I was stuck in traffic recently and was listening a talk show on the radio. Like many days in the last few months in Cape Town, the conversation turned to water and why we still battle to reduce our consumption to the levels the City of Cape Town (CCT) asks of us.
At one point, the radio-presenter asked listeners to call in to share what they are doing to conserve water. Surprisingly, one gentleman (I will call him Peter) phoned in to bemoan the restrictions that the CCT is imposing on him. In short, Peter’s argument went like this:
Peter does not drink, or smoke, or over-eat on the odd occasion like most of us do. In fact, Peter considers himself a responsible citizen. But where he draws the line, is cutting back on his time in the shower. You see, Peter has only one vice in life; he loves a good shower. And good showers take time – approximately seven minutes if I remember correctly. Peter felt strongly that he was paying for his water and therefore he had the right to shower. Peter also felt that he was completely within his legal rights.
Peter was within the law, but does that make him a good citizen?
Coincidently I often ask a similar question in class, and I am no longer surprised that most people know instinctively what a good citizen looks like. But what may be surprising is that the ancient Greeks already defined the characteristics of a good citizen many centuries ago. These universally valued personality traits are:
- Wisdom: The ability to decide on actions that are appropriate.
- Courage: Strength of will that helps you accomplish goals in the face of fear or discomfort.
- Humanity: An interpersonal trait that helps you befriend others and tend to your relationships.
- Justice: The will of rendering to each one his right.
- Temperance: A trait that helps you avoid excess and stay on track in the face of temptations.
- Transcendence: The ability to look beyond yourself; finding meaning in doing good to others.
The obvious deduction that you should make from this list is that Peter cannot claim to be virtuous. In our modern language of memes: Peter is an asshole; don’t be like Peter.
However, a connection that is not often made clear, is how the six virtues relate to a field called positive psychology. Positive psychology is the scientific field that studies happiness. Positive psychology is to mental disorders what exercise is to illness. It tells us what thoughts and character-traits we should nurture in order to be happier people.
To illustrate the connection, I will focus on one of the virtues. Temperance refers to the ability to decide you have enough or the ability to limit your appetite. In modern society, it means to accept that having less than the Joneses does not make you a lesser person. Temperance stands opposite to materialism. And temperance is the seed from which grows voluntary simplicity. Voluntary simplicity is an emergent phenomenon. It refers to the practice of intentionally deciding to scale down on possessions, and rather dedicate time and resources to grow as people.
Interestingly, many people adopt voluntary simplicity because they realise that many possessions steals time and happiness. A bigger house has a bigger garden, and maintaining a big garden can rob you of time with your family. A bigger house also requires a bigger salary; and a bigger salary is often associated with a more stress, less family time, and weaker relationships. Voluntary simplicity is therefore not a choice to scale down on happiness. It is, in fact, quite the opposite.
Peter is not unique in claiming what he feels is his. One of my students recently told me of someone who watered the lawn of his beach-house, claiming that he had been away for a month, and therefore had a month’s quota that he was entitled to use.
As you may realise, underlying our water use runs a deeper theme of how we behave and whether we wish to be better people. Water happens to be a safe topic. I could have chosen corruption.
Ultimately, if we work on being more virtuous, even if we don’t always succeed, the world will be better, and we will be happier. Don’t be like Peter.