In these posts I keep on circling around this issue and have already written a full post on the lack of virtue in society.
If we had virtue widely in our society we would not be in the mess we are currently in (people would easily see through political conservatism, advertising, public relations, and all other manifestations of unprinciple). We would probably not have got into our earth-killing rut in the first place.
What seems to me to be the main obstacles to virtue in our society is that:
- People don’t have skills, and have pointless jobs
- People have a sense of entitlement
- People are cut off from the facts of the world
- People lead unnatural lives
In the past people had all these things and it was easier for them to be virtuous, instinctively virtuous. The only advantage we have now is more information, so it is easier to be intellectually virtuous, not misled by ignorance. But intellectual virtue is less useful than instinctive sort, and is more easily led astray.
For example in these pieces I have been relying on a type of ecological analysis known as ‘global footprint analysis’. Now for many years thousands of highly intelligent and highly educated people have been looking at the ecological impacts of various human activities. Almost all of these have concluded that our activities are sustainable, but almost all of these have in fact confused the issue by saying in effect, ‘this activity by itself is unsustainable, that is it requires further inputs from outside the system considered, however, we have confidence that ultimately it will be found that the totality of human activities will be found to be sustainable, and therefore inputs can be sourced from outside this system with confidence.’
It is only recently that people have begun to do the whole calculation, adding up the totality of human activities, and have found that this totality has in fact been unsustainable since the 1960s. (‘It is easy to cheat when you work for men, but harder to cheat when you work for Heaven.’ Chuang zi Chap 4*).
Now it would be argument that concentrating on one part of the range of human activities and not considering the whole, though understandable, is not virtuous. It is a type of the ‘I’m alright, Jack’ thinking that our individualistic society encourages and supports all the time.
To expand on my points above.
People are not virtuous because generally they have no skills: a hundred years ago most people were multi-skilled, that is, any task that was not very highly specialised could be performed by anyone. Nowadays not only do people not have these skills, but even if they do, are not allowed to practise them. For example, I might have very good teaching skills, but I couldn’t walk into classroom and begin to teach unless I had requisite qualifications (which if I did wouldn’t guarantee I was a good teacher). In the Great Depression many Australians, men and women, who were out of work and desperate just went bush, living off the land for shorter or longer periods. It’s difficult to think of so many people doing this successfully nowadays (and the occasion for this situation to recur might be nearer than people think).
If we add to this the fact that most people have worthless jobs which perform no useful function, we can see how people are far away from having a life that is meaningful and which would encourage them to think virtuously. It is all very well for our beloved Prime Minister Julia Gillard to bang on about the dignity of work, but work only has dignity when it performs a useful function. At present in our societies very few jobs do and whole sectors of the economy are completely redundant: advertising, marketing, public relations, insurance, ‘entertainment’ &c &c.
The protestant work ethic didn’t start with Protestantism, it started with agriculture. In hunter-gatherer societies it’s obvious that if you don’t go hunting or gathering you’re not going to eat. When agriculture began it was necessary to invent a work ethic to motivate the less imaginative members of society—‘if you don’t plough this field today, you won’t eat in eight months time’. Nowadays we should recognise that necessary work to keep society going adds up to a few hours per person per day, not nearly 8 hours a day, and to keep people at work for longer than this is dishonest and deleterious to people’s wellbeing and sense of what is right, and it entrenches the existence of parasitic and useless ‘industries’, such as those listed earlier, and others.
I have already fulminated about middle class welfare last week and talking about ‘a sense of entitlement’ isn’t a dig at people who don’t have jobs and who, in my view, have a legitimate right to expect better treatment at the hands of society than they get. If society had a better distribution of necessary work, then everyone would have enough to do and no-one too much.
My last two points are one: because we are cut off from real life, we cannot have real, virtuous feelings and thoughts. Amongst Native Americans, it is said, young people as part of an initiation had to go into wild country to undergo ordeals (going without food, water or shelter). During these they would have visions of the spirit world and it would be revealed to them which animal or bird would be their spirit guardian. A parallel case is the totemic system of Aboriginal Australian traditional life. Obviously we now have no general first-hand knowledge of how animals and birds live and behave in natural habitats and we do not have the knowledge and spiritual strength that such knowledge would give us.
When you add to this our unnatural lifestyles (not getting up at dawn and going to bed at nightfall, not sleeping in the middle of the day, eating the same types of food year round, lack of access to real foods, exposure to harmful chemicals at every turn, lack of the right types of exercise), it is obvious that it is impossible for most people to understand and be guided by the turning of seasons and the life of the natural world. And this is why people can, ‘unvirtuously’, countenance the destructiveness of our environment; ‘unvirtuously’ because virtue is a dedication to and following of life in its most vital forms and our ecological destructiveness cuts against that in the most direct and unconscionable way possible.
If we fight against the environment we are fighting against ourselves, if we destroy the natural world we are destroying ourselves—we will not long survive the loss of so many fellow species at this time, in the same way that we would not be able to survive losing a large part of our bodies. Virtue is recognising this, or, more properly, living so that this issue never arises. As is easy to understand, virtue is difficult to find and difficult to live at present.
* Trans Burton Watson, Columbia UP 1968.
Next Week: Another Interlude, ‘Unnaturalness’