The Three Brain Virtues

Benjamin Franklin: A balding ape.
As I mentioned last time, I've been reading the incredibly engaging and inspiring biography of Benjamin Franklin by Walter Isaacson - "Benjamin Franklin: An American Life".  In the context of this blog's founding concept of self-improvement via self-awareness, I took note of Franklin's famous "virtues" and related tracking system that he devised to improve in each area.  Of course, I am hardly the first person to be drawn to Franklin's virtues: there is an entire website dedicated to virtue tracking for the sake of Pete!

Despite the worn ground around the thirteen virtues of Franklin, as a self-satisfied brain philosopher, I can't help but take a crack at my own set or cognitive/neuro-science inspired set of virtues.  Before doing so, however, here are Franklin's virtues, as reported by the Wikipedia article describing Franklin's life:

  1. "Temperance. Eat not to dullness; drink not to elevation."
  2. "Silence. Speak not but what may benefit others or yourself; avoid trifling conversation."
  3. "Order. Let all your things have their places; let each part of your business have its time."
  4. "Resolution. Resolve to perform what you ought; perform without fail what you resolve."
  5. "Frugality. Make no expense but to do good to others or yourself; i.e., waste nothing."
  6. "Industry. Lose no time; be always employ'd in something useful; cut off all unnecessary actions."
  7. "Sincerity. Use no hurtful deceit; think innocently and justly, and, if you speak, speak accordingly."
  8. "Justice. Wrong none by doing injuries, or omitting the benefits that are your duty."
  9. "Moderation. Avoid extremes; forbear resenting injuries so much as you think they deserve."
  10. "Cleanliness. Tolerate no uncleanliness in body, cloaths, or habitation."
  11. "Tranquility. Be not disturbed at trifles, or at accidents common or unavoidable."
  12. "Chastity. Rarely use venery but for health or offspring, never to dullness, weakness, or the injury of your own or another's peace or reputation."
  13. "Humility. Imitate Jesus and Socrates."
Upon review of these virtues, I can't help but notice that successful practice of each relies on a central capacity for impulse control.  I've pontificated on this concept to nausea and beyond, but the fact remains that implementing the virtues requires the ability to have an impulse to do something but also having the cognitive self-control necessary to quash that impulse and redirect attention to a more "virtuous" activity.

So, I draft my own virtues with an eye toward the "fundamental" cognitive characteristics that would support any other set of virtues, Franklin's or otherwise.  I like to think that these are somehow the foundation for doing anything based on a plan rather than based on a whim:

1. Self-awareness - the ability to think about your own thoughts, to analyze those thoughts, and to compare how you are thinking to the way you would rather be thinking.

2. Focus - the ability to attend to something of choice and hold attention despite distractions.  The ability to maintain a line of thought.

3. Resilience - the ability to try again even when you fail.  The ability to get back on the horse.

And...  That's it!  Wait, what?  How can that be it?  When I think about virtues, they have to be very personal and specific things.  We all put value on different ways of living.  However, to actually stick to any set of resolved virtues takes a short list of cognitive skills, and I think that list is simply: metacognition, focus, and resilience.

Why?  Because a virtue is like walking on a tightrope.  First, you need to know if you're even on the tightrope or on the ground.  You need to also know if you're on the right tightrope, or if you even want to walk any tight rope.  This set of decisions require metacognitive self-awareness: we need to recognize our own thinking and behaviors and be able to compare these to some alternative.

Second, you need to stay focused while on the tightrope.  Eyes on the rope, careful foot placement, move, stay centered, etc.  If you're mind is frequently wandering to topics like monkey poop, then you'll be falling off the rope a lot.  The same goes for a virtue: we need to focus on the task of being virtuous without letting distraction or temptation creep in.

Lastly, you need to get back on the rope!  Tightrope walking is hard, as is sticking to any goal of personal change.  You will fail.  Again.  And again.  We all do.  If you're committed to being a good tightrope walker, you're going to have to get used to the idea of falling and getting back on the rope.

I'm convinced.  If you're not, let me know in the comments or with an email.  I look forward to convincing you that these are the "simple" characteristics we all need to do anything we need to do, virtuous or otherwise.  I'm definitely right on this one....  

No comments:

Post a Comment