What is Skillful?

I began this series with some thoughts on the differences between liberals and conservatives—views that have everything to do with one’s beliefs about things like justice, patriotism, authority, and spiritual purity. Most recently, I concluded that one’s actions, what one does, are fundamental to one’s morality and live outside the above categories. On the surface it may sound as if I’m saying there is a difference between belief and action. Not at all. Belief and action are interrelated. 

I suggested that morality and virtue are skills one can develop, much like a musician or a woodworker can develop skills. A person can be skillful at being a person. 

Sabio, a commenter on my earlier post, responded:

…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 ….

[…]

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.

Well, I’m not attempting to find some common ground that is universally comfortable or conforming. That’s futility in action (possibly, what I’m talking about here is futility in action too). But I do maintain that one can be a morally skillful person according to the above definition. In that regard, I must define morally skillful actions as those that when carried out result in one’s longterm benefit and the longterm benefit of others. If my actions benefit me but harm someone else then they would not qualify as skillful. 

The difficulty—and here I use “difficulty” in its strongest sense—is discerning between what is skillful and what is unskillful, between what is harmful and what is beneficial. This takes a lot of work. It requires an ongoing examination of one’s actions and their results. To do so, one must first shed the armor of self-deception. That, too, is difficult.

What actions can we consider harmful? I think we can all agree that causing someone physical harm would not be to that person’s benefit. Certainly, killing someone would cause the maximum harm and would be unskillful. And here I can hear the rebuttals: What about executing dangerous criminals? What about killing terrorists who would kill us first? What about war to defend our country? Remember, I’m talking about developing qualities in oneself that would be morally skillful as opposed to morally unskillful. If you are the kind of person who never harms anyone or anything in any way, I have nothing to fear from you. Nothing at all. Regardless of who you are or where you’re from.

Further, if one professes non-harm in one circumstance but does harm in another, then there is a double-standard. Double standards are suspect.

Words also can cause harm. All of us are familiar with this one. But which is more skillful, honesty or dishonesty? How about words spoken with kindness or words spoken in anger or hatred? Or word used to bring people together and not divide? If you are the kind of person who never lies to anyone and always speaks kindly, then I am sure what you tell me is true and you will never malign me. 

Further, if one professes honesty in one circumstance but is dishonest in another, then there is a double standard. Double standards are suspect.

I can apply the same argument to stealing. If you never take anything that isn’t given to you, then I can trust that you will never steal anything from me. 

What I’m getting at here—aside from bringing this series to an end—is that morality and virtue have nothing to do with blind allegiance to doctrines or ideologies, or with professions of faith for that matter. Morality has everything to do with action. Actions spring forth from a core belief that acknowledges, Everything I do, for good or bad, has a consequence for me and for others. And what a person doesn’t do could be of greater moral significance than what a person does. 

4 thoughts on “What is Skillful?”

  1. No argument from me, Sabio. Discerning what is harmful/beneficial, short-term/longterm, and skillful/unskillful takes a lot of work. And, yeah, the analogies—and seeming contradictions—are obvious and plentiful. Discernment itself is a skill to be developed.

    I hope you don’t infer that I’m offering simplistic solutions to life’s complexities or that I’m being moralistic. If I come across that way, it’s only for lack of skill.

    Anyway, this whole train of thought started with the current political situation and how candidates—some of whom have little trouble telling us how moral they are—display such overtly immoral behavior (in my opinion only).

  2. Another challenge with your endeavor (as I pointed out previously) is evaluating how to balance long-term vs short-term — which is no easy task.

    Another challenge is that “harm” (cutting of a gangrenous penis — we just did that this week), can do good. The analogies are obvious. Devastatingly criticizing a person to painful tears (‘harm’) may be a benefit in the long run in one realm (their life) but worse in another realm (your relationship to them). We needed to do that this week when someone’s habitual decision style cost someone else their health.

    Life is complicated, there is not simple ethical formulas that will make us comfortable. Harm is unavoidable — that is life.

    I agree with your summary that: “Morality has everything to do with action. [not beliefs or ideology]”

    BTW, I just posted on “Anger” (which you asked me about).

  3. Hi Evan,

    Welcome to my little rabbit hole.

    It’s always surprising to me when I read something that supports my understanding of things even before I know what those things are! Curiouser and curiouser, eh?

  4. I have very much enjoyed being sidetracked by your blog!

    I came to get the kines sheet I missed last week and got pulled down the rabbit hole. 😀

    This most recent post brought to mind a particular acquaintance of mine. She is very devoted to her ideals and rather vocal about the morality of all things. I tend to avoid her whenever possible, but I never really stopped to put my finger on why.

    It is that she has developed the language of morality without having developed the actual skill. I realize this disconnect between bluster and action is just instinctively abhorrent to me, even though I hadn’t ever really thought about it.

    Anyway, thanks for getting my gears turning this morning and I’ll see you in class!

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