virtues

Embracing our evil.

What is good, what is evil? These kind of questions are the principal theme of the philosophy of ethics. Traditionally there are two sources of answers: the ethics of virtues and the ethics of duty. In the former (Aristotle) virtues are character traits that result in positive choices, choices for the ‘good’. These character traits can be learned. Therefore a person has to know him- of herself. Examples of virtues are the so called cardinal virtues: courage, modesty, discernment and fairness. Still unanswered then is the question who determines which virtues are good and which character traits are bad.

On that question the ethics of duty provides an answer. Good is doing to others what you want that others do to you (and evil then is the reverse). This  so-called Golden Rule is formulated initially by Pittakos of Mylene and Thales of Milete (around 500 B.C.). It also comes close to the concept of reciprocity of Confucius and to what Kant calls the categorical imperative. And it also comes close to Ubuntu philosophy: good is to promote the wellbeing of (the) other person(s), even if this means neglecting ones own wellbeing.  This is an inner prescription about what you should do in a given situation. However, even in this case, the answer to the question: ‘what is good?’ is not always clear. Especially it leaves one empty-handed in situations where societal behavior is required. For instance it doesn’t give an answer to questions like: for what party should I vote, or what product should I buy?

Therefore I prefer an ethics of autonomy (the term is from Paul Cliteur, 2007). The ethics of autonomy requires that one listens to the inner voice, the still, small voice of calm that nevertheless can have the force of a hurricane, completely devastating one’s carefully built-up belief structure. So there is only one place where one can find out what is good or evil behavior in a given situation: one’s self. That, like with the the ethics of virtue, also requires a lot of self investigation, even more so, to find out what is in the way of listening to this still small voice of calm. Maybe it is our indolence or fear.

We live in a world of opposites, an antinomial world. Therefore, there is no good without evil. So we cannot find the good within ourselves without bringing our evil to light. Said otherwise: bringing light towards our shadow. Only when we know our malice, we are free to choose what we are going to do with it: acting it out or embracing it without acting. This last possibility will help us not to judge and not to think in terms of we-and-they. As far as I am concerned that is worth the try.

 

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