Friday, August 1, 2008

Noninstrumental Virtues

As readers of this blog know, Ayn Rand derived virtues from reason as our tool for survival. These virtues - productiveness, independence, integrity, honesty, rationality and pride - help us survive. Rand's focus in developing these virtues was on our metaphysical independence. That is, each of us is equipped with the tools needed to survive (at least those of us born with normal faculties). Just as no one can digest our food for us, neither can they (nor should they) think our thoughts.

I don't believe these virtues exhaust the possibilities and think there are additional, supplemental virtues that arise from the fact that many of our values can be obtained only with the participation of others. This participation can be in the form of collaboration, as in working with our professional associates on a joint project, or as competition as in sports. When you look at it, we rarely obtain values with no social interaction. The virtues I want to discuss help us achieve our goals in a social setting.

Another reason why I believe we can add to the list of virtues stems from the concept of being human. Although our defining characteristic is our faculty of reason, there are other aspects of our nature which can affect how we gain and/or keep values. We have a physical body, a psychological nature, a social side, etc., each with its own needs and capacities. Being rational means we ought to recognize these aspects of our overall nature, work to understand these aspects and, where appropriate, satisfy them. The values we gain may fill the needs of several parts of our self. Competitive and team sports, for instance, can strengthen muscle tone, improve mental clarity (through better circulation) and stamina, and test our mental resolve while also involving our social nature.

For this discussion I'll be working with Edmund Pincoffs's Quandaries and Virtues: Against Reductivism in Ethics in which he proposes a list of virtues touching on these issues. The list is too long to include here so I shall limit my discussion to the more important ones. Pincoffs classifies virtues into two broad classes: instrumental and non-instrumental. Instrumental virtues directly help us gain and/or keep values. Non-instrumental virtues, therefore, are concerned with how or how well we pursue our values. They assume instrumental virtues exist and address how we execute them. Most of them apply to our actions in dealing with others.

The overall structure of his virtues is as follows. I have selected several sample virtues for each category.




  • MELIORATING (Mediating, Temperamental, Formal)
  • MORAL (Mandatory, Non-mandatory)
  • AESTHETIC (Noble, Charming)

Pincoffs subdivides instrumental virtues into agent and group. The virtues under agent correlate loosely to Rand's although some of them obviously are more specific than hers: persistence, courage, alertness, prudence, energy, resourcefulness and determination. Group instrumental virtues apply to projects in which we need the cooperation of others and include cooperativeness, "practical wisdom, and the virtues of leaders and followers” (upon which Pincoffs does not elaborate).

Pincoffs breaks the non-instrumental virtues into three classes: meliorating, aesthetic and moral. I include them here not because I agree entirely with his choices of virtues in each class, but I do think Pincoffs's general approach addresses aspects of our nature that contribute to our self-realization.

Meliorating virtues helps us live with others by making our common life with them more tolerable. Indeed, the word meliorate means "to make better". Mediating virtues, one of the three subdivisions, helps settle differences of opinions between people. Tolerance, reasonableness and tactfulness help us in negotiating and persuading others to recognize and respect our point of view. Civility, politeness and decency, several of the formal virtues, set the basis for public behavior. They recognize the "moral space" (as they would say in California) and the respect each of us is entitled to because of our metaphysical independence. We all benefit by agreeing to some common ground rules for treating each other. Each of us should be treated as innocent unless proven guilty of being unworthy of civil treatment. Temperamental virtues, like gentleness, humorousness and cheerfulness, reflect our emotional make-up and our style of presenting ourselves.

According to Pincoffs, being noble and charming, categories of aesthetic virtues, "are appreciated for what they are, for the vision of themselves; we are grateful for their presence; they are exemplars of what humans can be‑ their absence is regretted because it impoverishes life." Noble virtues include dignity, magnanimity and nobility; gracefulness, wittiness and liveliness represent several examples of being charming.

Mandatory moral virtues include honesty, sincerity, truthfulness and loyalty. Non-mandatory moral virtues include benevolence, sensitivity and forgiveness. Note that in labeling this category as moral, Pincoffs uses the conventional sense of moral as having regard for others.

I saved this category for the last because these virtues have generated considerable discussion among Objectivists with the primary focus on how to justify them as being in our rational self‑interest. Some critics of egoism question how can people motivated out of self‑gain practice these virtues. If our aim is to obtain values for our own purposes, why should we be honest, sincere and truthful with others? Why shouldn't we just do what we can get away with?

A number of answers have been offered by Objectivists, including Peikoff in his "Understanding Objectivism" course. Instead of revisiting them here, I want to offer some additional comments. First, if we are metaphysically independent. We would be inconsistent to demand others to respect our independence while we trample on theirs. Second, we seek to obtain our values through work and by exchanging value for value, not by fraud. In general, our life should be better if we treat others with mutual respect.

Many of the non-instrumental virtues appear to reflect a social metaphysical (to use Rand’s term) concern with how others perceive us. Although it is certainly possible to practice these virtues for this reason, it is also possible to do so because they help create the kind of life we want. These virtues express our personal vision of how a worthy life should be lived. These virtues also affect how well we relate to others, which is important given that most of our values are obtained by interacting with others. Furthermore, we should be happy with how we relate to the world, both the physical and social sides. Lastly, if we value our relationships with friends and family, we would also value how they perceive us.

Although non-instrumental virtues may not directly help us achieve our goals, they certainly can make it easier. We should not conclude that when these virtues are unnecessary. They can reduce the strife and stress we have with others, without sacrificing our principles. People tend to be more cooperative, helpful and respectful if we treat them with respect, if we are reasonable in our dealings and if it is a pleasure to work with us. If we create unnecessary conflict, we could waste energy trying to overcome their resistance. In essence these virtues reflect the answer to two questions we need to ask: what kind of life do I want to live, and as I move through life what kind of wake do I want to I leave behind? How we apply the non-instrumental virtues adds flavor to our life. And I should add, there is one big potential benefit of acting this way which should not be dismissed: goodwill.

To illustrate their importance I liken non-instrumental virtues to the aerodynamics and suspension of a car. We can get from point A to B in a car having the aerodynamics of a brick, the chassis of a stagecoach and an engine. We will enjoy the journey more and will burn less gas if we drive a sleek vehicle that slices through the air and filters out the bumps. We arrive at our destination refreshed. The first car also gets to its destination but it is accompanied with the howl of air being ripped by a blunt body, the scream of the engine trying to overcome the drag and the pounding of the suspension.

Some have defended virtues such as benevolence by trying to show they have survival value. I believe this is a mistake. Being non-instrumental, these virtues don't necessarily guarantee our survival (unless we really go out of our way to antagonize people!). These virtues shape the kind of life we lead. They don't determine whether or not we will live.

Still, this discussion seems too calculating, as though the only reason we should treat people well is for what we can gain from them or for their survival value. Empathy is part of the reason why I believe it's appropriate to be concerned with how we interact with people. If I want to be psychologically visible, to be perceived as a unique person, I do no want to be treated as a mere object, even by strangers. Most people I have met feel this way. Even causal encounters with waitresses, store clerks and people on the street leave a wake in each other's life. Some of the most emotionally distressing confrontations occur between customers and those providing service. In general, if people are reasonable, they deserve to be treated fairly as fellow metaphysically independent rational beings with the psychological need to be visible and recognized as having worth.

I know some Objectivists may object to this view because they believe most people are raving altruists. My experience in the nearly six several decades (!) of living and working has lead me to conclude many people want essentially the same thing I do: a fulfilled life consisting of a rewarding career, a harmonious home life and fun recreations. They deserve the same respect that I desire.

To illustrate the importance non-instrumental virtues can play in life, let's consider two Objectivists possessing vastly different styles. One exhibits the virtues we just discussed; the other is rational and applies the agent instrumental virtues but is cold, humorless (except to laugh at the irrationality of others), unsympathetic, and dispenses harsh moral condemnations at the slightest provocation. In the long run (and even in the short run) who will be happier?

The life of the judgmental Objectivist is one string of constant disagreements and diatribes. Many of these start with his denunciations of the alleged irrationality or immorality of those around him. Consequently, he gets the reputation for being uncooperative, even a "kook". People avoid working with him; some might even actively oppose him, thereby preventing him from achieving some goals. Or, he gravitates toward occupations requiring minimal contact with people.

The other person acknowledges most people have never heard of Ayn Rand. He knows most people have accepted their beliefs through cultural osmosis and that many have never been trained how to think critically (something many Objectivists haven’t learned either). From this he knows most people will advocate ideas he disagrees with. Yet, he knows that judging people is not simply a matter of judging their expressed beliefs. He does not shun moral judgment nor is he motivated to seek the favor of others at any cost. He knows people ought to he treated as innocent unless their actions suggest they are guilty of malicious intent or conscious irrationality. Moreover, he knows he has but one life to live and he should make the most of it.

As a result, his projects tend to go smoothly. Disagreements usually don't escalate into thermonuclear verbal war. He enjoys friendships with his work associates, neighbors and relatives. He skis or plays tennis with some of them. He may disagree with their stated beliefs, but as long as they act reasonably, he keeps his moral saber sheathed. Since most people want to be treated with respect, he knows that abusing them will not convince them of the correctness of his ideas.

At root he recognizes everyone is metaphysically independent and responsible for their own life and happiness. He respects this and gages his attempts to share his perspective with them. Even when he disagrees with someone on philosophy, he does not automatically write that person off.

As I have said, non-instrumental virtues can be important elements in a good life. They can help smooth the way for us and save us energy and emotional wear and tear. More importantly, they comprise the facets of a mosaic that is the ultimate work of art - our life.

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