Tuesday, January 30, 2007

virtue and the singaporean

There are several sources of inspiration behind this article, not all of them might seem related at first:

Heavenly Sword laments that everybody around him appears to be self-centered.

Zyberzitizen writes that compassion and selflessness is in our human nature, but this trait is lost when we become too engrossed in being pragmatic.

Epilogos writes that charity is an important (necessary?) part of society, although the reputation of charitable organizations in Singapore has taken a hit due to NKF.

Cognitive Dissonance writes in the capacity of a social worker, and states that compassion and generosity is necessary but insufficient to be successful in doing social work.

In two previous posts on this blog, I urged bloggers to display charity and graciousness when dealing with other bloggers during disagreement, as well as attempting to explain a dichotomy between an individual (personal) point of view, and an aggregate ("objective") point of view.

Lastly, is the long standing issue about the lack of grace and courtesy among Singaporeans in general, such as not allowing passengers to alight first on the MRT.

Also, due to the recent hanging of Iwuchukwu Amara Tochi, the blogosphere is buzzing with activity with regards to capital punishment in the past few days. I will not talk about the death penalty in this article, but I will address it in my next post, which is a follow-up to this article.


Selflessness, generosity, compassion, grace. These are all virtues. These virtues are not just desirable, but perhaps, as Epiologos stated, essential to the sustenance of society. But are we morally obligated to display such virtues? In other words, if we fail to display these virtues, are we somehow morally wrong? One reply to that question is "of course not". If we are obligated to display selflessness, say, then how is that display truly "selfless"? Acting out of obligation, even moral obligation, seems somewhat contrary to the spirit and the meaning of such virtues. Now this is the question, if virtues are not obligatory, then we probably cannot demand anybody to display such virtues. Is it even possible to argue that one ought to display such virtues (albeit in an non-obligatory way)?

Well perhaps, if you allow me to "appeal to your good nature", to quote Mambo Happyfeet. This is the next question: do Singaporeans have any "good nature" left to appeal to? To be honest, on some days, (like Heavenly Sword) I am pessimistic. On other days, like Zyberzitizen, I feel that surely, there must be at least some shred of desire in everybody to be virtuous. Not that I believe the desire to be virtuous is innate or universal (as Zyberzitizen seems to be suggesting), but surely we've been taught since were young to strive to be virtuous, and surely there has to be at least some residual effects of that indoctrination?

Or perhaps, it is possible to argue that it is in everybody's best interest that we each try to be virtuous. When everybody becomes virtuous, everybody benefits, including yourself. There are two issues with this. Firstly, are we not appealing to self-interest when we do this? And if so, is it possible to argue for say, selflessness, on basis of self-interest? Secondly, this is a prisoner's dilemma situation. Let me illustrate this using the example of being a passenger on the MRT.

I am a passenger on the MRT, and I can either (A) not let passengers alight first or (B) allow passengers to alight first. There are other people waiting to boarding the MRT as well. In my mind, I'm thinking, they can either (A1) not let passengers alight first, or (B1) let passengers alight first. If (A1) occurs, I can either do (A) or (B). If I do (A), it is unpleasant, but I have a good chance of grabbing a seat. If I do (B), it is equally as unpleasant, and I have less chance of grabbing a seat. If (B1) occurs, I can either do (A) or (B). If I do (A), I have the best chance of grabbing a seat. If (B) occurs, it is pleasant, but I no longer stand such a good chance of grabbing a seat. In either (A1) or (B1), it is in my best self interest to choose (A) instead of (B), so if I'm being motivated by self-interest alone, I will always choose (A) instead of (B). Now, everybody waiting for the MRT will similarly be aware of this rationalization, and hence everybody will choose (A), resulting in (A)+(A1). Note that despite knowing that (B)+(B1) is better than (A)+(A1), because of the self-interested nature of the individuals involved, we will still end up choosing (A)+(A1). So appealing to self-interest is another no-go here.

Perhaps there is one other way to look at it. To do that I need to introduce another concept to contrast with virtue, and for the lack of a better term, I will use the noun 'moral'. An example of a moral is "murder is wrong". A moral is a principle which all humans ("moral agents") are morally obligated to adhere to. Failure to adhere to such principles imply that the moral agent has done something immoral, or has been immoral. How does morals contrast from virtues? Virtues are not morally binding, eg it is good to be generous, but you are not immoral (morally obligated) if you fail to be generous.

[For the more philosophically sophisticated: the term "moral" need not necessarily refer to a deontological principle. It may be a rule in rule utilitarianism, or the utilitarian principle itself.]

Why did I introduce morals? I want to bring up the dichotomy between an individual personal perspective and an aggregate, non-personal perspective. Morals make more sense in an aggregate perspective and virtues make more sense in an individual perspective. A moral is universal, and has less subjectivity (but there's still some) compared to a virtue. When we say "murder is wrong", we mean murder is wrong, universally, for all moral agents, period (with perhaps some exception for very special mitigating cases). Yet, when we say "we ought to be generous", there is a greater amount of subjectivity. Is the generosity the same when we talk about a millionaire and when we talk about a beggar? There's another way where they differ. Morals, are more preoccupied with a certain kind of action (or behaviour), but virtues are usually more concerned with the kind of person someone is. When we talk about what kind of person someone is, that is necessarily a subjective matter, and one which makes much more sense to talk about from a personal perspective, and not an aggregate perspective.

What does this mean? When we talk about virtues, when we want to encourage others to be more selfless, generous, compassionate and gracious, it is not very productive to talk and argue about it from a very objective (aggregate) point of view (I think it might still be possible, but probably not very productive), such as we do when talking about morality and ethics in general, or when we talk about singapore and singaporeans in general. Virtues are, by nature, subjective attributes, and it is most productive to talk about them subjectively. Instead of saying, "We singaporeans should be more gracious/compassionate because etc.", we should ask instead, "What kind of person do you want to be?", "If you can help it, would you rather be a more selfless, generous or compassionate person?", "If you can't help it, why not? Is there anything you can do to change that?"

I suspect many of us find talking about virtues subjectively (as compared to morals objectively) to be less convincing, because it appears to be less philosophical, less objective, and hence less "intelligent" or less scholarly (or worse, mere rhetoric). Actually there is a school of philosophical ethics based on virtues (and not morals). Also, it is because we are by default, naturally embodied beings with a human psychology, with our own personal individual lives, with our own varied experiences of interaction with friends, family and other people on an individual level, that we find talking from a subjective point of view more intuitive (and easier to understand) than an objective point of view. Ethics is about how we ought to live our lives. But yet, it appears to me at least, we cannot talk about ethics without talking about how we individually want to live our own life.

One final point about virtues. Although selflessness, generosity, compassion and grace are good things (very good things in fact) and they ought to be encouraged, they are not the be all end all. Cognitive Dissonance wrote about social work, and said that although such virtues are indeed necessary for the profession, that alone is not sufficient to make a difference. Much more is needed. Hard work, the correct kind of skills, knowledge and training, for example. KTM likes to label some individuals as "bleeding hearts". What does he mean by that? He means that when it comes to most social issues or public policy, good intentions alone may be necessary to, but are not sufficient enough, to make the difference. It is good intentions, plus something else, be it wisdom, effort, unwillingness to give up, courage, or even pragmatism. After all, prudence is one of the four cardinal virtues.

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