Five Virtues for Flourishing Together

So many of the harms that befall people are unintended. People cooperating with each other can get tripped up for some many reasons. Their goals are the same, but their methods differ, or a goal more familiar to the one is less so to the other. Or people share goals without realizing how different methods may change the schedules on which benefits and costs occur. Or they are accustomed to opportunities and hazards a familiar environment presents, so they miss the opportunities and hazards of changing circumstances. And the pace of technical and social change means our circumstances are usually somewhat novel. So often, it’s no one’s fault when misfortune occurs, but the harms may be inflicted not only on people and their property but also on their relationships, their trust of one another and their ability to work together.

The question is “How can people behave to ward off, minimize, repair and safeguard against such harms from recurring and even snowballing?”

Compassion, discernment, imagination, integrity and courage each have a significant part to play in stemming the escalation of such inadvertent harms and restoring significant relationships to fruitful balance. Each of these five virtues is actually a family of dispositions to find and take opportunities in difficult circumstances to keep mutually beneficial relationships productive and satisfying.

So what can I say, in a very few words, about these dispositions of compassion, discernment, imagination and integrity? And what about courage?

COMPASSION:

In general, our compassion for others is apparent in our distaste for seeing innocent people suffer harm they did not deserve. Part of our uniqueness as individuals is that each of us is attuned to risks we have faced and know how to recognize better than most people do.

So each of us, acting compassionately, affirms the value of cooperation by using our experience to diminish risks that others may not see.

Second, we exercise our compassion when we attune ourselves to how once-familiar environments are changing in ways that may catch others unaware.

Third, we exercise our compassion when we see ourselves and our associates repeatedly falling victim to harms that aren’t anybody’s fault. Human cooperation will benefit when people use their abilities to handle a difficult situation in such a way that when that situation comes back around, the harm no longer results. In this way people can progress from unhappily, if truly, repeating, “It wasn’t my fault” to cheering that by using the ability to respond fruitfully, the unhappy harm does not recur.

DISCERNMENT:

involves analyzing to notice subtle differences that make disagreement unnecessary. For instance, sometimes people appear to disagree because one party focuses on a goal and another party – thinking about what will be required to achieve that goal – insists on what appears the most obvious means. Appearing to disagree, neither may notice that the second accepts the goal of the first and the first would be amenable to the means the second suggested.

Second, people often could avoid disagreement by noticing scale. For instance, a road too jammed with traffic at rush hour may be the best route over the weekend. Too often we drift into disagreement because we haven’t noticed minor incidents gradually accumulating into major obstacles. Accordingly organizations often benefit from accounting for the gradual changes – helps and hindrances – that truly make the present “not like the old days.”

Third, discernment involves taking multiple viewpoints seriously. In the first place, what is hidden from one point of view may be obvious from another. In the second place, what one person is accustomed to looking for, another person may be unable to recognize. In the third place, the abilities that make a task easy for some, others may never have mastered. On top of all that, each of us pays most attention to what matters most to us. So it is only natural that we will not notice or concern ourselves about harms that are more crucial in others’ lives.

Even though each of these differences, arising out of different points of view, can lead to disagreements – and then to taking sides and then on to animosity – nevertheless, these differences have the potential to be sources of strength. We put ourselves on the road to using this strength when the insights we gain from diverse points of view lead us to imagine new means of cooperation.

IMAGINATION:

Multiple viewpoints often yield diverse insights. Compassion leads us to see vulnerability and discernment often shows the values underlying those insights, but all too often people wonder whose side to take. The result: conflict intensifies.

In such circumstances, people need imagination to see beyond the conflict to a conciliatory, constructive course of action. We often think of imagination as an inborn ability, but people can develop their capacity to seek and discover novel courses of action to harmonize diverse viewpoints and overcome conflict. I’ve reflected on such circumstances, and I have honed three dispositions that rescue people from our common feeling of having to make unhappy choices.

First, we need to make better use of the resources we have. We have more than enough fuel to heat our homes, but without much insulation, we’re using power we could have conserved for other uses. A business has enough employees to handle a crucial project, but it may not notice the important work they could be doing because they have been assigned to less important tasks.

Second, sometimes we have more resources that we think. Because we bought a tool for one job, we ignore its usefulness in other circumstances. Because a volunteer has been working in one capacity, no one may recognize other, perhaps more crucial, abilities she could employ.

Third, our imaginations are regularly short-circuited because we divide our worlds into useful resources and waste materials. As new technologies and new organizations come along, these changed circumstances may convert wastes into resources. Lumbermen who buy felled trees to cut them into boards may have no use for sawdust. So if a new saw blade makes a thinner cut, wood previously wasted becomes added length of a board and the remaining sawdust can also be used to make plastic wood. If a new machine will automatically sort seven different kinds of plastic, then none of them needs to be landfilled anymore.

Conservation, new resource discovery and ‘waste’ reuse are three excellent practices by which imaginative people move beyond discerning the root of disagreement to finding new paths to cooperation, but, no matter how successful of imaginations, determining the most preferable action requires integrity.

INTEGRITY:

A group of people imagining how to act on the values that compassion has led them to discern may well envision several alternates. Which to take?

Maintaining integrity as a person means integrating what you imagine doing with respect for everyone, not only those most immediately on your “team.” So integrity means being mindful of the repercussions of one’s actions for others. We aren’t all alike. We take special care of children, knowing that their lack of experience makes them vulnerable. But since our world is filled with specialized environments unfamiliar to most of us, all of us become children needing extra care to negotiate many intricate environments unfamiliar to us. As persons with specialized knowledge of certain environments, we practice integrity by providing special care when someone without our background enters territory we know especially well.

Our specialized knowledge also sensitizes us that so much of what we do has unintended consequences. We’ve seen the horrible news clip where a bus’s brakes fail as it exits a super-highway, killing many. In early winter, other familiar news clips remind us of driving habits that have been safe throughout warmer months but become dangerous when moisture freezes and bridges and then roads glaze over.

Our integrity faces a third challenge when the pace of change quickens. When we integrate a change into the routines of our behavior, that integration typically sends unanticipated ripples through the corridors of our lives. By being prudently mindful, we will notice unusual ripples coming in a usual direction and at a normal pace, but we will require concerted effort to respond successfully if quiet ripples become a tsunami.

COURAGE:

A person acts courageously when they run a risk worth running. Foolish action involves unworthy or avoidable risk. Cowardly action involves evading a worthy risk. The complexity of assessing courage arises because of how courageous action fits into the flow of its surroundings.

For some the flow creates benefits; they accumulate resources available for them. Such people practice courage by being vigilant and proactive about unintended harms, by humility about their circumstances and by deploying available resources to correct injustices, even ones for which they are not responsible.

For others the flow of events yields burdens, burdens that may be undeserved, in whole or in part. Such victims practice courage first by learning and following standard practices of self-protection. They try to minimize the harm that befalls them and avoid circumstances that will intensify or repeat what has already happened. They also practice courage by speaking out, making plain the unhappy character of the harm as well as the degree to which it was unforeseeable, unavoidable or undeserved. Acquiescing in harm neither helps the victim nor avoids recurrence of the harm nor warns innocent others of what may befall them.

Victims of harm are often less powerful and less well positioned than others. For such victims, the courage not to acquiesce will often mean seeking out allies for reform. Allies come in many forms, fellow victims of the harm, bystanders who sympathize that only good fortune has saved them some disease or hazardous circumstance, and even some whose conscience makes them not want to benefit unjustly. Courageous victims of harm will take pains to seek allies of all these sorts.

When harms occur, the third group of people is bystanders, people who neither benefit nor suffer from the harm. Typically, the harms in question do not impose risk on them. In the face of such harm, nevertheless, they too have three duties. The promotion of fairness may call upon them to accept risk they could avoid. When they witness people unfairly benefit from an imposition of harm on others, they have a duty to confront that injustice. And when circumstances conspire to yield benefits to some by the exclusion of others, they have the duty to insist on arrangements that let arrangements yield mutual benefits. Beyond charity, bystanders benefit from fulfilling these duties because the weaving of charity into the fabric of society makes that society not only kinder but also more stable and resilient.

When we respond with compassion, discernment, imagination, integrity and courage, we create a constructive path for all to pursue in redirecting battered social relationships along fruitful lines. Figuring out how to trace and affirm those lines requires people facing change and conflict to reflect on the particular harms to which their particular circumstances may lead.