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The good example

Last time I wrote about our potential to model ourselves on others, to be inspired by the good example they might be setting.  In this blog I shift the focus to the role model and the idea of leading by example. How might we recognise the appropriate role model – and perhaps more pressingly – what might the qualification criteria be? There has been a lot of debate on the importance of a strong leadership recently and it seems that expressions like ‘leading by example’, ‘walk the talk’ and ‘leading from the front’ are all the rage. (For some examples ranging from politicians to celebrities see here, here, here and here). At first on-look the idea of setting a good example might indeed sound both attractive and intuitive. Of course one can be inspired by role models; surely observing the deeds and practices of others can trigger a genuine desire to reform one’s behaviour! But do we have good reasons to be so optimistic?

In my last blog (On a Happier Note) I discussed some of the challenges, environmental and biological, that we appear to be up against when seeking to improve ourselves morally. Briefly put – humans are, from an epistemic perspective at least, rather ill equipped for life in the ‘information society’. Such findings have caused some researchers to question how probable it is that we can develop, and maintain, the type of stable character traits which could guide and inform our moral deliberations. I, however, argued both that we can do so in many cases (through the process of habituation) and that we, in light of some of these findings, have all the more reason to try to do this.

Now, even assuming that people are willing and able to embark on a, presumably lengthy and not necessarily pleasant, path to moral improvement we are still left with a number of questions. For example, how to recognise the good character traits in others and just how ‘good’ an agent has to be in order to be considered suitable as a model.

Aristotle thought that actions possess moral qualities independently of what we happen to believe or feel about them. The good agent would know this as she would have what Aristotle called ‘practical wisdom’. This virtue involves both true judgment (a capacity to read situations correctly) and correct desire (i.e. only for the fine and noble). Against this it can be protested that there are no independent criteria for the correctness of moral judgment and thus it is not clear how the virtuous agent is to be identified. To this Aristotle presumably would have replied that any satisfactory moral theory must have its roots in a theory of how human beings are by nature constructed (The Function Argument). He might also argue that just as we can see when people are in good health without being trained as doctors we can recognize when someone lives a fulfilled and happy life – we do not need a complete and detailed theoretical account to do this. Thirdly, it might be argued that the fact that the virtuous person is capable of explaining their actions, albeit in hindsight, and that they will do this by invoking one or several of the virtues is evidence. While this sketch might point to some possible answers to the ‘how’ question we still need to address the, perhaps slightly more debatable, ‘who’ question.

When looking for moral role models it might be helpful not to insist on perfection in every regard. I propose to think of the virtues as threshold concepts and by this I mean that people do not have to be fully virtuous to qualify for the happy life. Because the good life is a mix between the practical and the theoretical there are, in actuality, many different versions of the happy life (we can have the virtues to different amounts) but once we are above a certain threshold level we are leading a happy life which is filled with worthwhile activities. To stay above the thresholds, however, one needs to work hard trying to improve and become more virtuous. In order to remain ethically fit and keep our moral dispositions trim and reliable the virtues must be exercised. Without opening the door to the plain vicious it seems reasonable to me that an agent who possess a large number of virtues and is working hard with regard to the rest can well be leading a happy life. From a philosophical perspective this is a heavily contested issue. It is true that Aristotle never said outright that a person who does not master the complete set of virtues could be called virtuous. On the other hand, he wrote that a lot of people could be happy. Clearly this is not the place to go into the details of this debate. Suffice to say that given Aristotle’s general outlook and philosophical method, it seems reasonable to assume that he would have agreed that happiness can be widely shared.

It could of course be pointed out that even if we accept the threshold idea that does not imply that all agents who are above it also would be good role models. I quite agree, when someone is looking for an example – trying to find out what the virtuous characteristically would do in that situation – she should look to Pericles over someone like me for example. The fact that I might have managed to squeeze myself over the threshold hardly makes me excellent. But the point I am seeking to make here is rather that a person can qualify as a role model with respect to certain characteristics or even in a certain type of context.

Admittedly it would be hard to say that someone who was substandard with regards to some virtues, even though utterly virtuous in other respects, would be a proper example. Such a lack of internal coherence would imply that the person in fact is doing what she knows is right but for all the wrong reasons, e.g. to deceive and manipulate others and to create advantages for herself. But that is not to say that we must look for The Role Model. Perhaps a better strategy would be to look for a role model – someone who masters the situation relevant virtues. Such people, of which there could be many, would be excellent or near excellent in some respects and above the threshold in all the others. A more detailed discussion of which might be the most relevant virtues will, however, be a topic for a future blog.

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