Why do we do the things we do? Why should we do one thing or another? Why should we not do one thing or another?
Our actions in life are shaped by our choices (active or passive). Whether we do something or do nothing both are expressions of choice on our part. There is no such thing as ‘sitting this one out;’ because abstention has consequences like any action one might have taken. As long as we live in this world, we will be touched by it and it will be touched by us as well. And even our departure from this world will set in motion a series of effects. It is something with which we all need to come to grips: every aspect of life has moral and practical significance.
So how are we to make our choices? What is to be the guide for our decisions great and small?
When I was a little child in the 1960s I was taught that there are virtuous ways of living and non-virtuous ways of living. As my teachers instructed me, ‘It matters what we do; whether other people see our actions or not.’ As the decades changed it seemed that the ethical understanding of choice changed. It was increasingly supplanted by doing what ‘felt right,’ or, what was ‘right for me.’ The sense of moral significance and of the virtuous faded.
The shift away from the concept of the virtuous is an interesting one. I think there were two basic reasons for this: 1) the sense that it located the good outside of the individual, and 2) the sense that an external good was heavy-laden with built-in enforcing pressures of guilt (that could be applied by the self or those around the person). Virtue had, in many instances, been transformed into a control mechanism to prod along compliant behaviour.
The 1960s and 1970s were decades in which many of the values inherited from previous generations were questioned, challenged, and (sometimes) abandoned. In retrospect, there was good reason to question values and social norms that undergirded many of the aspects of society that needed change (racism, tendencies towards war, stifling shame aimed at suppressing certain behaviours, etc.).
Virtue has always been an important concept in my life (thanks to my parents and the teachers at the pre-school I attended in my hometown). When the concept was taught to me it was not about avoiding the bad or even self-sacrifice — though both of these are a part of being virtuous. The point was to strive towards the best way of being. The virtue I was taught was about the willful enactment in my life of, ‘Do to others as you would have them do to you.’ It is possible to look at this understanding of ‘virtue’ as being philosophical and/or theological. For me it is both. But, to be honest, one does not need to be a theist or any particular kind of theist to subscribe to this principle as the guide of one’s life.
Virtue, the choice to think, do, and speak in a way that enacts this sense of the good is powerfully transformative. It is also an ethic of life that meets us in the present moment and has long-term significance. It enables us to think about the chain of effects that stretches beyond the now into the future. It helps us to find the meaning of our present moment; and with it the courage to live a life that is far bigger than the now — that reaches out and touches the eternal. This moves us beyond momentary satisfactions into the realm of lasting satisfaction in knowing that our choices are investments in a world transformed into something better in the long-run.
Here we see a reconnection with the notion of self-sacrifice; investing in the future for that in which we believe (suffering for the moment, perhaps — but believing that we, or others, will benefit because of that investment in what will be). The satisfactions of virtue are both immediate and future-oriented. I choose in favour of the good for now and tomorrow.