Wednesday, February 25, 2009

The Virtue of Without

The idea behind Lent is that there is something cleansing, something virtuous about self-deprivation. The question is what? Is it the ability to empathize with the suffering of others? If someone can afford X -- which s/he really enjoys -- and opts to avoid X, but another person simply cannot afford the desired X, is there a difference in the virtue of these two? Are they both getting the same thing from not engaging in X or is the intentionality of saying no to X an essential part of what makes self-deprivation useful?

Is it the putting of spiritual needs before the merely bodily? In a secular version, Aristotle in "Nicomachean Ethics" and John Stuart Mill in "Utilitarianism" make a similar move arguing that humans will prefer the higher to the lower activity and that the life of seeking pleasure is a life for cattle or pigs. But suppose you deprive yourself of the higher, of the spiritual or intellectual? Is this harmful, so that it is not self-deprivation itself that matters but what you choose to deprive yourself of?

Hopefully you have not all given up commenting on blogs for Lent...