Yesterday I read an essay by Paul Kurtz entitled"The Ethics of Excellence."
I'm finding the humanist work of Paul Kurtz reflects my own ethical intuitions and furthermore gives me ideas on how to elaborate them.
But I will try not discuss this great man so much, and focus on his work.
First we must ask ourselves the question, "What is excellence?"
In the essay Kurtz asks us to first thing of athletics and excellence in athletics, and he tells us that ethical excellence is not far off.
I'm not a big sports fan but I do like some. I like fighting, weight lifting, running and swimming.
An excellent fighter is one who can consistently dominate his/her oponent.
An excellent weight-lifter is one who is constantly outdistancing themselves and demonstrating ever-increasing strength.
Running is like weight lifting in that the runner races against him/herself and also like fighting in the domination of oponents. So is swimming.
Let these images enter your mind, and try to think of how a more absract concept of excellence might emerge.
Kurtz writes, "Excellence is a thoroughly relative term, applicable to human beings engaged in some activity to compare their capacities and achievements."
He identifies several conditions, or evaluating procedures, for excellence. The first is comparitive, which is highly analogous to the plight of athletes.
The second is consistency.
As I read this powerful essay, I immedeatly realized that this is one I have been weak with in my own life. Consistency.
I wrote on my last essay that to this day I have a reputation in my home town of Lubbock for being the very picture of inconsistency.
In the 2 years I have lived in Dallas I have become very vigilant of inconsistency in my own life, with varying degrees of success.
Kurtz tells us, " It is no a single success - important as they may be to record - but achievement over a period of time that most impresses us."
He goes on to provide a long list of heroes in the arts and sciences and adds, "These individuals are considered excellent, not because they achieved recognition, but because of the intrinsic qualities of their work, which manifests creativity, innovation, discovery. They are noteworthy because they have exceeded our expectations and made an outstanding contribution."
Excellence is first and foremost self-serving in Kurtz. In fact all of Kurtz's virtues are presented as something to be achieved for a better life, a happier life, a richer life, even Kurtz's uncompromising demands for compassion and philanthropy.
"Here we appraise the following: (1) the kinds of values a person cherishes nd that activate him, (2) the style of life he has adopted, and (3) how he relates to other persons within the sphere of interaction. In dealing with ethical excellence, I am not referring simply to a person's chief occupation or career -as important and satisfying as that may be in achieving the good life - but to the total constellation of values and principles manifested throuought the entire life. A person can be a great physicist and lead a miserable life, a great mathematician and not know how to get his car started, a sensitive poet and a terrible husband."
So Kurtz, with his great fondness of lists, gives us the term "excelsior" as the cummulitaion of a list of traits which each of us must harness and cultivate to attain excellence.
What are the traits that give us excelsior?
9.) Joie de vivre
All 9 of these traits of the state of excelsior are defined by Kurtz in such a way as where if you make them a high priority, you are in the process of achieving them. Kurtz does not give a operationalized grade one must achieve to claim these virtues as their own.
Kurtz also, notably, gives empiricism a strong place in developing the state of excelsior, or ethical excellence. He gives these as criteria which we can use in developing a habit of self-observation as we make diagnosis of our state in life.
So many ethical systems (notably religious ones) give abstract virtues with unattainable goals which can never be observed or properly monitored in life. As the Christian who has the impossible standard of loving the whole world, but is always the "chiefest of sinners" no matter what they do.
I prefer Kurtz's system, to being like the Red Queen in Alice in Wonderland, running as fast as I can to stay where I am.
No, as I have already noted, I need purpose.
I need to know what to watch for to see if I am indeed growing as a person.
In my life I have done well with a sense of autonomy, or self-determination. Though I have noticed that many of those who I have cared for seem to be in a constant state of inertia, waiting for something to either happen to them or for them. Indeed, this is wasting your one and very precious life.
I have always also had a great sense of motivation, a need to always be giving birth to something. I have a mind that is pregnant like a swollen ant queen, ready to give birth to nation of offspring, and likewise had the will to act. I have also always been creative, which is what motivates me in the first place.
Affirmation has been a unique gift for me. Affirmation is Kurtz's version of hope, notably a totally secular one, in which the person is expected to have a certain degree of confidence in their will, their action, and have a persistent expectation of success. This has been mine for nearly a decade now, and I am only growing stronger in this virtue.
My weaknesses have been intelligence, though always reading and thinking, my love affair with logic and science as a way of testing things is sadly new in my life. Only since my college education.
Likewise, I have only recently begun to give self-discipline and health such a persistent place in my life. We have only this one life, and if we do not care for our bodies we needlessly shorten the days we can act with purpose. Death is certain. My need to be healthy, along with the realities of my education, are ever teaching me how to be disciplined, how to pick the hammer up and strike it again and again, knowing that the task worth doing is scarecely swift in its conclusion.
Self-respect has been a good friend to me for years now. I think that I have all the potential of a fully active and intelligent human. For me, it is this radiant humanity which I worship in others which I see as my own. Humans are the most vicious of animals, the only demons, gods, or angels that exist. I do not doubt my potential, and tire of others doubting theirs.
Joie de vivre, or enjoying life in French, has been taught to me by my wife.
When we first fell in love, I wore a scowl on my face all the time, it was an accessory to my punk rock outfits. She was like a pixie in a fairy tale fluttering in a delighted madness from flower to flower, she showed me this unbridled joy as she stops and searches for beautiful things in nature. Since then, my own joy is ever increasing and manifesting. It is indeed, excellent.
These are some words to ponder, and perhaps apply in the search for a better life.
Your life is a love story!