I’ve always been a big fan of the Enlightenment. When I came across a quote in a paper by Jonathan Haidt and Craig Joseph, however, I began to wonder if all that emphasis on reason and rational action had left us with a problem. In discussing the impact of that earth-shaking period in the 18th century, the two moral psychologists wrote:
Where the Greeks focused on character and asked what kind of person we should each become, modern ethics focuses on actions, trying to determine which ones we should do.*
An emphasis on rationality is wonderful, especially when you’re battling to break through a culture that restricts, restrains and ignores reason. But I worry that we’ve gone too far in ignoring the Greek call for an emphasis on character. Too many people seem to subscribe to the idea that we can merely think our way to ethical action. All we need is the right set of rules and the right intellectual training or the right moral or religious codes.
However, us mere mortals can’t think our way through our emotions, our gut reactions and the prejudices we absorb from our culture. The evidence of that is all around us. No matter what philosophy or code we follow, people can find a way to twist it into something hateful. Even The Bible has become an instrument of violence in the hands of some believers, a point Robert Wright made recently.
If the problem of prompting right action, of doing good, isn’t in our codes or our philosophies, then it’s in us. That means the only solution is in us and in perfecting us. If this is all true, then how do we teach human beings to circumvent our own flaws?