Character and Virtue

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As promised, Dr. Bossypants is now going to drag all willing readers through a whirlwind of simplified moral philosophy. Why? Because it is GOOD to think about these things. And you can impress your relatives with some of the big words. And frankly, there’s a chance we’re regressing a bit on the moral front these days…

There are many ways to approach morality and we won’t cover them all. After dipping into a few, you might even want to make up your own theory or moral code. Potential ingredients will be readily available in my next three or four blogs.

For today, we’re talking character. How would we define a good person, and what does it take to become one? A lot of very smart people have taken a run at this, but Aristotle (born 384 B.C.) gets credit for a very thorough effort.

Aristotle believed that humans are meant to grow into their full potential, which will bring about what he called eudaimonia (roughly translated as so f**ing happy and fulfilled that you and everyone around you thrives. We can trust each other. You know who you are and why you were born. Life is good.).

So how do we achieve this state of happiness?  By becoming what we are meant to be, which absolutely includes being virtuous. You know how good you feel when you make yourself do something loving even if you don’t want to? Well, Aristotle believed: 1) Each of us has unique potential to contribute positively to society as adults, and 2) To be fully human is to be virtuous.

So what’s virtue? It’s the sweet spot between extremes. Truthfulness is a virtue, situated between boasting and false modesty. Courage is a virtue, situated between cowardice and being rashly stupid. Generosity is a virtue situated between being stingy and giving so much away you impoverish yourself (or giving to show off, rather than giving from a generous heart). You get the drift. I love the following (paraphrased) Aristotle observation, and use it regularly to help John with his public speaking:

Those who try to be too funny are thought to be vulgar buffoons, trying for a laugh at all costs…even to the point of hurting others. But those who can’t tell a joke, or won’t laugh kindly at someone else’s joke are uptight and socially inept. Those who joke in a tasteful way are called ready-witted. They are flexible, and such flexibility reveals character.

How do you become virtuous? You choose it, and you practice. You emulate people who embody the virtue you are practicing. And you ride herd on your nonvirtuous impulses. You may find it difficult to be kind and nonjudgmental in the morning. Do it anyway. Over time, it gets easier. You may be tempted to tell lies. Don’t.

If Aristotle’s thoughts were reduced to bumper stickers, they might include: Hang in there; Moderation in all things; and Be all you can be. Good character doesn’t just happen. It’s a constant challenge.  He wrote, “…the virtues arise in us neither by nature nor against nature.  Rather, we are by nature able to acquire them, and reach our complete perfection through habit.”

Humans often lack willpower.  Doing the right thing is not always simple or easy. Some philosophers believe that if we deeply and completely know what is right, we will always do it, but frankly, I doubt it. Humans are famously able to rationalize their actions when they know the right thing to do, but fail to do it. This is called moral incontinence.

Although losing control and pooping your moral pants isn’t admirable, from an Aristotelian point of view, it is not as bad as deliberate wrong-doing. There is a significant difference between the person who knows what is right, intends to do it, but is overcome by fear or desire, and a person who intentionally pursues excessive gain or lies repeatedly. Someone who intentionally chooses to do the wrong thing to get quick gratification or self-gain has little hope of becoming virtuous, little hope of becoming deeply happy or fulfilled. And rather than contributing to the good of society, is likely to have the opposite effect.

There you go. Virtue ethics is about the person, not necessarily a given action. It is about choice and practice. That’s character ethics in a nutshell. Dr. Bossypants hopes you will google character or virtue ethics (or even break down and read a book) and thus expand your understanding of this particular way to think about morality. Remember. It is GOOD to think about these things.

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