The Temptation in Moral Philosophy

I am as much an advocate for the importance of moral philosophy and virtue ethics as anyone, but I think it’s important to recognize that there is a very real temptation in it, which has the potential to disfigure and harm the person studying it.

The temptation is to see mainly other people in the things we are studying, to see the things we are studying mainly in other people.

“That vice? Oh yes, that reminds me so vividly of someone I know.” “This virtue? It’s certainly something I’d love to see more of in old so-and-so, who’s intolerable lately.”

The more we reflect on morality, the more we will recognize it in the world around us. Somehow, we often have a blind spot when it comes to ourselves.

And perhaps there is some foundation for this in many cases. Maybe in a given instance the moralist really is much farther along the path of virtue, and the other person could make the situation easier on everyone by summoning just a modicum of patience or courage or self-restraint.

Even in those extreme cases, however, we are not responsible for their behaviour, only for our own. Those situations are primarily opportunities not for teaching, but for growth, for excellence. If they want our guidance then we should offer it to them, but otherwise it is pointless to remark on their flaws. Their flaws are a challenge that can in fact bring out our own best qualities — our patience, magnanimity, wisdom, strength.

I am as guilty as anyone of finding fault with others. It’s something I’m working on. It’s a great trial, and an important chance to grow in virtue. Let’s commit to tackling this challenge, and to picking ourselves back up after every failure.

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