Posted by: gcarkner | May 9, 2016

Leverage your Virtue

Leverage the Virtuous Community

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What kind of people form a virtuous community? How do we locate ourselves with respect to the good? What do wisdom, courage and hope, benevolence and love have to do with scholarship? What do moderation, self-restraint and frugality, patience and gratitude have to do with academic excellence, business acumen or scientific brilliance? Can we truly flourish if we live, work and love virtuously? Is self-interest and the almighty sovereignty of individual choice perhaps a scam of our age? Can virtue inform our academic vision to help it flourish? Our vision shapes our goals and actions day to day. Many of us will know of philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre’s landmark book After Virtue which decried the cultural loss of this ancient language of virtue; in its place late modernity have substituted the Nietzschean/Weberian language of posited values–self-invented morality. Is this wise for full human flourishing?

A moral virtue is an excellence of character, developed by conscious choices over time and thus for which we can and should be praised; virtue disposes one to act in such a reasonable way to avoid extremes, to act in short as a sage would act. It is hard to develop solo; we need others to learn how to practice virtue. Virtues are heuristic; they teach us about new dimensions of life as we embrace them and embody them. Where do we find training in the virtues and character these days? Steven Bouma-Prediger (For the Beauty of the Earth, p. 140) a UBC GFCF visiting scholar shared his concern for environmental stewardship virtues. He articulate the language this way:

A virtue is a state of praiseworthy character—with the attendant desires, attitudes and emotions. Formed by choices over time, a virtue disposes us to act in certain excellent ways. Knowing which way is the truly excellent way involves avoiding the extremes of vice by looking to people of virtue as role models. As certain virtues shape our character they influence how we see the world. And the entire process of forming virtues is shaped by a particular narrative and community. The settled disposition to act well, which makes us who we are, is nurtured by the stories we imbibe and the communities of which we are a part.

There is an art, a finesse, a personal strength and creativity to virtue. It shows up in how we operate in the world and how we treat others. Virtues orient us toward both individual and group flourishing. It assumes trustworthy social relationships characteristic of a moral community; it takes into consideration an individual as well as a common good. There are academic and research virtues (Linda Zagzebski’s Virtues of the Mind) which help the university keep its integrity as a knowledge centre. Oxford’s Iris Murdoch, although not a believer in God, had a high view of the good, influencing premier Canadian philosopher of the self Charles Taylor (Sources of the Self). Basic honesty is under strain today as we are pushed to publish more and more and to superior academic performance (Matthew Crawford,  The World Outside Your Head).

Crawford suggest that our quest for radical individualism and autonomy is leading us into a unhealthy moral autism. We are losing our moral skill and agency. Matthew calls this the ‘cult of sincerity’, i.e., that you yourself can be the source of the norms by which you justify yourself–a radical responsibility for which we were not designed. It offers too much sovereignty. He says that we actually need others (friends, family, colleagues) to check our own self-understanding–through triangulation–to tell us we are doing OK, that we are good or excellent, or not so noble. One thing that sets us apart as humans is our desire to justify ourselves; we never act without moral implications. We need this web of people we respect (aka normativity). Charles Taylor agrees (Sources of the Self).

Here’s the rub: In times of cultural flux, where it is unclear what the rules are, how to value things or behaviour, it is difficult for us to understand ourselves socially. This leads to an existential crisis of alienation. So we become victims of the values of the marketplace–productivity, performance, usefulness, cash-out value. Matthew’s friend, psychologist Alain Ehrenburg (Weariness of the Self), notes that this is leading to epidemic levels of depression in our current culture of performance. Enough is never enough:

Depression presents itself as an illness of responsibility in which the dominant feeling is that of failure. The depressed individual is unable to measure up; he is tired of having to become himself. In a culture of performance, the person reads the value and status of her soul in her worldly accomplishments.

We are ever guilt-ridden and stressed. We are always faced with the raw issue of making things happen, our capacity, leading to this new pathology of weariness. The weariness of having to become one’s fullest self is leading to depression. On top of this, it is difficult to mitigate this depression in an age of performance, because weariness comes to equal weakness. So we turn to quick fixes, stimulants like Prozac or Adderall (an amphetamine) to keep us high-performing. This is an epidemic among students and also young faculty in high-performance universities. All the while we seek liberation through this autonomy, we are discovering a very serious brand of slavery. Modernity has turned on us: performance in capitalistic terms can crush us. We are not flourishing. We need a broader and richer set of moral parameters.
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Brad Gregory, author of The Unintended Reformation has a chapter called “Subjectivizing Morality” on important sea changes in morality in the West. He makes note of a time when the virtuous community was a common social and political consciousness, part of people’s identity. But this has been exchanged today for a language of rights. Gregory notes: “A transformation from a substantive morality of the good to a formal morality of rights constitutes the central change in Western ethics over the past half millennium, in terms of theory, practice, laws and institutions.”
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At one time, rights were articulated within values of the communal good (within the discourse of the virtuous community); now they have morphed into a consumeristic commodity to fulfill my subjective desires or opinions–my choice. This approach is threatening our freedom, dignity and rights. Today, our individual good seems to be in tension with the common good (within a discourse of individualism, self-interest and entitlements). We are struggling to find the social glue (the common purpose) to hold society together. Is the default position of personal preference and consumerism the answer? How do we recover again and leverage the power of virtue? This is no small concern; it is both a local and a global phenomenon.

Gordon E. Carkner, PhD Philosophical Theology

See also David Brooks, The Road to Character.

Jim Wallis, The (Un)Common Good.

Other blog posts on The Qualities of the Will.


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