In my previous two blogs I have argued that, in terms of ethics, the way forward for humanity is through the development of certain character traits or good habits – habits that will support our flourishing as members of a global land community, character traits that will support the story of this same flourishing. But how do we develop these character traits? And, perhaps more importantly, what are they? I have been thinking this through now for about ten years, and have made several lists of suitable candidates, but here I’m just going to outline what I consider to be the three most important. But first a few words about their general development.
Aristotle termed the character traits he discussed ‘virtues’, and argued that we develop them through constant practice, through constant repetition, through establishing good habits. He never prescribed exactly what each virtue meant for each individual in a given situation, other than it was the avoidance of both excess and deficit, what he termed the golden mean. He recognised that “conduct has to do with individual cases, and that our statements must harmonize with the facts in these cases”, and that “a master of any art avoids excess and deficit, but seeks the intermediate and chooses this – the intermediate not in the object but relative to us”.
Let me illustrate what Aristotle means here with the first of my suggested character traits – empathy. By empathy I don’t simply mean feeling what another person feels, I mean a considered response to those feelings that lies between the two extremes of selflessness and selfishness, a mean point that we need to determine for ourselves relative to each social situation. Why? Because it involves a conscious attempt to put ourselves in the position of the other and to assess the situation from their perspective and, perhaps, to ask ‘what does the other person expect of me?’ For each social act it is impossible to describe that act as either right or wrong, but the habit of practicing empathy contributes to human flourishing because it makes vivid the expectations of the other through thought and feeling. Expectations, in both the senses of the word (what ‘should’ happen, what ‘will’ happen), are the relations that form human society and culture, they are the forces that cause it to change and grow, they are the forces that glue it together.
If empathy is the social glue that holds communities together, that brings out our interdependence on others, my suggested second character trait does something very similar with regards our relationship with other animals and our natural environment. Let me term this new habit ‘Ecopathy’. This is the developing trait of both feeling and understanding ourselves as ‘plain members of the land community’, as Aldo Leopold phrased it, of deeply appreciating our interdependence with all life. If we want to get scientific, it means developing an understanding of the dynamic complexity of life on this planet, and allowing this understanding to influence how we act in the daily dramas of our lives. In terms of Aristotle’s ‘golden mean’, perhaps it lies between the two extremes of our selfish exploitation of the planet, our thinking that we have dominion over other life forms, and the brutal fact that as a member of the land community we do need to eat, we will produce waste, and some of our actions will harm other members of the land community.
I have recently come to the realization that the outlook for humanity is bleak, very bleak, unless we start learning how to think. Yes, I know we all think we can think, we do it all the time, but I mean really think – not just have opinions. We need to develop the habit of thinking critically, of asking questions about what we hear and read, of looking for and evaluating the evidence that supports our opinions and beliefs, and (most importantly) being prepared to have other people challenge our opinions and not responding with a tirade of insults. For want of a better phrase, I am going to term this third character trait ‘good sense’. I use this phrase to purposely contrast it with the term ‘common sense’ which I equate to a herd mentality, the habit of simply following popular opinion. Perhaps the golden mean here is somewhere between a herd mentality and the arrogance of believing that any thought we have must be correct.
The three character traits that I’ve outlined above are by no means exhaustive, they are simply my top three. It is important to realise that there cannot be a definitive list of character traits, just as is it impossible to say, definitively, what the right or proper action is in any situation. It is impossible to say, therefore, what character traits we should be developing. In the same way as all the characters in good novel have different traits, we will all need to develop our own characters in our own way in response to our own unique circumstances, but we need to do so forever mindful of the story we are trying act out, and our dynamic interdependence on all other natural systems.