Meditations on Virtue and Civility

Inspired by conversations I have had as of late, I am writing about what will most certainly seem a little quaint to the modern business reader--virtue and civility.

The purpose of civility, of getting along with others should be self-explanatory. Virtue, on the other hand, isn't anymore.

In the mad rush of biology, technology, and material, civility and virtue provide the basic format for how to interact. No reasonable person can expect to be successful in global business without being civil, and no one can expect to be well liked (locally or globally) without having considerable virtue. No matter how cool it might be for the pop-star or professional athlete to be "blunt and outspoken," manners and polite behavior are essential to relationship building. No matter how many books are written on the power of being a "bitch," people will still cringe when you light up a colleague like a Christmas tree because their powerpoint presentation is not up to par.

I am going to bet that civility and virtue were not mentioned at your start-up onboarding meeting or even at a large corporate one. These ideas are distant from the mentality of profit--which is an unnecessary divorce of reason from motivation. So unless you are fond of obscure Russian novels and Greek Philosophy, let me save you the trouble of battling with War and Peace or Aristotle's Nichomedian Ethics, though I suggest giving both a try at some point.

First, a little background is in order. I am the youngest son of a Marine Officer and a ballet dancer who met in a donut shop in East Boston. I am hardly the well-born son of Boston aristocracy, and so my ethos is more a by-product of church, chores, and hockey practice. I am talking about things I believe in. My siblings and I were raised to be polite, modest and hard-working--and that is pretty much it. Simple virtues.

The question I will pose to the reader is why we, as a nation, choose to be unconscious, loud, impulsive and rude? In plain English, the dreaded popularity contest we endured in high school never ends. Moreover, the stakes are higher. Acclimate, profit or perish. Fit in, buy into the "culture" or be banished. We must consider whether or not the open workplace and post-consumerist attitude in business have had a net positive effect on the individual or society. The pressure that materialism exerts on the system deadens the self and forces us to compromise on the very ethos that binds us together.

If you are thinking about the blue pill or the red pill, right about now, you'd be headed in the right direction.

Basic civility and virtuous behavior are hardly novel concepts, however, how many people are willing to cultivate them? Unlike ordinary intellectual capacity which a person might have in spades, virtues are dispositions. They indicate how to act skillfully in response to certain situations. Virtue is the habit of behaving in a certain way--that is appropriate or correct. Good conduct, or what is referred to in Buddhism as "Right Mind, and Right Understanding" arises from habits we gain only after repeated action and correction. Ethics is an intensely practical discipline and mistakes are part of learning.

In other words, we actually have to exert ourselves to become "a good person".

According to Aristotle, the upright habit of action is always an intermediate state between the opposed vices of excess and deficiency. Too much and too little are never the right means, and the right kind of work always lies in the mean. (Nic. Ethics II 6)

With respect to acting in the face of danger, courage {Gk. ανδρεια [andreia] } is a mean between the excess of rashness and the deficiency of cowardice;
With respect to the enjoyment of pleasures, temperance {Gk. σωφρσυνη [sophrosúnê] } is a mean between the excess of intemperance and the deficiency of insensibility;
With respect to spending money, generosity is a mean between the excess of wastefulness and the deficiency of stinginess;
With respect to relations with strangers, being friendly is a mean between the excess of being ingratiating and the deficiency of being surly; and
With respect to self-esteem, magnanimity {Gk. μεγαλοψυχι&alpha [megalopsychia] } is a mean between the excess of vanity and the deficiency of pusillanimity.

Virtue, once we understand it, is more flexible than we think. While we are on the topic, so are a lot of other basic concepts that we do not take the proper time to contemplate. Consider this--we have flexed so far into artificiality, and the world of the mind, that is a rare thing to look at how we are behaving on a day to day basis.

In short, avoid extremes of all sorts and seek moderation in all things.

Here are some extra keys to putting virtue into action.

  1. Anticipate opportunities to help others--to serve--and act swiftly.
  2. Act for the sake of virtue, not recognition.
  3. Always strengthen the weakest link on your team, and ignore the braggart.
  4. If you say you are going to do it, then do it.
  5. Discernment and intuition are excellent guides. Learn to trust your gut.
  6. Manage all conflict with grace. 
  7. Tell the truth.

Self-knowledge is key to activation. All of these features are interwoven. Voluntary action and deliberate choice, (like telling the truth when you do not need to, and polite persistence on civility when someone is acting like a complete ass), are directly correlated to the strength of one's will and the quality of one's friendships. Our willingness to engage others is the ultimate determinant of the happiness of our relationships.

Plain-speaking, straight-talking people who are transparent about their values, are easier to understand and more likely to create a positive influence. We learn very quickly in business that talk is the easiest part of the puzzle. One must be actually interested in cultivating virtue and know that their dignity is non-negotiable. Behavior, action, volition--these virtues require the heroism of candor and honesty and the kind of patience only beget by long contemplation.