A while ago, we started an RFNE book club, which we fully intend to continue into 2019. Along the way, Jeremy sent in a terrific piece on virtue ethics and what makes for good living. In this piece below, Jeremy uses Brooks’s Road to Character as a starting point for a review of several essential philosophers and their take on what it means to live a good life – something well worth pondering as we enter a New Year ready for resolutions and striving towards being better humans.
Commentary on The Road To Character – J. Long
David Brooks offers a compelling and accessible introduction to the values that should form our moral lives. In this brief discussion of the text I would like to highlight what happiness is not, define virtue in accordance with the perennial philosophy, make fun of utilitarian ethical systems, all while supporting Brook’s petition to return to moral realism.
Beginning on page 15 of his book, we find David Brooks state that “the central fallacy of modern life is the belief that accomplishments of the Adam One realm can produce deep satisfaction.” This understanding of what happiness does not consist of is foundational to the text and to ethics in general. Accordingly, let’s take a brief but deeper look at what happiness is not and what happiness is. We find that happiness, upon even the quickest of examinations, is that which is never sought as a means but only as an end. In other words, I don’t pursue happiness for something else; I pursue something else for the end of happiness. Now of the myriad things we can pursue as means towards the end of happiness are wealth, power, fame, etc. and each of these that fall under the general category of created being fail to deliver us sustained happiness. This may seem laughable to some, but to the greatest of philosophers, there is no laughing matter at all here.
When we consider something like wealth as synonymous with happiness we are obliged to state that happiness, as man’s final end, consists of all that wealth entails. Now consider what wealth necessarily entails: the fear of losing it. Consequently, if wealth were happiness happiness necessarily entails fear…and that’s absurd. Still others would posit something like pleasure as happiness, yet pleasure, as the temporary satisfaction of bodily desire, loses its merits to be the final end of happiness because A. the end of pleasure tends to leave when the mean does, and more importantly, B. we are not merely bodies. The latter is a conclusion that space does not allow to fully explain, yet it is a conclusion that deserves and requires some explanation…for now, I will limit myself to the following points: Man is a rational animal.
According to this, Man has a higher activity/power than sensitive animals and rocks. Consequently, man cannot be fully satisfied (happy), or perfect, if his highest capacity is frustrated. This highest capacity is the immaterial intellect and in so cannot be satisfied by material body. Now, of course, one may quickly remark to this brief sketch that the dogma of science has established man as completely material with a de facto material intellect. Yet if this were true than such physical science could identify the abstraction of universals, or intentionality, in the brain; and this has not and cannot be done (show me what my thought of tree is intended toward via material brain states) as such is unquantifiable.
Further, as the proofs for the immaterial intellect laid out by Aristotle and Aquinas have yet to be refuted, any interlocutor has the burden of proving such premises false and not simply asserting against the conclusion. This argument regarding the immateriality of the intellect, coupled with the principle agere sequitur esse, action follows being, expresses that an immaterial power cannot be brought forth by a completely material being. As something cannot give what it does not have (I cannot give you ten dollars if I only have one dollar), the action of a being must be compatible with the being itself. Consequently, the soul is demonstrated to be immaterial as well. Of course, any of the arguments here cannot properly be laid out in a few sentences, but these points are crucial to understand why happiness cannot be achieved simply via material means.
Yet still all of this is too much to develop here, and in my failing attempt to be brief about the book Road to Character it is perhaps best that I get back to the book seeing as I haven’t technically made it past page fifteen (in my defense David Brooks does bring up the above topic on page 54)… It is interesting to note that the theologians, poets, and philosophers, all concluded that the materialistic and selfish pursuit of happiness is a fool’s errand, all by different means: one by revelation, one by an appeal to the heart, and another via the course of reason alone. In this we can conclude, in whatever manner you see fit, that the infinite desire which we all express cannot be satisfied by finite things. There we are, on to page sixteen!
When we consider virtue as a whole the moral realism has identified such as “good habit.” This is beneficial to us for a few reasons. First, one virtuous activity becomes clearly insufficient to render our character virtuous, and secondly, one non-virtuous act is demonstrated insufficient to render our character as evil. Consequently, the precise recitations of Frances Perkins (we are on page 28!) can be seen necessary to the development of good character, as character is a semi-permanent form or disposition that is etched deeper into the individual upon successive qualifying actions (qualifying actions would be moral actions: voluntary, known to both the intellect and the will). As a result, acts of virtue serve to make one virtuous, and acts of non-virtue serve to form one’s character as non-virtuous. In this discussion of virtuous acts clarification of the term is necessary else we risk talking on a rather shallow level.
To Aristotle, virtue is a mean. We read in the text that “every virtue can come with its own accompanying vice.” This is a remark that allows us to further elaborate on such an ethics. Vice is best defined in virtue ethics as an excess or a defect, and accordingly, virtue is the mean between the two. To Aristotle and the perennial philosophy, this is the golden mean. Accompanying this, virtue must be noted to not be simply a static state. As one can glean from a brief example, it would be courageous to run into a burning house to save one’s spouse, but it would be foolish to run into a burning house to save the fire tongs. Further, something like guilt is not always a vice as there are objective situations in which we should feel guilty. Guilt thus becomes a vice when we feel such in an excessive or deficient manner, deemed so by the objective circumstance.
This is a point David Brooks attempts to establish on page sixty-nine and is better defended with additional objectively garnered principles. Consequently, virtue as a mean is known to us by adjusting our subjective world to the objective world via reason and the act of conscience. This is not a motionless state between two inert poles but rather is a rational and balanced response to the specific demands of a circumstance. This is important, virtue is not subjective (accordingly ethics is not, remember agere sequitur esse?), rather the philosophical science of ethics whose material object is human action is founded upon objective fact. This is where David Brooks and his use of the term “moral imagination,” as found on page 262, is ambiguous and risks lending itself to a morally subjective banner. We need to get back to the proper understanding of conscience.
We discover in the perennial philosophy’s science of ethics the golden rule. We all know what it is, do good and avoid evil. Now this is much more than a golden rule, it is the first principle of ethics. First principles are what sciences are founded upon, such first principles as the law of non-contradiction and the principle of the excluded middle are the fundamental starting points of all science. What this aims to help show is that the first principle “good is to be done and evil is to be avoided” is not simply a code of conduct established in Matthew Five, or a subjective hippy ethics. This first principle of ethics is objectively a natural law of man, as we can only ever will what we think of as good. This is important because if we can only ever will what we think is good, we need to know what is actually good, and that’s the point of knowing ethics, putting it into practice. This is also the point of moral realism, we really can know what is morally good. Now some philosophers since the time of David Hume have held that we actually cannot derive what something ought to do based on what it is. In this manner of thinking, a fish that doesn’t know how to swim can still be considered a good fish, and a person that boils babies alive can still be considered a good person, simply because we don’t know what a person ought to do based on what it is. Now there are plenty of refutations to this, yet space does not allow for such and in so the absurdity of the situation will suffice for now.
Back from another sidetrack and returning to the point of first principles, there is another important principle of ethics that flows from the first principle of good is to be done and evil is to be avoided. If good is to be done and evil is to be avoided, it follows that we cannot do evil for good. Some will debate this point but ethics is not established, and actions are not evaluated, on an economic criterion. Consequently, despite what the utilitarian might tell you, it is not a good action to boil a baby alive so that the war in Yemen stops, for such is doing an evil for a good, and in order for an action to be good it needs to be good in all of its parts. We wouldn’t say that a glass is completely full of water if its parts contained juice, likewise we wouldn’t call an act completely good if its parts contained evil. Consequently, for something like an act to be good, it actually needs to be good.
Now of course, all of this cannot be adequately defended in a few lines, and all of this has already taken a direction which my original jotted outline regarding The Road to Character did not intend, and in the process of it all I forgot to introduce myself: I am Jeremy, I tend to ramble on.