Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Being versus Acting: The Ethical Dilemma of Morality

Stranded bucket at the shore of a bay

When we hear that so-and-so is a “good” person, we automatically assume that the person in question is a virtuous and moral being. But is it enough to simply "be" a good person? Can we simply equate being good with a moral person?

Plato would probably say yes. We should strive for the Good, and from this state all else would flow naturally. It is a state of spiritual enlightenment where all the "good" qualities would be reunited in the person. As Socrates put it, evil exists only because of people's ignorance; illuminate them with knowledge of the good, and they will act less out of self-interest and more for the common good. Is such a stance valid?

Aristotle disagrees. For him, morality is less a state of being; it is rather action-based. One is, as the existentialists tend to say, the "sum total of one's acts." In such a view, neither intentions nor dreams or wishful thinking are of any practical value. That a person always dreamed and meant to become a humanitarian does not make that person a humanitarian. Actions speak louder than words, whereas dreams may be seen as unfulfilled hopes and promises.

There may be a manner to separate the one from the other by applying different terms to each. Normally, when we talk of morality, we mean the “set of beliefs” influencing the individual from outside, with society, culture and religion as their mediators, whereas the study of individual actions of a person would fall into the category of “ethics.” However, there are still shady parts even in ethics. We might act contrary to moral traditions and beliefs, but what about acting contrary to one's own personal beliefs? What about those instances when our actions contradict our convictions?

Which view is correct? Aristotle may be right by focusing on the concrete actions versus the abstract ideals of an individual. The reason for this is that many people like to portray or pass themselves off as good and moral beings despite a lack of (f)actual evidence for such a claim.

Nonetheless, one should not forget that acts themselves can be deceiving. Many people use this façade to make us see them as moral people, while inside they are driven by ferocious hunger and blind ambition. It is doing good not for its own sake but aimed at furthering one's needs and desires.

Returning to the initial proposition by Plato and Socrates, we might reach a point of consciousness where the self vanishes in and becomes one with the multitude. Then, being cannot be possibly separated from doing, and it would resemble the wu-wei of the Taoist, doing without doing, and being constantly and steadily immersed in a good, balanced moral life. In such a case, the internal would become the external, and the moral body would be whole and complete.

1 comment:

Arashmania said...

Thank you very much for your comments and questions, Duncan!

And that is what philosophy is all about, those hard and hard to figure out questions. Which is why I have decided to post about this because I find it all puzzling myself.

Do ends justify the means? I would say generally no. There may be cases where it may be "perceived" as acceptable due to its positive outcome, but in terms of morality it would still be defined as an "immoral act".

That said, I do believe that relativity plays a major role here and I am against any absolute statements (there are always exceptions).

Which of the two is the "better" person? I would say at least I have some sympathy with the second one, even though on the outside he doesn't "do" anything, at least his attitude might (hopefully, ideally) propel him towards some positive action.

To sum up, I think most of us do know deep inside which of our traits and actions are "good" and which ones are not. It is a blend of both concrete as well as abstract truths.

Anyhow, I am very much looking forward to more input, questions, comments, riddles and two cents on your side!

Thanks again!

Arash