Last time I made a haphazard semi-argument for the claim that virtue ethics should be the starting point for thinking about morality. To summarize, I argued that in order to have any practical purchase, ethical thinking really needs to be in terms of the cultivation of stable character traits. My suggestion was that we really don’t have all that much conscious control over our actions. We generally don’t act from reasons, but rather act, and then come up with reasons. That is, we confabulate a story about how we decided to do whatever it was that we did. If this is true, then changing our habits and character are the only thing we can do, morally speaking. If we’re not in moment to moment control of ourselves, we may still be able to intervene on the process which does cause our moment to moment behaviour.
So while that’s not terrifically convincing as it is (plausible, I think, but not a slam dunk) I propose to move on anyway. I’d like to assume the virtue ethics perspective for a while, and see what can be done with it. The basic question is, what kind of virtues do we think are important? If you could change your disposition to act in any way, how would you change it?
Part of me, when I wrote that last question, started spinning philosopher-style thought experiments; if you had a machine that could zap character traits into your brain, blah blah blah. But it’s actually a much more immediate and practical question than that. Your everyday choices and activities create your character, to a significant degree. Aristotle had this quite right, as do the Buddhists. One can come to regard themselves as a gardener, tending to the small plot of land that is one’s selfhood. You don’t control when the sun will shine, or when the rain comes. Neither can you force a seed to germinate when the conditions aren’t right, or convince beans to grow up as tomatoes. In that sense, the gardener has very little control. But at the same time, you can create conditions, watch the balance of things and pull out weeds occasionally. You can gently guide the development of your little you.
But of course, even supposing that some small measure of guidance is possible, the question is what kind of you should you be cultivating? Having accepted the virtue ethics framework, this is the next most fundamental ethical question. Aristotle has a list of virtues, which is convenient if you’re willing to take the word of a bronze age slave owner on morality as definitive. I tend to think owning people disqualifies you as a moral authority (but that may be a bit of deontological ethics infecting my nice neat system).
What I suggested at the very end of my last post was that some kind of basic conditions on what virtues are the right ones could be had by looking at some features of what it is to be alive. If a virtue is a necessary precondition for being alive at all, it needs to be on the list of virtues to cultivate. Similarly, if a trait is necessary for making moral choices, then it gets to be on the list by default as well. That may not seem like much to start from, but I’ll try to show in the rest of this post that we can actually squeeze quite a lot out of those two criteria.
First, being alive. The only convincing definition of life I’ve ever heard comes from the enactivist tradition. Humberto Maturana and Fransico Varela proposed that what it is to be alive is to be autopoietic, which means to be a system which consists of a bunch of parts that are designed to make the other parts of the system. An autopoietic system is therefore a self-making system, which is put together in such a way that it tends to maintain itself as a system. The cell is the paradigm case of autopoiesis – all of the organelles are built such that they help to build all of the other organelles, and the whole package is wrapped up in a cell wall which keeps the whole thing together. Kant people may recognize this as similar to his definition of self-organization, and it is, particularly when stated in such a short sketch. The details are different, but they aren’t especially important here. The key point is that if this way of seeing life is right, then the defining characteristic of all living things is a certain kind of self-unity.
(Below is a superfluous but awesome short video of what goes on inside every cell in your body. It’s not that relevant here, except insofar as it shows how amazingly well put together living things are.)
Of course, self-unity isn’t guaranteed – it’s something that life is constantly working towards, half achieving and then inevitably failing at when it dies. So while it isn’t something we can always count on, it is part of what defines us as organisms. The trouble with virtue ethics is that it tends to rely on notions like ‘innate nature’, which are damned problematic. Who is to say what is basic to our nature and what isn’t? Well, if the enactivists are right, the struggle for self-unity is as fundamental as anything gets.
So when we’re making decisions about how we should intervene on our habits and character, things which tend to promote wholeness, integration, and the working together of all our various bits and pieces are a good bet. For instance, we have base, biological aspirations like eating and sexing, and more refined ones like our aesthetic sensibilities and our desire for emotional communion. Cooking a carefully considered meal for someone you love (and maybe getting laid for your effort) would be a pretty nice way to get all those things working together. It’s easy to multiply examples.
Now consider the second basic criterion, that we should cultivate characteristics that make moral choices possible. If we don’t, then moral choices won’t arise at all, and the whole discussion is moot. So we can say for sure that on our list of virtues, there need to be some characteristics which make free decisions an option for us. This criterion pulls in the opposite direction as the last – instead of self-unity, we have the requirement for differentiation. You have to be courageous enough to disagree with your culture sometimes, and disciplined enough to reject some of your urges. Without this minimal level of autonomy, the possibility of cultivating virtue can’t even arise. You’ll just have whatever habits have been foisted on you by your circumstances.
Combining those two criteria together, I think I kind of proto-Nietzschean will-to-power results. The imperative is to use everything you have (self-unity) in an autonomous and conscious way (moral differentiation). Because we’re deeply social animals, we ought to engage with those around us. But because we ought to avoid loosing ourselves in a crowd, we have to do so in a critical and courageous way.
So that’s not bad, I think, considering the very minimal materials that we started from. We have a rough framework for taking moral stances, and at least a few ideas on where to start looking for the right stances to take. What I’ve said here by no means closes off the questions that have been raised, of course. Even if this is all exactly right, there is still the question of how to strike the right balance between the basic virtues. But no one said this stuff was going to be easy.