Aug 10, 2012

Weeds in the Garden of Moral Life

When I returned, about a week and half ago, from my summer travels, a restorative period of reconnecting face to face with friends and family, it was no surprise to find the little garden I'd cleared and planted with herbs, strawberries, and peppers , now covered over with weeds, invaded and seemingly conquered at every available inch of dirt.  After all, I basically abandoned the planted plot not only to the elements of sun, rain, wind, but also to encroachments by other plants seeded within the soil, imperfectly rooted out previously, or straying past the border of bricks.  Given the garden's diminutive scale, thoroughly weeding it anew was thankfully just a matter of an afternoon's effort -- but careful, attentive work, for the weeds had been allowed to grow, as is their wont, not only over, not only within, but intertwined with the other plants.

Culling crabgrass, bugle-weed, and other invasive species out from patches of strawberry, thyme, or rosemary, demands a gardener's eye, discerning patterns of leaf, stalk, and shoot from each other, and hands that follow, gently, teasingly until the moment for pulling, separating out the good from the bad, the desirable from that which desires to choke and supplant it.  As the hours passed, more and more soil cleared of green, except for the plants originally intended for those spots, similitudes between gardening, the husbandry of soil and seed, and the processes of moral life, practice, development suggested themselves to me, tangibly, tactilely, experimentally, as much as in concept and language.  Gardening -- like related activities of landclearing and trailblazing, berry-picking and foraging, finding and transplanting plants -- can easily turn into merely utilitarian, practical activity, but it also just as much admits room, and conduces to a readiness, for contemplation.

Moral Life and Moral Theory

Moral life, as some people -- and as some moral theories tend to view it -- is largely a matter of application of one or another moral theory, an ongoing activity of taking clear principles, distinctions, even algorithmic procedures, and then fitting human events, actions, motives, reasonings, feelings, assertions, and claims within the framework of that theory.  In fact, being able to give clean, unequivocal, contextless answers in abstract classroom or textbooks settings, saying whether a given action or policy is good or bad, right or wrong, required, permissible, or prohibited, has come to be regarded by many as a hallmark of a moral theory's adequacy.  I see it differently, and so do those aligned with either the theories or practices of Virtue Ethics.

As it turns out, when you actually look at how it works, when people pay attention to it, need it, add to it -- when it "clicks" -- moral theory is nearly always situated in the midst of muddles -- the complex, frequently ambiguous, but inescapably pressing situations of moral life -- and moral theory arises through reflection not only on, but in, moral life.  We're always seemingly still in process of figuring things out -- and not because we humans would start out knowing basically nothing and then make constant progress through learning more and more, acquiring better and better information, eventually approaching asymptotically the fullness of all possible knowledge.  That's a simplistic -- and thus understandably clear, clean, attractive -- picture of how moral judgement (which gets made, like it or not), gets better or worse, how our reactions, desires, intentions, habits are improved and trained, let run wild or indulged into dark, destructive courses, how moral progress or decline occurs.

One insight about moral theory and human beings running consistently throughout the family of theories and practices termed "Virtue Ethics" -- an insight equally accepted by Plato as by Aristotle, by Augustine as much as by Thomas Aquinas -- is that in order to adequately understand, and therefore to arrive at decent judgements about, at competent applications of, moral theory, one has to have made some degree of moral progress already -- some degree, I stress, some progress, definitely improvable, perhaps just a few first steps from the distant vantage point of completed virtue.  This is not just a question of knowing or believing the right things and not being encumbered by wrongly trusted "knowledge."  Nor is it just a matter of having done the right things, possessing a history if not one which has retained and guarded innocence entirely, at least relatively unmarred by serious wrongdoing, remorse and regrets.

Much more important are the directions, the orientations, the inertia in movement, you might say, of one's desires, one's habits, one's pains and pleasures, ones joys and sorrows.  In order to understand moral life well, moral theory helps, but in order to understand moral theory well, one needs to be living one of certain kinds of life, and not be committed to certain other kinds.  Another way of expressing this is to say that the project of identifying and then rooting out vices, of recognizing and then cultivating virtues -- bit by bit, never working out in actuality exactly like our imaginations or precisely along the lines of our intentions! -- is vital to being able to entirely appreciate judge well not only the mupltiplicitous phenomena of moral life but even the moral theories themselves, developed and used as intellectual tools.

Acquiring Virtues through Moral Theory?

Granting that commonplace truth of Virtue Ethics, then we have to ask, always unfinishedly asking again:  how do we move away from our vices and towards the virtues we might easily misunderstand, or mistakenly assume ourselves to exhibit, misvalue as too low in relation to other things?  What is needed in order for a person to become virtuous?  What is required so that a person cease to be vicious?  What sets out, what illuminates, what guides a person along that path of moral progress?  What keeps them on track not only when temptations, but uncertainties, doubts about what one ought to do, what aspects in a given concrete situation are good or bad, which dynamics and tendencies rooted in oneself hinder and which help?

These are difficult questions to answer in the abstract.  One might draw up a list (even today perhaps generate an infographic), systematically attempting to detail various types of positive and negative influences, conducive or hindering conditions, activities, beliefs, people.  I won't attempt that here, but I will say this.  It's conceivable, and even possible, that a person could become virtuous on his or her own, without much help from others beyond intellectual engagements with authors who he or she admires, say, by taking Aristotle's or Augustine's moral theory to heart and patiently, deliberately, painstakingly modeling and repatterning one's life into accordance with it.  But, even for those of us in academic life, that would be a rarity.

It would not be a rarity because nobody attempts such a bookishly oriented path of transformation.  In fact, when you read through the moral works of Plato, Aristotle, Epictetus, Augustine, one of the common refrains you'll encounter is a lament that too many people think and act precisely that way -- their hope is that by reading, thinking about, discussing moral philosophy, they will thereby experience some sort of transmutation from bad people into good people.  This is actually worth a blog entry of its own later on, so I'll confine myself to just mentioning two interesting examples.  Aristotle criticizes those who think they'll cultivate the intellect, but refrain from changing their actions, choices, and habits, by simply reading (which, in that era, would also include memorizing) philosophy.  Epictetus likewise discusses by-then traditional academic divisions of Stoic philosophy, and faults those who attend to logic, dialectic, arguments before focusing in closely on the less flashy, more mundane matters of desire, aversion, habits.  It doesn't do one much good to be able to articulate one's views well, if those views aren't rooted in healthy soil of moral life and ongoing practice.

I think a similar dynamic can be observed today in the "Self-Help" genre of literature of recent decades.  It's quite easy to thumb through a book with a title relevant to moral matters (often, admittedly, their authors inconsistently deny or denounce "morality" or "moralizing"), purchase it, take it home, even read it cover to cover.  But, putting its advice and adages into action, let alone consistent practice -- not even to speak of discerning well when to apply its key dogmas, just how much, and in what ways, in the specific situations comprising our actual lives -- how often does that actually happen?  That's one particularly good test, by the way, whether the book, author, approach, that one buys actually has anything useful to contribute -- seeing how well or poorly it translates into the idiom of action, and what various consequences result from it -- what takes place, and what more you learn when you not only buy it, but buy into it and commit.

Virtue, Vice, and Progress

When it comes down to it, for nearly everyone, the path of moral progress, the development of greater understanding of moral life, the acquisition of better responses of emotion and action, takes place over time, gradually, a process of building upon successes and confronting failures, often marked by detours and setbacks just as much by the happy intrusions of luck, fortune, or providence. In the abstract, one can indeed lay out sequential "steps" by which one progresses, climbs, moves forward, but it rarely goes so simply.  One can deploy all sorts of sophisticated distinctions, concepts, classifications.  But, so often the concepts we want to employ don't fit us, our cases, our lives, perfectly -- and one temptation that needs resisting is shoehorning everything, Proscrustes-wise entirely into the categories of any moral theory.

Don't get me wrong -- this is not to say that any decent moral theory is useless.  The reason for that it that a moral theory worth the name doesn't just consist of abstract systems of concepts and terms, to be superimposed, like so many cookie-cutters, onto moral life.  That may well be the way in which, unfortunately, they get taught in many Ethics classes, but that's an attitude that, while it can't be called entirely alien not just to the spirit but even to the letter of the writings of Aristotle, or Plato, or Thomas Aquinas, or. . . -- not alien, because these great thinkers actually caution against such simplistic, schematic, doctrinaire approaches to moral matters -- is certainly hostile, perhaps without even realizing it, to any real, living, genuinely applicable ethics.  Moral theories are more than just sets of systematized moral conceptions and categories. 

So, again we come to the point of noting the interconnection between the moral theory that is used to make better sense out of -- and to make better -- our moral lives, with all of their complexities, particularities, ambiguities, on the one hand, and on the other the grounding in ongoing, hopefully improving, experienced and reflected-upon moral life needed in order to provide not only material but traction, sensibility, orientation, even -- dare we say -- the rudiments of understanding for the moral theory (and for choosing one moral theory over its rivals).  For the Virtue Ethicist, this means that there are a number of features of both moral life and moral theory that have to be attended to:  relationships and communities, moral values and the goods and evils that bear them, voluntariness and responsibility, the never-quite-adequate language used to make sense out of moral matters, self-control and its lack, just to name a few.

Just as centrally important are those complexes of action, attitude, and affectivity, consolidated into habits, identified as Virtues and Vices.  Indeed, for the virtue ethicist, one main task of moral theory is to help us better understand in general what vices and virtues are, another is to assist us in discerning their particular shapes and shades in our own lives, and yet another is to thereby guide us in actually making the decisions, resolutions, deteminations which separate out some parts of ourselves from other portions, a process of pruning -- or if you prefer my gardening metaphor, weeding.

Separating Wheat from the Weeds

One of the parables I'm immediately reminded of, when starting down this metaphorical line of thinking about moral theory, live, choices, and progress, is the familiar Gospel story of the tares and the wheat.  Paraphrased into more contemporary parlance -- something I liked to do with my students back when I get to explore that material with them -- it goes something like this:
A farmer went out and planted his field.  That night, though, an enemy came round and threw a lot of weed seeds into his field, and when the grain came up, it was all mixed in and mixed up with the weeds.  "Should we go out and pull those weeds?" his help wanted to know, but he said, "Nah, leave them for the time being.  Too much chance you'll pull out the good wheat, or wreck their roots, while you're pulling the weeds out. Better to wait until after the harvest, and then separate it all out.  Keep the good stuff, burn up the rest."
That is indeed one worry.  Root out the bad stuff -- particularly if you do it too forcefully, too indiscriminately, dare I say, too dogmatically and schematically, substituting a sloppy sort of simplistic thinking for paying attention and thinking things out -- and you'll destroy, by collateral damage, the good stuff as well.  I think we're all familiar with people who don't really seem themselves, who are good enough in certain ways, who measure up by certain moral yardsticks, but in interactions with whom there resides an echo of elimination, a suspicion of deleted desire, something amiss, something unhappy, sterile, impersonal to their generally good moral existence.

The processes involved in the project of gradually weaning oneself from vices and cultivating virtues really do bear upon parts of ourselves.  My desires are my desires -- both the good and the bad ones, those rightly ordered and directed, and those unruly, dark, counter-productive, and seductive.  My beliefs too, and the same goes for my attitudes, my actions, my decisions -- they're parts of myself.  Uprooting the noxious weeds of vice networked like crabgrass rhizomes into my soul and body means working in the soil, among the more delicate, less well-established, but beneficial plants, which in their time will yield colorful blooms, useful and savory herb, wholesome vegetables -- and one need be careful precisely not to pull too quickly, carelessly,without discrimination.

With an agricultural metaphor of his own, in his De Similtudinibus, Anselm likens moral development to gardening:
Truly one who strives for the virtues ought to know that he or she should act in the way of a gardener. For the gardener, who desires to plant herbs, first considers the nature of the ground where he would plant them. And unless the nature of the ground and of the herbs are compatible, they will in no way be able to grow and be fruitful. Likewise, for one who wants to make a plantation of the virtues, a first examination of their place where he or she would plant them is needed. For if the place is corrupt, then those very virtues will be reduced to vices.
Anselm was no stranger to planting virtues in human fields, if not overgrown, at least long-seeded with weeds of vice.  In fact, he provides an excellent example of the sort of faculty of discrimination, a moral and intellectual analogue to the hands and eyes of an experienced gardener, who can disentangle the dangerously intertwined roots and elements of virtues and vices from each other, who can see or sense the good plants even under a carpet of weeds, and patiently work around them, pulling a weed here, another there, until the soil is clear and free for the plants intended by the planter.

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