Saturday, November 9, 2013

Principles of Virtue

Link to Introduction

1. The Promise of Virtue

1.1. If you live virtuously you will have more freedom and greater happiness, and so will your descendents.

2. The Three Basic Laws of Virtue

2.1. Be mindful of what is right in everything you do.

2.2. Respect, love, protect, and befriend all people, cultures, species, sciences, and religions.

2.3. Remember that perfect knowledge or virtue is impossible for any mortal being. Remain humble before the infinite and the sacred.

3. Family and Social Relations

3.1. Honor your parents. Respect your siblings. Love and care for your children.

3.2. Raising a family leads to a fulfilling life. Families should stay together and support each member.

3.3. If you have the resources to raise a family, you should not put it off.

3.4. Sex is the ultimate expression of a bond between two people. To have sex with someone is to marry them. Marry only one person.

3.5. Avoid pornography, prostitution, unclean fantasies, and adultery. They are addictive and can weaken or destroy a marriage.

3.6. Do not beat your spouse or children.

3.7. Love your children and teach them kindness, rational dialogue, and compromise.

3.8. Teach your children virtue.

3.9. Pass on your knowledge and skills to the next generation.

3.10. When a family member errs, forgive them. Children and teenagers should never be ostracized.

3.11. Honor the talents of your family members and help them  flourish, even if they are different or unusual.

3.12. Help family members when they are in need.

3.13. Love your neighbor as yourself.

3.14. Stay faithful to your friends.

3.15. Do not rob, steal from, trick, attack, or kill another human being.

3.16. Help strangers who are in need.

3.17. Give excess wealth to the poor and needy.

3.18. Keep your contracts.

3.19. Be fair in your dealings. Be just and uphold the law.

3.20. Respect all people and treat them as the same regardless of their wealth, rank, abilities, religion, nationality, race, gender, age, sexual orientation, or other distinguishing category.

3.21. Do not take revenge. Appeal to the law for conviction and punishment.

3.22. Abstain from mind-altering drugs.

3.23. Alcohol, tobacco, and caffeine should be used only in moderation. It is wiser to abstain completely.

4. Heroism and Leadership

4.1. Heroism is the courage to risk your own well-being to help someone in need.

4.2. Be willing to make sacrifices for others.

4.3. Do what is right even if it meets with disapproval.

4.4. Keep the martyrs and heroes of the past in memory.

4.5. Do not take bribes.

4.6. A hero or leader does not seek personal gain, glory, fame, power, or wealth. Instead, you should seek to serve those who look up to you.

4.7. If you do achieve fame, power, or wealth, do not be afraid to sacrifice them – they have no worth in themselves. Use your gifts to serve others.

4.8. Be careful when you oppose corrupt leaders and practices not to become corrupt yourself.

4.9. Leaders should never despise their followers. They should value each one for the abilities or virtues they have.

4.10. Leaders should be humble, not proud.

4.11. Leaders should have powerful desires and creative minds, but they should always show humility, fairness, and generosity.

4.12. Leaders should not be admired for their power, but only for their virtues.

4.13. Leaders should never control, dominate, or manipulate the lives of their followers. They should only utilize their power during those brief times when it is necessary.

4.14. It often takes great courage, heroism, or self-sacrifice to bring a corrupt or immoral leader to justice. All men and women have the duty to oppose tyranny if and when they can.

4.15. Governments and leaders should grant their people the right to seek the truth, express the truth, and live in freedom.

4.16. Governments and leaders should heed the grievances of their subjects and followers.

4.17. War should only be waged in self-defense, and never preemptively.

4.18. A society should seek peace and friendship with neighboring societies, no matter their differences in belief, opinion, ideology, or religion.

4.19. Wealthy societies should always share their riches with poorer societies.

4.20. One society should never dominate or control another, whether militarily, economically, or culturally.

4.21. Each culture should be valued for its uniqueness.

4.22. Leaders and governments should never keep secrets from their followers or subjects.

5.  Simplicity

5.1. Strive for simplicity in thought and action.

5.2. Seek poverty, humility, low rank, obedience, and practical skills.

5.3. Do not take prosperity for granted. Strive to be self-sufficient and ready for hardship.

5.4. Try not to depend on distant or powerful sources for knowledge or wealth. Work with your neighbors instead. Avoid politics and war.

5.5. Prefer barter to money.

5.6. Do not charge interest on loans.

5.7. Do not seek or accumulate wealth or power. Do not depend on wealth or power, but on your own mind and hands.

5.8. Specialize in a trade if you have talent, but do not forget your traditional knowledge and skills.

5.9. The duty of the powerful is to serve. Do not use your station to live in more luxury than others.

5.10. It is better to let things follow their natural course than to seek complicated solutions.

6.  Sincerity, Discipline, and Diligence

6.1. Allow your life to be guided and shaped by the sacred. Strive for what is best and most divine.

6.2. Discipline yourself and your children to do what is right even when doing the right thing is hard, frightening, or time-consuming.

6.3. Be diligent and steadfast in your work and in upholding your values.

6.4. Do not be lazy or careless.

6.5. In uncertain times, seek the divine for guidance. Turn to ancient wisdom when modern knowledge fails.

6.6. Cultivate a set of skills and talents that will make you useful to those around you.

6.7. Welcome criticism of yourself from others and heed their advice.

6.8. Do your share of the work.

6.9. Be honest and never lie.

6.10. Be sincere and earnest in your relations, your work, and your conflicts.

6.11. Make time for recreation. Recreation should be both edifying and enjoyable. It should be active and creative, and not tedious.

6.12. Be straightforward about your intentions. Avoid intrigues and conspiracies. Do not manipulate, control, or trick others.

7. Prayer and Meditation

7.1. Contemplate your life now and then, and how you can live more virtuously and sincerely.

7.2. Read scriptures regularly and contemplate their meaning and how they can be applied to your life.

7.3. Prayer or meditation (they are the same) should be done quietly either alone or with immediate family.

7.4. When you are blessed, pray to thank and to become humble and not proud.

7.5. When you are in distress, pray for comfort and guidance.

7.6. Pray in humility, recognizing that the divine is greater than you.

7.7. Don’t let prayer become a forced or mechanical thing. Pray from your heart.

7.8. Pray for forgiveness of past wrongs.

7.9. Do not ask for worldly things when you pray, but for spiritual strength.

7.10. When you pray the mind should be reverently quiet.

7.11. One should pray to, or meditate on, the highest Good you can conceive (such as God, the Tao, or the Buddha-nature).

Introduction to "Principles of Virtue"

Modern American philosophy is very unusual in how it treats ethics. For over 2000 years, from the time Thales (c. 600 B.C.) to the time of Schopenhauer (1788-1860), Western philosophers were in the habit of developing moral principles and expressing them as clearly as possible. Some examples:

Happiness does not dwell in flocks of cattle or in gold. Happiness, like unhappiness, is a property of the soul [. . .] for perfection of soul corrects the inferiority of the body, but physical strength without intelligence does nothing to improve the mind. Men find happiness neither by means of the body nor through possessions, but through uprightness and wisdom.
--Democritus (c. 460 - c. 370 B.C), who is better known today as one of the first atomists

 [. . .] act only in accordance with that maxim through which you can at the same time will that it become a universal law.
--Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), who is stating a more technical version of the Golden Rule

The habit of stating explicit moral principles ended with a German-American philosophical movement known as Positivism, which rejected the study of morality as "pseudo-sicence," because they believed it was impossible to do scientific experiments to validate moral principles. Not all modern philosophers are Positivists, but they are still more interested in debating whether the Positivists were correct than actually setting about developing workable moral principles. You've got "Moral Realists" who argue that there are in fact object values out there, "Moral Skeptics" who doubt this, "Moral Relativists" who argue that morals are different for everyone, "Moral Anti-Realists" who argue that morals are simply not real, etc. etc. In this huge long-winded debate (known as "Meta-Ethics"), few philosophers are stopping to actually develop a set of moral principles, and even fewer are bothering to listen to those who do.

In my experience, the most profound sources of moral knowledge are the great religious scriptures of the world, such as the Confucian Analects and the Koran. They examine in detail what it means to be a good person (ethics). By contrast, modern philosophy is concerned with proving whether or not anything is provable in the study of how to be a good person (meta-ethics).

After Moses came down the mountain with the Ten Commandments, he did not then proceed to lay down a logical argument for why they must be correct. Instead, he simply called them the word of God and set about teaching the Hebrews how to live better lives. Even if you doubt that Moses actually spoke to a Deity on that mountain, the fact remains that his Commandments provided the Western world with a powerful set of moral principles that transformed society.

Moses may have had faith that this would happen, but he couldn't have known it scientifically. Not even the most brilliant scientists or historians can predict the future course of civilization. It follows that there is no way to develop a set of moral principles and to be sure they will be successful.

This doesn't mean that there isn't a better ethics out there to be found, just that we have no sure way to find it.

The reason that this is okay is that human culture is prolific. I mentioned that Western philosophers have been fond of writing down principles of ethics for over 2000 years. You've also got a long tradition of Indian gurus, Chinese philosophers, and Buddhist monks who have done the same. There is no shortage of ethical systems out there, and many of them work well. There is no reason to throw up your hands and give up on morality completely. Good grief. We don't give up on music just because we can't find the best song out there.


American philosophers need to start making music again. Back in the fall of 2010, I composed by own ethical tune, which I call Principles of Virtue. It's very short, but it's taken a long time to find the right harmonies. Though I cannot be sure others will find it true, I took the writing of it very seriously. I would jot down 1-3 principles at a time, then sleep on them for a week. If any doubts were raised in my mind concerning a principle, I would rewrite it and sleep on it again, until I found myself waking up with a clear conscience. Then I would write down the next 1-3 principles.

A couple of years before I even wrote them down, these principles transformed my life. I was filled with pride, ambition,envy, and a host of bad habits. But I had finally gotten around to taking 2 years off from my Ph.D. program, and attempting to live on as little money as possible (so I could spend all my time reading and writing) I ended up living a simple monk-like existence. Fortunately, this gave me time to finally read the Bible, the Confucian Analects, the Koran, and the Bhagavad Gita. These are the sources of the principles I would later write down. None of them originated with me.

They transformed my life. These principles gave me focus. I threw away all the psychiatric medication I had been on -- including anti-psychotics for manic-depression and pills for anxiety. I stopped having nightmares, episodes, and panic attacks. I became friendlier. I slept at night. Then I met a wonderful woman, Emily, settled down with her to start a family, and now I have a good job and a nice house. And in fact I get more writing done now than I did when I was a single hermit without a job.

I am not saying that everyone needs to adopt my principles of virtue. I do suggest reading scriptures of some kind. These principles are simply my attempt to distill the most important ethical rules and express them in a modernized way.

I hope you enjoy my song, and I hope it inspires more music in our culture.

Principles of Virtue