Blog Site

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Being good: Spock, Obama, Jesus style

Composite, AP Photos
In my previous article about reader feedback, I wrote about building character - both as an individual and as a nation. Let's explore that further by considering being good versus doing good.

As a long time fan of Star Trek, I was happy to see the recent release of the film reviving the original characters. Zackary Quinto is being hailed for his portrayal of Mr. Spock; a favorite character for many of us. Although Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry was a Humanist, Mr. Spock once described himself as a Stoic.

In so doing, Spock was referring to the ancient Greek (planet Earth, that is) philosophy whose adherents are known for either lacking or controlling of emotion. This is an unfortunate caricature of Stoicism, as Stoics can certainly enjoy life joyfully. Over at, Jeff Greenwald recently made an interesting case for Barack Obama being our planet's version of Mr. Spock. With his cool demeanor and yet, ability to smile and laugh with others, Obama is perhaps a better example of true Stoicism than Mr. Spock. I have no idea whether or not he has knowingly read of the philosophy, yet its wisdom has traveled through many streams over the centuries and may have found its way to Obama in unknown ways.

What Stoicism is really about isn't suppressing emotion, but rather changing our way of looking at the world so that we understand what is in our control and what is not - so that we value the things that are truly valuable, get less consumed with those things that are not, and apply ourselves to living more virtuously and in accordance with our genuine natures. When this is deeply understood and practiced, one will naturally find themselves in a more emotionally balanced state and that equilibrium will less often give rise to extreme emotions in the first place. I've said many times before, if you're suppressing an emotion (a psychologically unhealthy thing to do regularly) then you've already failed in the Stoic endeavor. I've given a more lengthy, yet still informal, explanation of Stoicism on my philosophy website for those interested.

When Gene Mayes sent me a link to a paper by Roderick T. Long titled, On Making Small Contributions to Evil, I thought about the issue of how much of Western philosophy looks at ethics, and how differently Stoicism looks at it. Long's is an interesting paper that tries to address the issue of whether or not we have a duty not to make small (insignificant) contributions to evil. This would be something like our carbon footprint and global warming, for example. On one hand, you could say that one person's stopping their pollution will make no difference unless everyone changes. On the other, you could say that we do have such a duty regardless, which leads to a lot of uncomfortable conclusions. Long attempts to create an argument for a middle ground between the extreme of not modifying our behavior at all, and living like a cave man. Even within its context, I think the paper is weak and has some holes, but it's a noble effort.

Aside from that, they main thing I noticed was how focused the entire thing was on outcomes - on the external results of our actions. Western philosophy often treats ethics as a puzzle; a logical and linguistic mind game of weighing up various outcomes, principles, and implied contracts. It looks at how many bodies you have left in the dead pile, how many lives 'saved', how many people who think they're happy, and so on. From this it deduces what is moral, what is immoral, what ought to be done, and what ought not to be done. Those complying with these rules are called 'good' and those not complying are called 'evil' (or at least 'bad'). The entire enterprise just seems hopelessly off base and ridiculous to me.

One of my quibbles (to put it mildly) with Cheney has been the suggestion that we should look at the effects of using torture, although he wouldn't call it torture. Aside from the fact that even that approach is debatable, here we have an example of measuring things by external, easily measurable outcomes and results. The Obama administration has rejected the notion that the results matter when it comes to torture - again, in line the with classic Stoic approach, knowingly or not.

The Stoic approach to ethics is not so concerned with what it would call 'externals'. Rather, to a Stoic, ethics is about personal virtue. It doesn't really matter so much whether you succeed or fail in your efforts, or what effect - lasting or not - those efforts have. If something is appropriate to your nature and virtuous, you are wise to practice in that manner, regardless.

Socrates wasn't a Stoic. He predated Stoicism as a formal school, but was considered a prime influential predecessor. When Socrates drank the hemlock as per the requirements of his death sentence, he never thought about whether his compliance would move people to change the laws, or encourage them to be compliant, or anything of the sort. The only question was, was it suitable to him as a virtuous man? In this line of thinking, it is the motivation and the internal mindset that matters most when we act as moral agents, and what many modern approaches to ethics miss entirely. I'll explain why this is the important element in a moment.

On the International Stoic Forum, Dave Kelly made a post in which he summarized a paper by Stanley Stowers of Brown University: Jesus the Teacher and Stoic Ethics in the Gospel of Matthew. In that paper Stowers makes a case for Stoic influences in the gospel of Matthew which paint Jesus as a Stoic Sage. He states:

"What God requires for righteousness is not simply the performance of actions that in themselves are generally accepted as morally good, but rather that such actions be done with the right moral disposition that is the equivalent doing God’s will."

Although this is arguable, earlier Stoics might substitute "in accordance with Nature" for "God's will", or perhaps use the term 'Zeus' but imply a less personified concept than most modern Christians think of God. The important point is the emphasis on the fact that it is our internal moral disposition that is more important than merely performing outward acts, or even the external consequences of those acts.

Why is Stoicism so different than what much of Western philosophy came to be in this area? There is what Mr. Spock would call a 'fascinating' line of investigation into the early interactions between ancient Greek philosophers and Eastern philosophy. Buddhism, close to Stoicism in many respects, also has a take on this. The word 'karma' literally means 'intention'.

The reason inner intention and motivation are so important to ethics is because the entire purpose of ethics is to inform us of the best way to live such that we may enjoy happiness. And, by happiness I mean a deep contentment which is not dependent on outward circumstance - not necessarily short-sighted immediate pleasure. This is the 'good life' - the flourishing life of well being, and it is not about how many cars you have or how many friends you have. It's a state that is reached because you are living in accordance with your inner nature as a moral being.

While some Western thoughts on ethics get into legalisms, mechanisms, and logical structures on duties, morals, etc, the Eastern approach (and Western Stoic approach) sticks to the idea of what produces happiness - the very reason for all those ethics in the first place. This is the difference between doing good, and being good.

No comments:

Post a Comment