The Noble Conspectus: Living
Chapter 5 of 5
Living the Virtues
The simplest (yet crucial) aspect of a good life is in the dedication to a set of principles, summed up here in the form of the Primary Virtues. The Primary Virtues system provides a good perspective for studying the relationship of virtues to one another, and study outside this one system is encouraged as well. But what does this say about the lifestyle of a good person - the priorities by which he or she lives? At the very least, it should mean the following...
• Life: Acts with reverence for life.
• Diversity: Respects and values diversity in the world.
• Love: Acts with love and caring for fellow human beings.
• Nonviolence: Does not commit violence except in defense of the innocent.
• Empathy: Seeks to empathize with others.
• Charity: Helps those in need.
• Self Respect: Acts with self respect.
• Self Control: Is not ruled by his or her passions.
• Rationality: Seeks to think logically and rationally.
• Understanding: Seeks knowledge, without personal or ideological bias.
• Humility: Keeps an open mind, continually learning an growing.
• Honesty: Values truth and does not lie for self gain or unethical purposes.
• Integrity: Keeps all ethical promises and fulfills his or her commitments.
• Objectivity: Is objective, fair, and does not practice undue favoritism.
• Bravery: Acts with bravery and does what he or she knows to be right.
• Honor: Acts with honor, dignity, and respect for superiors and elders.
• Tolerance: Respects the rights and differences of others.
• Patience: Practices patience in life and towards others.
• Temperance: Practices moderation.
• Duty: Fulfills his or her civic and other duties, when ethical.
• Diligence: Is diligent and not lazy, negligent, or irresponsible.
It is important to note that we should not view such principles as simplistic dogma to be mindlessly and robotically applied. Nor should we view virtue principles as mere legalism, as if one can do as one pleases as long as the letter of the principle is maintained.
We should try to maintain a character that is consistent with the spirit of general principles of virtue, but also be open to reviewing and objectively considering such principles under changing circumstances and information. Our ultimate and sincere goal should be to do the right thing in a given circumstance, as best as can be determined.
Our values and perspective should show in our behavior, words, how we treat others, and even body language. Let us carry ourselves with dignity. This doesn't mean acting stodgy, superior, or smug. But it does mean that we should never be crass, self degrading, or vulgar. We should not delight in gossip, degradation, or the suffering of others, be it in person or through forms of entertainment.
We should also maintain control of our emotions, but this does not mean acting like a robot. Certainly we should express and enjoy healthy and normal emotions, but the point is that we maintain control, and are not a slave to them. We can enjoy emotions as the "spice of life" and even nurture positive emotions where they inspire virtuous acts. But a mentally disciplined person's decisions and actions are ultimately directed by his or her intellect, acting within ethical bounds as best as can be determined.
We should always try to be intellectually honest with ourselves and others when in debate or argument. We should not engage in conflict of any sort for the purpose of winning for its own sake, but rather to further truth, justice, or other ethical causes. Therefore, we should never place advocacy for a position above loyalty to truth and understanding without personal bias. If it seems likely to us that we are in error, then our goal should be to self correct and then work toward promoting the new understanding of truth, without regard for pride, ego, or status. We should never make distorted caricatures of opponents or their positions and never use distractive tactics to win arguments. We should make an active effort to truly understand positions with which we do not agree, remaining open to the possibility of error.
Let us show compassion and consideration in our words to others, even when voicing disagreement and even when only writing online to strangers. Although we should speak what we believe to be truth, we should not purposely offend others or stoke anger or hatred for its own sake - even in our enemies. We should not allow the nature of others to dictate who we are. Let us speak to others with politeness and respect. This has nothing to do with the nature of who is being spoken to - it has to do with the nature of who is speaking.
Lastly, let us display passivity in our mannerisms and actions. This passivity is not one which allows others to dominate us, but rather, it is a passivity of the self that displays our patience and timing. We should not react quickly where it is not required and never rashly. We should instead "look before leaping" and consider the proper timing of events, words, and actions without anticipation and with the contentment that what needs to be done will be done in its proper time.
This contentment comes from the lack of excessive attachment to transient things of lesser importance and to which we ultimately have no control. It also comes from an understanding of the flow of events and human nature - something no one is perfect at, but which we should try to improve on an ongoing basis, as wisdom and life experience permit.
This passivity does not mean that we do not act or speak when necessary, but that we are not anxious to act or speak before it is time and the right amount of deliberation has gone into the reaction. Some events require immediate reaction, but when possible, we should take the time to reflect and consider words and deeds carefully, keeping a calm, focused, and thoughtful demeanor under stress.
Another aspect of living this philosophy is a commitment to continually improve one's self and develop one's talents, skills, understanding, and lifestyle. There are different areas we should try to improve, which can be categorized in many different ways. For explanatory purposes, they are summarized here as follows: Mental, Physical, and Spiritual.
Without knowledge and good thinking skills to handle that knowledge, virtuous intent is often disrupted, impossible, or even unintentionally misdirected into evil. Therefore, it is important to always seek greater levels of understanding and reasoning.
Let us look at learning as a spiritual experience. As more of the universe is revealed through learning, more of it can be appreciated. This includes continual learning about philosophy, science, cultures, history, the arts and so on. It also includes learning about and understanding different ethical teachings and religions. There is a tendency among people to read and learn about only that which they are most comfortable with. However, we should purposely get outside our "comfort zone" and seek out subjects to understand that we do not agree with.
People can be very knowledgeable without being capable of intelligent thought. The ability to think logically and rationally is a skill which can be developed. Aside from mere raw information about the world, the wise person also seeks to hone his or her rational skills, problem solving abilities, and use of logic. This includes the structure of logical argument and the knowledge of logical fallacies. It also includes general practice at concentration, focus, and reasoning, which can be exercised through puzzles, gaming, debate, etc.
Good physical health is wise in general, as it improves the average length and quality of our lives. In general, it is an important ethical priority given that those of poor health or short lifespans will be less capable of living up to obligations and possibly place undue physical or financial burdens on others.
But in addition to these issues, the effort to improve our health can be helpful to our spiritual life. It helps with harmful stress and allows us to more easily maintain our mental composure. There also seems to be a link between physical discipline and mental discipline. Discipline that is physical becomes "more real" to our minds and therefore translates to greater discipline in our mental and behavioral efforts as well.
What we consume, and how much we consume is crucial to our makeup. If possible, we should not harm our bodies with excessive consumption of unhealthy foods. Different people may differ on the acceptability of moderate alcohol consumption and drugs such as caffeine, but no one should pollute his or her body with excessive or destructive drug use. Let us make active efforts to avoid addictions of all types.
We should make an active effort to maintain a regular exercise plan, especially when one's daily life would not normally include a great deal of physical activity. Exercise for the purpose of fine tuning the body, maintaining weight, and improving function is ideal. Many sports, martial arts, or other activities fill this need as well. While there is nothing wrong in exercise forms which build muscle or physique, let us not be vain or overly focused on the body for materialistic or prideful reasons. Exercise times can also make for good moments of spiritual reflection.
Certainly, this would include any religious studies and practices which are a part of our individual faiths. In addition, there are areas of Spiritual Development associated with our shared spirituality, which anyone can engage in. We should understand that without spiritual improvement of the self, one is powerless to act as a moral agent or a force for good in the world.
Virtue improvement goes beyond mere knowledge of ethical philosophy, to application. We may use the Primary Virtues model as a general guide, and mental development includes understanding why general principles are as they are, and under what circumstances they apply in different ways. But virtue improvement involves learning to apply these realizations to our daily habits and thoughts. In this way, moral deliberation and virtuous behavior becomes more finely tuned and internalized than mere adherence to simple moral codes.
Virtue improvement involves assessing our weaknesses and shortcomings, and actively working to mold our responses to our intellectual realizations, improving in areas we fall short. This is done through objectively looking at ourselves and making a conscious effort to work on improving various habits or virtues.
This is a process where we carefully look inward for different reasons. Reflection looks on the surface like meditation, and it may include that, but it is also more. Reflection is an overall practice that involves meditation (the clearing and calming of the mind), contemplation (the highly focused concentration and active thinking about particular issues), and introspection (a careful look at ourselves in an unbiased way).
Many forms of meditation may be one way to help relieve stress, but as a means of clearing the mind meditation is also a suitable prelude to contemplation. Contemplation would then involve taking the issues of the day that confront us and spending time "computing" them in a very focused and orderly fashion.
Introspection would be another sort of reflection that could take place after focusing in meditation. Introspection, like contemplation, is also highly focused thought, but rather than thinking actively about outward issues that need to be considered, one thinks about inward issues of one's own character and behavior. This may be one component in virtue improvement as well.
This is an exercise designed to help people work on areas of virtue they may be lacking in. As with anything like this, it may work better for some than for others. The idea behind it is that, if you find yourself to be weak in a particular virtue, you fortify it by using other virtues which you are strong in. Hopefully, over time, this may nurture the weak virtue itself to become stronger.
This process can work on a general level, or it can work with respect to specific actions. It can also work on the primary virtues themselves, or on particular shades or secondary virtues. Here is an example...
John is having trouble making himself do the work he should be doing in his job. He finds it boring and would much rather goof off, but he knows he needs to do it. John's problem is not with Reason, because he knows what should be done. His problem is with Discipline (Fortitude to be more specific).
While John has a problem with Discipline in general, he feels that his Compassion and Reason are fairly strong. The Fortification exercise can help to begin to alter John's perspective and hopefully reinforce his Discipline.
First, John looks at Compassion. He makes a list on a sheet of paper of all the arguments he can think of for doing his work, which would fall under the category of Compassion. It is best that a physical list be written out, not merely thought about in one's head. It is also best that the list be written by hand and not typed. What John comes up with may look something like this...
• How would I feel if I hired someone to do a job and they were slacking off?
• How might my failures in my job effect my family?
• The customers for whom I'm working deserve a good service for what they are paying for.
And so on. Each of these are arguments or points supporting the notion that one should be a good worker at work, but they all share in the trait that they appeal to Compassion. John should list as many of these as he can think of.
Next, John repeats the process, but this time thinking of arguments that spring from Reason (since he's also well off in that virtue). John thinks of the following...
• If I goof off at work, eventually this will become known to my superiors and it will form an impression which will effect my opportunities or even my employment itself.
• If I work hard at work, I will likely feel more proud of myself and feel more free to have fun when in my off time.
• The work I am putting off will eventually have to be done. I'm only making things harder on myself later when I have to rush to get it all done.
These arguments support being a good worker but appeal to John's Reason. After John thinks of all the arguments he can springing from his stronger virtues (Compassion and Reason), he then re-reads them slowly, one at a time. He meditates on each one, thinking about its truthfulness, "taking it in" so to speak. Since these arguments appeal to virtues John is strong in, they will speak to him more directly.
This will likely inspire John to get on the ball. But to carry it further, John should start to form a list of arguments springing from Discipline itself. Over time, this may begin to increase John's awareness of Discipline and begin to internalize it as habits build. Given John's base personality, this may be something he may always have to work at, but Fortification may help in that regard.
This same process can be used on any of the virtues. Simply think about what virtue you're lacking, what virtues you are strong in, and then list and dwell on the arguments for increasing your weak virtue which spring from your strong ones. Again, this may work at different levels for different people, and it's not a fix-all. It is something one may need to continue at, and supplement other practices along side. But that's why it's called an "exercise" and not a "solution".
Objectivity, knowledge without bias, and fairness are things that the wise person will strive for, especially where ethical issues and conflicts are involved. When the conflicts involve ourselves or those close to us, it becomes even more difficult to act without bias. Some people never even try, and are eternal advocates for themselves regardless of what may be ethical or virtuous. But let us try to overcome this inevitable human tendency as best as possible.
One mental exercise that may be helpful in this regard is existential deliberation. This is a way of thinking about conflicts in which we imagine ourselves "disembodied" from the conflict. We attempt to look at the situation from the perspective of an outside observer, without respect to which person is ourselves. This is something that works best when the intentions of the user are sincere and earnest. It also works well when there is a good degree of concentration, which means that existential deliberation may be a good exercise to undertake while in reflection (described above).
In forming a mental model of the conflict, it is important to have all the facts. This includes seeking to understand thoroughly the needs, concerns, and beliefs of the individuals involved. If we have incomplete facts, misunderstood facts, or only crude or biased characterizations others' positions, then our efforts will only result in fantasy models of the situation and any solutions we arrive at will only be effective in that fantasy setting (in other words, not at all). Therefore, forming an accurate existential perspective may not be something we can do in one sitting. We may have to gather more data first.
To do this, it is necessary to "learn without judgment". That doesn't mean that we are never judgmental. Indeed, the ability to discern between virtue and vice is essential. But for true understanding, there is a need to segment our thinking into stages. The first stage should always be to gather information. During this stage, our value judgments can cloud our ability to understand the facts. This is how people who may simply be acting as best as they know how may become demonized by us. Once we seem to have gathered a substantial understanding of everyone's position, the existential deliberation can continue.
If we can achieve an impartial perspective of the situation - a bird's eye view, the next step is to apply moral deliberation. In this we look at all of the rights and responsibilities involved, general moral principles, and extenuating circumstances. We try to come to a solution to the conflict.
Once the solution seems apparent, we can then "come back into our bodies" so to speak. At that point, our effort should be to play our part in the solution while working to promote the ethical solution to the others involved, even if this isn't necessarily the most advantageous option for us personally. All the while, we must remain open to flexibility in the plan and to rethinking our solution, especially if we later find that there are mistaken or new facts in our mental model of the situation.
It is also important to note that the solution is not necessarily to find a way that "all sides can agree". Certainly, if an equitable solution is possible then this would be best, but not at the expense of what is just and ethical. In other words, if someone has a right they should not be expected to forego that right for the sake of compromise unless they wish to. If someone has a responsibility, they should not be relieved of that responsibility unless someone else is willing to relieve them of it. In other words, people should be expected to negotiate within what is just and ethical and not beyond.
Usually, conflicts happen between well intentioned people with different perspectives or misunderstandings. Even in cases of misbehavior, many people will rethink their actions if they are not put on guard by overt confrontation and an appeal is made to them. Often, we might vilify those on the other side of a conflict, assuming them to be "evil" because it gives us emotional satisfaction and allows us to feel good about not negotiating with them. This is usually inaccurate and unethical behavior on our part.
But In a few cases, a conflict may actually be the result of someone with mal intent. Someone who is actively acting outside of ethical bounds and is so extreme that they will not make any attempt to reconcile. In these cases, it may turn out that conflict is not only unavoidable, but ethically imperative. Nevertheless, we should try all other options before reaching this point.
This is another mental exercise in which we seek to truly appreciate the perspective of those we might not understand, or even disagree with. It involves a bit of internal mental roleplaying and is as much an intuitive emotional exercise as it is one of logic. It is an exercise where we attempt to hone our skills at "seeing into the hearts" of men and women. This is a good practice for helping to build accurate pictures of conflict situations (a component of existential deliberation, as described above), but it is also a good practice to do in general, even when no serious conflicts exist.
Actors playing the part of a villain and writers writing the part of a villain tell us that very few villains actually conceive of themselves as evil. Most have some understanding and logic to their perspective which forms the basis of who they are and why they do what they do. Actors are trained to get inside these people's skin. In the process, they successfully play the roles of some of the planet's most despicable people. Yet, an actor does not really take to believing what the villains they play do.
In the same respect, perspective exploration allows us to take those we may not agree with (often not even "villains") and helps us to appreciate what it must be like to be them, to see things like they do, to have the same conceptions of the world that they do, and so on. We needn't believe these things ourselves to understand them.
But reaching such an understanding will help us to relate to others. It will help us to sympathize with them, to negotiate with them, and to live with them in peace. Where debates occur, it will help us to zero in on the specific points of a debate where differences lie, and not waste time on surface details of the argument.
Perspective exploration is also something that benefits from focus and concentration, and is therefore an ideal exercise to undertake while in reflection. Empathy and imagination are crucial, but it is also important that they not be used alone, for again we risk concoctions of fantasy rather than true understanding. Instead, our imaginations and empathy must be fueled by facts. To gather those facts we need earnest dialogue. We need to truly develop the ability to listen to what others are telling us, taking careful note of the phrasings and labels used as well as the inflections of the voice. We also need to imagine the perspective they have of us, and ask questions about that as well.