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. 

The Irony of Teaching by Example

Dad shoots daughter's computer at close rangeA Youtube video making the rounds is one where a man in a white cowboy hat publicly berates his 15-year-old daughter for posting her own rant against him and her family on Facebook. The indignant father reads his child’s diatribe for the camera, text in one hand, cigarette in the other. He is seated in an Adirondack chair, apparently in his backyard. 

He is angry and incredulous that his child would again do such an ungrateful and disrespectful thing. He grounded her the first time she did it, but apparently that wasn’t enough of a lesson. 

After responding to all her complaints, he shows for the camera the girl’s laptop computer on the ground and his .45 caliber pistol in his hand. He then fires seven hollow-point bullets through the computer (“This one’s for your mother!”). He notes that the bullets are $1 apiece, and his daughter must pay him back for them. 

After watching the video, I read through some of the comments. So many of them are as disturbing as the video itself.

I support this father ! HE IS A GOOD FATHER ! THUMBS UP if you agree with me!

***

She is lucky the laptop took the heat. In the 80’s parent were allowed to bust that ass. I say bring the ass whoppins back. One good ass bustin on kids these days would be all they woould need. Most kids dont even have an ass anymore because all they do is sit on their backbone and type and text all damned day. Call me, I will come over and bust your kids ass for free.

***

This Dad is right. No matter what you and say and say….this Dad is right. He is a good man. Kids these days are ungrateful and revolting…..I hope she learns.

Ok, enough. You get the picture. Agree or disagree, this guy has a lot of support.

Now I don’t know the family situation, and I won’t even attempt to defend the daughter or her actions—which are disrespectful and ungrateful. But I’ve raised enough children to know that each has a unique personality and each responds differently to various parenting techniques. I know that some kids are harder to reach than others. I know how, at times, kids can bring out the worst in a parent and the best, too.

I also know this: Example is the best teacher. After watching this video I wondered if that angry, hateful, vengeful father didn’t teach his angry, hateful, vengeful daughter everything she knows.

Here’s the link, if you’re curious. So far it’s had only about 23 million views. A few more won’t hurt.

Examining—and Ignoring—Cause and Effect

Cause and effect is a natural law. It’s hard to dispute that one thing leads to another, especially when the links in a chain of events are short and close together. When they are long and far apart, it’s more difficult to see any connection between two events. It’s also easy to deny any connection whatsoever. In that case, it’s easy—intentional or not—to misattribute a cause to an event.

Two current events are examples. Today, the Republican Party begins the process to select a candidate to run for President of the United States. Listening to the news this morning about the Iowa Caucus (not to mention news from the past few years), it’s easy to detect the Republican theme that we have to get rid of Barack Obama to “turn this country around.” The implication is that Obama is the cause of the poor state of the economy and everything else they find wrong with this country. 

Does no one in the Republican Party remember (or care to admit) that the stock market crashed—losing 50% of its value—in October 2008? George W. Bush was President then. Barack Obama was only a candidate. Does no one remember (or care to admit) that economic policies of the Bush administration made Enron possible? 

The other event is far removed from the political arena. But perhaps it shouldn’t be. On January 1, a man shot and killed a park ranger on Mt. Rainier in Washington State after wounding several others at a party. These kinds of tragedies happen a lot all over the world. Some people are unbalanced, angry, frustrated, vengeful, hateful, and will do any number of terrible things to others. Who knows what causes lurk behind such acts?

Yet, one thing about this story that sticks out, begging the question of Why? The shooter was Iraq War veteran who was apparently suicidal and suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. We don’t know what this person was like before he went to war. But we do know that when he came home he had trouble adjusting to civilian life. His wife had a restraining order against him because she feared for her own safety as well as that of their child. 

Can you imagine, all those years ago when George Bush, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld and many others were planning their attack on Iraq that they could have seen the consequences of their actions? Suppose someone in the war room said, “If we go ahead with this, on January 1, 2012, a park ranger with two children will be murdered by one of our soldiers.” Would it have mattered?

The law of cause and effect is always at work. And it’s human nature to ignore it just as it’s human nature to ignore an inconvenient stop sign.