Christmas is upon us. It’s a time of giving. A time for celebrating with family and love ones. And a time to navigate a number of sticky ethical challenges.
It starts early in the morning; the gifts are distributed, and you unwrap Grandma’s exquisitely wrapped parcel only to reveal a hideous pair of underwear that may have once been in fashion during the great depression. You immediately call on your best poker face, but it may have already betrayed your disappointment. Should you lie and say, ‘thanks Nan, I really love them?’
Next comes the Christmas lunch tirade; you’re seated next to an opinionated uncle you only see once a year at Christmas who, predictably, after too many of his favourite Christmas beverages begins an annual festive diatribe that escalates rapidly from the opinionated to the offensive. Do you speak your mind?
Finally, the inevitable clash with your mother in law; she cannot help being critical about everything surrounding the festivities. The inevitable flare-up will happen after clearing away lunch, which you like to refer to it as the annual arm wrestle, a well-worn conflict over everything from how to stack the dishwasher to how the kids can and cannot play. This year will no doubt be worse as you are hosting the event. Do you stand your ground?
Most of us ask “What should I do?” when we think about ethics. However, we can approach it another way by asking, “What kind of person should I be?” Philosophical thinkers in this tradition turn to virtue ethics for the answers.
While it’s one thing to ask what kind of person should I be, it’s another thing to know how to live as that person. For Aristotle the answer to both of these questions is to act virtuously. Acting as though we already possess the best virtues is how we develop a virtuous character.
And if ever there was a time to test out the virtues of our character, it’s Christmas.
Virtue ethics, unlike other approaches, does not provide specific rules for addressing ethical questions. Instead, good actions are those that a person of good character would display. Aristotle, one of the most influential philosophers in this tradition, developed a comprehensive system of virtue ethics.
Let’s take a look at how it can help us navigate the minefield of Christmas’ annual dilemmas.
The underwear from Grandma? If asking what should you do, you might take a lead from consequentialism. You could simply smile and say ‘I love it Grandma’. After all, she meant well, a white lie makes her happy, keeps the economy ticking and doesn’t rock the family emotional boat. It produces the best overall outcome.
Other philosophers might suggest a different approach. Those in the deontological tradition, such as Immanuel Kant would argue that lying of any kind is unethical, even those white lies that are intended to spare someone’s feelings.
Unlike other approaches to ethics, virtue ethics does not rely on rules to guide action. While ‘do not lie,’ is a rule, ‘being honest’ is a virtue.
However, a virtue, on its own, doesn’t tell us too much that is helpful because virtues are interrelated, you can’t have one virtue without having others. To have a virtue is to be a particular type of person with a particular mindset and outlook on life. They are what’s called a ‘multi-track disposition’ – they go all the way down.
Honesty is not the only virtue at stake here. Acting virtuously requires us to calibrate between virtues. Because Grandma has the best intentions, she will no doubt take your honesty to heart. Honestly speaking your mind could be selfish at one extreme, and while a white lie at the other end might be considered selfless. What sits between these extremes Aristotle called the Golden Mean.
What would a fair person do? They might tell Grandma that they appreciate the thought but would like to do justice to her intentions by exchanging the gift for something that they will like, wear and remember Grandma every time they put it on.
So, let’s see what virtue ethics can teach us about managing that outspoken uncle. Imagine that dessert is now served and your uncle has flipped the switch to obnoxious. You try and avoid engaging with his tirades every year, but this year he is particularly offensive. His views are not only a dampener on the festive feels, but several members of the family are visibly hurt and upset by some of his more extreme views.
All families have their patterns that play out when people come together and the pre-determined roles we all play are difficult to shift.
What would we do if we were already a virtuous person? By imagining what a virtuous character would do in this situation we can start to practically explore how to become the best version of ourselves.
In the virtue ethics approach imagination is important in helping to shift unthinking and prescribed patterns of behaviours. What would we do if we were already a virtuous person? By imagining what a virtuous character would do in this situation we can start to practically explore how to become the best version of ourselves.
A virtuous person might ask themselves ‘how would I like to be treated if I were them?’ This particular uncle may not have many opportunities in their daily life to be heard. In many of the virtue ethics traditions compassion is a cardinal virtue. Exercising the virtue of compassion allows us to not only avoid rushing to judgement, but also gives us space to disarm the triggers that usually fire off in response to his toxic views.
The virtue of temperance – self-control and restraint – also helps here. While his views may trigger you strongly, appealing to logic with counterarguments will most likely not be effective.
It is almost impossible to change a person’s strongly held views with counter-logic. Paraphrasing back the points and emotions they are expressing not only lets them know their experience matters but also provides a circuit breaker by reflecting back their views. Research suggests that engaging in this way can make someone feel more understood and, as a result, less defensive or difficult.
When unsure about what the best virtue looks like in practice, virtue ethics suggests looking to someone of good character for direction by imagining how they would act in the same situation. Moral exemplars are an important feature of virtue ethics. Ethics is messy and no decision procedure provides a precise algorithm which will tell us definitively what to do when faced with difficult choices. Moral exemplars are people in our world who possess the best form of the virtues. Knowing what to do is not simply a matter of internalising a rule; for Aristotle virtue ethics it is about doing the right thing at the right time, in the right way and for the right reason. Moral exemplars help show us the way.
So, when it comes to the inevitable clash with your mother in law, imagine what someone you admire most would do. A moral exemplar might act intentionally with the virtues of humility, grace and generosity, showing her that what is important in hosting Christmas is not the power struggle to control the day but respecting differences and others’ boundaries. They might find ways to include some of her traditions in the day.
The development of character is at the heart of virtue ethics. We develop that character throughout our life through the virtues and in doing so we make wise choices.
This Christmas people may be looking at you to be that person.