The penny dropped very suddenly today – hardly a Damascus Road conversion but a sudden realization that the original tagline “A sceptic’s take on being human”, which I’ve put up with for over three years, was not right. After a wonderful day catching up with old friends yesterday – almost entirely by accident – something moved in what passes for an operating system in my head, and the thought emerged that what this blog is about is not so much being human as being virtuous. I must immediately qualify that statement because there have been many people in my life who thought that being virtuous was a matter of obeying rules; but what I’m about to argue here is that being virtuous (perhaps being a moral grown-up) is more useful state of being than trying to do virtuous things. We can hardly avoid being human – after all every single member of our present lamentable government is human and see where that’s got us!
This isn’t some brave new philosophical world – virtue is fundamental to Aristotle’s ethics and it’s centred on the idea of flourishing – eudaemonia in the original Greek. There are several ways to try to steer a moral course through the ethical challenges that being human always presents us with. We can choose what to do in response to a challenge by asking “What would be the consequences of this response?” We could look up the appropriate response in a trusted book, like the Bible or the Koran (harder than you’d think), or we could trust the instincts formed over time in our character by living virtuously. Right habits have a vital role in this system; we figure out how to do the morally right thing since we are formed by our way of life because it is shaped by Aristotle’s four cardinal virtues prudence, temperance, courage, and justice. Other virtues like compassion are often slipped into the mix.
That was a bit chunky I know but the takeaway point is that in a situation such as we have at the moment with a sequence of climate, economic, ecological and political disasters advancing on us; relying on a set of rules from the past that have demonstrably failed us, is not enough. As Einstein once said, “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.” Rule bound ethics (and economics) aren’t up to the job. Neither are consequential ethics because it’s almost impossible to judge what the outcome of an action might be – as Dostoyevski famously put it in “The Brothers Karamazov” speaking of a cruelly treated child whose mother thought that the concept of good and evil could be beaten into her – “The whole world of knowledge is not worth the tears of that little child to ‘dear God.'”
The question I ask myself over and over – especially during sleepless nights – is “why?” – “Why do people/politicians make such dreadful decisions. Who designed the Flechette – the weapon packed with sharp plastic arrows that slice and rend the flesh but are invisible to x rays? Who concealed the evidence that glyphosate was killing people and destroying the environment? Who taught the philosophy that extractive chemical based farming is more efficient than the many alternatives we know about? Why is it OK that we have so many people living in poverty? The answer can’t be that such people are not really human because they’re as human as you or me. What they lack is virtue.
It may be that our crisis is so great that for a while we will have to become temporary consequentialists in the sense that the consequences of doing nothing are so terrible that we must insist and prevent that outcome. But ultimately any workable vision for the future must depend on teaching and leading our children in the practice of virtue, of flourishing, and living lives in which moral decisions are approached thoughtfully and on the basis of lived experience. That amounts to nothing less than changing our culture.
The consequences of magical thinking have never been clearer or more dangerous than they are at the moment and yet we still cling to the sinking life raft believing that something’s bound to turn up – a new invention, a better leader, an invasion of unexpectedly helpful extra terrestrials …… ? Meanwhile we are taking refuge in anger, shouting and threatening and lobbying for ever more draconian punishments to inflict on our enemies. But we have seen the enemy ……. it is us”