Updated: Mar 23
It is wishful thinking or naïve simplicity to believe the field of ethics and morality is as black and white as we would wish it to be. Despite being a concept that is as integral to our social consciousness as eating or breathing, it is a subject which remains nebulous in the practical application for many people’s daily lives. Often we are able to skirt through the horns of ethical dilemma by generally acting within the social confines of what is considered “polite society” yet we cannot always escape such complexity. The failure to truly delve deeply into one's ethical position, values and choices in a critical fashion leaves one at risk of being woefully unprepared for when an ethically complicated situation arrives. Feeling lost or insecure in one’s ethical position may cause an individual to fail to act appropriately or in a way inconsistent with who they strive to be. At worst one risks acting as a hypocritical Pharisee, developing cognitive dissonance as they struggle to reconcile their actions or obligations with the actuality of the situations they are in or observe.
Thus, discussions of ethics must be accessible to regular people at the level of everyday life and must provide a framework for one to engage practically between the intellectual and actionable spheres. When serious exploration of morality becomes entangled in intellectual technocracy then the average individual may be driven away unable to penetrate its complexity and relate its contents to one’s personal life. This opens the door to dangerous ideological indoctrination as the individual decision making is abdicated to the whims and aggregates of the tribe and replaced with zealous dogmatic simplicity. Though there is certainly an important place for the technocratic intellectual engineering of ethical philosophers we must also remember that ethics is primarily a practical field and that in order for an ethical system to function within society it must provide a pragmatic framework which guides individuals in the specific actions of their lives.
Foundation of Intention
“Until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life and you will call it fate.” - Karl Jung
In an era in which self-actualization is a predominating cultural value, personal liberty and individual agency have become sacrosanct. Humanity unshackled from the traditional social mores of community and hierarchy (though those do still exert influence in our cultures) has filled its consciousness with pithy phrases such as “be yourself” and “you can do anything” reflecting the perspective of the pre-eminent status of the individual. A prerequisite for self-actualization is a critical analysis of ethical values. Those values provide the framework for all action and thus describe the power an individual can exert on the world around them.
The inherited values of our social consciousness are insufficient in that regard. These values do well enough to maintain a civilized society however they only provide a general enough sense of moral guidance that moral action can be felt rather than considered. They are the rules we have developed to keep children from harming themselves and others. The morals of our common sense lack the intentionality required for self-actualization and as long as one simply follows the basic rules one can essentially move through society in an ethical auto-pilot. Be nice. Give to charity. Do not cause harm to others and do not infringe on another’s individual liberty. These prescriptions are generally good things for people to do yet they fail to capture the complexity and diversity of human action and motivation. They certainly fail to describe the situations in which humans find themselves that require decision making and leadership. This is illuminated by a popular sentiment today found across the internet that “nice is not a personality trait, it is simply the minimum viable product.”
Furthermore as the thousands of years of ethical inquiry and commentary have shown, the broad range of individual situations, actions and values that human life is capable of experiencing indicate the complexity created in the intersection of morality and life itself. Each of these philosophers, theologians and individuals have explored the various practical actions humans may take and how those relate to a model of moral behavior. We can separately discuss the morality of specific actions (whether they are good or bad) as well as the model of morality in which they exist (how and why they are good or bad). Our inherited social values tend to provide only general guidance on what actions are moral yet the how and why is abdicated to the broader social assumptions of what is and is not good. It is simply the way it is.
Self-actualization requires greater intentionality than this. A significant aspect of the realization of one’s potential involves understanding one’s limitations as well as the exploration of one’s individual nature. The multitude of human values interacting with the broad diversity of human action means contradiction and juxtaposition are inevitable. In the forge of this inner conflict is the self-actualized personality tempered into character which can confidently withstand the hardships and uncertainties of living. Intentionality of values places the locus of action squarely on the individual for the very act of doing so is an assumption of responsibility. It is a choice to opt in to life and a rejection of infantile victimhood to the forces of nature and society which constantly beat against our hulls and threaten to capsize us. It is the foundation of the saying “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” but in order to gain that strength one must begin developing the wisdom to learn from one’s mistakes and to act and think intentionally within the world.
A Model of Practical Application
So where does one start? If only it were as easy as cracking open some philosophy books, learning their contents and beginning to discern choices from the options available. Ethical philosophy, moral theology and human behavior sciences are complicated and esoteric. The lens of intellectual rationality seems to divorce them from practical application while the language and knowledge required to penetrate their content may feel unassailable to the average person. Not all of us are academics who enjoy the exercise of combing through dry and perplexing text. Text which unfortunately is the primary medium of human kinds’ ethical inquiry. As in most things however there are a number of valid models that can functionally serve the purpose of invigorating this critical analysis of one’s values and ethics.
Morality is complicated because of the diversity of human experience. One’s own personal ethics are limited to the circumstances of their own experience. A data set of which they themselves are already the expert. A model that I suggest for this purpose of evaluating one’s personal values revolves around consideration through the lens of an imagined character (or characters) within a story. Firstly for the simple reason evident to any of us who maintain social relationships; it is much easier to criticize the behavior and motivations of another than to criticize one’s self.
Additionally, though traditional academic analysis may be impenetrable to many, our brains are uniquely developed to intuitively process vast quantities of complex information when presented in the structure of a story. This is especially pertinent when the characters and events within the story follow archetypal models which are recognizable to individuals within a culture and in some cases cross culturally as well. For example we are able to quickly understand the fundamental elements of the “hero's journey” in a story because it is archetypal. We can identify characters who fit archetypal roles such as the hero, the villain or the magical helper. We can imagine both their qualities and the expectations of their behavior throughout the story due to the structure of the story itself. Thus in investigating our own ethical values we can utilize the pre-existing archetypal structure of a story and its characters as a mirror into our own nature. We can imagine (or adopt from a previously known story) the hero with all of his qualities, limitations and motivations as a model for our own values. Furthermore we can identify his shadow, his nemesis and predict his behavior based on his archetypal character to further elucidate our own.
Though we may rarely read academic texts which take a more rational approach it should come as no surprise to anyone who enjoys and empathizes with characters in literature, drama, cinema and video games that we are capable of recognizing and extrapolating from the behavior of imagined characters as they follow the ley-lines of our cultural archetypes. The mediums themselves naturally interface with the human psyche as a mirror from which to judge and evaluate our own circumstance through our intuitive emotional involvement and it is not a significant leap to introduce a critical approach to this phenomena that already acts upon us.
Before we delve into the imagination of characters however we can prepare ourselves by doing some foundational groundwork. In order for us to imagine a character with virtues, vices and values as well as those of the other characters in a story whom the hero may interact with we must first have some conception of what virtues, values and vices exist within our consciousness. Thus it is a worthwhile exercise to first brainstorm all of the potential values that one may see in the world. This list need not be exhaustive in a pedagogic sense for practically one’s reality is confined to the limitations of what one already knows however it is useful to stretch and imagine the various values that may exist in all of their diversity and nuance. This imaginative conceptualization should also take into account any value that can be conceived and not yet be limited by one’s personal judgement of the values themselves. We must ask only what values exist and not yet what values exist that are right for me.
It is also important to remember that the values we conceive of will not have clear delineations in meaning. We are using language after all and values may seem similar or only slightly different though those differences might be significant in context or gravity. This is not even to mention the differences that could occur in the definition of a word between individuals! For this exercise it is important to allow oneself to be technically nuanced and to imagine values which are similar but slightly different. Furthermore it may make sense to group similar but nuanced values under a larger overarching value.
This nuance is particularly important because as we conceive of values we can also conceive of their antithesis (their opposite) or even expressions of the value which may actually appear as a vice. Aristotle conceived of ethical virtues themselves not as a binary opposition but as a “mean between two extremes” in which a virtue was balanced between the vices. For example courage was not the opposite of cowardice but the balance between cowardice and foolhardiness. Recognizing the nuance of our definitions of values allows us to not only provide minor but material differences in the expression of the virtue but also in the expression of its associated shadows.
Lastly when imagining these values it is important to ask what it practically looks like to behave according to the value. Imagine situations or examples which demonstrate expression of the virtue as well as its failures or its vice. As if you were an author developing a character you may ask “what would this character do when confronted with X” and allow yourself to imagine this virtue or vice in practical and human terms.
Character as Surrogate of Self
“Imagine if everything that you did in life was filled with a spirit of play. Things that you try to accomplish, things that you wanted…you went after them with the sense of play as if it were a game. As if you were just simply trying to move your little man on the board from one place to another. With the same spirit of fun in the process, in the doing that you have when you’re playing a game.” - Joseph Campbell, Myths to Live By
It is no surprise that we utilize the same word “character” to describe both a participant in a story as well as the fundamental part of ourselves that interfaces with the world. In many ways we are playing a role as we inhabit the world at any given time. Joseph Campbell in Myths to Live By alludes to this in one of his stories from Japanese language in which he describes a “very special manner of polite aristocratic speech known as play language: Asobase Kotoba. Whereby instead of saying to a person for example, “I see that you’ve come to Tokyo,” one would express the observation by saying, “I see that you’re playing at being in Tokyo.” By utilizing the model of exploring our moral values as a character we enable ourselves to open the doors of creativity in both imagining what we are and who we want to be. Asking the question “who am I” is an exceptionally difficult question that few would have an answer to. Imagining and developing a character however is well within the realm of possibility.
We do it often in fact. Explicitly through video games, costume parties and games like Dungeons and Dragons. Implicitly we do this in the various roles we play during our lives such as being a mother or father, an employee, a volunteer, etc. We first imagine the role we will be playing and we imagine the qualities that are expected of us to embody that role. That both allows us to live up to the expectations of our society as well as guides us in how we behave. We are able to don and shed these roles like masks throughout our lives and in some cases within the course of a single day as we adapt to the needs and beckons of our environment. These roles are simple masks. They are constructed characters that we embody but never fully describe our unique individuality. They are fragments and components that we utilize. In the space between the role and the self lies the potential for self actualization. In that space is creativity and possibility and by applying these principles to the investigation of the self our own morality and self actualization becomes a creative process.
So how do we begin? Having already brainstormed a number of values we may be aware of those which already resonated with us at a personal level. We can also imagine roles or characters in stories we enjoy that may speak to us, that we admire or that we simply enjoy. This becomes an excellent starting point. There is a rich tapestry of stories in our human inheritance to draw upon and we need not subject ourselves to the terror inherent in a white canvas staring back at us. Think about the characters which one is drawn to at a personal level. After selecting a few then take a conceptual step back and imagine the archetypal character that individual represents. Ned Stark of Winterfell from Game of Thrones is a reluctant king. Elrond of Rivendell in the Lord of the Rings is an honorable but distant Lord. Katniss Everdeen of the Hunger Games is both a survivor and perhaps martyr.
These archetypal categories provide the framework for imagining a character specific to one’s individual experience. We are not limited to a single archetype either and we can mix and match those qualities and archetypes which appeal and resonate. The archetypal qualities may describe the history or circumstances of the character. They may also describe their disposition or even their destiny. The key is to identify the categorical components that provide the inspiration to understand their motivations, priorities and behaviors.
Using myself as an example, I resonate with characters such as Davos Seaworth in the HBO iteration of “The Game of Thrones.” I would describe Davos as a “Noble Aspirant” for he has attained his status through his merit rather than his inheritance and he strives to live up to it. In other ways I also am drawn to the character of Rafiki in the “Lion King.” Rafiki I may describe as a Helpful Trickster or perhaps a Trickster Magician for he watches over and assists Simba but in ways that do not appear to always be helpful or obvious at the time. Furthermore he seems to have a knowledge or insight into his environment and events that is deeper than other characters in the story.
If I take the qualities of these characters and imagine their combination into a single character I must ask myself what that character looks like. In this example this character may be an Aspiring and Noble Magician. One who has deep knowledge and is perhaps an outcast yet strives to utilize that insight in a helpful way. Having a general concept of the character I can now ask what values drive them or what values they represented in the stories they originated from. What was their purpose in the narrative. For a character like Davos I feel he represented humbleness and acted as a conscience to the lords he served throughout the story. He comes from modest origins and gained his knighthood through valor but he always reminds himself and others of his roots. Davos also represents a kind of constant striving to live up to his position. He is tenacious in his humbleness as his motivation is not self aggrandizement but rather honor and duty. Finally Davos is compassionate as seen through his treatment of the princess of Dragonstone.
As values I have now identified the qualities of humility, tenaciousness, modesty, honor, selflessness and compassion which I could combine with those qualities which resonated with me from Rafiki and other characters I may see as models. For this example I will select the values of helpfulness, creativity and mystical/faithfulness from Rafiki. This is not an objective exercise. It is the purpose of the exercise to evaluate the qualities of these character’s through one’s own experiential and emotional lens. The process of doing so becomes a form of reflection on one’s perception of the world they inhabit.
Furthermore we must also remember to consider these values in both their positive as well as negative forms. Moral values can seem to manifest as a double edged sword in which there are associated vices from either failure to embody the value or in its overbearing expression. Davos’s humility is seen as a virtue however it leads him to a lack of confidence and an occasional inability to assert a course of action he knows to be right but which the king he serves does not agree with. In a more general sense the virtue of compassion’s shadow side may appear as a loss of personal agency or responsibility as the needs of others always take precedence over one’s self or the ironic dominance of another when trying to save them in its expression of overbearing.
I have now constructed the foundation of a character using the values which I have recognized resonate with my own experience. I can now utilize this foundation as a tool in which to imagine the moral behavior of the character in situations that are personalized and relevant on an individual level. I can ask questions such as:
What motivates this character?
What actions do they take which demonstrate these values to others?
How does this character interact with friends, family, acquaintances and strangers?
How have these qualities which they represent been developed through their personal history?
What are this character’s shortcomings?
How does this character prioritize their values
How would this character behave when confronted with a situation which challenges their values? What would the character do if a situation puts them in a dilemma where the choices cause conflict between their values or where all or some of their values are impossible to live up to.
These questions are an opportunity to weave one’s personal details and experiences into the character model. By doing so one utilizes the character as a surrogate for the self and opens the door to an honest and creative critical analysis of an entity separate from the self yet ultimately derived from it. Though this is an exercise it is practically relevant to one’s personal experiences and allows for laying the groundwork of intentionality in one’s actions and approach to reality. At this stage it may help to give the character which we have created an archetypal label (or multiple). This is in a way a title or titles which describe the character. In my example above utilizing the values I drew from Davos Seaworth and Rafiki I may call that character something like The Compassionate, Mystic Ronin.
In assigning archetypal titles to my character I aim to encapsulate the values (or subsection of values) they represent in the story in a phrase or series of phrases. It is in this way that my character model becomes a tool that I can use in my practical daily living. In much the same way as Christians ask “WWJD” or “What would Jesus do?” I may ask what would the Compassionate Mystic Ronin do in the situations of reality. And perhaps the Compassionate Mystic Ronin is not the only character I have created which I resonate with and it would be completely reasonable to have a cast of characters I could draw upon in perceiving and reflecting on my actions and situations. No one person can be all things to all people all of the time so it comes as no surprise that for many ages even the people of the west were polytheistic drawing upon a diverse pantheon of gods and personalities for guidance in the myriad settings of the world stage.
A Flexible Arc
“If you can see your path laid out in front of you step by step, you know it's not your path. Your own path you make with every step you take. That's why it's your path.”
― Joseph Campbell
Just as characters develop throughout a story one may develop the moral archetypes of their own conception over time. As one gains life experience and encounters novel situations they can imagine the impact of such circumstances upon the archetypal characters they have created. One can imagine how those characters may behave in those situations and furthermore how those situations may cause those characters to change and adjust. Perhaps a new character altogether becomes required to integrate the many original situations of human experience.
The benefit in utilizing the character model as a surrogate for the self when critically analyzing one’s values and moral foundation is in the dynamism of treating this analysis as a creative activity. For whatever reason we easily take for granted the flexibility and fluidity of the self. Since it is the primary point of our perspective we assume that we are who we are and that our perception in the present encompasses whatever it means to be ourselves. This lends a sense of static rigidity to our sense of self. We are often unable to see the changes that accrue over time shifting our perspective, memories and habits. We are more unwilling to admit the changes in our self and in the world around us when we become aware. The truth is that the “self” which we associate with is not static but fluid and that the way we perceive time produces this cognitive dissonance between who we are in the present and who we think we are as carried into the present from the past. Even glaciers flow.
By envisioning a character as a creative exercise we are freed of some of these limitations and blind spots we have when attempting to consider our own “self.” A creative state inherently allows for the flexibility to make changes and imagine divergence as well as to make alterations. It is far easier for our characters to be flexible than for us to do so. As individuals we will often say “I am just that way” however with a character we will develop a reason why the character would believe that about themselves. The surrogate then becomes both a method of reflection as well as a compass for directing behavior as our characters adapt in ways we personally cannot. We are guided by the light of our own creative imagination opening the door to agency over our personal development as the artist has over their own creative works.
Imagination and Intent
Intentionality is the integral component of self actualization. Through imagination we practice our intention. At a foundational level this begins with our own personal ethical values and moral compass as the fulfillment of one’s potential and aspirations requires a stable sense of direction and purpose. Though it is possible to function in society by operating upon the de facto guiding ethos of politeness and civility, this abdicates the recognition of the way one’s distinct nature must interface with external reality. Skating idly across the layer of assumptions taken for granted as fundamental truths leaves the realization of one’s individual potential frozen beneath the surface. By critically evaluating one’s own nature the individual is open to actualizing the full creative potential of their personhood in relation to the world around them rather than simply being directed by it.
The values of our culture today enshrine self actualization as the holy grail of a life well lived. Not all of us are suited to pursuing this by following the breadcrumbs of our academic and intellectual forbearers however this does not mean that the discovery of our personal natures is unavailable to us. By drawing upon the natural human affinity for the structure of stories and its characters we are able to access the rich tapestry of human experience and apply it in a practical way to the decisions and experiences of our personal lives. To do so opens the door to being the intentional master of our inner world and reveals the extent to which living a life is a wholly creative experience in which the individual takes center stage.
“Excellence is never an accident. It is always the result of high intention, sincere effort, and intelligent execution; it represents the wise choice of many alternatives - choice, not chance, determines your destiny.”
Cover: Willem Van Heythuysen by Frans Hals and by Kahinde Wiley
1: Napolean Leading the army over the Alps by Kahinde Wiley