A discussion came up amongst acquaintances recently about the question of ethical behaviour in situations of injustice. So often the behaviour we would consider ethical outside those circumstances seems inadequate in response to oppression or wrongdoing by those in power. I didn’t have adequate responses, so went looking for something to read, and came across Lisa Tessman’s book, Burdened Virtues: Virtue Ethics for Liberatory Struggles. I haven’t even finished it yet, but I’ve been very impressed with its clarity on issues which I have encountered intuitively but had no intellectual framework to express. It’s a fairly scholarly read, though, and heavy going, so I thought I’d summarise some key points of interest.
Virtue ethics is an approach to ethical thinking going back to Aristotle. The tradition of virtue ethics assumes that the pursuit of human flourishing – one’s own and that of others – is morally good. This implies that, as oppressive systems provide barriers to human flourishing, the struggle for personal and political liberation is a moral good. However, oppressive systems can impede the development of the virtues needed for human flourishing, and particularly the virtues that would enable people to resist such subordination.
Further, oppressive systems can create an environment in which the exercise of virtue may be morally good, but may come at a cost to the person concerned, rather than there being a neatly positive outcome. This cost may come about due to unresolvable moral conflict “where doing what is best falls far short of what one would have chosen given better conditions,” in which it is not possible to be completely moral and the person carries an emotional burden as a result, or because moral behaviours in this system might “forfeit their bearer’s well-being because they are self-sacrificial or corrosive or crowd out other valuable traits.”
This introduces a tension between those values which are ethical from the perspective of liberation, and the perspective of the dominant oppressive system. A certain limited flourishing may be possible within the system of oppression. Yet those who are trying to transform – and liberate – themselves do so because they recognize that this is a necessary part of making healthy human flourishing a possibility available to all, even at their own personal cost.
More than that, systemic injustice may shape the decisions a person is able to make, and also the resources available to them with which to pursue their choices. Taking this injustice into account does not excuse any person from responsibility, but does affect the field in which that responsibility is in play. That is, “anything that is the product of the will is surrounded and held up and partly formed by things that are not… Responsibilities outrun control.”
Personal integrity – responsible moral agency – depends on the ability to gain insight into the formation of one’s dispositions, and to change them as appropriate. This level of integrity is particularly difficult for those who experience the personal fragmentation of being formed under conditions of oppression. The oppressed “are likely to be sites of seriously warring inclinations, moods, likes and dislikes elicited by the double-binds of oppressive institutions….The task of acquiring integrity is necessary for resisting oppression and taking responsibility for whom one becomes, but it is a task that in turn requires discovering which of one’s character traits are constitutive of moral damage and should be forgone in favour of a disposition that consistently supports one’s own – and others’ – flourishing.”
Tessman suggests traits which may indicate unrecognized oppression: misplaced gratitude, low self-esteem, ingratiation, affiliation with oppressors, a tendency to dissemble, and fear of being conspicuous /chameleonism. These often begin as survival mechanisms, but left unchecked they may become habits which cause oppressed people to fail to realise their full potential as moral agents. Where they are recognised, then, she suggests they ought to be examined and their causes better integrated in a person’s psyche.
Being able to do this requires, in part, “the deliberate construction of friendly space and a monitoring of what is permitted inside.” Although she does not take her argument in this direction, it occurs to me that this might be part of what the church is called to be; the friendly space in which outside powers lose their grip for long enough to allow people to test their freedom.