Saturday, November 9, 2013

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

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