Conscience and Virtue – Chapter V
To Be and Do Good
What It Means To Be Human
Understanding conscience, human inclinations and virtue helps us to become protagonists in our own lives rather than victims. Rather than living our lives with things happening to us, we should lean into it with awareness and intention and make things happen for us and for others. In order to do this we need to understand what it means to be really human. This understanding of human-ness, therefore, has its starting point in objectivity and is experienced in subjectivity. “I” am not a creature unique in the universe insofar as there is no other kind of creature like this creature that is “I”. Indeed, here are others like this “I”. This is objectivity; the similarities that the “I” recognizes in others. On the one hand, however, there are similarities in other kinds of creatures, yet differences that make it obvious that those creatures are not of the same kind as the “I”. Upright, two-legged creatures, for example, with consciousness and emotion are not all of the human kind. On the other hand, other creatures that are obviously of the human kind, of the same kind as “I”, are, at the same time, just as obviously unique in their expression of human-ness; this is subjectivity. Individuality within commonality; as opposed to detached individualism.
The individual human being, the unique human person, is the lived experience of human-ness. The existential “I”; which is me, the protagonist, with awareness of you, another human person. As a protagonist in my own existential “I” however, it is not enough to merely have awareness of you. It is not enough but certainly fundamental, that the “I” acknowledge the “You” and our common human-ness. As the “I” that is me, I must also be aware, as protagonist of my own life, of how my actions, the expression of my-self in the world, interconnects and affects the life of you.
You being all other humans, particularly those in proximity to me. Then, with this awareness of the interconnectedness of expression of self and selves acting in the world, the “I” (this “I” and the other “I’s”,) must consider whether there is benefit or harm to person or community as a result of my actions.
The great Muhammad Ali, sportsman, statesman, humanist, and ever the poet, while giving the commencement address at a Harvard graduation, someone in the audience shouted “gives a poem Muhammad!” Without hesitation or premeditation, Ali said, “Me, We”, “that is the poem, ‘Me, We’.” A brilliant expression of what it means to be human.
It is not “I, You”, it is Me, We.
This is intersubjectivity, the human activity of Me, We. The protagonist “I”, then, (whether it is me or you) takes on the consideration of benefit or harm with anticipation of the good by having an attitude that is antecedent to the result of the interconnectedness of activity; particularly, but not exclusively, one’s own act or expression of self into the community of persons. “Are my actions beneficial or harmful to other persons and/or the community? Is the actions of others contributing to or diminishing the good of the community? To use the poetic form, Is the Me contributing to the We. Intersubjectivity precludes any form of detached individualism; and the more the protagonist, I or You, take on an antecedent attitude for the good, the more there will be human flourishing. Quoting Aristotle it is said that “the ultimate goal of the human person is happiness.”
A more accurate translation of Aristotle’s Greek would be that “the ultimate goal of the human person is human flourishing.” Human flourishing, therefore, must be taken up as the goal of the protagonist.
The phrase “human flourishing” calls to mind progression, a movement in time, of human interactivity that is productive; a productivity that results in the advancement and enhancement of community or common good. One could give expression to the concept of human flourishing with many corresponding phrases, but none that would have any element of negative consequence. That some members of the community, for instance, become poor during the progression of human activity, would not, could not be considered as part of the flourishing of that community. That is not to say that poverty is not part of a flourishing community, it most often is; it’s just that it would not be considered an element of the connotation of flourishing. That poverty is present in a community is not indicative of the presence of flourishing; nor does it indicate the lack of flourishing. I does indicate the need for, and should be a motivation for, an increase or enhancement of flourishing in the community that would affect the poverty; and, more importantly, if it is found that the activity that can be identified as flourishing is in some way contributing to the poverty or preventing a decrease of poverty, then the activity that seems to be flourishing is not. Flourishing is a production of good and only good or it is not flourishing. In other words, human flourishing is good, and its consequence is good; good for Me and good for We. Furthermore, if the expression of my-self within the community, even when it is good for me, if it does not contribute to or restricts the good of you or we, then my actions, these particular actions, are not good. This brings us back to the relation of objectivity and subjectivity.
It is good to be human. Few would disagree. Conversely, to be human is to be and do good. Furthermore, to do good in the progression of time is to flourish, which is to say, a progressive increase of good as a result of the interactivity of Me and We. The first principle of human inclination, therefore, is to act toward or for the good, the good of the person and the common good of the community. From this first principle are the four inclinations that was discussed in the beginning of our discourse on Conscience and Virtue. To act for the good is virtue. Our conscience, energized by the “metronome” of synderesis,
ticking right and wrong, is a law found at our deepest center that we know we did not put there ourselves. Found there is that first principle of good, to do good and avoid evil. It is the dynamism, the locus, of human flourishing. In this dynamism, “tick-tock, tick-tock, right-wrong,” we find the four inclinations; (1) self-preservation, (2) preservation of species (the having of offspring), (3) fellowship in harmony with other human persons, and (4) pursuit of truth. As creatures having a rational mind these are not involuntary instincts. They are inclinations toward a good, the good of being human, and by way of reason responding to conscience, we can make decisions, at all four levels, to respond to the particular inclination or not. The inclinations arise within corresponding particular situations and are acted upon or not based on rational thought in relation to the situation.
Our decision to respond to the situational inclination or not, in itself, is not a good or bad decision. The good or bad quality of the decision (and subsequent act) depends on the result or alternative. The four inclinations are in a sequence of increasing value of good. Faced with a particular situation, a decision to not respond or act on the associated inclination for the sake of a higher inclination would be a good decision. A decision to act on the situational inclination, if an alternative act would result in a higher good, could be a bad decision. Given the first two inclinations in example, if a situation comes upon us that threatens our life or health, the inclination is self-preservation, to act to preserve our life or our health. If this situation also presents an opportunity to act for the good of spouse or child, at the expense of self-preservation (of life or health) and we choose to act for the second, higher good of family as an alternative to the first, lesser good, our decision is good. If we choose the first good, but the decision does not cause harm to family, but could have caused an increase of their good, our decision is still good, contingent, of course on future situations. If we choose the first, lesser good and the choice causes harm or diminished good of family, the quality of my act is bad. If the decision could have a beneficial effect on family, but will not impact my person, and we choose not to act for the good of the family, our decision is bad.
With the “metronome” of our conscience ticking right-wrong honest decisions are relatively easy, but when a situation causes our conscience to tick good-good, the good of being human is put to the test. Even the clarity of the right-wrong ticking becomes less clear when consistent attraction to self-preservation disconnects the Me, We relation, and subjectivity in relation to objectivity becomes subjectivism (extreme individualism.) From this perspective, acts beneficial to me, acquisition of resources for example, with no consideration of you or we, disconnected from objectivity, can be (falsely) justified even if it is contrary to civil law, i.e. stealing. At this extreme, there is not only a disconnect from the objectivity of my relation to you or we, but from the objectivity of civil law, not to mention the divine law, un-legislated, “thou shalt not steal.” Disconnected from objectivity, subjectivity means anything goes; everything is “ok.”
Unfortunately, my dear friends, this is the crisis of culture in which we live in the 21st century. It is not required, however, that we participate in the crisis; on the other hand, because of what it means to be human, it is required that we participate against the crisis as protagonist in the life of Me, We.