Ethics: The Art of Character by Gregory R. Beabout
If you only vaguely remember Plato’s cave analogy or Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, or you are confused as to what passes for ethical behavior in our current fraught times, then Gregory R. Beabout’s succinct Ethics: The Art of Character is just the reminder for you. It never digs deeply but Beabout (with additional writing from Mike Hannis) exposes enough sufficient surface material to give the reader a feel for the basics and pique one’s interest while providing copious leads to further personal study.
This is a timely book, and one simple enough that even the most inerudite leader of the Western World might be able to read and comprehend. Sections run no longer than two pages at a time and feature illustrative pictures and cartoons. This little book is intended to help the reader “approach the authentic and ancient task of ethics: to craft a beautiful life.” It teaches that ethical behavior can be learned by doing, just as one can learn how to shoot a basketball or treat a wound. “To learn honesty,” Beabout writes, “one must practice telling the truth. To learn justice, one must act in a just manner.”
One discussion notes that the early Greeks envisioned ethical behavior as “character, not rules” and traces the value of virtue between these two concepts. Too often organizations, especially schools, equate the transference of ethical behavior with asking people/students to follow a detailed set of rules. Beabout offers Hammurabi’s Code as an ancient and extreme example of an attempt to ensure that people acted appropriately. Such sets of rules can breed diligent efforts to discover the means of bending or avoiding those rules, rather than doing the right thing. The dawn of the European Enlightenment saw a sea change in perception as “Philosophers began to narrow the moral debate to actions … later focusing on either utility or duty.” Beabout comes down solidly on the value of “obeying good rules while acquiring the wisdom to distinguish between good and bad ones.”
The musings—too short to be called chapters—touch on a myriad of subjects that include Happiness, The Cardinal Virtues, Justice, Humility and Greatness, Human Rights, and Ethics and Animals. The range of philosophers quoted is remarkable, including Chuang Tzu, Epictetus, Aquinas, Kant, and Bentham. Beabout includes other useful epigrams from Mae West (“It is better to be looked over than overlooked”), Philip Johnson (“A constitutional democracy is in serious trouble if its citizenry does not have a certain degree of education and civic virtue”), and Dostoevsky (“The cleverest of all, in my opinion, is the man who calls himself a fool at least once a month”).
Beabout is an associate professor in the Department of Philosophy at St. Louis University where he also researches virtue ethics and the history of philosophy. Hannis contributes chapters on environmental, medical, and workplace ethics; he is based at Bath Spa University in the United Kingdom and specializes in environmental ethics. This small book is part of Bloomsbury’s “Wooden Books” series; others have addressed such disparate topics as dowsing, evolution, grammar, Mayan and other ancient calendars, Stonehenge, and weaving.