Virtue Ethics and the Enneagram

Virtue Ethics in (very) Brief

There are a few big theories that people have hit upon for making moral and ethical decisions. Many of them have come into practice since the Enlightenment, when moral reasoning became more fully separated out from theology, at least in Europe. And for my thinking here, I am focusing on Europe and North America, because that’s what I’m most familiar with.

The big categories that you’d probably learn in a 101 course on ethics are utilitarianism, deontology, and areteology. In simplified terms, utilitarianism looks at what the results of an action are likely to be, deontology looks at what rules or principles apply to a particular decision, and then there is areteology, or virtue ethics. Virtue ethics asks what kind of person you want to be, and how that kind of person would act in a given situation.

One of the ways that virtue ethics approaches understanding how to behave is with the idea of practices. Rather than focus on a particular moment or choice, as Enlightenment ethics tend to do, virtue ethics looks at who you are. A way of life is a ‘practice’ when there are goods that are internal to it – that is, when a way of life has intrinsic good to it, that is a practice. Being a doctor is a practice, for example, because not only are you paid and have some social status, but you are helping people, solving problems, curing illness, and so on, all of which would be good whether you are paid or not. Virtue ethics looks at one’s practice, and then says, how is a person with that practice supposed to behave. What makes a good doctor? What makes a good writer? And so on.

Personality as Practice?

Why this tangent? Because I was thinking recently about how one could approach the Enneagram as a practice. With the way the Enneagram is structured and approached, it provides not only an approximation of one’s personality, but also an idea of what that personality type looks like when a person is functioning well or functioning poorly. In addition, each Enneagram type has a direction of integration, or a direction of growth. So, as an Enneagram 5, my direction of growth is toward the 8. So not only can I get a sense of how well I am doing as a 5, but I know that in order to grow I need to move outside of myself, challenge myself and others, and put the knowledge that I love to gather to the test.

One could approach each Enneagram type as a practice in the context of virtue ethics, and use it as a guideline for moral and ethical behavior. This is an odd thought, though – to take one’s personality time, an is, and make out of it an ought. David Hume would not approve. On the other hand, I think this would be a functional way of living. One could study their personality type and in the midst of difficult decisions that require moral reasoning, think, what would a high-functioning example of my personality type do in this situation?

Obviously this would have to be thought out more fully, but I thought it was an interesting situation where the is does seem to imply an ought, or, rightly or no, the Enneagram is often presented as an is that implies ought. This is a pretty arcane train of thought, but what do you think, if you’ve read this far and are interested in both virtue ethics and the Enneagram? Or, in reading this far, did I get you at all interested in virtue ethics of the Enneagram?

Capitalist Exploitation Reflex

Brothers Who Hoarded 17,000+ Hand Sanitizers Forced To ...

I wonder if this guy wanted to be famous? Maybe he just wanted to exploit thousands of people for profit. Well, now he’s famous.

The problem isn’t billionaires – billionaires are a symptom. The problem is capitalism. The common lie is that capitalism is the functioning of free markets, but this has never been the case on any large scale. Actually, capitalism has always demanded slavery in some form, because capitalism has always been exploitation.

We can see what I’m calling the “capitalist exploitation reflex” at work right now, as we adapt to the coronavirus and watch opportunists do things like drive across three states to buy up all of the hand sanitizer and disinfecting wipes so they could price-gouge people on Amazon and Ebay, or buying up toilet paper rolls so they can sell them for $5 each out of the back of their car. Under capitalism, this is perfectly rational behavior. If you aren’t hoarding and price-gouging your neighbors in the midst of our shared fear and uncertainty, you’re the sucker.

In order to address this exploitation, Amazon and Ebay had to temporarily suspend capitalism. They had to actively prevent the so-called “free market” (which is never, ever actually free) from setting prices the way economists relentlessly teach us markets are supposed to. They had to set price maximums and cancel the accounts of price-gougers. And of course they did – we always punish the small-time gougers, while we let the big-time gougers run everything. We are, after all, capitalists.

The cruelty isn’t a glitch, it is demanded by the system. It is poisonous, diseased billionaire-ism, and it infects many of us whether we know it or not. It shows up when we are anxious, and some of us immediately begin to frantically hoard and exploit. Hoarding and exploiting are the two basic instincts of the capitalist.

This isn’t vapid “all are sinners” kind of reasoning, this is a specific system playing out in predictable, horrifying ways again and again across time and throughout the world. It isn’t that markets exist – they always have. People get together and trade things with each other without any outside encouragement. Capitalism is not markets – that’s just capitalism’s marketing. Capitalism is hoarding and exploitation, deep down to the core. It exploits everyone it touches, relentlessly, blindly, like a blasphemous idiot-god from a Lovecraft story. (From a Christian perspective, I would say that it is literally a blasphemous idiot-god, and we its idolatrous servants)

It is a dragon that breeds dragons, and we need to slay it.

D&D Alignment and the “Big Six” Moral Values

This is another of my responses to Saving the Game’s alignment series they are currently producing (and still will be producing when this post drops). I added that link in here so you can find them, and so maybe they see the pingback and read this article 🙂

Briefly, a moral philosopher named Jonathan Haidt is a proponent of what is sometimes known as the “Big Five” moral values as a way to understand why, for example, liberals and conservatives can have strong moral intuitions that do not seem to overlap. It is kind of like D&D alignments, but for actual people. Those Big Five are Authority and Tradition, Care and Compassion, Fairness and Justice, Loyalty, and Purity. To those five some have added a sixth, Liberty, and I’ll be keeping that change, resulting in a Big Six.

There is a lot more to this conversation, and a good place to start is Haidt’s TED Talk about why conservatives and liberals seem to see moral questions so differently:

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All that being said, what I would like to do in thinking about alignment in D&D and similar games is to look at the Big Six and see if they can map onto D&D-style alignment in any interesting ways. (If you want to see the Big Six used as an alignment system in an OSR game, check out my own Iron Pax hack on DriveThru) Let’s take a look at how they might map to 5E’s standard alignments:

Authority & Tradition : Lawful

This first one is kind of a gimme. Clearly, if a character values authority and tradition highly, then they are going to lean toward a Lawful alignment of some kind. Of course, this could easily be Lawful Good, Lawful Neutral, or Lawful Evil, depending on the traditions in question and how they are interpreted.

Care & Compassion : Good

This one also seems straightforward. If a character values care and compassion for others, it is hard to argue that they would be other than Good in alignment. If they were only concerned for people in their own in-group, then that would coincide with Loyalty. If they were only interested in caring for those who deserved it, that would lean more toward Fairness & Justice.

We can also immediately see how these alignments could be combined. Just from the first two, if someone interprets the Authority & Tradition of their culture in a way that prioritizes Care & Compassion, we could easily call that Lawful Good. Part of my point here is, isn’t it more interesting to take an in-depth look at what these alignments mean, beyond just “Lawful” or “Good”? I think that using more robust moral language is a way to deepen alignment and make it a more interesting rule, or even just a more interesting roleplaying guide. But I’ve said plenty about that before, and I digress.

Fairness & Justice : Lawful or Neutral

I can see Fairness & Justice being interpreted either in terms of legality or impartiality. If someone sees Fairness & Justice as applying the law to everyone equally, I think that this would indicate what we usually mean by Lawful. If, on the other hand, they see this as someone being impartial, that is, judging situations and people on even terms without preference for one group or another, then that would in my mind tend more toward the Neutrality. Is justice judging everything dispassionately on its merits? Or is justice judging everything according to the same laws or standards? The difference isn’t a huge one, but I think it’s noteworthy, in terms of the stance being ‘I am applying these rules to everything’ compared to ‘I consider everything on its own merits.’ I think that both could be interpretations of Fairness & Justice.

Liberty : Chaotic

Liberty was added by others to Haidt’s moral system, and I think it makes a lot of sense as the ‘sixth.’ And connecting Liberty to Chaotic alignments fits with my experience of people who play Chaotic alignments in game – what they seem to want more than anything else is no one telling them what to do. They want to function without an external standard to which they need to adhere. (That’s the best of it, anyway. Certainly there are players who play any given alignment to be jerks, but just don’t game with them)

Normally Chaotic isn’t so much a desire for chaos for its own sake, but rather a desire for freedom, which fits the moral value of Liberty perfectly I think. We can also see how some of these moral values overlap and others do not, or at least not as well. It is harder to imagine someone valuing both Liberty and Authority & Tradition, for example, though not impossible. I suppose that character would end up being a complicated version of Neutral – but I can think if people I’ve met who seem to value both. The classic rural family that has traditional values but also wants to be left to their own devices comes to mind – values/small government voters in the US. For me it is easier to imagine where Liberty and Care & Compassion overlap – I want to care for people, but in my own way and on my own terms. Chaotic Good.

Loyalty : Lawful

Here I think of Valerie in the Pathfinder: Kingmaker computer game (which I’m currently playing and is a great game). Her alignment is Lawful Neutral, and I think they did a great job with her character. Her comments on your choices are always in terms of loyalty and duty – not cruel, but not particularly compassionate either. After you become the baron of the Stolen Lands, she is continually reminding you of your duty as a ruler and your duty to your people over everything else. But even when she disagrees with your decisions, her loyalty remains.

When I think of the moral value of Loyalty, I think of the “My country love it or leave it” types in the United States. Patriotism is to a large degree composed of Loyalty. It is a sense that “these are my people”, almost a pack mentality in a way. This is also one of the moral values that I can easily see sliding into Evil, depending on to whom you are loyal, and how you live that loyalty out. Where Care & Compassion as a primary value could just make you vulnerable and idealistic, I could easily see where Loyalty as a primary value could be turned to evil ends.

Purity : Good, or Neutral, or Evil

Purity is interesting – there is a whole sub-category of disgust psychology that I find fascinating. As always, I recommend for Christians the book Unclean by Richard Beck. Really for anyone, but for Christians in particular, as that is his approach.

Disgust is powerful – it comes to mind that pretty much every genocide that has ever occurred has largely been motivated by Purity-style rhetoric and thinking. Even the name we use, “ethnic cleansing” (a term I dislike), has echoes of Purity and cleanliness to it. Think of films like The Purge for another example of how Purity can be bent toward evil quite readily. “Purity culture” is an example of the damaging influence this value can have in Evangelical Christianity, in the United States at least.

Though valuing purity might also motivate a Jain practitioner to adhere to nonviolence and veganism, for example, or a Shinto priest to diligently serve their community, in the real world. It depends on how one defines what, or whom, is unclean. And, basically, if you are defining any person as unclean, you’re flirting with evil right there in my view. That’s why I say that Purity as a value could map to Good (vegan pacifists), Neutral (cleansing ancestral shrines) or Evil (genocide) quite readily.

Alright, this is a first-thought type of post. What do you think? What did I miss? Would you, like me, prefer to use the Big Six in place of the classic D&D alignments?

Genius Advice for Mega-Rich Douchebags

Hi Mega-Rich Douchebags

You don’t wanna be kind and generous and reasonable, changing the world for the better quietly and doing what’s right for it’s own sake. You’re a moron, and  you want to be Batman. Well, you can’t be Batman. No one gets to be Batman, not even Batman.

But it’s even worse. People think you’re a piece of shit just because you’re a mega-rich douchebag. They look at your nesting-doll yacht-within-a-yacht and think “What in God’s name is wrong with you!?” What a bunch of complainers. Can’t they find their bootstraps? So now you’re super sad and money is causing you all of these problems, and you’re too stupid to just give the money away which is guaranteed to bring you joy and satisfaction. You want some ROI, some bang for your beaucoup bucks.

Well, I’ve got your back. I’m going to make you famous. Famouser.


Genius Advice

Instead of being famous for being a mega-rich douchebag, you could be famous or being a hero. Instead of the guillotine, you could have standing ovations in your near future my friend. And you can do this without having the slightest impact on your quality of life. Watch as competing mega-rich douchebags writhe with jealousy on their nesting-doll yachts while you earn the acclaim of millions of plebs and mensch. Let the salt of the earth enhance the flavor of your lifestyle!

You Can End Malaria

It costs about $20 to send a mosquito net to a third world location, and a whole family can sleep under that net. This does a huge amount to prevent them from contracting malaria, which kills almost 2 million people a year, and also protects them from things like dengue fever and any number of other tropical, insect-borne diseases.

According to the CDC, about 216 million malaria cases occurred in 2016, so let’s do some math. 216 million times 20 bucks equals about $4.32 billion dollars, give or take millions of dollars.

According to Forbes, there are 2,153 billionaires in the world with a combined wealth of 8.7 trillion dollars. (I just threw up in my mouth a little) So, for about 1/2000th of that wealth, you could end malaria on Earth, saving millions of lives a year. Some of you could end malaria by yourselves, right now, and still have billions of dollars left over.

Can you imagine how many guillotines you would not be dragged to if you did that?

People Need Water

According to UNICEF and others, the highest estimate of the cost to provide clean water to every human being on Earth is $175 billion, and it could be as low as $10 billion. But let’s go with the higher number. About a third of people on earth do not have access to clean water, and it causes…literally innumerable health problems, immeasurable suffering, millions of needless deaths, etc.

Where you mega-rich douchebags could collectively end malaria 2,000 times over, you would only be able to provide clean water to every human being on Earth about 50 times over.

So for 1/50th of your collective wealth, 1/3 of all humans living on Earth would owe you their lives. After that, you still have 98% of your wealth, as well as the undying gratitude of pretty much every person ever to live. Not a bad ROI if you ask me, mega-rich douchebags.

End Medical Debt

This one is local, to the mere 585 billionaires who are citizens of the United States. As you may know, crushing medical debt is a huge driver of bankruptcy in the United States, and all over the country people are making daily health decisions driven by the fear of debt rather than on their own merits. It’s a big enough issue that it comes up in pretty much every Presidential debate. Remember Obamacare? That sure took a lot of attention, didn’t it? That’s in many ways because of medical debt, which drives maybe 800,000 people into bankruptcy each year (again, the numbers are hard to nail down).

The total wealth of all US billionaires is somewhere around 2.2 trillion dollars. The total of medical debt in the US is difficult to figure out, though 49.2 million Americans were in medical debt themselves as of 2017. The good news is that, because of the system that you mega-rich douchebags have created, it is possible to buy other people’s medical debts and cancel them. And because the system is entirely created to benefit investors and punish debtors (Isn’t it always? Am I right? High five!) you can buy that medical debt for about 5 to 10 cents on the dollar.

So, if you really wanted to go out with a bang, you could cancel 22 trillion dollars of medical debt, or almost $70,000 for every American man, woman and child. Of course that’s way more than they’re likely to have, so we can tone it down. Let’s say you put a tithe (10% you heathens) toward cancelling medical debt – that would still cancel far more medical debt than currently exists in the US. Even 1% of your wealth put to debt cancellation would enable you to cancel a minimum of $220 billion of medical debt and possibly up to $440 billion. And, come on. You can’t tell me you’d feel a 1% loss. (For a sense of scale, that’s half of the entire Pentagon budget and, again, only 1% of your wealth)

The Point

Look, mega-rich douchebags – we only admire you when you’re looking. The overwhelming majority of us think you are all pieces of garbage who are hoarding resources that any idiot could find better ways to use. We see the fleet of Lambos and then the starving children and think, deep down in our guts, fuck you.

So this is some genius advice for you – you could spend just a fraction of your wealth and change the world for the better.

And if you don’t, then our worst opinions about you are completely true, and every fall of a guillotine blade will be justified. Shunk! You could have ended malaria, but didn’t. Shunk! You could have rescued millions from misery, but didn’t. Shunk! You hoarded resources and made the world worse and there’s no justification. Shunk!

Your move, douchebags.

If you would like to find out my secret methods for avoiding the guillotine and clearing the miasma of greed that chokes you even now, I offer a full suite of consulting services for only 0.1% of 1 billion dollars. A steal!

Thanos: The Apocalypse of Unprocessed Grief

Image result for thanos tears

Thanos’s Core Grief

From the very beginning, Thanos’s plan seemed ridiculous to me. It was a significant hurdle for me to get over to get into the story of Avengers: Infinity War. Ultimately I did, of course, because it’s an amazing movie, and you have to get over logical problems to enjoy any superhero movie. I thought, OK, fine. They can’t just have Thanos want to kill trillions to impress Death, so I guess this is another reason. Balance in the universe. Whatever. Still a great movie.

Something struck me, though, when on Vormir Thanos said this: “I have ignored my destiny once. I will not do it again, even for you,” right before he murders his child for power. Then, it sealed the deal when Thanos explains what happened to Titan to Doctor Strange. His half-genocidal plan wasn’t listened to, and then somehow having a lack of food completely destroyed his planet and…killed everyone there? Ruined gravity? Again, don’t look too closely.

What struck me was that Thanos’s irrational plan was a lot like a lot of our irrational actions – it was rooted in unaddressed grief.

Thanos’s Grandiose, Idiotic Plan

Thanos’s plan is stupid. It’s the kind of stupid that is very human – he is fully able to rationalize it, but is unable to realize how irrational it actually is. Significant time is given, in Infinity War, to rationalizing Thanos’s plan. Apparently murdering half of the poeple on Gamora’s homeworld turned it into a paradise where everything is great. (I take this to be Thanos deluding himself, but it’s presented as a fact) After all, he’s been doing this to planets for what seems to be years. He has a whole system – the Maw even has a monologue.

In Endgame, we see a much more accurate depiction of the aftermath of such a horrific act. A whole planet, traumatized. That’s what Thanos’s plan does – it spreads trauma throughout the universe, multiplies his grief by Infinity. Thanos’s most human attribute is that he is so able to rationalize what he is doing, despite the pointless suffering it inflicts on others, and the fact that his grand plan will solve precisely zero of the problems he says he wants to solve.

Thanos Inflicting His Grief on the Universe

Thanos, driven by his own grief, is trapped in a cycle of inflicting grief on everyone around him. Whether it is his tortured “children” like Gamora or Nebula, or…every living thing in the universe.

“Hurt people hurt people”, and because Thanos refuses to have his hurt end with him, he ends up inflicting that hurt on everyone around him one way or another – mostly through genocide and torture, since he’s a supervillain, but in all of his relationships, in all of his plans, this hurt will be reiterated. On a smaller scale, this is something anyone could fall into, Mad Titan or no. Whatever hurt we don’t deal with on our own, we export. What we don’t come to terms with, we inflict on others, intentionally or not.

As a way to solve problems and achieve cosmic balance, Thanos’s plan is terrible. But as a very human character inflicting his pain on others, Thanos isn’t even unusual.

Don’t Be Thanos

I’m not an expert on grief – find a therapist. Talk to people you trust. Just commit to processing your own grief. Figure out the cycles that repeat in your life and change them. I’m saying as a geek who thinks that we can look to Thanos as an emblematic example of how, in Jung’s words,

“Until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life and you will call it fate.”

Or, in Thanos’s case, “I am inevitable.” He’s right, but not for the cosmic reasons he thinks. He’s inevitable because he is failing to take responsibility for himself, and ends up inevitably inflicting his grief on everyone else.