Virtue ethics in a time of crisis

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In a stable and unified society, there is a shared sense of what constitutes the good life, and a person of good character.

The world is now in crisis, we all know that. Yet we often fail to discuss the consequences on our sense of self.

Faced with all sorts of systemic risks, far beyond our scope of action, we no longer know what the good life is, what’s ethical behaviour, or what a good person looks like. We’re therefore at risk of moral collapse.

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Virtue ethics is based on a belief that, in order to live a good life, we must cultivate certain positive habits, or virtues. We must develop a readiness to do the right thing. We must also nurture the wisdom to discern what the right thing is. By doing this, we become a person of good character, who therefore acts ethically.

This ethical stance is generally contrasted with two other models. Deontology sees ethical action as respecting a set of firm rules that we should never break, no matter how painful or costly. Consequentialism – effective altruism its latest popular incarnation – sees an ethical life as one devoted to minimising harm and maximising pleasure, for the largest number, whichever way measured. Meanwhile, virtue ethics places emphasis on the agent. Ethical actions are what an ethical character would do, with tradition as a guide.

Each tradition has its own framework articulating key virtues: Buddhism, Confucianism, Catholicism, Islam, etc. Beside a large amount of overlap – gentleness, courage, benevolence – virtue-ethical traditions have three fundamental traits in common.

The first is a belief in human perfectibility: we can change our default settings through deliberate effort.

The second is a commitment to education: societies should put systems in place so that people do develop virtues.

The third is an aspiration to effortlessness: we should build virtuous habits, so that we will do the right thing without having to fight against ourselves.  

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I’m the child of a divorce. One of the hardest thing I had to do growing up was reconcile the worlds of two parents who drifted apart, and inhabited different ethical worlds. Navigating intercultural virtue ethics was a matter of existential importance. At times, it placed me on the brink of madness – but it also built a muscle that has proven highly valuable.

Inspired by a childhood spent in the European capital, languages and cultures were my way forward. Through philology and hermeneutics, I trained to question the relationship between words on the one hand, and thought, behaviours or emotions on the other. Through language practice, reading and international friendships, I learned to stretch my own ethical sense of self.

Later in life, marriage with an Australian and migration to Melbourne put all this to the test, quite successfully. I delved deeper into my own Catholic tradition – including by pursuing Ignatian spiritual exercises – while exploring Confucianism, and Buddhism. I also started working on ‘change-the-world’ type projects – global governance, engagement with China, regenerative finance, etc – all of which needed a good stomach to resist ethical sea-sickness. Meanwhile, I continued reflecting on virtue, and sharing my reflections on this blog.

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All virtue traditions involve a shared sense of ‘what humans are’ and ‘how the world works’. Without basic agreement on those points, how could you decide what positive habits we must nurture?

Today, with a world in deep crisis, we flounder.

Learning to perform better within existing systems and structures has become irrelevant. It’s unlikely that the world will be made better by me getting a job at Google. I should certainly not have a stake in maintaining existing structures of power in place. Yet alternative paths are unclear.

This blog is in part about exploring those paths. What can we and what should we do to shift the system? What virtuous habits should we nurture?

It is also – and mainly – proposing to do something more fundamental. That is, train a form of lucid detachment. Patriarchy, colonialism, neoliberalism, and a whole catalogue of obsolete mental models, hide behind self-evident truths. If we want a real chance to build something new, we need to defuse the cliches scattered across our shared mental landscape.

But even that is not enough. When we get rid of a cliche, nothing will immediately take its place. So we need to cultivate a form of intellectual calm, while we patiently wait for new connections to form, and new, better model to take shape. This virtuous habit we need, to stay calm in the face of mental chaos.

This is what I hope my blog can achieve, or at least go some way towards.

I encourage you to explore the various sequences listed under the header. Or if you want a place to start, check out The Seven Deadly Sins, Confucian Virtues, or this series on My Practice.

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