Monday, February 28, 2011

George Washington

Interlocutor: You say that happiness and moral duty are inseparably connected. Why do you think that is so?

George Washington: To answer that, we must first define what we mean by happiness, and what we mean by the phrase, ‘moral duty’.

I: Happiness is that warm glow one feels from contentment, is it not?

GW: That is poetically put. And from what, may I enquire, does that contentment flow?

I: Why, from the feeling that all is right with the world.

GW: With that one person’s world, or the whole world?

I: With that one person’s particular sphere.

GW: That and no other? That is curious; should we always feel that way, we would be a very insular species indeed, would we not? The saying, ‘No man is an island’ would have no truth about it, would it?

I: No, it wouldn’t. I see what you mean. Let me say then, that one person’s sense of contentment stems from the knowledge that all is well in his own particular sphere, and that of his friends and family.

GW: Again, I would argue that is too narrow a grouping to give the man in question true happiness.

I: But, sir, if he is content; if all is well with his friends and his family, what more can he ask?

GW: What of that larger grouping of people who contribute to that contentment, that condition that all is well with the world? What of that – those groups of people, I should say, for they are many.

I: Which groupings of people do you refer?

GW: Well, let us begin with the man’s immediate surroundings, spatial, social, temporal: firstly, we may justly and rightly speak of the community closest to him, shouldn’t we?

I: His friends and his family?

GW: Yes, those, surely, but there are other individuals who would comprise that community, don't you not think?

I: The people he comes into contact with in the course of his working day.

GW: And those he does not necessarily contact.

I: Why should we consider those important?

GW: Do we not stand and fall in this world of ours by our reputation – our standing in society?

I: Yes, I see what you mean. He doesn’t necessarily meet the people who contribute to his standing – those who report his good deeds, you mean?

GW: As well as those who report his bad deeds – whom we sometimes term ‘gossips’.

I: Why should we consider people who do not have a good word for him?

GW: For the very good reason that a man’s standing in society is not a constant, fixed, entity; it rises and falls sometimes without his either acting or knowing why it has risen or fallen.

I: You mean his fame.

GW: Fame is too defined a name for what I am talking about; I mean rather just what I spoke of – his standing, which is neither his fame or reputation – both of which can carry weight that is not proportional to his real worth – the one being usually a positive quality, the other either positive or negative, usually the former. His standing, as I have said, is not a fixed component.

I: On what does it depend, if it is not fixed?

GW: On his own behavior, certainly, and on his behavior in relation to his peers and neighbours, the community he himself is a part.

I: But his standing is surely constructed by others, not by him. Is that not the case?

GW: Partially, yes. If his own behavior is reprehensible to others, his standing will suffer; if it is laudable, it will rise.

I: But there are always those who act out of baser motives; who might have jealously as their reason to tear him down off his pedestal. It seems, doesn’t it, that once one attains a high standing in society, there are always enough people to want to see him taken down a peg or two, aren’t there?

GW: Yes, indeed there are.

I: What of them?

GW: He should be kind even to them; generous in spirit, even to them.

I: Even to them? Why in the name of all that is true and just should he be kind to his detractors?

GW: For just that reason; that they are his detractors. Should he go out and punish them? Or should he work diligently to alter their erroneous opinion of him?

I: But they might never change their low opinion of him.

GW: Is that true? Will a man persist in his low opinion of another, even as that man performs a kindness to him? I would say that is a very rare thing – a man who hates upon no grounds.

I: So you would tell the man to be good and kind to all, would you?

GW: Yes, I would.

I: Even to those who denounce him to others?

GW: Especially to them.

I: And if he does that, what of him? What can we say of him ?

GW: That he has performed his moral duty.

U: Ah, so you would say that moral duty is done out of a selfish motive, would you?

GW: No, it is the glue that holds society together. Is that selfishness or good sense?

I: It would seem to be sensible, but you said that a man of high standing should court popularity, did you not?

GW: Indeed I did not say that. I said that he should educate with kindness, not with retribution. Too much of the trouble in the world is done by this latter means; punishing as a way of educating.

I: But is this not an effective way of teaching people a lesson, one they will never forget?

GW: You said it, they will never forget it. And what, may I ask, will they never forget the most, do you think?

I: The injustice of how they were treated.

GW: Exactly right, and that will motivate them to do worse, not better. Man is hardly ever made to commit wrong when treated with kindness, don’t you agree?

I: I do, but man will act in his own best interests, won’t he?

GW: He will, and what do you take those to be?

I: As he perceives them.

GW: Certainly, but does he not bring a certain amount of rational thought to this perception.

I: I am sure he does.

GW: And in so doing, will he not recall those who did him favours – did him a kindness, and will he not think it in his best interests to foster their good opinion of him, so that he will further benefit from their positive attitude to him?

I: I am not sure everybody always behaves in that ideal way.

GW: It is nevertheless, an ideal, is it not?

I: It is certainly an ideal.

GW: And we should work towards ideals, in our life, should we not?

I: We should, yes.

GW: We should, and it is our moral duty to do so. Then we can be truly happy, safe in the real knowledge that we have done our moral duty.
Robert L. Fielding

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