I think we can learn a lot about ethics from literature. What else is literature but a playing out of hypothetical ethical situations? And how amazing is Jane Austen at presenting situations where character traits play front and center?!
Ever since Diane and I chatted, I’ve been mulling over a series of questions: how do we separate what we do from who we are? Is what we do somehow separate from who we are? Or can our actions be reduced to expressions or reflections of who we already are?
I suspect we won’t ever be able to make a perfectly clean distinction, which makes the question of virtues and vices more complex. When can we say that we’ve adopted a virtue or disposed of a vice? Only when we consistently show the behavior that corresponds to those traits. In other words, we can only really say we have the virtue of honesty if we act honestly on a consistent basis. Contrarily, we cannot say we have the virtue of honesty if we consistently act dishonestly. So it seems virtues and vices — who we are — are dependent on, or even derivations of, actions.
But where does that leave dispositions? What if, say, I have a constant desire and impulse to lie, but in every situation I choose to speak the truth? Can I really be said to be an honest person? It seems as if I would be both — I would be innately dishonest and learnedly or intentionally honest. I don’t know that even Aristotle would say that version of me had the virtue of honesty. I’m not sure what we would really even say about who that person was; at least regarding that particular character trait binary.
Ah, if only we lived in Jane Austen’s ear when all that mattered was your socioeconomic status. (I kid, I kid.)
I think the biggest benefit we get when considering and talking about virtue ethics is that it gets us to think about what it means to be a good person and how we can try to teach and motivate people to behave virtuously. To teach and motivate people to behave with an eye to the Good and not just towards how they will be affected. As Martha Nussbaum so wonderfully points out, this is where literature plays an important role in our development as ethical human beings.
If you love Jane Austen and philosophy, then I highly encourage you to check out the article by Amanda Marie Kubic that explores how Austen’s novels display an Aristotelian ethics (and where that might have come from). For those faithful listeners, guess who also makes an appearance in the article?! I’ll give you a hint: It’s Diane’s hope for becoming a true Lady. Ok, ok, I’ll tell you: ANTHONY ASHLEY COOPER, THE 3RD EARLY OF SHAFTESBURY. I KNOW.
So with that lovely bit of scholarship, I will also leave you with something purely joyful. Watch this dad and his baby have a full-on, absolutely delightful conversation.
Thank you, as always, for listening and reading! Go be good out there, whether in being or by choice. I believe in you.