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Wednesday, 16 September 2009 20:00

Author to Reader: John Bradshaw on his latest book, Reclaiming Virtue

Reclaiming Virtue Reclaiming Virtue

Note: this article was originally published in the Cutting Edge Spring/Summer 2009 Newsletter.

John Bradshaw's latest book, Reclaiming Virtue: How We Can Develop the Moral Intelligence to Do the Right Thing at the Right Time for the Right Reason, released April 28, 2009.

Reclaiming Virtue is a very ambitious book. I originally conceived of it as part of my own Stage Four recovery work, but I later came to the realization that the book is more like a record of my own struggle over the past 50 years.

Many people say that the answers to all of our moral problems involve going back to traditional values - although no one ever defines exactly what "traditional values" means. They would benefit from a book by Stephanie Coontz titled The Way We Never Were: American Families and the Nostalgia Trap, which shows that the American family has changed many times throughout our history.

Early history supports Coontz's thinking, as Boston's most influential Puritan clergy from the Synod of 1679 included in their list of sins teenage pregnancy, drug abuse, frivolous lawsuits, greed and excessive profit taking, and women in lewd clothing. Worst of all, the family was breaking down - a complete loss of discipline. For those who use the family systems model to understand addiction, trauma and neuroses, it seems as though some of today's problems are a collective repetition compulsion from the past. We know that families become dysfunctional because they use faulty solutions to solve distress. Mom's a prescription drug addict, so Dad tells the kids to take over her chores and keep her problem a secret. Everyone in the family overfunctions to help Mom's problem and, low and behold, it gets worse. The solution becomes the problem. Traditional values, as many understand them, are part of a solution that has become the problem.

As Reclaiming Virtue is more than 500 pages long, what follows is a brief summary of major elements of prudential ethics. They are based on the Greek tradition of Heraclitus (who was called the first moralist in Western philosophy) and include the virtue that Aristotle called "phronesis" (prudence). Prudence was later incorporated into the work of Thomas Aquinas (called the universal doctor of Catholic theology). These men saw prudence as the governing virtue of all virtues. They understood prudence to be a fully practical knowledge - the "know how" to make the right moral judgment in the right context at the right time! They believed that it is far better to be just and honest than to merely know how to define these virtues.

Studies in evolutionary psychology, clinical psychology, and the neuroscience of the brain support the fact that the mind (Dan Siegel) and free will (Jeffrey M. Schwartz) are distinct realities in relation to the physical brain. Studies of Silvan Tompkins, Allan N. Schore, and Joseph LeDoux point to affect (or feeling) as the primary motivating factor of human behavior, giving the prudential ethics of Aristotle and Aquinas a solid grounding in modern thought. Here are some of my ideas for new prudential ethics:

  • We are born with a raw moral intelligence, evidenced by our nine innate affects (especially shame, which distinguishes us from other animals) and our attachment program, which is activated in the nondominant hemisphere of our brain by our feeling interaction with our mothering sources.
  • The last act of a fully moral judgment is based on affective inclination - a right appetite (good will), informed conscience, and contained feelings.
  • The virtue of prudence - the "know how" in making good, balanced, moral choices - is the perfection of moral intelligence.
  • The virtue of prudence is the engine of our moral life, but love and justice are our highest moral virtues.
  • The virtue of love transcends morality and leads us to ethical sensibility.
  • A person can be moral but not ethical. (For instance, our founding fathers were slave owners.) Ethical consciousness is always reaching new levels. Many of our parents, thinking they were doing the right thing, abused us.
  • The studies of Hartshorne and May at the University of Chicago show that teaching obedient morality is similar to teaching table manners! They also show that people who rant against cheating and lying cheat and lie to some degree.
  • The ultimate ethical problems are unconscious dishonesty, self-aversion, and toxic shame. Carl Jung called this unconscious part of our psyche "the shadow" and believed that "no one can become conscious of the shadow without considerable moral effort."
  • Our shadow also includes our carried and toxic shame, which will not go away because of moralistic "right practices."
  • The best preparation a parent can make for raising children is to do his or her own original pain feeling work. In his collected works, Carl Jung suggests that a parent's unlived life is the most damaging thing to a child's psyche. When a parent has unresolved issues that have caused him or her to stop growing, to be intimidated by fear, and to be unable to take risks, the child will internalize the parent's constriction and denial of soul. Finally, I hope Reclaiming Virtue will appeal to what Abraham Lincoln called "the better angels of our nature" and will serve as a concrete guide for building a virtuous life, step-by-step.
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