Sunday, April 30, 2017

I've Got to Be Virtuous to Be Happy? Really?

Good grief, you mean I have to be virtuous to be happy? How do I do that? A saint I ain't!

Adam Smith said that virtue is multifaceted, the big three being prudence, justice, and beneficence. These make us more lovable, respected and admired by those around us, traits that make us loved.

These are not terms we hear a lot about usually. Other than "justice", when was the last time you heard the terms "prudence" or "beneficence"? But remember, Smith was writing in the seventeen hundreds. Let's look at what those terms might mean today.

Prudence means taking care of yourself. To be prudent means to not act recklessly. It also covers everything in your personal life, taking care of your health, money, reputation. There are plenty of resources to learn how to take care of your health and money. But reputation isn't as well explored. A prudent person is sincere and honest, doesn't volunteer everything he/she knows, is reserved and cautious in their speech and action, doesn't stick their opinion into every conversation, is a good friend and avoids melodrama in relationships, is a faithful friend, chooses friends who are sober, modest, discrete, well-behaved. I imagine the prudent person doesn't put their life on social media without careful thought of what they share. They are genuine. They say little and do much. They have a certain dignity.

For Smith the trait of justice refers to not harming or hurting others. It is a negative virtue in that it is the things you don't do - don't steal, don't murder, don't lie, don't cheat, don't abuse others, don't hurt other's feelings. It is the rule of fair play in life. Don't take advantage of others to benefit yourself. Pay your debts. Keep your promises. All of that is personal justice. The way we interact in the world is by following the rules of justice.

Beneficence is more than being fair. Beneficence means doing good. Not being bad is pretty straightforward. But doing good has no black and white rules. Smith says gratitude is one of the virtues that make up beneficence. Others include friendship, humanity, hospitality, generosity, charity.
When we see a need and want to meet it, how much is enough? What is being good when what we do may not really benefit someone as much as something else might? Should I give them money? What if spending time with them or offering information/advice would be more helpful? How do we know?Do you give to everyone who asks?

It seems to me that prudence is required to determine boundaries of beneficence. If I recklessly give to everyone and every cause and don't take care of my own financial needs, it is no longer healthy. Yet we must consider justice when we look at giving as a way to look good to the world rather than to help those in need. When we do that we are taking advantage of those in need to boost our selfish need for admiration.

While we can't expect ourselves to be perfectly virtuous, but working toward that goal is the best way to being "lovely." And many of us want to do more that to be wise and virtuous. We want to make the world a better place. That is the premise of my blogs, that we want to make a positive difference in the world.

Next post we will look at how Russ Roberts, author of How Adam Smith Can Change Your Life, suggests we do that.

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