–Arts and letters for the modern age–

Cathode Ray Zone

–Arts and Letters for the Modern Age–

Lives and Principles

by | Jun 13, 2024

This essay comes in the wake of an exchange I had some time ago on social media. (Well, perhaps not really an exchange, which suggests people actually talking to one another, something that never happened in this case.) Nicholas Christakis, of Yale-Halloween-Costume-Student-Meltdown fame, posted the following:

The older I get, the more I appreciate the importance of having principles and of living a life of integrity and honor. I recognize this quality in my friends, too, and it’s admirable. People who lack these qualities are sad, and likely are surrounded by others without scruples.

I thought it interesting for its somewhat unusual combination of naivety, ordinariness, and contempt. (Indeed, if not for the contempt, I likely would have ignored it.) It’s the sort of thing that people say all the time, yet it is entirely wrong. It is the kind of thing people express when they think they are channeling their virtue but which, in fact, reflects a lack of understanding of it. And it is the sort of thing one says after being thrust into the public eye, having survived some well-publicized ordeal, only to discover that people suddenly expect you to have some special moral and political insight as a result. The same thing happened to Brett Weinstein, an unassuming biology professor, who was made famous after having been the target of a rabble of students who staged a bizarre coup at Evergreen College several years ago. Weinstein now fancies himself a political Wise Man and is responsible for the “Unity Party 2020,” which he thought would have an effect on American politics. (It did not.)

I tried to engage with Christakis and wrote this as a first move:

I appreciate this sentiment, but I don’t share it. What my aging has impressed upon me is the emptiness of principles and abstractions; the self-deception involved in thinking one is living by them; and the messy, muddy, ultimately prudential character of most of what we do.

I then received the following from Christakis: “I understand what you say. But I find it too cynical to accept. And I see many people with integrity, who I’d just as soon resemble.” And though I replied several times more, in an effort to further explain my position, I received no additional response from him. 

Christakis notwithstanding, the idea that a good person and a good life (the “life of integrity and honor”) are characterized by living and acting according to “principles” is quite common and worth commenting on. While Christakis never explains what these principles are – whether by characterization or enumeration – it seems safe to infer that he means general, abstract moral principles of the sort that one finds in religion and in philosophy: “Do no harm”; “Be honest in what you say and do”; “Respect the dignity of others”; that sort of thing.

The trouble is that it is difficult to identify any such principles that are actually true, without slipping into tautology. If by ‘honesty’ you mean ‘always rightfully telling the truth’, then, of course, “It is right to rightfully tell the truth” is true, but only trivially and therefore uselessly. What good is it to know it, after all, if one doesn’t know what rightfully telling the truth consists of? If by ‘honesty’ you mean ‘always telling the truth’, then “It is always right to tell the truth,” though substantive and potentially useful, is obviously false, as one easily can imagine any number of scenarios in which not only would it be wrong to tell the truth, but it would be obligatory not to. And if by ‘honesty’ you mean “telling the truth some of the time,” then it’s unclear whether one is acting on principle at all, as you’ll need to know which times, and that is going to depend.

Aristotle explained in the Nicomachean Ethics why we shouldn’t put much stock in principles. For him, virtue is associated with moderateness of temperament and action, so as far as principles go, we may be able to say truthfully that one should never act excessively or deficiently, but rather to the right extent or degree. Yet, what counts as any of these can only be determined by a judgment that is entirely dependent on the circumstances, as the very same action may represent excess on one occasion, deficiency on another, and “the right amount” on yet a third. This is why virtue requires practical wisdom, which would not be the case if the good life could be achieved through fidelity to a set of principles that one simply memorized and followed.

To suggest, then, as Christakis does, that virtues like “honesty” or “integrity” are the result of following principles depends on a misunderstanding. Principles can never tell us how we should act on any particular occasion, because it will depend on the situation, the actors, and any number of other variables. Virtue is not “top down,” but rather, “bottom up.” It involves not fidelity to principles, but a well-developed sensitivity to what circumstances require of us, which can only be born of substantial experience, perceptiveness, and sound judgment.

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What struck me the most upon reading Christakis’s remarks was that they are supposed to reflect his thinking as he has gotten older. Well into middle age myself, I have been noticing more and more the impact of aging on my own thinking, and it is very much the opposite of what Christakis describes. If I was to try and summarize the essential elements of this thinking, they would include:

—The realization that few if any of my aspirational narratives are going to play out as I had hoped.

—An understanding that one can do all the right things (and follow all the “best principles”) and things can go horribly wrong, nonetheless.

—The related understanding that on many occasions, all of the possible choices will be bad.

—The acknowledgment that neither I nor most anybody else is nearly as good (or as bad) as we would like to think.

—The recognition that in light of all this (and more), happiness and fulfillment are best sought in the ephemeral joys that arise in the course of an ordinary day in the ordinary life of an ordinary person, rather than in the fulfillment of grand plans regarding the world or – and this is important, in light of what we are talking about – oneself.

These realizations have been slow and hard coming and are, to a great degree, unwelcome, as is the aging from which they follow and which involves, prominently: the decline and eventual death of one’s parents; the departure of one’s grown children from the home, as they embark upon their adult lives; one’s own physical and mental deterioration and that of one’s spouse; and the accumulation of a lifetime’s worth of compromises, disappointments, betrayals, failures and losses. 

It is only in one’s later years, when one’s life is sufficiently rich in these sorts of experiences, that the full complexity and radical contingency of things comes into clear focus and can serve as a foundation for wisdom. That wisdom is a matter of having outgrown black-and-white thinking; idolization and the heroification of people; breezy, blanket condemnations of those whom one does not know and of whose lives one is ignorant; and simplistic and self-important proclamations regarding one’s virtue, whether current or as part of some “life-plan.” 

Let me say something about such “life-plans,” in light of Christakis’s stated desire to “live a life of integrity and honor.” I find it a strange ambition. If someone asked me what I would like for my life, my answer would include: satisfying relationships, successful endeavors, and memorable experiences. If you’d asked me when I was young how I thought I would do, my answer would have been that I would succeed across the board and superlatively so. If you ask me now how I’ve done, my answer is “so, so.” And if you ask me what I think is the best anyone can do, my answer is also “so, so.”

Perhaps we should take these kinds of appeals to a “life of honor and integrity” as part of an effort to console oneself in the face of disappointment, failure, and sadness. After all, “But, I was a good person” and “At least I stuck to my principles” are the sorts of things one says to oneself in the wake of a broken marriage, an unsuccessful business venture, or an unsatisfying experience. Alas, in my own life, I  have found little consolation along these lines. For one thing, as mentioned earlier, neither I nor anyone else is nearly as good as we’d like to think, nor will we ever be, and for another, having “done the right thing” provides no solace for any significant failure or loss, unless one is deceiving oneself. During my late father’s extensive and terrifying decline, I made all the right decisions and followed all the “best principles,” and what wound up happening was horrific, not in spite of my choices but because of them. The thought that I had acted throughout with “integrity and honor” or that “I am a good person” provided no comfort whatsoever, as I watched my father rant and rave and thrash and struggle week after interminable week, nor do I think it should have. The consolatory conception of the life of virtue seems to involve what I would argue is a refusal not just to acknowledge, but to digest and finally, accept the tragic dimension of life. Existential wisdom lies not in feeling good in the face of disappointment, failure, and loss, because their significance is trumped by one’s own virtue, but in the ability to think well of one’s life and feel good for all the little successes and joys one manages to accomplish in between. What is striking about the view articulated by Christakis isn’t that someone thinks that way, but rather that an older and supposedly wiser person does. We should become less certain as we age, not more; disinclined to criticize and condemn, rather than inclined (I’m still working on that one); realistic and practical, rather than utopian; more hesitant, rather than less; and retiring, rather than brazen. Why? Because if we don’t, it means we haven’t learned a damned thing.

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