Thursday, January 22, 2015

A virtue ethics primer

Added: It occurs to me that I left an important point out in what I say below. Because it was too obvious to me! Anyway, why is this about virtue ethics at all? Because we connect ethics to human nature and the purpose of human life in virtue ethics. 

Those who push rule-based ethics, by contrast, never worry about what human nature is like or what we are trying to achieve in life. They simply determine what the rules should be and insist that everyone obey them. Consequentialists only care whether the outcome of a moral choice is good or bad.

"Ma" from Little House on the Prairie is a classic rule-based moralist. She has rules, such "you shouldn't be selfish", that she combines with a sense of duty to follow the rules and that is all. She has no stopping point therefore. If selfish means not thinking of others, then you should give them every last thing that you don't absolutely need to survive.

When we allow virtue into the discussion, we start to worry about what human beings are and what they are supposed to be. Under that ethics, it becomes reasonable for someone like Laura to wonder, is it a good thing for my personal development to keep my beads and my doll? Would it help make me a better and stronger person to have some beauty in my life and to keep a treasured keepsake? The answer to that isn't necessarily going to be yes but it might be.

Here is a nice introduction to virtue ethics in the guise of an attack on Ma in Laura Ingalls Wilder's Little House on the Prairie: (UPDATE: Link fixed)
In Ma’s world—and in the world of many people during that era—a well-behaved girl has a suffocatingly boring life. No tears, no laughter, no smiles, no running, no anger, no joy. A good girl and a good woman had no vision of self, but spent her life working only for others. And that vision is bullshit. 

Let’s talk about her bullshit vision of what the word “selfish” means. Ma’s idea of being a good girl is apparently ignoring your own desires and giving your own toys—your toys that you LOVE—away to someone else. Remember the time Mary and Laura found a bunch of pretty beads in an abandoned Native American [“Indian” in the book] camp?
And it's not just Ma. Your mother probably did this to you.

My mother's big thing was apologies. If there was a conflict, she'd instruct me to suck it up and apologize so everybody could get along. She'd tell me that even if the conflict was 100 percent the other kid's fault. The lesson was that your mental well-being, your flourishing didn't matter. The only thing that mattered was that everyone get along again.

To give our collective mothers a break: they were raised that way too. 

Besides, they need to control you. They have things to do, other children to take care of, parents of other children to get along with.

That's not sarcasm. Of course she is like that. We're all like that. The thing that makes it different with her is that she is Mummy and it is very hard to accept the fact that Mummy doesn't have our best interests at heart. (A point that remains true even for people who don't have mothers or who were given up for adoption and later went looking for their "real" mother. If Mummy doesn't exist, we will invent her.)

It's even harder for her to accept the fact that she doesn't have your best interests at heart and she will go on messing with your life for years past the date when it is reasonable for a mother to mess in her child's life because she will convince herself that she has your best interests at heart. (That said, to really love someone is to want them to flourish.)

But here is the thing, you could spend the rest of your life reinforcing that bad lesson. I've watched people, especially women, do it. They tell themselves they aren't giving enough while systematically denigrating their every desire.

One of the most liberating things I ever did was to hate my mother for a while. I'd resented things she'd done on and off for a long time. But resentment, while a genuine and useful emotion, comes from a place of helplessness. The only way it can come out is in helpless rage. And you don't allow yourself to rage because that is what we think selfish people do.

But his one day I just let myself go and feel anger towards her. And I kept waiting to find the evidence that said the anger was unjustified so that I could apologize to her, like I was supposed to. This even though she'd been dead about a year at the time.

Instead, I found evidence to justify my anger.

I told myself that this was just my selfishness. That I wanted to feel vindicated in, to wallow in, my anger. I told myself that because that is one of the arguments she used on me when I was balking at apologizing for something that seemed to me wasn't only not my fault but very clearly was someone else's fault. My mother would tell me that my anger had so blurred my judgment that I was seeing or imagining only facts that justified my anger.

That's sometimes true. It's also sometimes not true. The way out of the quandary is to look at the evidence more closely. But that isn't what my mother taught me to do as a child. She taught me that I was being irrational and selfish (two words that she so often linked that they came to be synonyms).

Getting angry at her after her death was freeing. Eventually!

The first few times I suppressed the evidence as I had been taught to but I kept going back to that well and soon noticed that there was real water in it, not an endless gusher of new resentments, that would have been evidence that I was being irrational, but a core of genuine betrayals, yes betrayals and not just accidents or momentary lapses in judgment.

And then the anger started to subside. That's the paradoxical lesson in allowing yourself to be angry. We're told—and not just by our mothers—to always suppress our anger because anger can make bad things happen. We're told this about emotions generally but especially about anger. It's not true. Anger can lead to forgiveness. It is a necessary condition for forgiveness.

But you have to want what is best for you for it to happen. That is also a necessary condition.

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