By Dr. Joseph Chuman
There’s an adage that a person’s life should not be judged by the one worst thing he or she has ever done. Yet dynamics in our society appear to leave people more vulnerable to such assessment. We seem to live in a “gotcha” moment, when a person is readily excoriated for saying the “wrong” thing. In this regard, our times and societal relations have become more fraught and brittle. It causes me to wonder whose interests are being served by such glib judgment. Society? The person so judged? The putative victim of their slights? Or maybe the person rendering the judgment himself? I am skeptical of the ability of those rushing to judgment to allow themselves to buy their own righteousness too cheaply.
We can ask whether society has veered too stridently in the direction of judgment and has forgotten the value of forgiveness. Who has not said something to others that was offensive or stupid? Who has not in thoughtless or impulsive moments not done things she or he has regretted? We seem to have lapsed into a harshness at the expense of softer and kinder relations.
A zealous commitment to ethics can augment this fraught environment, and we Ethical Culturists need to be mindful of this danger. Ethics, after all, requires judgment— “this is bad; this is good. This right; that wrong.” And it is just a short step from moral judgment to moralism. And as implied, in moral judgment we also run the risk of what I call “the narcissism of righteous.” Again, we can buy our righteousness too cheaply at the expense of the other, forgetting that the distance between us and those at whom we point a finger may not be very large.
But as Ethical Culturists, we need to strive for something more substantive and dignified.
In the history of ethical thought, there are at least three major traditions or schools. There is what is known as deontological ethics (coming from the Greek word for duty). Deontological ethics is rule-based and can shade into the disposition of excessive judgment I referred to above. There is a second major school, utilitarianism, which looks to the consequences of our decisions, assessing those that bring the greatest happiness to the larger number of people as morally desirable. Both these approaches are essential for making ethical decisions and resolving moral dilemmas.
But there is a third approach, which has its origins in ancient times (Aristotle is a major source) and is experiencing a revival in recent times within ethical circles. This third way is referred to as “virtue ethics” and in my view is very attractive. Whereas deontological and utilitarian ethics focus on the question “What is the right thing to do?” virtue ethics defines ethics more broadly by asking the question “How can I live the good life?” This broader scope takes into account the entire frame of a person’s life. In other words, has the person striven to live out ethical values with integrity over the long haul? Have they lived lives with honesty, respect, and support for others? Have their deeds been consistent with their words and aspirations?
In short, virtue ethics is focused on practicing the virtues in the service of developing character. It relates to what we might call human flourishing. If we employ virtue ethics as the standard for assessing the moral attainment of ourselves and others, individual acts count less and shade into the entirety of a person’s life. This perspective does, of course, exonerate us from individual violate acts, but it may render our assessments less harsh and broaden our appreciation of the humanity of others and ourselves, virtues, faults, and all. I plan to expand on these ideas and apply them to current issues in my platform address of Oct. 6. I’ve entitled it “Ethics Over a Lifetime.” I look forward to seeing you then.
Dr. Joseph Chuman is leader of the Ethical Culture Society of Bergen County.