As any leader who has committed to an ethical life will tell you, upholding a virtuous disposition of character is one of the most challenging and worthy pursuits we could ever undertake. However, for most of us, historically and contemporaneously, it has been and continues to be impossible to spontaneously achieve the perfection of virtue. In fact, I would argue it is simply arrogant to contemplate such a proposition.
Except in the rarest of circumstances, the pursuit of virtue is a long, arduous, and perilous journey towards becoming a more complete human being. For Aristotle, the journey takes a lifetime. For the Buddha, many lifetimes. According to scholars such as Carl Jung, Joseph Campbell, and Thomas Moore, pursuing virtue necessarily requires us to journey through a metaphoric ‘Hell’ – a mental space where all our tendencies towards the bad manifests in our consciousness. Avoiding the journey and only aligning with virtue risks us being blind to our own capacity to commit wrongful acts of body, speech, and mind, and constrains us from seeing our own immorality. And if we cannot see our own immorality, we cannot address its harmfulness towards Self and Other.
Like Persephone, daughter of Zeus and Queen of the underworld, achieving virtue requires us to surrender our innocence and take some authority in and from the darkness of our Soul. According to the aforementioned scholars and esteemed Mystics such as Therese of Ávila, surrendering perfection and instead living with compassion for Self and Other would seem far more desirable and realistic than pursuing any arrogant notions of pure virtuosity.
Of course, such a journey is littered with irony, paradox, hypocrisy, and fallibility, and it is fallibility that I wish to address in this short blog.
Fallibility is a universal feature of the human condition. At its most basic level, it is our tendency to make mistakes, err, or be wrong, particularly with our capacity for ethical judgment, and much of it revolves around ignorance. Ouch you might say again (reflecting on the previous blog about moral hypocrisy), that is a bit harsh! But again, let me explain!
We are often constrained by our own defects of information, sensitivity, maturity, imagination, and coherence. We tend to judge others too quickly without all the available information, or we gather only that information that supports our biased perspective. We can be insensitive to the reasons why others hold alternative views, or why they find themselves in difficult circumstances that we would often judge as immoral or unethical.
We can fail to draw upon our own lived experiences of being fallible to appreciate the circumstances of others, or we can fail to adequately use our imagination to try and appreciate what circumstances others may be facing. We can also have knowledge about individual facts, but be let down by our theories, beliefs, and overall perspectives that are bound to be biased and/or inconsistent when judging the moral and ethical dilemmas of others. Relatedly, our view of the world can never perfectly align with the actual situation that we engage with.
According to philosopher Paul Ricoeur, we also possess infinite desire for the future but finite knowledge (ignorance) of the consequences of acting on that desire. Some of those desires result in good outcomes, but sadly, many do not. Often, what leads us into moral and ethical dilemma is that we don’t think enough about the consequences of our actions, both upon Self and Other. Excessive self-importance and self-interest play a significant role in this harmful mental process. Or if we do think it through to some degree, often we convince ourselves that those consequences will be good, or at least neutral.
Sometimes, but admittedly not always, there will be the ‘seed of doubt’ sitting within our mental peripheral vision, albeit we often ignore it. That ‘seed of doubt’ emerges from the darkness of our Soul, and as Carl Jung reminded us, it is from that darkness that our fate will be determined. Left unaddressed, that ‘seed’ will flourish as negative and often painful consequences – consequences that could have otherwise been avoided or minimised if only we had taken the time to reflect more deeply, gather more information, and dispel as much of our ignorance as possible about their potential ramifications.
Finally, another aspect of our fallibility is that we often fail to live up to our own moral and ethical standards under idealised conditions. Put another way, we fail in our consistency to reliably manifest our behaviours across a range of diverse and widely variable conditions with predictability, and we fail in our stability to reliably manifest our behaviours in similar circumstances. For example, if we were both consistent and stable in our ethical practices, we would exhibit compassion in a wide variety of relevant situations (such as at work, home, social settings, and when caring for others), as well as repeated instances of the same kind of situation (such as in the workplace).
Historically, there have been numerous studies that intended to ascertain the extent to which people were compassionate in a range of circumstances. Interestingly, each study revealed that many participants, despite believing that they were compassionate, did not help others who were in situations of distress, and predictions about their behaviour were often highly misleading. The evidence showed that, in a wide variety of situations relevant to the virtue (or vice) under scrutiny, most people did not consistently nor stably possess the traditional virtues or vices understood as global character traits (such as compassion, courage, and honesty).
Importantly, Aristotle claimed that maintaining consistency and stability of virtue was difficult and uncommon, and while he refuted the proposition that most people were naturally virtuous, he argued that cultivating virtues was still an important aspect of living a moral life. Aristotle observed that we all had the capacity to be virtuous through phronesis or practical wisdom, and along with the Buddha, regarded human nature as intellectually and emotionally complex. Both philosophers argued that the final good for the individual lay in the full development of their potential in these two dimensions of intellect and emotion. They also postulated that this was a gradual, cultivated, and cumulative process over the course of a lifetime or lifetimes. This process resulted in a state of perfection reached through eudaimonia for Aristotle and Nirvana for the Buddha, both characterised by happiness as the final goal of human endeavour.
Philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre extended these concepts to argue that our unfolding life story, shaped by our lived experiences and the social practices, communities of accountability, and moral traditions of the societies in which we lived, contributed towards improving our virtuosity. That is to say, our virtues originate developmentally and conceptually in practices that must be matured over time. Continually asking and answering the question what constitutes a good life helps to ‘sustain us in the relevant kind of quest for the good, by enabling us to overcome the harms, dangers, temptations, and distractions which we encounter, and which furnish us with increasing self-knowledge and increasing knowledge of the good’.
In essence, what these philosophers were trying to tell us is simply ‘become a better human being over time’ in whatever circumstance we find ourselves. To help achieve this, we would do well to accept that fallibility is part of being human. We should give up trying or pretending to be perfect, listen more intently to the wisdom of our Mind or Soul as well as the wisdom of the Sages, and learn from the successes and mistakes of our lived experiences. Finally, we need to be more compassionate towards our Self and Other and we need to keep going! The road to virtue is long and winding, but then again, so is life – by making virtue our lifelong companion, we will never be isolated from a genuine sense of happiness, meaning, and purpose, irrespective of the external circumstances in which we are presented with. And that my friends, is one of the great gifts of the Sages!