Saturday, March 01, 2008

More Thoughts on the Virtue of "Acceptingness"

Last night I was reflecting some more on my previous post about "acceptingness" as a parental virtue. I suspect an important part of my unease could be addressed if we stipulated that virtuous parents ought only to be accepting of those things that are in fact beyond their influence or control but less so about those things that are not. So if we think in terms of Aristotle's idea of the mean, virtuous parents occupy the mean between the parent who says "hey, life is unpredictable so why bother to care for my children as there is no 100% guarantee my hard work and love will secure their flourishing!" versus the control freak parent who says "I want to control every specific detail of my child's life, even if this is impossible!". But I don't think the notion of "acceptingness" helps capture the idea that parental virtue occupies the mean, which I think is essential for a virtue theory. And this is so because I don't think most human characteristics are fixed and stagnant. That is why I have trouble thinking of "acceptingness" as a virtue.

Here is an example to illustrate my point. Suppose the following tragic accident occurs. A parent witnesses their child lose a leg in an accident with the lawn mower. In such a tragic scenario it is now true that the child possesses the characteristic of being a leg amputee. How does acceptingness play out in this context? Should a virtuous parent accept that this accident is just part of the unpredictable nature of life? In one sense "yes", but in another sense "no".

At the time of the accident the child could suffer much more than just the harm of losing a leg. They might also bleed to death without immediate medical treatment. So the parent will immediately seek medical intervention. Perhaps the parent can accept (after a few days) that the child's leg is lost, but they will not accept that the child's life may be lost. They will do everything they can to save their child's life (and leg if it is possible), no matter how small the chance of survival. And if the child does survive, the parent will help the child adapt to life with one functioning leg. "Accepting" that life is unpredictable and can result in tragic accidents does not mean mean a virtuous parent will not aspire to minimize the risks of harm where possible (and reasonable).

According to the account of parental virtue I want to endorse (see here), the question of whether acceptingness is a parental virtue depends on whether it makes sense to consider it a personal virtue. This is so, for me, because I premise parental love on self-love. A parent views their child as "another-self" (Aristotle NE 1161b19, 28).

So, is a virtuous agent "accepting" of their own characteristics? Well, maybe we should modify this a bit as a virtuous agent has humility and strives for, but may never attain, complete 100% virtue. So the more interesting question is: are those who are pretty much virtuous- but still less than perfect moral agents- and aspire to be yet even more virtuous, "accepting" of themselves?

My initial reaction is to say "no". We constantly strive to become more enlightened, more compassionate and understanding, etc. There never is a stage where we just say: "This is the way I am, so I don't need to grow or critically reflect any further!". No perfectly (or even just partially) virtuous agent would say this. Self-love entails a life-long commitment to critical self-reflection on how we live our lives. The same applies to the child-parent relationship, though as a child ages (and becomes an adult themselves) the dynamic of the parent-child relationship changes significantly. The parent's role becomes more "accepting" in the sense that, once their children possesses the capacities of autonomy, parents should restrain their desire to intervene (no matter how good willed their intentions might be). So maybe acceptance becomes more of a virtue when the parent and child are both adults? I'd have to think some more about that.

And perhaps acceptingness is also a personal virtue of sorts. It might help a virtuous agent deal with sudden life changes, like retirement, divorce or the death of a loved one. Or even not-so-sudden life changes, like a "mid-life" crisis. Accepting, for example, the human life cycle, and our own inevitable decline of physical capacities (e.g. reproductive functions, levels of vitality, etc.).

However, this does not lead us in the direction of not trying to mitigate, or postpone, these things if this is possible. Physical exercise and diet, for example, can expand our health span. And the more I think about these issues the more I see how they relate to another ongoing interest of my-- the duty to retard human aging. Maybe I'll say more about the link between these two things on another occasion. But I do think part of the unease some have with the aspiration to retard human aging is that it goes against the notion of "acceptingness". However, once we understand that aging is not immutable, AND we are clear on what virtues follow from self-love, then I don't think we will feel this unease. But a fuller examination of these issues will have to wait for another day!