September 11, 2012

Aristotle, the Lincoln Tunnel & the Aggressive Jerk.


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(T)he man who does not rejoice in noble actions is not even good; since no one would call a man just who did not enjoy acting justly, nor any man liberal who did not enjoy liberal actions; and similarly in all other cases. If this is so, virtuous actions must be in themselves pleasant. ~Aristotle[i]

I was driving home to Philadelphia from New York City, heading up 31st Street toward the Lincoln Tunnel.

Momentarily confused about which lane I should be in, I left the right one and pulled into the wrong one. Realizing my mistake immediately, I tried to pull back into the lane I had just left, only to find the driver who had been behind me in that lane resolutely preventing me.

After a tense exchange, the general sense of which was that, because I had left the lane, I was no longer entitled to my place in it, I lost my temper and gave him the finger. Doubling down in textbook New York fashion, he held up both middle fingers, with a “Yeah, fuck you twice.”

(The immense irony of this is that I was on my home from a seminary class. Those who consider themselves religious and yet do not keep a tight rein on their tongues deceive themselves, and their religion is worthless.[ii])

Sensing the pathos of his determination—how sad it was that this was so important to him—I had three options: 1) Be patronizing, and let him keep the spot out of pity for his empty, dead-end life, 2) be prudent, and let him keep the spot to avoid an accident and 3) fight for the spot. To my shame, I opted for the first, with the added sadistic twist of letting him see my contempt. “Get a life!” I shouted with a sneer, and cut off his every rejoinder by repeating the words with a little more hauteur each time. I could tell it was getting to him, because just about the time the light turned green, he made as though to get out of his car. I rejoiced at having been able to hurt him in this way; it made me feel less put-upon.

Now, ordinarily, I am the type of person who often lets other drivers pull in front of me, and allows people with only a few items precede me in the checkout line. “Nothing to be gained by being a jerk,” I tell myself. So I thought I was a reasonably magnanimous person.

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But if we are to believe Aristotle, who wrote in his Ethics that a person cannot be called virtuous who does not take pleasure in virtuous action, I can claim no moral kudos for ceding that spot because, although I did it, I didn’t like it. Not even a little bit. It rankled.

Aristotle’s dictum is the reason that, up until fairly recently, a good grounding in the fine arts was considered an essential part of one’s moral education: aesthetics trained one to take pleasure in the “right” things. If a person had cultivated “finer feeling” through exposure to, and even participation in, artistic expression, that person could be counted on to apply that trained aesthetic sensibility in the moral sphere as well.

Practical judgment concerns action, and so differs from aesthetic judgment, which concerns evaluation. They are alike, however, in that both involve choice. The conclusion of a piece of practical reasoning is a determination about what to do. The conclusion of a piece of aesthetic reasoning is a determination about what to esteem.[iii] 

If one esteems magnanimity, one will take pleasure in it, and behave magnanimously.

So what, then, was the difference between letting someone pull in front of me in traffic or the grocery line, and giving up my place in the lane to an aggressive jerk without a fight?

I think the difference must be that behaving magnanimously in situations in which doing so makes one look good requires no moral courage. That, and the fact that when I allow someone to get in front of me at the drugstore, my pleasurable feelings come not so much from the act itself as from knowing how good it makes me look. But when giving up my place made me look (even if only in my own eyes) like someone who had been one-upped by a douchebag, there was no pleasure in it because I feared that the act diminished me.

It seems to me that any time we act with akrasia–knowing what the moral thing to do is and doing otherwise against our own judgment–or even when we do the right thing but not in the right spirit, it is because our courage has deserted us. Because

“Courage is not simply one of the virtues, but the form of every virtue at the testing point, which means, at the point of highest reality.  A chastity or honesty, or mercy, which yields to danger will be chaste or honest or merciful only on conditions. Pilate was merciful till it became risky.”[iv]

So if we have enough moral good sense to do the right thing, but not enough moral good sensibility to take pleasure in it, we are only halfway there. If my self-image is so unstable that letting someone keep a purloined traffic spot robs me of any fellow-feeling the act ought to have given me, I still have work to do.

Up until now, I have avoided the devotional-tract cliché of ending a post with a prayer, but as an exercise in humility, I’m going to make an exception in this case.

Ground of All Being, give me the courage to act graciously, and to take pleasure in gracious action. Source of All Life, let me be so dead to the world’s estimation of me–my life and identity be so hidden in You[v]–that I may never fear to do right, or falter in the face of shame. Grant this for the sake of Your love. Amen.

Visit Scott at Open to the Divine!

[i]Aristotle. Ethics. Book 1:8.  Translated by W. D. Ross

[ii] James 1:26

[iii] Herzog, Patricia. “Akrasia and Aesthetic Judgment.” The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, Vol. 58, No. 1 (Winter, 2000)

[iv] Lewis, C.S.  The Screwtape Letters

[v] See Colossians 3:3


Editor: Kate Bartolotta

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