Care for the Self as Ethics in the Age of Networks

Abridgment and adaptation of a lecture given to a business ethics course,
probably in the late 1990's

by Dr. Jan Garrett

It is something to be able to paint a particular picture, or to carve a statue, and so to make a few objects beautiful; but it is far more glorious to carve and paint the very atmosphere and medium through which we look, which morally we can do. To affect the quality of the day, that is the highest of arts. Every man is tasked to make his life, even in its details, worthy of the contemplation of his most elevated and critical hour.

-- Henry David Thoreau, "Where I Live"

The focus up to now has been on moral rules and duties, normative premises that frequently override self-interest. Respect for rights and justice involve attention to the interests of others. Even utilitarianism demands that we pay attention to the results of action for everyone affected; although the choosing individual is often part of this affected group, he or she can be a pretty...insignificant part. So it might seem paradoxical to refer to care for the self as ethics.

The Stoics did not think so. Suppose the purpose of living is to create yourself as an ethical person, to treat yourself as a chooser who creates herself by means of her own choices. Of course, it is as impossible to create yourself now, because you already exist now. But you can now choose to do and continue doing things that will transform you over time into one kind of person rather than another. You can do this because a person is not only her present feelings and choices; she is also her habits and attitudes. Habits and attitudes are the results of thousands of choices made over time.

Suppose you wish to be a fair person, a person who distributes fairly what she has to distribute to others, who enjoys doing so, not for the praise she gets but for the awareness that she have done so fairly. Some opportunities to practice fair distribution arise naturally every day--others have to be sought out. One can work on the ones that arise naturally without seeking them out. Then one can seek small-scale responsibilities in which she has a chance to practice fair distribution, and once one has built up the habit (and maybe the reputation) of distributing well, she can seek and probably receive even greater responsibility, where decisions may be more challenging. She can then perfect her capacity for fair distribution there. Of course, we must not seek to advance too quickly, for then our chances of failure are great, but we need not always stay where we started.

The point is that the chief product you are producing is yourself. This requires a shift from the normal perspective; we do not see ourselves directly: even looking in a mirror we only see ourselves stopped, frozen, not ourselves in action doing the fair or courageous or appropriately compassionate thing. We have to see ourselves reflectively, first of all as other persons might see us: Robert Burns was right that it would be a great gift "to see ourselves as others see us." But it is also vital to see ourselves as an all-seeing god might see us, and to ask whether we are succeeding in making something admirable of ourselves.

The idea of an all-seeing god . . . is more helpful than the notion of other human beings seeing us, because other humans cannot see us all the time, and they cannot see into our minds where preparation for action occurs ... Not only can we imagine the god perceiving everything internal and external about us, including our morally successful choices and our moral failures plus the entire context in which we operate...but also, by being apart from us, this conceivable even if imaginary deity can see our lives across time--where what is admirable is not only perfection (which we rarely exhibit) but surmounting obstacles, resisting pressures to give up decency, and developing towards greater virtue.

The Stoic philosophers had this idea of making oneself as one's own fine product, and they recommended it to individuals embedded in the highly imperfect world of the Roman Empire. That empire, like our world today, was governed by large bureaucratic structures. We can learn from the wisdom of these philosophers.

First they distinguished between what is and what is not in our power. They stressed that if we wish to make progress, to produce ourselves as good persons whom we ourselves as well as others could admire, we need to focus not on what is beyond our power but what lies within it.

Failure to do this not only leads to bad choices but brings suffering upon ourselves. Things that cause anxiety are precisely the things not completely in our power: loss of wealth, loss of physical health, loss of power, loss of influence due to the actions of others, etc.

But we suffer from these losses only when we believe falsely that other things not entirely in our power--keeping or getting wealth, health, power, influence, love of others, etc.--are truly among the best things. They are not bad if they can be had without doing wrong, but they are not really among the best. Likewise, becoming poorer or failure to be elected to office or praised or loved by others is not in itself really among the worst things that can happen. It may not good and perhaps should be avoided if it can be avoided without doing wrong, but it is not really the worst thing.

Our preferences for health, power, and the like are not totally wrong: there's something to be said for health, a long life, material comforts, love of others, and something to be said against illness, an early death, loneliness, etc. But what's really good or bad, the Stoics say, is what kind of a person you are (or are becoming), and how you make your choices. Do you choose well, do you make the choices appropriate for you, given your position in the world?

Usually there's no mystery what our appropriate actions are. Our stations in life carry guidelines with them--teachers have one set of guidelines; students have another; parents one set, their children another; producers of X [name your product] one set, purchasers or users of X another. When our more obvious "stations" do not suggest to us our duties, or when there seems to be a conflict because we occupy two or more positions, e.g., businessperson and parent, the answer often comes into view when we step back and consider carefully the larger network of which we are parts--for example, the business person in relation not just to his present customers or stockholders, but to her employees, community, environment, future generations, and finally to the world community whose total well-being we all have a duty to serve and on whose behalf the well-known moral standards have evolved.