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Ethics and the pursuit of excellence
| Foto: Felipe Lima

Accomplishment, happiness. Who doesn’t want that? But how to get there without knowing exactly what accomplishment and happiness consist of. Diverse philosophic systems dealt with this theme and offered the most diverse responses, often opposing each other. For some, happiness is in the unlimited fruition of pleasure; for others in the complete denial of the very same pleasures. For some, a person’s happiness is inseparable from the happiness of others; for others, individual happiness can even justify itself when others are left behind. In common with all these notions is the observation that happiness and accomplishment pass through the way we behave.

Nowadays, we speak of ethics as much as happiness or accomplishment. And ethics are frequently associated with norms, a list of “wrongs” and “rights” that guide our behavior in relation to ourselves, to our family, our circle of the friends and work colleagues and in the public space. To be an “ethical” person means to behave in accordance with these norms. It is not exactly the wrong way to see the issue, but it is not sufficient.

“Should we be content just scraping through life?”

Ethics understood like this, in normative terms, tend to turn into negative ethics, ethics with limits, in which the main concern is to plot (and test) the line of “cannot”, the limit that separates wrong and right, with the implicit conviction that to be simply on the good side of this limit will be enough. To make an analogy with school life, it is clear that passing the minimum grade required may be acceptable when the subject is especially difficult. But should we transform the "scraping" into an ideal, into the key to a student's achievement? Should we be content to "scrape" through life?

And the consequence of thinking of ethics as the delimitation of lines separating wrong and right is to end up looking at situations as “black or white”: to kill someone in a traffic accident is as grave as ordering a genocide; a “social lie”, like that untruthful complement is as condemnable as a betrayal. Life is not like that: within these condemnable actions, there are some more or less grave and the same goes for the praiseworthy acts.

Normative ethics also tend to be seen as the “specialist know-how”, of experts, who know how to work with complex norms, interpret them and apply them to concrete situations. Now, universal experience shows us that very ordinary people, without higher education are often much more direct than others that use their education to distort and justify the unjustifiable. Finally, for each one of us, morality understood like this, in normative terms, end up giving ethics the condition of something useful, necessary, but “that which limits me”. In other words, like an external requirement, required by life in society, but not so grateful, nor illuminating of my existence.

But could there be an alternative to this view, limited and unattractive, that is the most widespread and that which we call normative?

The complete man is, more than anything, a virtuous man, independently of his intellectual abilities or cultural education.

Yes, but a look back in time is needed. It’s with the ancient Greeks that we encounter an intuition about morality that seems fascinating. Many of their most illustrious thinkers viewed this question – and influenced their contemporaries –in quite a different way than presented above. When they, amongst themselves – and amongst the ancients in general -, reflected on what later became known as ethics, they didn’t think in a set of rules, but in a tangle of norms that were important to know.

What were their thoughts? In excellence, the search for better and more perfection. They thought of the science of quest about what is man’s calling, about what is the integral realization and the fulfillment of man. Ethics weren’t a matter of complying with the norms, of asking “can I or can I not?” They understood ethics as a response to the question “what should I be?” And the response, simple but profound, was: the individual is called to be the best he can be; not to be content with less than excellence.

Which excellence was that? What does the word arête (moral excellence) specifically refer to? All the excellences that can be achieved by man? In study, work, in a hobby, and finally, whatever human activity? Not precisely. There are many “excellences” in sport, art, studies, science. But the exceptional performance in certain fields is at everyone´s reach:  few will be Olympic champions or Nobel Prize winners. Even more than this: the fact of reaching such a level of performance in these partial, sectioned, fields doesn´t necessarily turn someone into a better person. Everyone is an expert in and has a story about scoundrel geniuses.

For all the experience of the west and much of the east, the virtues were seen as the end of a man’s education

Ethics, however, are not about these “excellences”, but about a specific type of excellence that, yes, is in the hands of man or woman, and that, yes, makes them better people. Who describe it is the Stoic author of the 3rd Century, the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius: “many things depend entirely on you: sincerity, dignity, resistance to pain, (…) the acceptance of destiny, (…) benevolence, liberty, simplicity, seriousness, magnanimousness. Observe how many things you can already achieve without being able to allege pretexts of natural incapacity or inaptitude, and by disgrace stays voluntarily below your possibilities. By chance you are forced to murmur, to be mean, to adulate, to blame your body, to be held accountable, to be frivolous and to submit your soul to much agitation, because you are defectively constituted? No, by the gods! It´s been a while since you could have detached from these defects!”

Marcus Aurelius is referring to the virtues, and the famous work of Aristotle “Nicomachean Ethics” is exactly this: a treaty about different virtues, qualities that they acquire, that they forge and that, in every era, were admired (even if at times they paid more attention to one than the other). They refer to ethics and, for all the experience of the west and much of the east, the virtues were seen as the end of man’s education. And this brings us back to the theme of fulfillment and happiness that, for Aristotle, consisted in being what you were called for–the famous “become such as you are” of the poet Pindar. That is, precisely, excellence in virtue. The perfect man is, above all, a virtuous man, even when his intellectual qualities or cultural education are not the best or most complete. And, if his virtues are innumerous, even more varied are the paths to excellence – as many as there are human beings, we could say. Each person, with their talents and circumstances, has their particular way to reach this ideal. What joins all of these paths is the certainty that the experience of the virtues at a high level (eupraxia, or acting well) is the path to happiness. To recuperate this ethic of excellence is an extremely important step if we want to construct a society preoccupied with the common good.

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