Posted by: gcarkner | June 28, 2016

Virtue Liberates in the Long Run

Three Propositions from David Brooks, The Road to Character

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1. We don’t live for happiness, we live for holiness. Day to day we seek our pleasure, but deep down, human beings are endowed with moral imagination. All human beings seek to lead lives not just of pleasure, but of purpose, righteousness, and virtue. As John Stuart Mill put it, people have a responsibility to become more moral over time. The best life is oriented around the increasing excellence of the soul and is nourished by moral joy, the quiet sense of gratitude and tranquility that comes as a byproduct of successful moral struggle. The meaningful life is the same eternal thing, the combination of some sort of ideals and some man or woman’s struggle for those ideals. Life is essentially a moral drama, not a hedonistic one.

2. Proposition one defines the goal of life. The long road to character begins with an accurate understanding of our nature, and the core of that understanding is that we are flawed creatures. We have an innate tendency towards selfishness and overconfidence. We have a tendency to see ourselves as the centre of the universe, as if everything revolves around us.We resolve to do one thing but end up doing its opposite. We know what is deep and important in life, but we will pursue the things that are shallow and vain. Furthermore we overestimate our own strength and rationalize our own failures. We know less than we think we do. We give in to short-term desire even when we know we shouldn’t. We imagine that spiritual and moral needs can be solved through status and material things.

3. Although we are flawed creatures, we are also splendidly endowed. We are divided within ourselves, both fearfully and wonderfully made. We do sin, but we also have a capacity to recognize sin, and to overcome sin. We are both weak and strong, bound and free, blind and far-seeing.We thus have the capacity to struggle with ourselves. There is something heroic about a person in struggle with herself, strained on the rack of conscience, suffering torments, yet staying alive and growing stronger, sacrificing a worldly success for the sake of inner victory.

Compare Current Schools of Denial of Transcendence: Norms are nothing but the product of society and good is what we call good out of self-interest or certain social relations. All normative claims are problematic and therefore there are no criteria for judgment or discernment at a moral level. This comes as the next stage after the death of God (Deus Abscondicus) in western culture. It involves the admission (Nietzsche) that one cannot preserve Christian values once one has gotten rid of God. The Enlightenment tried to preserve ethical norms and absolutes based on reason (Kant) or emotions (Hume) or utility (Bentham). Often views in late modernity are part of a philosophy of absence. George Steiner in his important book Real Presences is quite helpful in his articulation of the loss of transcendence (presence) in late modern thought. The focus is on immanence (the here and now) and human practices. Virtues would then be reduced to the values of one’s tribe.

We are relentless. We depersonalize God to an idea to be discussed. We reduce people around us to resources to be used. We define ourselves as consumers to be satisfied. The more we do it, the more we incapacitate ourselves from growing up to a maturity capable of living adult lives of love, adoration, trust and sacrifice…. In our identity-confused society, too many of us have settled for a pastiche identity composed of social security number, medical records, academic degrees, job history, and whatever fragments of genealogy we can salvage. (E. Peterson 2010, 66, 79)

~Gordon Carkner

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