“The seven habits of highly effective people” is a well-known self-improvement book by Stephen Covey. In the introduction, the author clearly states that it is not merely his intention to suggest some tips and tricks or a three step programme to be able to live and work more efficiently. The point is to really become a better manager, parent, or person in general, which requires certain habits or character traits. These are the habits that Covey describes.
In this type of management literature and elsewhere, we see that certain character traits are emphasised. Also in self-improvement literature of a somewhat more esoteric kind, we see the same trend. These books tend to elaborate on how to become a better person, how to make the most of yourself, how to realise your full potential. A well-known book on becoming a better person from an esoteric perspective is The Art of Happiness written by the Dalai Lama. This book explores how you can become a happy person and realise your full potential by the adaptation of certain character traits.
What all these examples basically boil down to, is classical Aristotelian and Thomistic virtue ethics in a new and modern look. As Aristotle wrote, some 2300 years ago: the ultimate goal of every human being is becoming happy. And just like a vacuum cleaner has ‘cleaning well’ as its ultimate goal, and is hence an excellent vacuum cleaner when it succeeds exceedingly well at cleaning, an excellent human being is one who succeeds exceedingly well at being happy. And therefore it is up to ethics to plot out which habits and character traits contribute to happiness and are fitting to an excellent person, and what is the most effective way of becoming an experienced practitioner of those habits and character traits.
But if so much modern literature is, in fact, nothing but a variation on the same theme of classical virtue ethics, why isn’t this mentioned more explicitly? I think the answer to this question is found in the influence of Enlightenment and Romanticism on our current way of thinking.
Classical virtue ethics have been the cornerstone of our way of thinking for millennia. It wasn’t until the rise of Protestantism that a paradigm shift took place, and rules and duty (i.e. deontology) become the centre of attention in ethics, as opposed to moral character. In the eyes of the Protestant church, the contention that one could become an excellent human being quite possibly amounted to blasphemy, as the only way of ever finding salvation was by the grace of God. With the Enlightenment, our mode of thought was again challenged, this time by the rise of natural science and the accompanying emphasis on measurability and quantifiability. Furthermore, the age-old power balances became challenged for the first time in history under the increasing influence of technology and internationalisation (which came with altogether new problems such as sea piracy). On top of all this, the individual gradually became more relevant. It is no wonder that during the course of the Enlightenment, one’s own (or a nation’s) rights became the main centre of attention in ethics instead of one’s virtues or moral duties.
This paradigm shift culminated in the ideals of Romanticism in the late 19th century, when the last notions of determinism and absolutism were abandoned. The Romantic ideal basically amounted to: every human being is unique and special in his own right, and every single situation is equally unique and special. This unicity is aesthetically beautiful and must be celebrated. Every ideology that slights or disparages this unicity and its beauty must be condemned. Furthermore, it is pointless to waste your time trying to learn from the past, as we live in the here and now and not in the past. Meta-sciences such as history or philosophy only slow you down because they have no inherent practical value.
It goes even further. The thought of Romanticism is so thoroughly ingrained in our modern thought and values, that most people do not even realise anymore (let alone want to realise) that this is merely the result of a tradition that is 150 years old at the most, and that is by no means the only way conceivable.
In this light, it actually makes perfect sense that lawyers, HR-professionals, management gurus, spiritual leaders and the like, prefer, in their writings, not to overtly emphasise an age-old tradition like virtue ethics. It is even conceivable that some of these authors are not even actually aware of the existence of such a tradition. But one way or the other, absolute values and character traits cannot be disregarded, simply because this is what makes us humans tick. It seems completely explainable that much modern literature is basically a variation on the age-old theme of virtue ethics.