Virtue Ethics and Parkour (Part 1)

This blog series is based on an assignment I wrote in 2014 for my philosophy honours that I completed in 2014. My intension is to make the work more accessible for a general audience as I believe people may get a fresh perspective on the old ‘parkour is good for you’ cliché.

The material is quite dense and rests very heavily on 2 key authors – Martin Heidegger and Maurice Merleau-Ponty. More specifically 2 key works – Being and Time by Heidegger and The Visible and the Invisible by Merleau-Ponty. I encourage you to read them independently (along with the thousands of other philosophers throughout the centuries) and discover the joy and exhilaration of clear, ordered thought! I would also be remiss to leave out a mention to the Sophie Fuggle’s 2008 paper entitled Discourses of Subversion: The Ethics and Aesthetics of Capoeira and Parkour. It was this paper that brought me down this path. This paper was the first piece of academic literature I have read (there are quite a few) that I feel accurately captures the spirit of parkour.

Finally, I wish to beg your indulgence. The precious time that you are now using could be spend watching some Eastern European perform some miraculous set of flips or, I hope, spent training. However, the ‘why’ we train is as important as the ‘what’ we train so permit me to go off on what might seem to be a completely random and unrelated tangent. If I am successful I hope that it will all make sense in the end.

Right! Let’s begin.

My original paper sought to evaluate what people’s motivation is in performing moral actions. That is, why do some people act in certain ways, that we can either praise or condemn them for, and what is the moral basis for acting?

In the western philosophical tradition one of the major schools of thought that sought to answer this question is called virtue ethics (VE). It is one of the oldest ‘schools’ of moral thought and can trace its western roots to the ancient Greeks. It is here where we start – with Aristotle (or at least Heidegger’s interpretation of him). As a side note, this blog will mainly reference western philosophers and speak of their work. This is due primarily to my education which primarily dealt with them and has nothing to do with inadequacy, quite the opposite in fact, of African and Asian philosophy. I am simply ignorant of it – which is something I am trying to correct. Furthermore, I promise to smuggle in Ubuntu (the spirit of working together for each other) into this blog post.

VE is one of the three major approaches in normative ethics – the 2 other approaches being consequentialism and deontology. It emphasizes moral character as opposed to some type of rule application (deontology) or emphasizing the consequences of an action (consequentialism). This post will argue for a naturalist conception of eudemonia (roughly translated as human flourishing) as this makes sense of the concept of effective agency. Philippa Foot argues, in her book Natural Goodness, that a life is eudaimon, if is characterised by being a good example of a human being. This definition is borrowed from Aristotle as he argues for humans being qua (as it to be) human.

The term ‘effective agency’ is of note here as of note. It implies not only the freedom to perform an action but also the means to realistically attempt it with some chance of success. An illiterate man, no matter how innately clever, could not enter into a written agreement such as a work contract or loan without some form of coercion. He cannot access the information to make the decision and effectively argue the technicalities of such an agreement.

Virtue comprises of two components:

  1. Habit – the agent must be in the habit of acting in a morally appropriate manner. This means that the agent must have grown into making morally correct decisions and being sensitive to the moral requirements of life. Perhaps the best way of thinking of moral ‘habits’ are as rules of thumb. In pretty much all cases the rule ‘stealing is wrong’ is correct; however there are a few circumstances in which stealing may be permissible. What is equally important is the context in which the rule is applied. Also, these rules of thumb may or may not be universal moral principles.
  2. Ad hoc situational awareness and experience – one must have experience of the world in order to recognise the best course of action. Experience in similar situations helps the individual acknowledge the relevant possible outcomes. Inexperienced agents such as children are not usually held responsible because their lack of experience leads them to makes them unable to fully realise the optimal benefit in a given situation.

These two aspects lead to fully developed virtue. For Aristotle, virtue is only properly developed once we have the wisdom to act in a morally sensitive manner on our own. When one is developing good habits one relies on others to make moral decisions for us. Small children are not cognitively capable of reasoning some moral problems and so defer to their elders who have more experience in order to act in an appropriate manner. As children age they rely less and less on their elders for moral guidance and increasingly reasons over moral problems themselves.

An agent is virtuous when they ‘internalise’ the correct habits. By internalising, the correct habit Aristotle points to a deeper understanding of the ad hoc nature of moral decisions. For example, an honest people live in a way that promotes honesty. They would try to associate only with other honest people celebrate honest dealings and deplore dishonest people and actions. An honest person is able to apply the behaviour habit of being honest towards different situations and also has the appropriate emotions and reactions to different situations. In short, an ingrained behaviour pattern evolves into a character trait that is both conscious and unconscious.

Virtue is a character trait that develops over time. It is something that one grows into as one’s understanding of moral life deepens. And because no one is perfectly virtuous it means that ‘full’ virtue is more an ideal that one strives towards than a practical goal. I may be particularly sensitive to the suffering of animals but may be callous and indifferent to the suffering of people or I may be generally honest except when it comes to talking about myself. It is also obvious that people can be innately more sensitive to moral concerns. So, someone may also just be ‘born with it’ in the sense that they are predisposed to acquiring good moral habits and being more sensitive to the nuances of situations requiring ethical wisdom in the same way that someone is born with a predisposition towards being a good sprinter or being good at mathematics. This predisposition however is only of note if it is developed through ‘internalising’ the correct habits.  Furthermore, virtue is relational – I may be less honest or kind than my mother.

So, being virtuous is a normative ethical concept. In a nutshell meta-ethics describes what is considered good (like human happiness or venerating the Flying Spaghetti Monster) and normative ethics cashes out how people should act based on it. It does not define what is considered morally good. As a result, one is able to consistently claim that two people are virtuous despite having opposing moral beliefs. For example, we may consider Brutus and Nelson Mandela to be virtuous and yet Brutus may have held slaves and beat them for insubordination. In this example the difference between the two men is the cultural context in which they found themselves – Brutus lived in a society that generally accepted slavery (including the slaves themselves) whereas Mandela did not. Virtue is also a particularist stance as moral action does not depend on moral principles or rules such as the Kant’s categorical imperative or the maximisation of utility. Moral principles or rules can instead be seen as ‘rules of thumb’ or fixed features in the flexible terrain of moral life.

Addressing the meta-ethical concerns that this conception of ethics raises falls outside the scope of this article. My argument is deliberately restricted to the normative ethical considerations as I wish to ground normative ethical motivations in the lived body (more on this later). It is worthwhile noting, however, that a culturally relative conception of morality is problematic. In the case of Brutus he could be considered virtuous because he was somehow not liable for his belief in slavery. This is because the practice of slavery was widely held in ancient Rome. It is understandable that he was indoctrinated into thinking it was permissible to own another person. More to the point however, contemporary ethical thought may have simply moved the meta-ethical goal posts. We consider slavery wrong now but then it was cool.

The above example partially illustrates the dangers of cultural relativism. Viewed out of context people’s lives and actions may suddenly become evil. Additionally, what one group of people might think is perfectly permissible would be in abominable in the contemporary moral context. We knew that Apartheid was wrong then and now whereas in the case of Brutus it was not so clear cut.

Instead it makes more sense to cache out what is good in relation to what makes something good in relation to harmonious social relations or Ubuntu. Doing so recognises the fluidity of moral life as morality is required to adapt with changes is society and the world.

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