Virtuous Action As the Foundation of Morality

In earlier posts, beginning here, I talked about the five pillars of morality as defined by Jonathan Haidt. Haidt is a psychologist working in the field of moral psychology. He conducts studies to determine the differences between liberals and conservatives, both politically and spiritually.

He does what psychologists do: studies what drives peoples’ behavior. Psychologists want to know why people do the things they do. Of course, Haidt may be completely wrong about his five foundations of morality—after all, they are just ideas. Yet looking at people I’ve known over the years, many of them seem to fit well within Haidt’s categories. I don’t mean to argue that he’s right. Nor do I mean to dispute his theories.

People do things for many different reasons. On the surface, they may say things like “It’s the right thing to do,” or “It’s what God wants me to do,” or what have you. But I’ll assert that deep down, most of us really don’t know why we do what we do.

On thing I’m sure of, most people, most average people, whether liberal or conservative, religious or not, will state they are moral. And they will say so without giving any particular thought why they believe themselves to be moral individuals.

I stated in the first post of this series that morality concerns itself with distinguishing among human behaviors that are right and wrong and good and bad. Virtue is excellent moral conduct or behavior that exhibits high moral standards. What matters is what one does.

Being liberal or conservative doesn’t matter. Being gay or straight doesn’t matter. Being American or Iranian doesn’t matter. Being Christian or Jewish or Mormon or atheist or Muslim or Hindu doesn’t matter. But one’s actions, now they matter.

Oh, yeah, I know. The argument about faith versus works is an old one. There are those who believe that all one needs is faith—meaning faith in Jesus, of course; nothing else will do—to be “saved.” A person who believes this may also believe that negative and harmful actions are irrelevant. They may also insist that, no matter how good a person is and how many good works he performs, unless he has faith in the proper form, he is doomed to hell for eternity. OK, fine. But I say again: Actions matter.

I do agree that what one believes is the basis for one’s actions. No doubt about it. If one believes that actions do matter, then one is more likely to be heedful of what one does. If one believes that faith is all that matters but does not take care with actions, then less consideration may be given to possible harm to others.

Actions can fit into two broad categories: those that are beneficial and those that are harmful. Actions can have short-term benefit but may be harmful in the longterm. Or actions may appear harmful in the short term, but have lasting benefit later on. Sometimes it’s hard to know. But it stands to reason that longterm benefits are more desirable than immediate gratification.

Another important aspect here is: harmful or beneficial to whom? Actions that benefit the individual may be harmful to others. So the best actions, meaning actions that are the most skillful, are those that lead to the long-lasting benefit of oneself and others. This is virtuous behavior based on high moral standards.

Revisiting Haidt for a moment, we can see he’s on to something with his harm/care foundation. I would say that the other four are relative to, and dependent upon, harm/care because they form the basis for how we treat others.

I like the idea of being skillful with one’s actions. There are skillful doctors, mechanics, baseball players. We can be skillful at being people, too. Virtue—good moral conduct—is a skill that can be sharpened with practice.

Next: Determining what is skillful and what isn’t.

3 thoughts on “Virtuous Action As the Foundation of Morality”

  1. @ Paul,
    Indeed, conversation, done well, is like a fine game of WeiQi. The unfolding is unpredictable with a combination of cooperation and competition — invasions, encroachments and reductions. Territory gained and Territory loss. The unexpected end product is a wonder to behold — baffling both players.

    You said,

    Still, there is a correlation between belief and action.

    Ah, “correlation” — i will go with that! But there is, as you know, a big difference between correlation and causation!

    Suppose and early death on wine and cigars BENEFITS someone else? How are we to know? What if you knew that living longer, you would deprive others of valuable times or resources?

    You said,

    I don’t think it’s possible to build anything uniformly comfortable and conforming to everyone’s common sense. And come to think of it, I wonder if “common sense” isn’t a misnomer.

    I agree! Well played game!
    Arigatoo Gozaimashita (Japanese: Thank you)

  2. Hi Sabio,

    Recalling a comment I left on one of your posts at Triangulations, I described myself (and you) as one who makes associations. And, following your suggestion, I’m learning how to play Go, which is described on the tutorial site as a “sharing game.” So my very first thought as I read your comment here was, “Oh, this is like a game of Go.”

    Anyway, I’ll stand behind my statement that belief is the basis for one’s actions. I will qualify it to mean intentional actions as opposed to instinctive. But even then, on more subtle levels, it may be possible to override instincts with reason.

    “Falsehoods” is a relative term. And it’s natural for us, individually, to believe that what we believe is true. Still, there is a correlation between belief and action.

    The “benefits” end up being a complicated calculus, I think.

    Yes, and it’s not possible to calculate cause and effect. In many respects, it’s all supposition. In your example of wine and cigars, sure there may be “quality of life” benefits for you in the short term. Suppose, though, your untimely death from cigars and wine had a harmful impact on someone else? What if you knew today that in 11 years you will save someone’s life? And you also knew that if you continued to smoke and drink you will be dead in 10?

    But all this speculation gets away from the point that belief supports action.

    You guessed correctly that my use of “skillful” has Buddhist undertones. But I wouldn’t use the term Skillful Means, can’t say why, exactly, so it’s for another day.

    All to say, I don’t think “Skillful” is going to get us anywhere in building a ethical nest that will be universally comfortable nor conforming to everyone’s common sense.

    I don’t think it’s possible to build anything uniformly comfortable and conforming to everyone’s common sense. And come to think of it, I wonder if “common sense” isn’t a misnomer.

  3. Hey Paul,

    I largely agreed strongly with what you wrote up until you said:

    I do agree that what one believes is the basis for one’s actions. No doubt about it.

    I think this has to be qualified because I see people who belief falsehoods who are clearly using them to do wonderful things. And I’d think you’d agree.

    To complicate things more, you said,

    But it stands to reason that longterm benefits are more desirable than immediate gratification.

    Which may seem common sense but at its edges, there are real problems there too (which I am sure you are aware of):

    Let’s say cigars and wine would guarantee that I live a shorter life by 10 years, but that I valued the cigars and wine in the years I do have more than those 10 years without them. So in this case, you are comparing apples and oranges. I do value the short-term more than the long term because the benefits are different. The “benefits” end up being a complicated calculus, I think.

    And concerning “skillful” — as in “Skillful Means” which is a favorite Buddhist term to justify preferences. I think it is often abused by Buddhists. I would say the normal use of this word is:

    Skillful: the quality of actions which allow acquiring the desired product with a specific qualifier such as better, faster, prettier, effeciently ….

    But some folks are willing to sacrifice the desired end, for the correct means. A Pacifist, for example, would prefer (if consistent) his tribe to be annihilated rather than raise weapons in defense. For him/her, the quality of the inner life is worth more than outward benefits.

    All to say, I don’t think “Skillful” is going to get us anywhere in building a ethical nest that will be universally comfortable nor conforming to everyone’s common sense.

    But I await your next installment.

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