You are a citizen of a great and powerful nation. Are you not ashamed that you give so much time to the pursuit of money and reputation, and honors, and care so little for truth and wisdom and the improvement of your soul?
— Socrates, The Apology
There is no doubt about it – times are getting tough and may well get tougher. The economic news continues to be dire – already this morning, the day’s trading in the Japanese and European markets has suffered staggering loss. In last night’s Presidential debate, both candidates dodged the question that I suspect we are all asking ourselves: are things going to get worse before they get better?
When faced with difficulty, we ask ourselves – what should I do? This is a fundamental question in life, isn’t it?
However, from earliest times, some have argued that this question is less important than the question of what kind of people we can be. If we know who we are, and aspire to be better, the right actions will naturally follow. In other words, the virtuous person consistently takes the good action in any given situation.
In a recent article titled Happiness, Virtue and Tyranny, published in Philosophy Now magazine, Matthew Pianalto notes that “to answer the question of the Enlightenment philosophers – ‘What should I do?’ – we really need to address the broader question with which Socrates and his contemporaries were preoccupied, namely, ‘How should I live?’”
The “utilitarians” of the Age of Reason, he writes, assumed that reasoning and logic would be “intrinsically motivating, and that anyone who grasps the moral law or the principle of utility will find himself bound by reason to obey its commands.”
In other words, the belief is that humans are by nature reasonable, so living a proper, virtuous life is simply the logical thing to do. And this principle has profoundly affected our own system of government and law.
In its original context, this was a powerful and positive breakthrough from previous views that declared humanity as sinful and evil by nature. But sadly, we can see many instances of the failure of this premise. One glaring example has been in the blind belief that free market capitalism, when given an unfettered reign, will pragmatically, automatically do the right thing for the greatest good.
Of course, now we are paying a terrible price for that theory. The Charles Keatings, Jack Abramoffs, Enrons, and the Fannies and Freddies of the world are examples of the greed, fraud, and corruption that thrive on such naiveté. In fact, we can learn from them that perhaps instead, Virtue, that is, a habit of personal excellence, is a more reliable quality.
So what is Virtue? What can other traditions teach us about who we are, and who we can be, in order to better understand what we should do?