Duty and the dollars

19 06 2013


I once got myself into a bit of a tight spot at an African airport when I didn’t have twenty dollars for the departure tax. I had completely forgotten I needed the cash and the friends who had dropped me off had stuffed some wonderful gourds into my bag at the last minute, but had also forgotten the essential tax. On trying to leave, I was faced with some officials who clearly didn’t believe me when I said I was sorry and that I didn’t have the money. They eyed me up and down and I became uneasy when one of the officials pointed to my laptop and made a comment to his colleague. My protestations that the laptop was ‘for work’ and ‘not worth anything,’ did not convince them. All the money I had on me was a little local currency, worth around ten pence, and when I offered this instead the officials thought that I was trying it on with them. Their attitude said that I was a foreigner, a rich white tourist, surely twenty dollars was nothing to me?

A fellow traveller witnessed this tricky situation and decided to act. As he passed me, he swiftly and unobtrusively pressed a twenty dollar bill into my hand. I can still feel the texture of that note unfurling like a new leaf into my sweating palm; never have I felt such cool relief as at that moment. Those twenty dollars saved my skin.

After boarding the aircraft, I discovered that I was sitting next to a friend of the anonymous benefactor and when I told him what had just happened, he smiled and shrugged: ‘That’s just the kind of thing he would do.”  He pointed out where his friend was sitting nonchalantly reading. I scrawled a note saying how much his generous action had meant to me and sent the note down the aisle. He read it and then he twisted in his seat and waved at me once before turning back to his book. It was nothing, his gesture said, forget about it.

But I have never forgotten those twenty dollars. For me, his action was one of the most supremely considerate acts I have encountered. He acted instinctively and without thought of reward. The twenty dollars really meant nothing to him. He noticed a person in a tight spot and helped them to get out of it with a simple, swift and elegant solution.

Thinking through Kant’s ethics for my philosophy session last night reminded me of the airport situation. Kant would have approved of my benefactor’s approach. Kant’s ethics are anchored in a sense of good will to others and central to this good will is a sense of duty. Kant urges us to act humanely, to treat other human beings as we would wish to be treated ourselves. My fellow traveller handed over the twenty dollars out of a sense of duty to another traveller who needed to get home. He didn’t stop and ask me whether he could help, or try to pay the officials for me, or make a show of being generous as some people might have done. In putting the solution into my hand, he acted flawlessly.

I would like to think that if ever I saw someone in a similar situation at any remote immigration point, I would do the same. No fuss. No hesitation. No thinking: is this right, what if that woman has just spent all their dollars on drink or drugs? What is she uses it to buy crack? What if she follows me and begs for more money? What if…

Kant reminds us is that when we act from duty we act on the side of humanity.  When we act from duty in the way in which I understand Kant to mean it, we don’t need to equivocate, or look at consequences, or think of the implications of our actions. We simply act. One human being reaching out to another touching lives briefly and then moving on. No guilt. No reward. When we act from duty, we move in the direction of right conduct as part of the flow of life.

Duty in this understanding does not require effort or strain; it is not about obedience, or doing things because you have no choice. It is not even about overcoming laziness or selfishness. It is simply about acting without ulterior motive. It is acting from a point of absolute integrity.

For Kant, these sort of duty-driven actions are not emotional or personal. If we wish to live ethically, and Kant assumes that we do, then acting from duty and not treating people as a means, but as an end in themselves, actually frees us.  Viewing the world through Kantian eyes makes it possible for us to see others not as individuals who might trap us with complex needs that might impinge on our lives and make things uncomfortable for us, but as a mirror of ourselves.

The Best Life

16 06 2013


Can we choose to be happy? Aristotle thought that we could. He outlines his reasons in a series of tantalisingly brief notes compiled as the Nicomachean Ethics. For Aristotle whatever we choose, we choose because we want to be happy or fulfilled. We make decisions that are ‘choiceworthy.’

  “Happiness more than anything else seems unconditionally complete, since we always choose it because of itself, never because of something else.”

Aristotle’s main idea is that we never choose happiness for the sake of something else. He argued that all our choices in life are aimed at the goal of happiness. We choose the person we will marry because we are convinced that that person will bring us (hopefully) everlasting happiness. Similarly we choose to settle in places because we feel that we are going to be happy there. When we get fed up with living in, say, London, we move to Devon, or to Cambridge or Spain. Happiness draws us along the line of decision making. The only thing that we need to keep in mind is that we can’t choose beyond happiness.

Aristotle makes the goal of happiness both incredibly simple and fiendishly difficult. For a start, many people who live lives of acute desperation are often not aware that happiness is even a valid choice for them. I imagine young women who have been kidnapped as victims of human trafficking gangs rarely feel that they have any options, and that applies also to victims of any form of violence. Child soldiers; young prostitutes; sweat shop workers; the homeless; migrant fruit pickers – for many people in these situations their daily decisions are aimed at survival alone and happiness itself is a remote dream.

Circumstances must always influence happiness: you simply can’t compare the happiness of a wealthy business woman with an online empire and her children educated in independent schools with a woman who still has to carry water to her children who may die of disease before they reach adulthood. Global happiness is clearly not a level playing field.

I would argue, though, that we can still find wisdom in Aristotle’s ideas. If we are going to aim for something in life then surely it is better to aim at happiness than to dismiss it from our lives because it does not apply to our circumstances at the time? It is a rare human being who cannot recall a single happy moment. For those living the most wretched of circumstances, it is those moments of lightness and relief that keep them going and act as the bridge between merely existing and truly living.

Man’s Search For Meaning, Viktor Frankl’s memoir from the ‘human laboratory’ of the Holocaust death camps builds the case that courage and hope are closely connected. If we can hope, then we have the will to live, and in order to move beyond despair we need to make fundamental changes in our attitude toward life. Frankl, a professor of neurology and psychiatry, who spent three years in Auschwitz, Dachau and other concentration camps, writes movingly of his role as mentor to those for whom the relentless brutality of camp existence had extinguished all hope…’we had to teach the despairing men, that it did not really matter what we expected from life, but rather what life expected from us. We needed to stop thinking about the meaning of life, and instead to think of ourselves as those who were being questioned by life – daily and hourly.’

The answer, for Frankl, does not lie in in the innocent pursuit of happiness, but in ‘right action and in ‘right conduct.’

Here Frankl’s ideas dovetail with Aristotle’s. For both thinkers seem to agree that happiness is not the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow of life, but a series of activities and challenges that we must overcome in order to draw our own map of meaning. Right action and right conduct means living an ethical life.

In the notes throughout his Ethics, Aristotle is vague on the question of whether happiness is a gift of the Gods. He more or less admits that he didn’t know, but that if it were a gift from the Gods then that would be a reasonable thing for the Gods to offer. He is more interested in how we can achieve happiness through our own actions. He didn’t think that fate brings us good fortune. He is not superstitious. He argues that it is better to be happy through our own efforts than through good fortune because fortune is easily lost and therefore unreliable. The Ethics is a reasoned enquiry into the elements that make up the best kind of life. One of its conclusions is that activity brings lasting happiness.

“…since it is activities that control life…no blessed person could ever become miserable since he will never do hateful and base actions. For a truly good and intelligent person will bear strokes of fortune suitably and from his resources at any time will do the finest actions, just as a good general will make the best use of his forces in war, and a good shoemaker will produce the finest shoe from the hides given him, and similarly for all other craftsmen…”

In this idea that purposeful and creative activity brings psychological benefits, Aristotle follows Plato. This idea is central to Greek thinking on harmony. A person living in harmony lives a life that is well-suited to their talents and character. If you are suited to be a shoemaker then that is what you should do for life and if you make the best shoes possible and keep all your customers happy then you in turn will be happy.

   “Since happiness is an activity of the soul expressing complete virtue, we must examine virtue; for that will perhaps be a way to study happiness better.”

Aristotle turns his attention to what he calls ‘the virtues of character,’ or good habits of mind. The term ‘ethical’ comes from habit or ethos. For Aristotle, then, the good character is ethical. He claims that ethics does not arise in us naturally. We are not born ethical, as anyone who has spent time with toddlers will recognise. Aristotle claims that we become ethical through a process of habituation. We learn the right way to act.

 “The right sort of habituation must avoid excess and deficiency.”

Aristotle advocates the middle way. If we avoid extremes of all kinds we can achieve balance and harmony in our lives and it is this sense of equilibrium that leads to happiness. For Aristotle, happiness is temperance and moderation; a state of poise and tranquillity that has echoes in Buddhist ideas of recognising that it is craving that leads to suffering.

    “For both excessive and deficient exercises ruin strength; and likewise, too much too much or too little eating or drinking ruins health…the same is true of temperance, bravery and the other virtues. For if someone avoids and is afraid of everything, standing firm against nothing, he becomes cowardly, but if he is afraid of nothing at all and goes to face everything, he becomes rash.”

But his claims about habituation raise a puzzle: How can we become good without being good already?

Aristotle’s response is that we need to practise ethics rather than relying on theory. There is no point in reading a book about how to live a better life unless you put into action some of the ideas suggested. We become happy by doing activities that put us in a good state. We create our own well-being.

   “The many, however, do not do these actions but take refuge in arguments, thinking that they are doing philosophy, and that this is the way to become excellent people. In this they are like a sick person who listens attentively to the doctor, but acts on none of his instructions.”

Aristotle argues that knowing ourselves is fundamental to achieving happiness. We need to observe our own tendencies on the scale of extremes and deficiencies. Are we more inclined to be passive or aggressive; active or inactive? A dreamer or a doer; intellectually or emotionally driven? Are we generous or cautious with money? When we know what we are like, we can find our own midpoint on the circle.

“Giving and spending money is easy and anyone can do it; but doing it to the right person in the right amount at the right time for the right end and in the right way is no longer easy nor can everyone do it. Hence doing these things well is rare, praiseworthy and fine.”

Which makes Aristotle’s idea of happiness sound like a goal worth pursing, not for the glow of contentment it brings, but for the motivation it gives us to shape and adjust our ethical lives so that we may become endowed with the happiness that we truly deserve.

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