by Troy Chapman
The way we understand things in western culture is by taking them apart — separating, isolating, then studying these parts. This method certainly has its value, as evidenced by our mastery of the physical world. But knowledge gained by taking things apart doesn’t rise to the level of wisdom. To find that we must put things back together in our thinking by placing them in an ever-growing context of wholeness. We must be integrators, who not only understand the parts, but also the relationship between the parts as well as the larger whole that they comprise.
One of the things we’ve taken apart is wisdom and goodness. I recently read about a group of scientists who are trying to put wisdom under the microscope to study it, quantify it and better understand it. Their work is fascinating but I was surprised to find no mention of ethics or values in the list of things they were using to measure wisdom. It’s as if wisdom and goodness were two different countries, and while the scientists sometimes drove along the border of ethics by talking about empathy and compassion they didn’t seem to have their visas and so turned back each time.
I understand why. Drawing borders is what scientists do, and it’s much more difficult to be “scientific” when one starts erasing these borders. Science doesn’t deal well with wholes.
We, on the other hand, must deal with wholes if we want to be wise rather than just know about wisdom. Wisdom and virtue are two wings of the same bird. The un-virtuous are not wise, nor are the unwise virtuous. These two cannot be separated.
With that said, let me say that virtue is more than a knowledge of good and bad, right and wrong. That’s virtue at its most fundamental level, but also its most simplistic level. On its higher levels, virtue is knowledge of what’s more or less important, what’s more or less valuable. The right-wrong question is usually pretty straightforward and most of us manage it fairly well. Where we stumble is when it comes time to assign value to two rights or two goods. In other words, to decide which is most important. And this is where wisdom and virtue merge.
A friend attacks me for something I didn’t do. Defending myself and setting him straight on the factual truth is certainly right and good; it’s also our first impulse. But is there another good that’s more important, more valuable than defending the factual truth? For me there is. It’s more important to tend to the spiritual truth, which is my friend’s hurt feelings and sense of betrayal.
Instead of, “That’s not true; I didn’t do anything to you, but try to be a friend, why are you falsely accusing me?” the conversation might go, “Listen, we can talk about what happened but, first of all, you need to know I care about you and I’m sorry if I did anything that hurt you.”
The second approach represents a prioritizing of these two goods, with spiritual truth being considered the more important of the two.
These prioritizing decisions are a constant in life. Knowing what’s right and wrong is certainly important, but if we then place all rights, all goods, on equal footing, we end up with a sort of bureaucratic ethics that leads us into behavior that is anything but ethical. It’s good to tell the factual truth, for instance, but when it’s the Nazis asking if we’ve hidden any Jews, serving spiritual truth is more important, and there’s no virtue in telling them, “Oh you got me; they’re in the basement.”
On a lighter note: men, when your wives ask you, “Do I look sexy in this dress?” always put love above factual truth, if there’s a difference between the two. Trust me, it’s the wise thing to do. It’s also the virtuous thing to do.
If we want to be wise, we need to ask not only what’s the right thing to do, but what’s most right in almost any given situation. As the founder of the school of situation ethics, Joseph Fletcher, says: “Calculate the most loving thing to do in any situation and consider it your duty.” I’ll leave you with that.
Drawing by Troy Chapman