Saturday, November 1, 2008

Should the virtues be revered?

When people are conscious that they are doing good they sometimes feel that they are serving something larger than themselves. It has been suggested that this feeling of elevation is necessary to have a meaningful life. For example, Martin Seligman defines a “meaningful life” as “using your signature strengths and virtues in the service of something much larger than you are” (“Authentic Happiness”, 2002: 263).

Such feelings of elevation do not always have to be present for people to behave morally. As Lynn Stout has pointed out, civilized life in urban societies depends to a large extent on passive altruism – people do not generally steal, even when there is a very low probability of being caught (‘Taking conscience seriously’, in P Zak (ed), “Moral Markets”, 2008: 157). We feel elevated or inspired only when doing good involves some effort or sacrifice.

In the final chapter of his book, Seligman speculates that human history is a process that is heading ultimately towards “nothing less than omniscience, omnipotence and goodness”. He suggests that the best we can do as individuals is to be a small part of furthering this progress: “this is the door through which meaning that transcends us can enter our lives” (260).

However, it seems to me that issues relating to historicism are more relevant to people whose aim in life is to be on the winning team – history’s hastening agents – than to those who want to live a meaningful life. I find it hard to see how it could be elevating to choose to do good just in order to be on the winning team.

I think it would be better to view the impulse to serve a good purpose in challenging circumstances as the door through which meaning that transcends us can enter our lives. Seligman discusses evidence earlier in his book (chapter 8) which suggests that the concept of goodness is ubiquitous rather than relativistic. We all tend to have similar views about what constitutes goodness despite differences in our individual tastes, social conventions and religious beliefs. Six virtues are endorsed by almost all religious and philosophical traditions: wisdom and knowledge, courage, love and humanity, justice, temperance, and spirituality and transcendence.

Is it possible for meaning that transcends us to enter our lives if we do not believe that the virtues are the result of divine intervention? I don’t see why not. We can view the expression of goodness as a potential of all humans while remaining agnostic about the source of this potential. The expression of goodness may be viewed as a natural part of what it means to be human. The actualization of this potential is a transcending experience for each individual because it requires us to move beyond the consideration of personal pleasure and pain. At the same time, because of our nature, the actualization of potential is an individual experience requiring the exercise of practical wisdom – there is a universal potential, but no universal recipe for the expression of that potential.

If we view the expression of goodness as a human quality, does this mean it cannot be revered? Why not? If we feel inspired by the virtues of others and elevated by our own efforts, surely be can permit ourselves to feel reverence for the potential for good that resides within every one of us.

William Wordsworth captured something of the feeling of reverence I have in mind in a poem written in 1802:

My heart leaps up when I behold
A rainbow in the sky:
So was it when my life began;
So is it now I am a man;
So be it when I shall grow old,
Or let me die!
The Child is father of the Man;
I could wish my days to be
Bound each to each by natural piety.
(Source: here)

4 comments:

S.S. said...

Here are some thoughts I had about whether virtues should be revered. Perhaps it is a matter of semantics, but I think it is important to think first about what it means to revere anything; and second, about just what it is that we are revering. To me, to revere something is to admire it with a sense of worshipful awe, as if it were god-like. If a person has a virtue, such as kindness, are we revering the person or the virtue? It does not seem right to revere a person. How about the virtue? How can one revere a behavior? I propose that it makes more sense to revere the source of the virtue.

Winton Bates said...

You write: "How can one revere a behavior?". Suppose that we see someone perform an extraordinary act of kindness and we both feel a sense of awe. I could say that I revere such behavior.

You say: "I propose that it makes more sense to revere the source of the virtue." That might or might not be so. It seems to me that it makes more sense for a person who believes that evolution is the source of such virtues to revere the behaviour than to revere the process of evolution.

S.S. said...

The nice thing about the "sense of awe" one feels in the presence of kindness, great beauty, or some other experience that takes our breath away, is that we don't need to analyze where it comes from and why we feel that way. That's probably why the word "revere" bugs me a little and the word "awe" doesn't bug me at all--just a personal weirdness, I suppose.

As far as the source of the virtue goes, if I believed that virtues occured as a result of evolution, it would almost be tempting to revere evolution itself. However, although it is clear to me that "survival of the fittest" does occur (in ecosystems which mankind has not disturbed), I myself don't believe that modern species evolved from primitive life forms. Now, I have a Bachelor's degree in chemistry and a DVM (veterinary) degree, so I did learn everything I was "supposed to." However, even if I had no faith at all in the biblical creation account, it strikes me as statistically impossible for the complexity of cellular microstructure and the intricacy of biochemical pathways, to occur without a driving process far more purposeful than random events. Sorry--I didn't really mean to open such a complex subject in two sentences. I do agree that it would not make sense to revere the process of evolution, but that doesn't mean, in my opinion, that the only other option is to revere the virtue itself. I would think that it would make sense to look for another option. What do you think?

Winton Bates said...

S.S.: Thanks for your further comment.
I have been thinking more about this and am no longer satisfied with my original response.
When we hear about an extraordinary act of kindness we may feel awe and reverence(among other things). The awe obviously relates to the act itself, but if I say I feel reverence toward a behaviour or concept I think most people would agree with you that I am using the term, "reverence" in an unusual way.
I think it would be better to say that the act invokes a feeling of reverence toward the potential for good that is in all humans. If you then say that it would be more appropriate to feel reverence for the source of that potential for good, I would respond that I am agnostic on the question of whether there is a spiritual source. In any case, my intuition is that the important thing is to be grateful that such potential for good is available - and to seek to realize it in one's own life.