Thursday, November 20, 2008

A Case for Personal Virtue: 3. Which Virtues?

Virtues are good or desirable traits or habits of character, cultivated tendencies to act one way or another in response to particular circumstances. The standard by which a character trait may be judged a virtue or a vice is human thriving in the context of the broader moral and political community.

Obviously, there is considerable room for disagreement about such judgments. Even so, I would like now to propose a partial list of virtues that seem to me conducive to the development of a sound energy policy and a sustainable civilization.

Temperance. This is a one of the primary moral virtues, that is, virtues that concern how we respond to emotions. In this case the emotion is general desire. Where energy is concerned, temperance consists in regulating desire, fitting our desires more carefully to the means available.

Courage. This is another moral virtue, this time concerned with how we respond to fear. Oil depletion is a fearful prospect, as is the prospect of profoundly changing the ways we live in the world. Courage does not require that we be fearless or that we ignore fear, but that we do not let our fear lead us to evade or deny our limits or our responsibilities.

Deliberateness. Until very recently, with the possible exception of the 1970s, it has been easy for consumers in the industrialized world to be casually thoughtless in their use of energy. Decisions about what to do and how to live could be based on convenience, pleasure, or some other standard, not on the availability of energy or the consequences of using energy from this or that source. It seems reasonable that people should cultivate the intellectual virtue of deliberateness, more carefully weighing the energy costs of the various options they have available to them.

Creativity. It would help further to have a wider array of options to choose from when deliberating about ends and means. If we are blindly committed to a particular way of living – a non-negotiable “American Dream” – then the choices posed by oil depletion are stark. But if more basic values of health, civility, opportunity, mobility, and so on, can be detached from particular forms of life, we can more easily find new ways of getting at what we need and what we want. In short, there is more than one way to lead satisfying, civilized human lives, and some of them are bound to be more sustainable than others. This suggests the need for a degree of intellectual flexibility or creativity.

Systems Imagination. This is a more specific intellectual virtue that is especially important where energy is concerned. Consider an ordinary person standing at the gas pump, agape at the rising costs of a fill-up. One question comes easily to the lips: Who is to blame for this? Media accounts and letters to the editor are full of finger-pointing: this or that political party is to blame, or greedy executives, or speculators, or thoughtless consumers. Energy policy would be better served by thinking instead in terms of complex, heterogeneous systems of interaction in which all of these actors may play some role, but which have emergent properties larger than any of them. Ordinary people and policy makers alike may be more apt to make reasonable decisions, to face the reality of our situation with courage and creativity, if we do so based on a feel for the system.

No comments: