Where Is Virtue Ethics In The Quebec Charter Of Values?

By Father John Walsh on January 3, 2014

We are hard-wired to be happy.  What we want most is a good life.  What does make people happy? In the World Happiness Report of 2013 Jeffrey Sachs offers a very thoughtful chapter entitled, Restoring Virtue Ethics In The Quest For Happiness.  He presents differing views on how happiness is achieved.  He writes that virtue ethics, the ethical dimensionleading to happiness is the most often overlooked in any discussion about well-being. Where is virtue ethics in the Quebec Charter of Values?  

Sachs writes:  “Economic growth and the rise of the modern market economy gave rise to a new philosophy of consumerism.  We could raise global well-being to a new level if we were to center our attention on the role of ethics, on virtuous behaviour, on happiness.  Until our modern era the sages instructed us not to follow our base instincts for sensual pleasures and material possessions, but rather to see much greater potential in being compassionate towards others.”

Jeffrey Rifkin in his large tome The Empathic Civilization – the Race To Global Consciousness In A World in Crisis,affirms that empathy is grounded in the acknowledgement of the whiff of death and the celebration of life and then rooting for each other to do our best.  Consciousness changes in history and Rifkin encourages us to rethink the human narrative and to bring out our core nature.  He warns us that if it doesn’t come out and if it is repressed by our long-held shibboleths on parenting, our educational institution, business practices, government, then, the secondary drives come: the narcissism, the materialism, the violence, the aggression.  We need to have a global debate rethinking human nature to bring out our empathic sociability and then we can rethink our institutions and prepare the ground work for an empathic civilization.                          

Jeremy Sachs adds, “since humans are mortal, their social status impermanent, and their fates interdependent, human are all worthy of compassion.”

Matthieu Ricard, a Buddhist monk I met with the Dalia Lama says, “Happiness is a way of interpreting the world, since while it may be difficult to change the world, it is always possible to change the way we look at it.”

Aristotle wrote, “we must practice what is right and get the habit of doing it, and this then becomes a matter of public policy.  We all need to realize our essential nature. “

Sachs continues and says that the essence of tradition and virtue ethicsis that happiness is achieved by harnessing the will and the passions to live the right kind of life.A key development from virtue ethics to consumerism was seen in a “utility theory” in which each individual’s utility is determined by the possession and consumption of material goods, mainly through market purchase.  Thehighest relative happiness would then be dependent on the individual’s budget.  

We have had a number of options about the source of happiness: Hobbes, power and contact, not virtue, as the key to happiness; Bernard Mandeville, humanity is bound to be immoral when material greed will ultimately serve human purpose to build wealth and power.  Adam Smith not virtue, but from self-interest.  

Protestants believe only God could grant salvation through grace and that they could not save themselves through virtue.  It was the case for virtue-as–salvation was overturned and Calvinists came to view business success as a sign of (predestined) salvation through God’s grace. By the end of the 1800s economists held to a doctrine of unfettered consumerism.  

Social ethics takes a radical new course where well-being is now defined as individual utility.  Happiness comes from their relations to object of pain and pleasure rather than their relations to people.  Individuals no longer derive their happiness form altruism, compassion and social connections to virtue.  

John Maynard Keynes emphasized that the vast new wealth of the likes of the Rockefellers and Carnegies in the late 19th century industrial era was socially tolerated in part because the rich did not in face consume their vast wealth but invested it.   They believed in the virtues of temperance and charity and established philanthropic activities on unprecedented scales. All these approaches to happiness have failed. 

Hyper-commercialism prevails and remains the dominant ethos.  However, there are growing counter-currents, both religious and secular, that insist on social justice, redistribution, ecological sustainability, social capital, and psychological detachment from consumerism.  An exaggerated desire for wealth and consumption lead to personal unhappiness, addictions, ill health, and other psychological, social and physical burdens.

The centrality of compassion in human interaction allows us to experience interpersonal relationships that promote our well-being and happiness.    

The major flaw in the proposed Quebec Charter of Values is that virtue ethics is not central but completely absent; compassion is replaced by “reasonable accommodation,” self-interest is substituted for concernwith each other’s well-beingand happiness; people in Quebec’s hyper-charged consumer society are regarded as objects to be treated untethered by ethical, religious or philosophical constraints and differences are judged to inimical in an imaginary society rather than complimentary riches to be shared.


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