Thursday, March 1, 2012

'Bad Habbits" or everyday virtue is for the birds.

One of the most common tasks I perform at work is standing at the main entrance, to greet and direct guests to the appropriate chapels, and to wish people who are leaving a good evening. One of the other, slightly less enjoyable tasks is refered to as "butts", which involves going outside and cleaning the various receptacles of their accumulated cigarette butts. What does this have to do with anything, you may ask, well quite a bit actually. You see, during the course of a visitation, any number of people will step outside for "a quick smoke", but it is the manner in which these smokers will refer to their own necessity for a ciggarette which piqued my interest and lead to this post.

It is beyond any reasonable doubt that smoking as a past time, particularly of ciggarettes, is unhealthy. In Canada, in fact, every single package of ciggarettes is sold with some warning label about the ill effects of smoking the packages contents, which is also accompanied by a "shocking" image (which is legislated to consist of at least 50% of the package).

So, alright, other than some interesting imagery and government regulations being considerably heavy handed, what's it all about? Well I am establishing the fact that the ill effects of smoking are established in the collective conciousness of society in general; smoking is bad. This is not, however, something which is only understood (or believed) by non-smokers and Health Canada officials; smokers are just as cognizant of these ill effects, they just don't care. I understand perfectly that there is also the issue of chemical dependence and thus addiction to combat, which is by no means an easy thing to overcome, but it can be done. The reason that I say smokers don't care, and so do nothing about it, is actually one example of a wider phenomenon.

I'm not writing this as a screed against smoking, or smokers themselves. Only that this particular group is the most common group I encounter in my going on, and exmeplify the problematic nature of rejecting what I will call "everyday virtue". I mentioned eariler that smokers are aware of how problematic smoking is, this I base primarily on annecdotal evidence; on simple logic too but for the sake of this post, annecdotes will suffice. The sarcastic/ironic/self deprecating euphamisms they themselves use range from "my bad habbit", to "cancer sticks", to "off to shave a few minutes off my life". They know it is not only percieved as bad, but that they also accept that it is bad factually. As I said before, somkers simply do not care; they want their ciggarette and by the gods, they're going to have them.

So then to move away from picking on smokers, to the actual point, what transpires is a rejection of "everyday virtue". I use this term, because (again based on my experience) I have come to understand that a significant number of people really only consider questions of morality or ethics when it comes to "big" decisions or problems. Pick any "hot-buton" topic out of a hat: murder, capital punishment, war, torture, abortion, etc., and people tend to have polarized, often absolutist posistions on the morality of any, if not all of such topics. Ask someone what they think of speeding and they'll probally stare blankly at you and mutter something about it not mattering, or "it being alright if you don't gett caught". Well that may not be the best example because I do not want to reduce ethics to the standpoint of deontology when I mean to be speaking about virtue ethics, nor do I want to reduce ethics to whether one does or does not adhere to any given law or statute; it simply isn't that simple. I use the example of speeding, only to illustrate that when it comes to the more mundane aspects of what people consider ethical or moral, ambivalence is the general attitude.

People, again speaking in very general terms, have certain concepts of what constitutes a moral decision or what qualifies as an ethical quandry, and for the most part rarely consider how it applies to their everyday behaviour. Individuals do not reflect long enough on their behaviour or action to even consider the sense in acknolwedging that something is wrong, but then persist in doing it none the less. The smoker who persists in smoking, who understands how bad it is, who jokes about this fact, is one of a thousand such hypocricies.

I had actually written about a related topic some time ago, because there is a similar mentality or attitude inherent in those who acknowledge they are doing something "bad", and those who say "you can't judge me". The common thread is a lack of virtue, or perhaps it would be better to say an ignorance of it. I believe this ignorance stems, in no insignificant part, from the attitude toward morality and ethics fostered by the Christian doctrine of sin. That sin is an inescapable facet of life; the essence of human nature in fact. No matter how good one is, they will never be "good enough", and so that actually trying to be good is at best impossble without divine intervention, or at worst an exercise in futility. This has bled even into the secular sphere, where the idea of "nobody's perfect" has become a catch-all for dismissing unethical behaviour, and a veritible blank cheque for vice. So ingrained is this attitude that phrases which are religious in nature, "self-righteous" and "holier than thou" are bandied about in secular parlance along side "get off your high horse" and "...your shit don't stink". The value of actually being virtuous, and daring to even mention oneself in such a light, is remarked upon as itself immoral; this being dread "pride". 

This is regretable, not only because using such terms detracts from their legitimate use (the first two anyway), but actually villifies those who have the moral fortitude to dare to flourish. Coupled with this then is the idea that morality doesn't really count, except for the "big things", and we get this ignorance, if not outrght disdain, of virtue.

Virtue can be concerned with those larger issues, but attitudes towards more complex ethical issues are derived from smaller ones. Virtue is not somthing that is visited upon only during times of trial, because it is supposed to permeate every thought, every action, and thus is better understood as something to be cultivated, not harvested. Virtue is not an end in and of itself, but the means to an end; human flourishing or "the good life". This does not mean that adopting virtues will make one "perfect". I find the very notion of perfection as an ideal ludicrous, because it is by definition unobtainable. The problem is that somewhere along the way this became the standard; the whole notion of morality was subsumed by the fact that no one could ever be "good" (on their own at least), and so all are equal in their failure. 

Fortunately, such retrograde thinking is not the only model available. Despite the protestations, it really is not that difficult to be ethical. One simple tip is to avoid bahaviours or actions which you understand do not contribute to human flourishing. If you recognize that something is immoral, then do not do it. If you understand that a habbit is "bad", then do all in your power to avoid or end it. Viture ethics are very much about finding balance, or the "golden mean", afterall virtue abides between deficency and excess. If more folks recognized that morality is a mundane, everyday thing, I think a lot more folks could be flourishing instead of wallowing in their "bad habbits". 

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