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120 - On Divining Virtue - Moral Letters for Modern Times

Repeated observations do not necessarily lead to firmer conclusions, because we are unreliable, biased observers, and inconsistent in our thinking.
120 - On Divining Virtue - Moral Letters for Modern Times

You have probably noticed, Deuteros, what a great difference a salesperson can make to the atmosphere of a store. We can all call to mind the cashier who seems to feel that their duties are beneath them and is sullen and surly as a result. Or the floor assistant who is alternatively bored and contemptuous by turns, who considers the browsing customer an inconvenience. These emotional black holes seem to suck the joy and energy out of a room, co-workers and customers circling around the event horizon of their superdense discontent, from which no happiness emerges.

“What does this have to do with my question,” you ask? “I wanted to learn how to tell which things are good and honorable.” The starting point is easy enough, in that you should pursue that which is honorable. An honorable action will always be a good action. Through our studies we are seeking to train our minds to use well-ordered reason to determine the right conduct for the right reasons.

We have two principal means at our disposal to determine what is honorable, and they both start with observing the world around us. We can then draw direct conclusions from what we see, and we can make analogies by considering comparable situations. Both methods have advantages and disadvantages, and to know them in more detail is to use them more adroitly.

At first glance, direct observation seems the most useful tool for to the budding philosopher. If I do X, then Y happens. Observe this more than once, say ten or a hundred times, and you can be reasonably certain something is going on, even if you do not know the mechanism. And the beauty here is that you can call upon more than your own personal experience. You have the combined lives of humanity across history to serve as your laboratory. You see now, my dear Deuteros, why we talk so often of looking to others for good examples and bad examples. Every situation offers an opportunity to ask, “What were the consequences of this behavior, anticipated and unanticipated?”

With so much raw data to hand you might wonder how it is that humankind has come to no firm conclusions as to the best courses of action. How is it that so many philosophers disagree, to say nothing of the great masses who are pulled first this way, then that, by competing advice that changes with the changing of the seasons? Alas, our problems in relying on observation are manifold.

Firstly, humans are not great observers. One of the more reliable findings of the social sciences is that our perceptions are faulty. Secondly, we are not objective observers. We seek out information that conforms to our current beliefs, even when we think we are being open-minded. Thus, unless we are vigilant, we do not put ourselves in a position where we could even observe the right examples. And the third problem is the most damning.

It is that we filter our observations through our minds, at least when it comes to human affairs. This means different people apply a different meaning to the same situation. Worse, the same person applies a different meaning to the same situation depending on how they are feeling that day. Hence, repeated observations do not necessarily lead to firmer conclusions, because we are unreliable, biased observers, and inconsistent in our thinking.

If one person sees a billionaire making a sizeable donation to a charitable cause, they may consider them to have committed a most honorable act. Another person sees the same donation and considers the source, saying “This is ill-gotten money from selling opioids that create addiction. To accept it is to give cover for the crime.” A third cannot get past the fact that billionaires exist at all and says “Income inequality is the worst problem facing humanity. Bill Gates is giving away just enough money to avoid facing the guillotine, no more.”

Because our perception is flaky, and multiple observations can yield multiple conclusions, philosophers also make use of the second tool: analogy. We move from the specific situation to the general, in the hopes of finding universal principals. What we lose in detail we hope to gain in broader applicability. Also, by moving to the realm of analogy we take ourselves away from observations that individuals will disagree over and specify situations we can agree upon.

The beauty of analogy is that you don’t need agreement on every observation to accept the premise that there is some principal at work. I tell you that money doesn’t buy happiness, and you point to three wealthy friends who appear happy to you. I point to studies (and I have done so not long ago) saying there is a limit to what money can do, and how little you need to accomplish it. Still, you will have a corner of your mind reserved stubbornly for the thought “I understand and I see this could be true for others, but it doesn’t apply to me.” Let Jesus say “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God,” and you may be given pause. Not to immediately change your mind, but a little space within which to think about the strength of your conviction.

Analogies help us see a topic from fresh angles. The underlying insight may be the same, but sometimes we are blocked from comprehending it directly. It is as if the walls of the castle are well-defended, the drawbridge pulled high, but the back entrance remains unguarded. If an analogy allows us to sneak by the defenses of our untrustworthy perception, confirmation bias, and wishful thinking, then it is a most useful comrade in arms.

When I tell you that the mind is everything, and that our thinking permits honorable action in every situation, some part of you resists. You want to respond with the obvious answer that some situations are objectively worse than others. “Why should I be as happy getting smacked in the face with a brick as I am by the tickle of a feather?” I do not know why the human mind resists so strongly the idea that the mind is itself the cause and the solution to many of our problems. Perhaps it is the natural instinct to shun responsibility, because to accept responsibility is to accept ownership of the consequences?

So philosophy approaches a topic head on, suffers a defeat, and makes a temporary retreat. We see if there is another way past the tight defenses of the faulty thinking that plagues humankind. So if I ask you to imagine the surly shopkeeper, and to picture this person vividly in your mind, you are more likely to be open to the idea that a person’s bad attitude can influence not just themselves but also their surroundings.

I expect you can just as easily think now of their opposite: the person who seems delighted to be where they are and to be doing what they’re doing. Helpful, attentive, happy to answer questions. Same store, same day, separated perhaps by only a single department, but this person spreads light where the other only smothers it. Does this analogy make it easier to believe we can shape our experiences with our thoughts? And if we credit the idea as possible, what new avenues does this open up for us to explore?

Here is one way to distinguish an optimist from a pessimist that may surprise you. The optimist looks to the negative, while the pessimist looks to the positive. “What do you mean,” you ask? “Isn’t this the opposite of what the terms mean?” Not at all, and I use the example to demonstrate the point once again of the power of the mind. The optimist says “It could be worse,” to convince themselves of how good their current circumstances are. The pessimist says “It could be better,” to remind themselves of all they feel they lack. What you believe will determine what you feel, and what you feel will determine your reality.

The honorable person uses their reason to apply judgment to all the situations life creates for them. They do not rail against Nature or Fortune, but apply their reason to the circumstances they find themselves in. An honorable person would never be a surly shopkeeper. An honorable person accepts their tasks as if they were their privilege and performs them diligently and happily.

We use a variety of words to describe aspects of virtue, because they are revealed in different settings: bravery, self-restraint, prudence, justice. They are all merely different views of the same well-ordered reason applied to judgment in varying circumstances. Though the situations may differ, the wise person displays consistency in judgment. Apply your perception to observing and emulating the wise person and you will be exercising virtue.

Be well.

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