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On not being a saint

OK. I did say I wanted to write about moral saints... So, this takes me back to thinking about Dan Kaufman and Massimo Pigliucci's ongoing debate between Aristotelianism and Stoicism, which Kaufman brought up during his interview on the STM podcast.


Here's a summary - from Kaufman's point of view (which I think I share). Stoicism teaches you to accept circumstances with equanimity and that virtue is the ultimate good. So you focus on what you can control, which is limited, and most aspects of life - health, the welfare of your family, success at work and so on, which you personally cannot control - are 'preferred indifferents'. Even if you are sick, your child dies and you fail at work due to circumstances outside your control, you should still be able to feel you have led a satisfactory life so long as you have been virtuous. Kaufman says he just can't get this. He says that he feels that Stoicism is useful as a consolation and a help in bearing the seemingly unbearable. Thus, for Epictetus, who was a slave, and indeed for Viktor Frankl and Primo Levi in concentration camps, Stoicism offers a way of dealing with extreme suffering, injustice, fear and brutality. However, a 'normal' life has a great deal more possibility and scope for well-being and real flourishing.


Kaufman suggests the example of a garden. What is a flourishing garden? It's one with verdant foliage, colourful blooms and plentiful produce. That can be seen as a universally understood concept. Say that your garden is beset by locusts and it is stripped bare. You may have done all the weeding and watering you could, but this contingent fact outside your control leads to the depredation of your garden. The end result is that your garden is not flourishing. Despite all you did. You may be consoled by having done all you could, but the objective reality is that your garden has failed. He says that we can look at a life in the same way. It's just not as good if everything goes to pot. Yes, you can bear that with equanimity, great, but let's not pretend it's really 'all the same'.


He made the point that in Stoicism there can be no real concept of tragedy. This is worth thinking about. Where does pity and awe come from without recognising the occasionally insurmountable challenges of fate, life and inner flaws? If inner strength could always redeem a character faced with such inadversity, then their failure to do so is contemptible - while if they have done so, in the closed world of the mind, then likewise their death is not tragic. Failure is inevitable to the virtuous man and an entirely moral lack for the flawed man.


I seem to recall Terry Eagleton making a similar point about the Christian world view. The death of Jesus is not tragic, for he is morally pure - and indeed, he rises and vanquishes both death and sin.


Now, moving away from tragedy to the conception of 'a good life' and Aristotle's view is that a life can really only be judged long term - at the end - and even after death it can still be seen to fail. Say that you set up a charity to support deprived Siamese cats and it was all going great during your life. You die and leave funds for the charity and an executor to run the charity and so on. But he steals the money and flees, leaving the cats to starve and no chance of saving more cats. Then, your life has not been a success. This is not going to impact how you feel, because you're dead... to an extent, success and failure are always deferred. That said, in the process of life, you can track the progress toward success, which helps you to shape and structure future practices.


He also sees different virtues as relevant to different domains. And perhaps the only strictly ethical values are those required in public life. In society, what counts are not your thoughts and motives, but your actions. Are you acting courageously in combat? Generously to your friends? Kindly to those in need? If you habitually act in these ways, your mind reshapes to these values and they become habitual, to the extent that you transform your personality through behaviour. But it's the actions that matter the most, rather than, as in Stoicism, inner virtue, inner transformation. In the same way, what matters in the practice of carpentry or horse-riding, is not your attitude toward it or knowledge about it, but your skill at it, your knowledge of how to do it. This comes, again, through action, not inner conditioning.


Further, it seems that a life should incorporate a variety of domains - the public, the artistic, the athletic and the contemplative. These other domains aren't about the skill of ethical behaviour but the skills of other behaviours - artistic, athletic and so on. A rounded person leading a satisfied life, you'd imagine, would be keen to and encouraged to develop skills outside the purely ethical domain of public life. Aristotle's belief, as it happens, is that the contemplative life is the best - but not because it is the most moral, but because the pursuit of truth takes you closer to the divine. In the pursuit of truth, virtue is somewhat irrelevant. It's not about being a 'good' person, it's about knowledge of how to pursue truth. Even so, he did seem to think that one should still have a fit body in which to devlope one's clever mind.


Now, Alasdair MacIntyre in A Short History of Ethics is rather disparaging about Aristotle - though he is in a sense an Aristotelian. MacIntyre sees him as a rather patronising aristocratic figure, somewhat pompous and snobbish, with his Athenian gentleman values and class consciousness. For sure, Aristotle felt that a good degree of economic security, not to mention political freedom, was required to flourish - so slaves, foreigners and women didn't stand much of a chance. However, I am inclined to agree that if you are living in deprivation, facing prejudice and lacking opportunity, your chances of flourishing are limited. Why should people in such circumstances be fed a Stoical message and assured that 'if they are virtuous, they can achieve equanimity and live a good life'? Screw that! Social change is what's required! Stoicism's consolation plays a part but cannot, surely, be an end in itself? So I would say that the downtrodden are cruelly disadvantaged. The main projects of their lives - to bring up their children to be healthy, capable, educated members of society; to enjoy a fruitful work life; to participate in various other projects (art, sport, craft, charitable and so on) - are handicapped by their circumstances however hard they try and however virtuous they may be. Emotional consolation through Stoicism might make this bearable, and that could will be valuable, but such people should not be sold the lie that that is enough for flourishing.


The other point that Kaufman was making in this interview was that a single-minded pursuit of virtue to the negation of anything else in life makes a person very unappealing to be with. And I think that explains the unease I felt while reading Peter Singer's otherwise excellent Practical Ethics. Firstly, it seemed to highlight a kind of mathematical quality to morality while stripping life of value. And it's value that makes life worth living. But secondly, and pertinently to this conversation, it places you in a framework of awareness where to be consistent is to be a moral saint. Those other domains - sporting, athletic, fun - are made insignificant as they don't, as it were, have a mathematical value in the equation of utilitarianism. Despite the fact that the whole project is meant to rely on happiness, pleasure or preferences. It just seems that the moral agent, in working out the complex algebra for how to live, subsumes all other interests in the process of ensuring that the maximum happiness is shared with the maximum number. You might just end up with a world of rather boringly narrow-minded people living adequate lives without much of the colour and texture of intrinsic value.

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