Being vs. acting good — is there a difference?

One of the things I like most about fiction is the way it presents ethical issues in helpful and novel (har har) ways. Every fictional story presents some kind of ethical conflict and its resolution, highlighting different kinds of people, different ways of thinking, different ways of relating to others, etc. Really, when we read we are getting an ethical lesson and an emotional intelligence lesson at the same time as we enjoy the characters and the story.

Sneaky little authors-es.

I think literature, when it’s at its best, gets us to sympathize with complexly ethical characters, to start to understand other mindsets, and, as a result, to examine or unsettle our ethical assumptions. Sometimes books will even get us to questions our assumptions about what counts as a “good” or “bad” person. We form attachments to different characters with different trait profiles, and find the bundle in any one person to be… mixed. Neither wholly good nor wholly bad.

Other times, authors write their characters as exemplars of certain traits, showing how different character traits (vices and virtues) play off one another.

Few authors do this with the wit and incisiveness of Jane Austen.

Harsh, Jane. Harsh.
Dude, Jane. Harsh.

If you love Jane Austen and philosophy, then you must read this article by Amanda Marie Kubic. In it, she explores how Austen’s novels display an Aristotelian ethics, and where that emphasis might have been inspired in Austen’s life and education.

I find virtue ethics, most associated with Aristotle and brilliantly illustrated in Austen’s novels, to be a fascinating case study of what it means to “be” compared to what it means to “do.” How do we separate what we do from who we are? Are they really all that separate? Can our actions be reduced to expressions or reflections of who we already are? Can our selves be reduced to the collective of things we do?!

For instance, when can we say that we’ve adopted a virtue or disposed of a vice? Only when we consistently show the behavior that corresponds to those traits. In other words, we can only really say we have the virtue of honesty if we act honestly on a consistent basis. We cannot say we have the virtue of honesty if we consistently act dishonestly. So it seems virtues and vices — the collection of traits making up a significant part of our identity, of who we are — are dependent on, or even derived from, actions.

But where does that leave dispositions? What if, say, I have a constant desire and impulse to lie, but in every situation I choose to speak the truth? Can I really be said to be an honest person? I don’t know that even Aristotle would say that version of me has the virtue of honesty. It seems that, at best, I would have both the vice and the virtue — I would be instinctively dishonest (possessing the disposition of dishonesty) and would be learnedly or intentionally honest (acting honestly).

I think there really is no clear line between being and behaving. They seem to be two sides of a coin, as complicated as that may be. Ah, if only we lived in Jane Austen’s time when all that mattered was your socioeconomic status if you’re a man, and the socioeconomic status of who you married if you’re a woman. (I kid, I kid.)

On that note, go indulge in some Austen reading (with a dab of Aristotle thrown in for good measure?!). It’ll be good for you. Reading and loving Austen is a virtue — I will brook no disagreement on this point.

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