Practical ethics

This will be another artless blend of ideas created by men better than me. Today, those men are Aristotle and Benjamin Franklin.

Franklin believed that virtue(s) can be obtained through diligent practice:

My intention being to acquire the habitude of all these virtues, I judged it would be well not to distract my attention by attempting the whole at once, but to fix it on one of them at a time, and, when I should be master of that, then to proceed to another, and so on, till I should have gone thro’ the thirteen; and, as the previous acquisition of some might facilitate the acquisition of certain others, I arranged them with that view, as they stand above. Temperance first, as it tends to procure that coolness and clearness of head which is so necessary where constant vigilance was to be kept up, and guard maintained against the unremitting attraction of ancient habits and the force of perpetual temptations. This being acquired and established, Silence would be more easy…[et cetera]

My intention being to acquire the habitude of all these virtues, I judged it would be well not to distract my attention by attempting the whole at once, but to fix it on one of them at a time, and, when I should be master of that, then to proceed to another, and so on, till I should have gone thro’ the thirteen; and, as the previous acquisition of some might facilitate the acquisition of certain others, I arranged them with that view, as they stand above. Temperance first, as it tends to procure that coolness and clearness of head which is so necessary where constant vigilance was to be kept up, and guard maintained against the unremitting attraction of ancient habits and the force of perpetual temptations. This being acquired and established, Silence would be more easy;

The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin

There is a lot of wisdom in his method (really lacking only external, positive reinforcement), but I prefer the generality of Aristotle’s theoretical framework: that there is a proper moral response in every situation and we err in some measure of excess or deficiency about this fixed point:

First, then, let us consider this, that it is the nature of such things to be destroyed by defect and excess, as we see in the case of strength and of health (for to gain light on things imperceptible we must use the evidence of sensible things); both excessive and defective exercise destroys the strength, and similarly drink or food which is above or below a certain amount destroys the health, while that which is proportionate both produces and increases and preserves it. So too is it, then, in the case of temperance and courage and the other virtues. For the man who flies from and fears everything and does not stand his ground against anything becomes a coward, and the man who fears nothing at all but goes to meet every danger becomes rash; and similarly the man who indulges in every pleasure and abstains from none becomes self-indulgent, while the man who shuns every pleasure, as boors do, becomes in a way insensible; temperance and courage, then, are destroyed by excess and defect, and preserved by the mean.

Aristotle
Nicomachean Ethics, Book II

Both books go on to enumerate lists of virtues to be practiced, but this is an irrelevant distraction from my purpose. You would be better off than not if you asked any random stranger for such a list and practiced it diligently for a year. Our attention should therefore be directed firstly and foremostly to constructing an effective method of practice.

(I’m not claiming that Aristotle’s theory is precisely correct, accurate, or even that it withstands philosophical scrutiny. The Ethics was always a more practical book than a theoretical one.)

In modifying Franklin’s method to account for the possibility of excesses and deficiencies, we need only change his record keeping. A person should make a mark for each excess and deficiency, keeping in mind Aristotle’s warnings about personal predispositions and biases common to mankind. However, a simple mark is not enough:

But this is no doubt difficult, and especially in individual cases; for or is not easy to determine both how and with whom and on what provocation and how long one should be angry; for we too sometimes praise those who fall short and call them good-tempered, but sometimes we praise those who get angry and call them manly. The man, however, who deviates little from goodness is not blamed, whether he do so in the direction of the more or of the less, but only the man who deviates more widely; for he does not fail to be noticed. But up to what point and to what extent a man must deviate before he becomes blameworthy it is not easy to determine by reasoning, any more than anything else that is perceived by the senses; such things depend on particular facts, and the decision rests with perception. So much, then, is plain, that the intermediate state is in all things to be praised, but that we must incline sometimes towards the excess, sometimes towards the deficiency; for so shall we most easily hit the mean and what is right.

Ibid.

The name of the game is improvement. We praise a child when it speaks at all. We do not praise a man merely for speaking, but we do praise him for speaking very well. We praise effete family and friends for getting even the smallest amount of exercise. We don’t praise gym rats for getting to the gym, but we do praise them when they lift more than they did previously.

Unfortunately, I’ve run out of time for the moment. I’ll return to the topic presently.

About Aeoli Pera

Maybe do this later?
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1 Response to Practical ethics

  1. Zeke says:

    Dang. Just as it was gettin’ good.

    Coincidentally, I’ve been perusing Aristotle’s Ethics for a few weeks now. It’s a good read. And Mr. Franklin was enjoyable for only the first half of his autobiography as I recall.

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