Archives for posts with tag: philosophy

Virtue ethics has been a thing for a long time. It’s about embodying certain characteristics that make someone a good person. Aristotle, who coined the whole system, advocated admiring the virtuous sage and copying their behaviour; the sage being someone who embodies characteristics that ought to be copied. It’s a bit of a circular process that certainly deserves some criticism, but it’s hard to shake the notion that there are certain characteristics that make a person more virtuous. Aristotle gave out a list, but I’m not going to focus on every single one because some of them are dumb.

I mean, you can have a look… try to figure out the dumb ones!

The thing about virtues is that they require personal sacrifice. Courage is the best example, because courage without risk to the self is incoherent. It no longer functions as a concept. Honesty, for instance, is certainly not incoherent when there isn’t any risk, but lying about something benign would usually typify some kind of pathology. Honesty is only a virtue when the sage has something to lose by being honest (we’ll call “something to gain” the loss of an opportunity to gain to keep our sacrificial theme simple). Patience is only a virtue when it would feel real good to lose our shit on someone. Temperance is literally the sacrifice of indulgence, which, if you’ve ever indulged, is a lot of fun. While loyalty is not on Aristotle’s list, it is a common sense virtue that only has value during instances of temptation; its value coming from the sacrifice associated with it. Aristotle liked to think of virtues as the perfect balance of moral homeostasis, but it is very easy to frame them instead as the subjugation of the self for the sake of a higher purpose.

Ask yourself: is this a better depiction of virtue than a soldier throwing themselves on a grenade to save their peers?

To be virtuous then, is to act for the benefit beyond oneself. What this means is that individualism is inherently an unethical philosophy, and systems built on individualism are by definition immoral. By focusing entirely on ourselves, we limit the risks we are willing to absorb for others. We may want to think of the tenets proselytized by individualism such as efficiency and productivity as virtues, but we would be sacrificing the core of virtue ethics. Personal sacrifice for the boss’s profit may seem virtuous to admirer’s of “good work ethic“, but where is the reciprocity necessary in an ethical system? Do bosses exist outside of that system? Probably wouldn’t be great if they did! What’s good for General Motors is not good for the group; I mean, unless General Motors became a collective… *cough*.

Hm. This collective may be a bit problematic.

Again, there are problems with virtue ethics. For one, they’re very tribal. Loyalty to the group may detract from perfectly good or better alternatives, for instance. Friendliness literally points to a circle of friends, and no one can tell me that the same level of friendliness extends outside of that group. For those wondering about which of Aristotle’s virtues are dumb, they’re the ones only attainable by rich people like liberality, magnificence, and magnanimity (listed as great-souledness in that weird list I found on Google). Dude made a living selling philosophy lectures to those with the means to pay for fucking philosophy lectures; he had to play to his audience. However, this illustrates very well the problems of virtue ethics as a system. Virtues develop within the tribe for the benefit of that tribe, giving them a degree of subjectivity as well as a parochialism that I certainly reject.

Our virtuous ethics; their dishonourable sinfulness

I may not be a virtue ethicist, but despite my reservations, I can’t argue with the fundamental principle that ethics require a vision beyond oneself. If we recognize this truth, then we become much more resilient to socially destructive propaganda trying to pass itself off as virtues: independence, self-interest, etc. If a character trait seems designed to prevent unionization, it probably is!

You ever go through a midlife crisis? Or endure the awkward evolution of adolescence? Surely at least one of those things – blogs aren’t really for the Tik Tok crowd. Coming to grips with who we are, who we want to be, and who we definitely are not is often a painful experience. When we search for an identity, it can be difficult because we don’t even know exactly what it is we’re looking for. What is an identity? How would I even go about getting one?

Be the Pokémon you want to see in the world

A good place to start is to list some identities, and one of the easy ways to do that is to make “I am” statements. I am a brother. I am a friend. I am a work colleague. There are other “I am” statements that I’m just going to ignore for now because I want to focus on the relational identities that my list has obviously focused on. I am who I am to the people around me. There’s something important to note here, though. If I have a kid, but leave early in that kid’s life to get some cigarettes and never come back, can I really say that I am a father? Biologically, sure, but biology does not an identity make. In a relationship, the way I relate determines the extent to which I can identify myself within it. Identifying as being a part of a relationship that you haven’t actually committed to in any meaningful way is what is commonly called a “red flag.”

Another example: if I identify as my race, or as my sexuality, that is likely because I am using that as a means of connecting to a larger community of that race or sexuality; perhaps both for the intersectional in the crowd. That’s why those in the dominant group are better off avoiding using their dominant traits as an identity; it creates relationships based solely on that trait. Those in minority groups need the solidarity that a healthy relational identity provides. Because of the redundancy of solidarity in a dominant group, identity within it becomes inherently oppressive. To be clear, identifying as an ethnicity in a relational way is usually done through connecting to a historical people, to a local community or neighbourhood, or to the people in a particular homeland. Also, it usually expands beyond the purely relational too. It typically involves the things that you do.

In searching for Waldo, do we ultimately discover ourselves?

An “I am” statement you might have been thinking of previously was your employment. I am a butcher. I am a baker. I am a candlestick maker struggling for business ever since electricity became a thing and now only serve a niche market. However, the same identity issue applies as before: if my job is to push papers, and the measure of my work is the amount of TPS reports I complete in a day, I’m not going to identify as my employment. As much as it might put food on my table, it won’t be who I am as a person. We have to connect to the things that we do in order for them to define us. We need to be able to have autonomy over what we do, see the results of our labour, and be challenged in ways that build our skill. Of course, what we do and who we know aren’t everything.

Tell me child, in what way would you like to make a profit for your employer?

Exuding certain characteristics or principles is also an identity. I am honest. I am brave. I am compassionate. This is the identity that navigates the way we engage with our relationships and our work. I am honest with my friends. I am brave in my dangerous career. I am compassionate with strangers. These qualities don’t even necessarily have to be abundantly positive: I am a tough guy when it comes to connecting to others emotionally – which means that expressing myself would not only go against social expectation, it would go against who I am. We very often cling to our harmful attitudes quite dearly because giving them up means giving up a part of who we are. These identities can even come into conflict. For instance, I am “reliable” and a “hard worker” who doesn’t spend any time with my children.

For those who have read Viktor Frankl, you may be noticing a pattern. Frankl posits that the ways in which humans find meaning in their lives are through our relationships, our work, and our attitude. Now I’ve just gone and described identity as those same three categories. Identity, who we are, is simply the ways we find meaning in the world.

“Hey Boo Boo, let’s go get us a pic-a-nic basket”

Unfortunately, the modern world has lain a trap for us. For example, we can connect to the characters in the Star Wars universe. We can go on all the Star Wars rides at Disneyland, lovingly bedeck our laptop with Star Wars paraphernalia, and we can be loyal to our franchise in a way that no loser Trekkie would ever understand. Every fundamental attribute of identity exists, and yet, for those fans whose identity rests solely in some form of consumption, be it television, film, sports, novels, etc., life seems awfully hollow. These are typically called parasocial interactions – when the way we connect to something only goes one way. We’ll never be able to ask Luke Skywalker to help us move (and that would be amazing because force powers would make it so much easier), and that’s because he’s a fictional character and force powers aren’t real.

Modernity has twisted identity in a way that is particularly sinister because consumption identity is often determined by sociopathic corporate interests that don’t care how broken and lonely we feel, they’re just happy to milk whatever pseudo-identity we have to their product for everything it’s worth – literally. Parasocial interactions are often exploited to sell figurines, novelty items, and an infinite supply of Marvel films.

We need reciprocity in our identity. We need to experience growth in our work. We need to experience recognition in our relationships. If we don’t, we will only ever be half of a person. There’s no problem with liking Star Wars or the Green Bay Packers or whatever else, but when it becomes an identity, then it means that something is fundamentally missing from who you are.

If your childhood is genuinely ruined by a capitalistic cash grab in the form of a shitty remake, then you probably didn’t have a particularly fulfilling childhood. It’s time to start over, friend.

Building a new identity is hard. The drug addict who quits their drug of choice is not just giving up drugs; they are abandoning the relationships they made in their addiction, the routine of their daily grind, their entire lives. Those who cannot build something to fill that void will relapse because the emptiness that remains is far more painful and scary than an unending fight against withdrawal symptoms. The early stages of recovery are a desperate search for meaning that, if unaddressed, will cause more relapse than any insatiable urge or temptation. “Boredom” is one of the biggest killers of recovery.

Identity is a huge part of our lives. It’s the entirety of who we are, in fact. If we don’t like our identity, or if we’ve lost large chunks of it through recovery, retirement, disability, or other identity-altering experiences, then we have to find a new way to find ourselves. Relapse is not the worst thing that can result from a loss of identity; the stakes are pretty high. But if we know the foundations of who we can become, then we can build on something solid. We can strive to love well in our relationships, find purpose in the work that we do, and exude qualities and principles that we can be proud of. Who we are is how we find meaning. What’s meaningful to you?

The ship of Theseus is an ancient philosophical thought experiment about the nature of identity. Theseus is an ancient Greek dude, and like all the ancient Greeks that we hear about, he had a ship. Unfortunately, Theseus’s ship ran into some hard times, and needed to have some parts replaced. A plank here, a plank there. All the sails at some point, I guess. The point is, after a while, every single part of his ship had been replaced with a newer one. The questions is: how is it still Theseus’s ship if literally nothing of the original remains?

Little known fact: Theseus was a dog this whole time

Aging is, in scientific terms, a son of a bitch. Our muscles atrophy; our hearing starts to go; and, in some cases, we lose our memories and our grip on the reality around us. We too become slowly replaced over time, just not with newer parts as with Theseus’s ship, but with older, crappier parts that give out and have a mustier smell. When our older family members develop dementia, we struggle with the same kind of identity crisis as Theseus. We are looking at someone that we used to know in one way, and now none of the original parts seem to remain.

Dementia in a loved one is actually incredibly difficult to witness, and I am insensitively making light of the situation. I’m not going to stop, but it’s important to acknowledge.

I do believe that the ship of Theseus maintains its identity over the duration of its incremental replacement because there remains a single constant: Theseus. It’s Theseus’s ship because Theseus sees it that way, with a degree of social corroboration as well (people will, for the most part, agree that it is still Theseus’s ship – otherwise they would see it as stolen). The identity of the ship exists in its relationships just as much as it does in its material make-up.

The same holds true with dementia. Before my grandmother passed away, she developed dementia and no longer saw me as her grandson. However, I still saw her as my grandma because my inevitable deterioration has yet to begin. We maintain our relationships with our loved ones, and that maintains their identity. She was my grandmother. That relationship never changed even if her own perception of her active relationships had shifted wildly. Even if she no longer sees me as her grandson, this is irrelevant. Keep in mind how the ship might relate back to Theseus, given how it is an inanimate object. It wouldn’t, is my point. We define how we relate to others, for better or for worse.

This is not my grandmother, but wouldn’t it be great for this blog if it were?

Part of who we are is certainly the sum of our parts. Our physical and psychological body cannot be fully cleaved from the concept of our identity, but these, our physical body especially, are only superficial facets of who we are. I am a son, a brother, a partner, a friend, a coworker, and a bitter, hated enemy. I had a grandmother, and that defined who she was to me. Theseus had a ship, and it was how he related to that ship that defined its identity regardless of how many planks ended up being replaced. If you continue to love them, they will continue to be your loved ones.