It seems like daily we are inundated by superficial social media, “fake news,” political demagogues, intolerant youth, and oppressive societal institutions. How can one find concentrate on what is real, wholesome, and reliable? Can we reach back into the past and access classical wisdom, traditional values, and a greater sense of fulfillment, meaning, and optimism?
Values & Ethics: From Living Room to Boardroom (2017; Palmetto Publishing Group; $17.95 softcover) aims to address big-picture topics such as values, virtues, ethics, and wisdom. This award-winning book features 30 interviewees who are learned, eloquent individuals who engage in questions and answers on the big questions of life. The goal (in 20 chapters) is to encourage original and critical thinking about enlightenment, personal growth, progressivism, and more. The substantial book extols the power of philosophy and of learning to make one’s life better—more interesting, more profitable, more livable, more meaningful. This impressive work covers many subtopics — from economics to politics, from philosophy to personal growth. Capitalism, liberty, character education, progressive politics, and integrity are but a few of the subtopics explored. The book has gained good ratings on Amazon and garnered very positive professional reviews. Values & Ethics: From Living Room to Boardroom was recently named the Best Book of 2017 in the category of “Social Change” by American BookFest.
The following is an excerpted conversation between Jason Merchey (interviewer) and Gary E. Kessler, Ph.D., a philosopher, professor emeritus, and author of many books, including Voices of Wisdom: A Multicultural Philosophy Reader. This dialogue is from the first chapter of the book Values & Ethics: From Living Room to Boardroom and is entitled “An Ethical and Fulfilling Life.”
JM: Now, some values might be able to be called amoral – they’re not about morality per se – they are just concepts, goals, and phenomena that attract you and which you imbue with special significance. Is that true, or do you think there is always a moral element underlying each individual value?
GK: Well, that’s a difficult question. I guess some values are morally indifferent (amoral if you prefer), but the very notion of value contains within it some kind of a distinction between “what the facts of the case are” and “ideals, or values,” and is a distinction that philosophers like to make (descriptive vs. normative). So, values have to do with what ought to be, but not necessarily what are, and thus in a very broad and abstract sense I believe that all values have a kind of moral base insofar as they touch on what ought to be.
JM: Is there a particular theory or philosopher (or grouping of theories or philosophers) that you use to think about the idea of integrity and/or meaning?
GK: I have always found, though he is rather dated (over 2,000 years old), Aristotle’s thoughts about ethics as a good starting point (at least). For Aristotle, his general philosophy is what we call, technically: teleological – meaning he believes that everything which exists has an aim/goal/end or purpose. Thus he begins his ethical thinking by asking, “What is the goal or purpose of human life?” and answers that question with the Greek term eudaimonia – usually translated as “happiness.” However, I prefer to think of it as “human flourishing.” I think human flourishing is a broader concept and encompasses more, and happiness, of course, has a feeling connotation – with which Aristotle was not particularly concerned. For him, to realize eudaimonia is to realize one’s essential nature. I think that is a good place to begin to start thinking about the role of ethics and values in human life: What is its purpose? I’m not sure I buy Aristotle’s notion that there is an essential nature of some sort, nor do I necessarily believe that there is one goal or purpose, but I think his approach is a key to thinking in an ethical direction.
JM: Do you think that this has practical relevance to one who is alive in the 21st century? What could they keep in mind that is Aristotelian?
GK: Well, he’s most famous for (and has been criticized for) attempting to work out what has sometimes been referred to as the golden mean. For him, excellence is a virtue, and it can be moral, or physical, or psychological, or health, or whatever. Focusing on moral excellence, he believed that the golden mean is a mean (average, or middle) between two extremes – an excess on one end, and a “defect” on the other. The common example is the virtue, courage: which is between being foolhardy or rash, and cowardice. He discusses practical reason as that skill or ability we develop in life that helps us find the mean between extremes – which are not the same for everybody. For example, the right amount for you to eat and the right amount for me to eat may be quite different depending on weight, condition, activity, etc. The mean is always relative to particular situations.
JM: So, he would maintain that courage is the ideal between foolhardiness and cowardice, and so, a person would use their reason to continually determine what courageous behavior would look like in unique situations?
GK: That’s right, yes.
JM: You said it was criticized – why doesn’t it hold water perfectly?
GK: Well, even though it seems to be practical, it is still kind of abstract. For example, if you take an activity like giving or taking money: the excess is giving too much, and the paucity is miserliness, with the mean being what Aristotle calls liberality. Well, what exactly is liberality? Again, it’s fairly relative.
JM: Ok. What does a life of integrity look like? How do you know when you see it, or when you are doing it?
GK: As I said, it’s being true to your values, so, in a sense, I think only you can judge whether or not you’re being authentic and true to your values. So, on one level, the assessment of whether or not I have integrity is a very subjective one. Obviously, people can also make some assessment of another’s integrity, but they usually do that on the basis of consistency— which is, of course, a pretty good rule to follow. For example, if you treat people unfairly or show bias or prejudice toward people or ideas of one sort or another, yet claim that fairness (or justice) is one of your values and that you’re always true to it, that’s a clear mark of inconsistency. In that case, you might not have as much integrity as you’d like to claim.
JM: Mm-hmm. Did you look at integrity or meaning in your book, Voices of Wisdom? Were you able to find folks who’d spoken about those ideas in the past?
GK: Yes, there is some of that in there, and I do have a long excerpt from the first two books of Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, which deals with the issues we’ve just been discussing: What is the good for human life? What is excellence? How do you achieve moral virtue?
JM: Understood. Can you talk about objectivity and subjectivity when it comes to morality? How confident can one be that a given action is truly moral?
GK: Aristotle’s definition of the human good is “an activity of the soul in accordance with reason”, so objectivity comes in when you add that little phrase: in accordance with reason. Now, there is great controversy as to what is rational and what is reasonable. But, if you’ve made a decision to do X or Y, and someone challenges you and you can’t defend your actions (you can’t give what at least seems to be good reasons for what you’ve done), then I think you have to ask yourself if it is really reasonable (using the criterion of reasonableness as a measure of objectivity). So, subjectively you’ve got this sense, “Am I being authentic, am I being true to myself?” and objectively, you can ask yourself: “Can I really defend this action or idea? Are there good reasons, apart from how I feel about it, that make this the right or rational thing to do?”
JM: So, that is to say that a person’s feelings are not always a valid indicator of the morality of an action?
GK: No, I don’t think so. Philosophers have tended to jump to two extremes here: some will say, “Do your own thing if it feels right to you;” on the other hand there’s: “No, you have to have a rational reason, to be able to lay out sound arguments and cite evidence for behavior or beliefs.” Human beings are rational animals, as Aristotle said, but they are also emotional animals. I suppose if there is a problem with Aristotle, it is that he emphasized rationality more than feeling. Both are there, so there has to be a balance between them, a marriage.
This dialogue continues for twelve more pages. Values & Ethics: From Living Room to Boardroom is 450 pages long. Thirty philosophers, authors, psychologists, thought leaders, social critics, artists, and economists are interviewed as well on topics as disparate as economics, libertarianism, media ethics, raising children with character, social entrepreneurship, capitalism, politics, and wisdom.
Values & Ethics: From Living Room to Boardroom is rife with unique, compelling, and challenging quotations on values, ethics, wisdom, and personal growth. Here is a smattering of the quotes in the chapter “A Life of Integrity and Meaning,” from which the previous excerpt was taken:
“Integrity can neither be lost nor concealed nor faked nor quenched nor artificially come by nor outlived nor, I believe, in the long run, denied.” ~ Eudora Welty
“So many people walk around with a meaningless life. They seem half-asleep, even when they’re busy doing things they think are important. This is because they’re chasing the wrong things. The way you get meaning in your life is to devote yourself to loving others, devote yourself to your community around you, and devote yourself to creating something that gives you purpose and meaning.” ~ Morrie Schwartz
“…what makes life valuable is morality; is virtue; is ethics. So, why is a person’s life valuable? Because of the amount of virtue manifested in that life. …So, the better the man is in terms of his virtue, the more valuable his life is; the more meaningful his life is. This is an idea which also goes back to Plato.” ~ Colin McGinn
“But the essence of being human is that, in the brief moment we exist on this spinning planet, we can love some persons and some things, in spite of the fact that time and death will ultimately claim us all.” ~ Rollo May
“Habit, however essential, can’t be the whole of moral virtue. New situations always arise, and we need to know which habit is appropriate under the circumstances. Moral virtue therefore requires judgment, a kind of knowledge Aristotle called ‘practical wisdom.’ Unlike scientific knowledge, which concerns ‘things that are necessary and universal,’ practical wisdom is about how to act. …Aristotle defines practical wisdom as ‘a reasoned and true capacity to act with regard to the human good.’” ~ Michael J. Sandel
“As I reflect on such wonders as the incredible inventions of the bacteria that terra-formed the planet and learned to live within their natural limits, I have come to wonder not whether bacteria have a capacity for intelligent collective action, but whether we humans have yet achieved a comparable capacity.” ~ David Korten
“The most important human endeavor is the striving for morality in our actions. Our inner balance and even our very existence depend on it. Only morality in our actions can give beauty and dignity to life.” ~ Albert Einstein
Values & Ethics: From Living Room to Boardroom has been called “An endlessly engrossing catalogue of philosophical conversations” by Kirkus Reviews, and has been described thusly by the US Review of Books:
“From the interview guests themselves and their work to the classic quotes of ancient Greeks and influential modern philosophers, it’s a phenomenal book to tab through or highlight while making a list for further research. A book like this is frequently interesting and insightful to read but rarely this accessible or entertaining, and the author’s passion for the pursuit of wisdom is infectious. It’s an ideal addition to the collection of anyone with a passion for deep thought and a belief that the world can be made better with intelligent, compassionate decision-making.”
Values & Ethics: From Living Room to Boardroom recently won the 2017 Best Book Award (in the category of “Social Change” by American BookFest.
A short video introduction to Values & Ethics: From Living Room to Boardroom can be viewed HERE
Jason put out other books in 2003, 2004, 2005 and 2006, two of which can be seen HERE and HERE. His books have earned praise from a diverse array of individuals. Here is a sample, and the entirety of endorsements can be read HERE.
“Values & Ethics: From Living Room to Boardroom is a great exploration of wisdom, virtue, and values for our day.” ~ Tom Morris, Ph.D., Author of True Success, and If Aristotle Ran General Motors; former professor of philosophy at Notre Dame; founder of the Morris Institute for Human Values
“Like a medieval monastic scribe illuminating manuscripts for the few, Jason Merchey is compiling the wisdom of the ages for the many – a cornucopia of insightful treasures.” ~ Michael Toms, Co-founder and host of New Dimensions World Broadcasting Network; author of A Time for Choices: Deep Dialogues for Deep Democracy and co-author of: True Work: Doing What You Love and Loving What You Do
“Values of the Wise is profound and inspirational. I keep it on my coffee table.” ~ Jon Dolhenty, Ph.D., Director of The Center for Applied Philosophy
“Building a Life of Value is a terrific and extremely useful book that brings together some of the most important thinking we have on values and ethics. It can be helpful because this book is about wisdom – and it is wisdom that guides us both as individuals and as a people as we move through the difficult times ahead toward a more just and humane society.” ~ Gar Alperovitz, Ph.D., Professor of Political Economy, University of Maryland; author of America Beyond Capitalism: Reclaiming Our Wealth, Our Liberty and Our Democracy; a former fellow of Kings College, Cambridge University and Harvard’s Institute of Politics and the Institute for Policy Studies as well as guest scholar at the Brookings Institution
Jason Merchey is a philosophical thinker and independent scholar as well as founder of Values of the Wise. He holds a bachelor’s degree in psychology and social behavior from the University of California-Irvine, and a master’s degree in psychology from California State University-Fullerton. Jason’s first book was a book of quotations entitled Values of the Wise: Profound and Witty Words of Wisdom to Inspire and Empower Us (2003). He followed that up with three similar quote books. Since then, there have been three well-regarded, top-shelf books on the concept of “a life of value.” The most recent book is entitled Values & Ethics: From Living Room to Boardroom. They all primarily utilize quotes, interviews, and stories about values and wisdom as the basis for improving one’s life and gaining valuable insight. Jason lives in the Charleston, South Carolina area with his wife and pets. He is pursuing a graduate certificate in philosophy and ethics from Harvard University Extension and tutors college students in writing and academic success at The Citadel: The Military College of South Carolina. Read the full bio HERE.
FOOTNOTE:  It is probably more commonly phrased as: “…in accordance with virtue” (also excellence, from the Greek arête). However, in Book X of his work Nichomachean Ethics, Aristotle does indicate: “If happiness is activity in accordance with virtue, it is reasonable that it should be in accordance with the highest virtue; and this will be that of the best thing in us. Whether it be reason or something else that is this element which is thought to be our natural ruler and guide and to take thought of things noble and divine, whether it be itself also divine or only the most divine element in us, the activity of this in accordance with its proper virtue will be perfect happiness.”
Keyword: Values & Ethics: From Living Room to Boardroom