Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Ethics 101

Can virtue ever be  taught? Many people believe that it can. Plato, Aristotle, and Kant, to name a few. We could also mention Saint Paul, Aquinas, and Luther. In fact, all religions teach some form of virtue. The problem lies in the details. Everyone acknowledges a distinction between good and evil. But what exactly do we mean by these terms? Do we always recognize good when we see it? What about evil? The human tendency is to label things we disapprove of as “evil,” while the things we admire we call “good.” Is there any objective quality to things we call good, or do we just inherit these values from our parents?

The problem with morality is that it presupposes a point of view which is not shared by everyone. Most people agree that murder, theft, lying and rape are wrong. But what about premarital sex or abortion? Where exactly do our values come from? And if most people agree that these actions are wrong, why do so many people in the world continue to do them? When you deliberately do things  you believe are morally wrong, aren’t you living a lie? On the other hand, Walt Whitman once said,
“Do I contradict myself. Very well. Then I contradict myself. I am large. I contain multitudes”

Here, Whitman is not talking about lying. He is acknowledging that human beings are not machines. We often say one thing, and do another. Yet, even if we disregard the occasional discrepancy, why do we so often fail to live up to the values we claim to hold dear?

Immanuel Kant attempted to give a rational explanation for morality. He believed that when we act, we often act out of sentiment. If we were truly rational creatures, we would always do only what we believe is right, rather than let our emotions be in charge. Aristotle, too,  knew that emotions are unreliable guides to good behavior.

Morally speaking, every action represents a value judgment. We like to think we are doing the right thing and that others, if they were in our place, would choose to do the same thing as we do. Then may we infer that behind every action is an intention to do the right thing? Of course not. That would only be true, as Madison once said, if men were angels. But men are not angels. We live in a fallen world, which means that some people will always prefer the darkness. Man’s intentions are not always benevolent.

Even so, Kant believed we are rational creatures. Since we are guided by our intentions (our will), then we need a principle or rule of conduct to bring this will under our control. Then our rule acts like a moral compass, guiding our decisions in a rational manner. But this methodology only works for people who actually think about what they are doing. Whenever we get angry or depressed, we are not in our right mind. We do things that we later regret doing. So good behavior requires not only that we be in our right mind, but that we also have a good will. This is what we mean by “doing the right thing.” We don’t fall into grace accidentally; we choose to pursue the good with our eyes open regardless of the pain.

In one sense whenever we talk about ethics, we are really talking about rules of conduct; but virtue is more than just rules. In a free society, it doesn’t matter so much what you believe; but it always matters what you do. In Gustave Flaubert’s story, “A Simple Heart,” Felicite is a good person. What makes her good? Not her education because she has none. It is not reason that guides her; it is her heart. Kant would call this a “good will.” But she does not spend time deliberating over what is right or wrong. She simply does instinctively what she feels is right. In fact, her entire life is based on these feelings which have nothing at all to do with rationality. She is drawn to the good as moths are drawn to the light. But what is the source of this light? For Felicite, it is her faith in God. The Bible says that rain falls on both the just and the unjust, and yet some trees remain barren.

For Socrates, our “daemon” or guardian spirit is here to lead us in the right direction. We call this inner voice a “conscience,” and when it speaks clearly to us, we are guided through the wilderness of human error, into the light of truth. But when the daemon refuses to speak, we are left to our own devices, and often become confused and lost.  So is it better to have unwavering faith like Felicite, or Kant’s reason to guide us? A good will may be incapable of showing us the way home. Yet unless we have a good will, reason alone will not sustain us. Maybe Kant was right. We need both.


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