, accepting personal responsibility for our own life may be the single clearest marker of adulthood.
Plus, it acknowledges that people are just different. Every one of us has different priorities and dreams in life, so we should likewise have different sets of virtues to guide us in pursuit of those priorities and dreams.
I might rank ambition as a very important virtue. That will mean I make very different (essentially opposite) decisions than someone who ranks tranquility as an important virtue.
Far from being outdated, I think this is an approach more relevant today than it was in Franklin or Aristotle’s time.
Strong moral rules embedded in religion were important before there were extensive advanced societies with strong rules of law.
Today we have that: the legal system and courts exist in order to tell all members of society what is and is not permissible. They enforce certain rules relating to harming other members of society by disallowing and enforcing murder or robbery, for instance.
This means we don’t need to individually program each human with a belief system that if he or she steals, there will be consequences. That enforcement system is institutionalized in the form of courts and laws. In turn, it gets instilled automatically in all humans pretty early on.
What’s in it for me?
Experimenting with a system like this has three main benefits.
First, it now makes decision-making nearly automatic in several important areas.
Instead of agonizing between options with no way to rank them (leading to inaction and anxiety), you can rank on the basis of how much a particular career choice or activity aligns with your virtues.
Second, it’s just fun. Devising a system like this forces us to consider what really matters to us. There aren’t nearly enough opportunities to do that.
We are constantly asked by our environment to pay attention to this or buy that, but rarely are we ever prompted to stop, reflect, and actually elucidate what we feel is important in life. Virtue Ethics gives us a framework and opportunity to do that.
Finally, this system points us in the direction of finding happiness.
Those only are happy, who have their minds fixed on some object other than their own happiness; on the happiness of others, on the improvement of mankind, even on some art or pursuit, followed not as a means, but as itself an ideal end. Aiming thus at something else, they find happiness by the way.
John Stuart Mill, Autobiography
Happiness isn’t a virtue you select and pursue on its own, but rather arises as a byproduct of choosing to work towards something else. Usually something that challenges you and is quite uncomfortable in the moment. It arises as the byproduct of a well-chosen aim in life guided by a belief system used to make decisions in pursuit of that aim.
Thanks for reading. Until next time,
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