Stand Upright Young Man
April 19, 2007 10:00 AM   Subscribe

How can I strengthen my integrity and virtue? As I have become older, I feel that I am not as virtuous as I would like to be. I am moving into leadership roles at work, and also into parenthood soon, and I feel it in important to exercise my moral muscles. Is my upbringing going to dictate how virtuous I am as an adult, or are there things I can do to stand more upright in character?
posted by kaizen to Religion & Philosophy (27 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
There's no magic to this. It's determined by every choice you make. If you see a piece of trash blowing on the ground, pick it up and throw it away. If you walk out of the grocery store and find there was something caught in your cart that you didn't pay for, take it back and pay for it. If you have a contract that could be done ethically, but would cost more, choose to do it ethically. Even if it hurts.

Every person is faced with choices, small and large, every day. Every choice matters. Think about what you do and choose to do the right thing.
posted by clarkstonian at 10:09 AM on April 19, 2007 [1 favorite]

Do you know what the right thing to do is, and have trouble doing it? Or do you have trouble seeing what the right thing to do is at all?
posted by Kwine at 10:12 AM on April 19, 2007

Think of every decision in which your beliefs come into play as a personal test of your courage, cleverness, and compassion.
posted by amtho at 10:55 AM on April 19, 2007

Test yourself: if your soon-to-be-born son or daughter was telling his or her children about seeing you doing what you're about to do, or saying what your about to say, would he or she proud of you?
posted by RandlePatrickMcMurphy at 11:12 AM on April 19, 2007

"virtue", "moral", "character" are all subjective terms that mean vastly different things to different people in different cultures. Define "virtuous"? Do you mean no sex out of wedlock? Poor hygiene? What specific things are you doing that you think are improper?
posted by Gamblor at 11:16 AM on April 19, 2007

Good answers. Attending church regularly helps to remind me why it is important to do the right thing.
posted by jpmack at 11:17 AM on April 19, 2007

I recommend reading the Chinese classics on this; there's a whole raft of great writing about maintaining integrity, duty and virtue whilst acting in the world as it is.
If I'm right in assuming the culture is alien to you, that can be an advantage as it carries no baggage as more familiar advice may do. The Doctrine of the Mean might be one place to start; Chad Hansen at HKU is a good guide; then there's endless literary stuff by scholar-poets wrestling with these questions. The different approaches of the various schools also mean it's not just a case of swallowing a particular line on things.
posted by Abiezer at 11:28 AM on April 19, 2007

Same way you get to Carnegie Hall: practice, practice, practice. You'll probably need to develop both qualities Kwine alludes to in his comment. The first is noticing what the morally relevant factors in any situation are such that you can make a good judgment about what the right thing to do is. You could call this moral perception and judgment. The second is developing the courage to do the right thing when it's hard to do or against your self-interest. Call this overcoming weakness of the will.

I think one of the best ways to do this is imagining oneself in tough situations and developing touchstone sayings emphasizing the values and principles you want to uphold. You could keep track the way Benjamin Franklin did if you want. By all means, write these things down in a place where you can regularly check up and do self-assessments.

But unfortunately, as Aristotle says, there's no book learning that will substitute for practice.
posted by ontic at 11:31 AM on April 19, 2007

To be virtuous, or at least feel virtuous (or hell, to have the appearance of being virtuous), simply do virtuous things, most of which are amazingly simple and easy to achieve. (Note: one man's virtue is another man's vice.) You don't have to save refugees in Darfur, although obviously if you could, that would be great.

Give to charity (I like Doctors Without Borders). Do some volunteer work. Join a committee at school or church. Go clean up some litter or grafitti at a local park. Set up a small annual scholarship. Donate books to the library. Buy supplies for the school. Become a tutor or a Big Brother or Big Sister (depending upon your current gender assignment). Call up your elderly relatives. Help repair someone's home.

Hmm. Now I feel like a living LDS commerical or "The More You Know" PSA.
posted by Midnight Creeper at 11:33 AM on April 19, 2007

I'm with Gamblor -- the first thing to do, before you even try to change your behavior, is to examine your beliefs very carefully. What exactly is "virtuous" to you? Why are these things virtuous? Should your behavior be virtuous? If so, why? If not, why? Do your best to answer each of these questions honestly and thoroughly before you start.

In my experience, what you need in order to be virtuous is a self-motivated and consistent worldview. Virtuous things need to be made virtuous by philosophical reasoning that has deep meaning for you. That is to say, they must be based on more than the disapproval of others or the fear of punishment -- there must be something to them that is always true to you, not just convenient or "good" as is defined by others.

Once you define a moral character that fits you and your way of thinking, not just one that exists by default or "just because", you'll find it easier to stick with it.
posted by vorfeed at 11:44 AM on April 19, 2007

My advice is to find someone close to you you admire in these respects, and basically pull a "What would Jesus do?" whenever making a decision, but with this person instead. (Not that there's anything with Jesus, but that's a lofty goal if your Christian, and probably not very relevant if you're not).

For me, my father-in-law really impressed my along the virtue lines, and has unknowling inspired me to be a better person.
posted by coondognd at 12:03 PM on April 19, 2007 [1 favorite]

are there things I can do to stand more upright in character?

Yes - be good. Be good even when nobody else is around; be good even when you know you wouldn't get caught doing a bad thing. Imagining that your children or a person you respect -- or God -- are watching you can help with this.

Others have already explained how to get in the habit of being good: practice practice practice.

As coondognd says, imitate a good person you know. Think about what especially impresses you about them - is it their patience? their compassion for others? Their standing up for a person who is being bullied? Their being honest when it would be easy to lie? etc.
posted by LobsterMitten at 1:11 PM on April 19, 2007

Also, specific to leadership at work and parenting: above all be fair to the people you have power over. Don't play favorites, don't apply the rules unevenly -- people will know. Be evenhanded and trustworthy, and your employees and kids will respect you.
posted by LobsterMitten at 1:14 PM on April 19, 2007

vorfeed took the words right out of my keyboard. You need to figure out if you're trying to live up to your own standards, or society's.

For example, my mother is left-handed, but as a child, she was forced by her Catholic nun teachers to use her right hand because they considered the left hand to be satanic in influence. Lots of other cultures had or have similar proscriptions. I'm also left-handed, but I use my left hand. The old nuns, and Chinese, and ancient Romans would probably consider me immoral for that, but I really don't give a damn. The whole stigma against lefties is silly, imo.

For another example, in certain parts of the world, it's perfectly acceptable to hit your wife. I'm not ok with that. That might put me on the wrong side of a society's expectations, but I don't consider myself to have weak character for it.

My point is that I've definitely got certain core beliefs, and while I'm sure they overlap with my own society's to a large degree, when they don't, I have a good reason for why I feel differently. Personally, I can say that my own values stem mainly from treating others as I would hope to be treated myself, with kindness and respect. That's my world view. I'm personally motivated to adhere to this because it means something to me. And when I don't live up to these beliefs, I'm as upset at myself as I am concerned about what other people will think. I've heard it said before that the real test of virtue is how someone behaves when no one else is watching.
posted by Gamblor at 1:23 PM on April 19, 2007

Be good even when nobody else is around

the real test of virtue is how someone behaves when no one else is watching

Both of these are particularly good advice. There is a psychological experiment where the experimenters were testing the consistency of character. They had an actor/actress outside a public phone booth. When a person would exit the phone booth, the actor would drop a set of papers and look in need of help. It was recorded whether the person exiting the phone booth stopped to help or not. The catch was that for some people an extra dime (the experiment was a while ago) was planted in the phone's change drop for the caller to find. The sample size wasn't large, but a much larger number of people helped out after finding the dime than helped without it. The experimenters (or commentators, I can't remember) claimed that character wasn't real if such a little thing could change someone's basic attitude of helpfulness towards others.

Be the person who helps without the dime.

You may also want to seek out narratives (books, stories, movies) that show great acts of courage or goodness. Casablanca woks well for this.
posted by ontic at 1:55 PM on April 19, 2007

The good news is that to act with integrity, the number one thing you have to do is care about it.

The easy definition of integrity is "doing what everyone else thinks is right". The powerful definition is "moral mindfulness"--being consistently conscious of the moral implications of what you do. Integrity isn't a _what_, it's a _how_.

By just asking your question, you're already taking the first, and most important, step. Just keep thinking about it.
posted by LairBob at 2:02 PM on April 19, 2007

I think the key thing here is to figure out what is making you feel that you're not as virtuous as you'd like to be, and work on consciously changing your behaviour in those areas. It's about those situations where you walk away thinking "maybe I shouldn't have done / said that, maybe I could have been nicer about that" and make sure next time you're in that situation, you act differently.

Re: the leadership role, like LobsterMitten said, be fair. The rest will come.

I don't think your upbringing determines how virtuous you are at all. It probably helped form your opinions about what is virtuous and what is not, but whether you act virtuously or not is up to you!
posted by finding.perdita at 2:17 PM on April 19, 2007

Read essays and books that help you define your values. Get in the habit of giving away some money and some time. Look for opportunities to be kind. Say nice things to people. If you have the opportunity to rescue someone from a burning building, do that, and everyone will recognize you as a hero. Listen to the cafeteria cashier's troubles, and you are a little bit of a hero. Multiply that by many small acts, and no one will know that you are a hero. But it will make the world incrementally better.

nice question. thanks for asking it.
posted by theora55 at 2:46 PM on April 19, 2007

The phone booth experiment that ontic mentions is an interesting one. It, and a bunch of other experiments in social psychology, have led to a debate in virtue ethics over the existence of virtuous character traits. It looks, strangely enough, like a person's moral behavior at any one moment is largely influenced by small environmental factors. The strongest conclusion to draw is that regularities in a person's moral behavior are almost entirely determined by regularities in their environment, not out of some sort of intrinsic character trait that person has. This conclusion can come in weaker versions, of course. What is interesting is that virtue looks much more susceptible to situational variables than was traditionally thought.

I don't really want to take a stance on this issue, but I do want to point out that it suggests that there is an alternative (or rather, an addition) to strengthening your "moral muscles": set up tools around yourself that make it easier for you to be virtuous. (Don't try to lift that rock with your bare hands; devise a clever pulley system!) Recognize the sorts of situations that make you act badly, and avoid them. Hang out with friends who inspire good in you. Stay away from vices. Don't seek out racist or xenophobic humour, even if it's presented as ironic and you "don't take it seriously". Put up pictures of people you admire. Don't take a job if it will put you into unfair moral situations. Find out how to put yourself in moods that make you helpful to others, and try to put yourself in those moods.

The "hang out with good friends" is the most important piece of advice, I think. Find friends who share your conception of who you want to be. If you respect them, then when you spend time with them, you won't want to disappoint.

Of course, there are those who would say that making it so that it's easy to be virtuous doesn't actually cause you to be more virtuous... your real virtue is determined by what you would do when the chips are against you -- when your friends aren't there for you -- when it's difficult to be virtuous. We should learn, as ontic suggests, to be the type of person who picks up the papers even when there's no coin in the phone booth. There's something to that. It's definitely worth priming yourself to be good when it's tough to be good. But I think (somewhat contentiously) that fighting against the environment is hardly the only way to be moral. This goes against what most others in this thread are saying, but I believe it's possible to be virtuous even if you would act badly in slightly different situations (cue the two-millenium-old literature on moral luck). We offload our moral characters into our friends, families, and social networks... they keep us good, even if we would be bad without them, and that's fine as long as we keep them close at hand. You do yourself a disservice by imagining your moral character to be a hard core that exists independently of its environment -- a hard core that can weather the vicissitudinous buffetings of various situations. Fix your environment, and you fix yourself.
posted by painquale at 5:26 PM on April 19, 2007 [4 favorites]

I think painquale's post is where it's at. I've suspected for a long time that what I would do in many moral dilemmas would be contingent on my mood and my environment. It's not a very flattering picture. I think many time we think of ourselves as this core set of beliefs and attributes, our essence, and that our moral behaviors reflect that. Look less to belief and more to behavior. This isn't so much a criticism of finding out what you believe in. If that seems like it would be of benefit to you, then do that. And also make sure to pay attention to what you actually do. An end of the day review might help with that. To return to the subject of environment, I find that I behave in ways that resonate with me as appropriate responses when I am set up well for them, that means work, friends, diet, habits, leisure time, etc. I'm not advocating a massive change, if anything that would be counter productive, just take time to notice your own behavior and if there's anything else going on.

The prominent environmental factor for me, is the presuppositions of those in my social world. The most useful distinction there has been between those that view life as a series of zero sum games, where in order for one person to win someone else has to lose, and others who imagine encounters where there are multiple winners. Those who have a view of life as a zero-sum game will find little attraction in virtues like compassion, mercy and obedience. I wonder if intimacy is even much of an incentive, but that's another subject. I find this view of the world ugly and stay away from it, the times where I've been around it I was more selfish and less responsive.

We are all inspired and amazed by those who stand up in a dark hour, and doing the best we can means not to draw illusory conclusion from a gripping narrative. If you want to develop the ability to be there in that kind of scenario there is the often quoted line of Aristotle's to suggest a path, "Excellence, then, is a habit.". Develop it realistically.

I would also caution against imagining someone else watching you. People have made significant changes in their lives doing this but I dislike the idea. This is a self-hypnosis like technique and I generally favor simple awareness over any sustained imagined visualization. If you do do this I think God might be the best choice of all, as it is an abstraction that you can simply associate with Good. Integrity is important, to me that means believing you are operating from the same solid place in all your interactions. When you imagine a real person it's a rare case where there is a sense of approval for all of you in all the spheres of your life, e.g. your Mom and sexual behavior (perhaps not the most pertinent but you get the idea). Perhaps I just have a strong reaction to it because I have always disliked that type of rhetorical tactic.
posted by BigSky at 10:39 PM on April 19, 2007

I'm skeptical about the conclusion that our characters don't have a lot to do with our moral decisionmaking. The phone booth studies are fine - I actually know the woman who did the main ones, and she's great and very rigorous - so I'm not doubting the empirical claim. But notice these are situations where you're making an apparently not-very-important decision, you're not on the spot as the only possible person who can help, and you're making the decision without thinking about it for very long.

In many situations of moral decisionmaking (for example as a boss dealing with a troublesome employee, or deciding how honest to be with a client) these factors would be different. You know the decision matters, you know it's up to you, and you would have a while to think about what you're going to do.

I believe people do have stable moral characters, which they can change with work. (For example, I know who among my acquaintances I would trust to always do the right thing in an important decision. I know who I could safely loan money to.) I don't think that belief is threatened by the finding that a small environmental change can make us be extra helpful, or less helpful.
posted by LobsterMitten at 3:13 PM on April 20, 2007

Well, there are some other social psych experiments that suggest that even important moral choices are subject to the whims of environment -- the Milgram experiment, for instance. It's certainly surprising that you can easily set up a scenario that gets ordinarily good people to electrocute a stranger to death.

But of course, the conclusions drawn from those experiments have been challenged in a huge literature. (It seems like every young philosopher is jumping onto this topic... finally, there's something new in philosophy for bright young grad students to write about and make their mark!) I agree that nothing's been settled. But I have to say that I find the opposition to the situationist conclusion to be reactionary. A lot of the papers decrying the situationist experiments end with something like, "Let's hope this stuff doesn't turn out to be true!" No one knows for sure.

My intuitions run the other way... the environment makes a huge difference (and yes, I suspect that it will greatly influence even decisions we make when we deliberate). Part of my suspicion comes through introspection: I'm keenly aware that I am who I am because of where I am, and I don't think I'm an especially bad person (I'll grant "sometimes sorta bad", but not "especially bad"!). And part of my suspicion comes from looking at how compliant people can act in certain cultures. I don't think most the population of Germany in the 1940s was composed of moral weaklings; we would all probably act the same, and even the heroes of the period who rebelled against the state likely had prodding by external factors (a friendship with the oppressed, maybe).

But I have a more primary reason for thinking that the environment might be very responsible (this will come of as exceptionally off-the-wall, I admit, but what the hell. It's what I think, and it has a pedigree in philosophy of mind). The reactionary response seems to me to rest upon a certain conception of personal identity that I reject. Let's call it the "personal identity stops at the skin" position. No one (who's a physicalist) doubts that our personal character is composed in some way from neural activations in our brain tissue. But then most people stop there - we are our brains, and everything outside just exerts an external influence on us. I don't see why that's a good place to stop. The regular environment I find myself in composes who I am in just the same manner that my brain does. Just as organisms have an extended phenotype, I have an extended mind. When I find a coin in the phone booth - that's akin to a seratonin spike. If you put me in a Milgram experiment, you're not just moving me into the lab, you're actually changing me by changing the physical substrate that makes me up. It's like giving me a drug or doing a bit of neurological rewiring.

So I agree that the situationist experiments don't necessarily support "the conclusion that our characters don't have a lot to do with our moral decisionmaking." What they suggest, I think, is that a lot of the physical substrate making up our character and moral decisionmaking processes turns out to lie past the skin. No one doubts that small changes to our brain can seriously change our moral character; I suspect the same is true about changes to our place in the world. There's no reason to think that this finding would challenge the existence of virtuous character. We can tinker with our environment (by making good friends, etc.) in order to tinker in a very direct way with our own minds.

(I also like this view because it means that there is a very real sense in which our friends compose us.)
posted by painquale at 8:51 PM on April 20, 2007

painquale, I'm skeptical about the literal claim that my mind extends beyond my skin. Certainly, things beyond my skin can affect my mind, and indeed finding the coin in the phone booth does just this - there's a causal process from light rays to coin to my retinas, thereby into more mysterious systems in the brain that figure out what the image means, and remembers that coins are good, and gets happy/releases the happy chemicals as a result, etc. I'm not sure what's gained by saying "my mind extends outside me", over saying "there's a lot of interplay between my mind and my environment (and even my own body)".

If you like the "friends compose us" view, you might take a look at some of Jennifer Whiting's stuff on friendship and personal identity, if you haven't already.
posted by LobsterMitten at 10:57 PM on April 20, 2007

Also: The case for the "my mind extends outside me" view seems to quickly get us into territory where we're abandoning our traditional concept of object boundaries entirely. Why wouldn't we adopt a similar "spread out" view of other objects too? Eg, I have a solid chunk of ice here, which can interact with its environment in various ways; its environment determines a lot about it (its state, whether it shatters, whether once it's liquefied it gets involved in any chemical reactions). But it would be strange to conclude from this that the chunk of ice itself exists, spread out, in all the parts of its environment that can interact with it.

I agree that environment has a ton to do with how we act, and that there has been overreaction against the no-stable-character view. But really, prephilosophically: I know sleazy people, and I know almost cartoonishly virtuous people. They have characters; I can predict with reasonable accuracy how they will act in a given circumstance. (Maybe only in a set of circumstances sufficiently close to the everyday?) I'm not saying that those characters would endure unchanged under huge stresses, but to say that people don't have reasonably stable day-to-day characters at all is just implausible on its face. People are influenced by affective factors, and do go along with the crowd, and do tend to obey authority, yes. But no stable character at all? That just doesn't square with my experience of other people.
posted by LobsterMitten at 11:09 PM on April 20, 2007

LobsterMitten, I agree with you that it's not plausible that we'll discover that people don't really have character traits. But I do think we might find out that character traits are not the sorts of things that we originally thought.

On the extended mind stuff: I don't have a very good short answer for you. I don't think I even have a very good long answer. Let me try to say something short. [Edit: it turns that I didn't succeed]

Asking where to draw the internal/external boundary on people is a weird sort of question. I don't think it's obvious that we're our brains or bodies or whatever. At least, it hasn't historically been obvious. In the past it's been popular to try to make us as small as possible, externalizing virtually everything (there's an argument that that's what Descartes was trying to do). You can also see the temptation to shrink ourselves when people say that we're our brains, not our bodies.

So, how are we supposed to decide where the boundary really is? I think all we can do is try to see what boundaries people are tacitly drawing when they ascribe psychological properties. Here's the difference between people and the block of ice: when we say the ice is fragile, it's relatively unproblematic to say that the block of ice is the thing to which we're ascribing that internal dispositional property. But I think that when we ordinarily ascribe psychological predicates to people, we often implicitly, unknowingly draw a boundary that does not stop at the skull.

Here's a little story that's representative of a common kind of talk about character traits. It's a kind of obvious but boring example of what the sitautionist experiments bring out. Imagine you have a very rude friend, Jane. When others meet her, they say "Jane's a really rude person." In fact, Jane only acts rude when she's stressed, but it so happens that she always keep up a stressful lifestyle. If she were in a different environment, we would say, "Jane's not rude"; but she's so committed to her harried lifestyle that she never finds herself in a peaceful environment. Her body has the same internal disposition in both cases; all that's varying is the environment. There are four ways you could analyze this kind of talk:

1) Either the speaker of "she's rude" or the speaker of the nearby possible world who says "she's not rude" is saying something false. But this option doesn't seem to capture what's going on in ordinary talk; we'd be wrong about nearly all our psychological ascriptions and we'd need to have some sort of error theory.
2) Both sentences are true, but rudeness isn't a dispositional property. But then it seems we could say this about all character traits. This is what the situationist means when he says that there are no robust dispositional character traits.
3) Both sentences are true, but dispositional properties aren't internal properties. This is actually a pretty interesting option, I think, but it's problematic. (If this does turn out to be right, then I have no idea how we could draw the internal/external boundary).
4) Both sentences are true, but they aren't strictly speaking about the same object. Rudeness is a dispositional property, and it's an internal property, but it's a property of Jane's-body-and-her-stressful-environment. She is so dedicated to her lifestyle that she sucks it into her personality. This looks like it best captures the tacit commitments of folk psychology, I think. (After all, we do say things like, "Jane's such a workaholic. Her job has become a part of her." Why should we think this kind of talk is just metaphorical?)

One last thing: I don't want to say that we always draw the boundary past the skin. Actually, I think we shift the boundaries all over the place in ordinary speech; when we refer to a person, the boundaries are usually indeterminate, Gavagai-style. (Is the bit of Jake's brain causing his desire to smoke a literal part of him, or is it something external that he is fighting against? Must there be a determinate answer?) Sometimes we make ourselves really small; sometimes really big; sometimes we fit in our bodies exactly. All I want to push is that much of the time we talk about mental properties, we're larger than life.

(Apologies for the length, and sorry for the hijack. I get away from myself.)

posted by painquale at 1:46 AM on April 24, 2007

/closing small tag.
posted by painquale at 1:50 AM on April 24, 2007

painquale- It seems that you've reproduced a phenomenological account the worldliness here, only with reference to the something that you variously call 'mind,' 'personhood,' or 'self.' In so doing, you've twisted those words beyond their usual scope, and we might as well be talking about Da-sein.

It seems like most of the difficulty comes from ambiguities in your attempt to attribute substance/property configurations to folk psychology insights into character. Perhaps, in this case, it is better to stay at the 'ordinary talk' level of discourse, and to direct inquiry towards particular problems of pragmatic value in which these questions and categorizations can find solutions. In this respect, I think all of your concrete advice on friendship answers quite well, without finding the metaphysics you develop for it particularly satisfying.
posted by anotherpanacea at 9:55 AM on April 24, 2007

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