The Virtue of Always Seeing the Glass Half Empty

… is also the virtue of never standing still

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I’ve once been in a research seminar with Cheshire Calhoun arguing that we sometimes need to be content: we need to appreciate the good things we already have, rather than seeing only the imperfections and inadequacies. I can imagine the average American worker is her target audience: They are overworked and unhappy, despite having the highest average GDP in the entire world. They are overworked and unhappy because they are discontent, because they are not living the typical American Dream: successful, rich and admired. Perhaps only the 1% are, but the other 99% are either merely getting by or nowhere near getting to the top. Instead of scheming, using unethical methods or work even harder for tiny marginal improvement to get to the top, Calhoun’s advice to them seems to be that they should be appreciative of what they already have rather than be discontent, and their quality of life will instantly improve. Thus contentment can be a virtue.

I see her point that not being appreciative can lead to vice, namely the scheming, the unethical tactics to get to the top. Simply working even harder for tiny marginal improvement is a vice because it is unwise: the effort could be spend more wisely elsewhere. The alternative can be to spend more time with your family, friends or even random strangers, and improving their lives significantly in exchange for marginal improvement in job performance. It makes sense especially in our internet connected world, where work can be done in almost anywhere, not just in office, and the workday can be 24/7.

But.

I will stick my neck out and argue that it is never virtuous to be content, that contentment is a vice rather than virtue. First, if contentment is taken to be a virtue, then viewing certain aspects of the world as “ok” or “it was even worse before” is to turn a blind eye to all the remaining suffering and injustice in the world. The time dwell on being content is time not spend on righting wrongs. So to me contentment does not sound like virtue at all. Second, being content is merely adaptive preference, that you are merely moving the goal post. Instead of living the American Dream and be the 1%, when you are at, say, the top 10%, you should think this is good enough and you need to be content. One may even dismiss her view as equivalent to “know your station”.

You may object and ask: what is so wrong with “knowing your station”? My reply is that “knowing your station” means to not test your own personal ability. It is like the amateur athlete content to run only a half-marathon, never trying to push him/herself to run a full marathon. The wise athlete knows his/her own limits, constantly monitoring his/her physical well-being, but at the same time trying to push his/her own limit. Because all athletes will tell you that they are not born that way. There must be hard work invested, there will be moments of doubt on whether they can succeed. Because personal limit is not something set in stones, it can be changed and retested.

If you never try beyond your limit, you will never know where the limit really lies. Contentment leads to not trying. That is why I am against “knowing your station”.

Calhoun’s rejoinder to my reply I imagine would be this: logically you can be content but still strive, so contentment does not necessarily lead to not striving. I would like to point out that the correlation between being content and striving for improvement is an empirical matter: it is simply human psychology. If empirically humans tend not to strive when they are content, then there is no general reason to be content. I cannot speak for the population, but personally, my experience is that contentment does lead to idleness.


Most important, I think Calhoun’s notion of contentment makes certain kind of sense when what we are striving is something like the American Dream. Contentment would be the perfect antidote to overambitious pursuit of the American Dream. For example, Donald Trump lives the American Dream: he is rich, successful, and will soon be the most powerful person in the world. But he also destroyed a lot of civility on the way. Would it not be better if Donald Trump were a little more content and a little less ambitious?

But I would imagine the truly virtuous would object to striving for the American Dream to start with. So contentment to not quite reaching a not quite virtuous goal is unnecessary.

The virtuous goal shouldn’t even be just a threshold, e.g. that once you have earned your $10 million, have gotten the job you want your entire life, have your dream partner etc., you are “it”. Neither should the goal be perfection. Only God can be perfect. Human trying to be perfect is human trying in vain.

My interpretation of what the virtuous goal should be (what Aristotelians would called “happiness”) is to try to be better than before, as a human being, as a biological being, while still pushing what “better” means. There is no “best”, only “better”. Evolutionary biologists and moral psychologists suggested that moral rules develop to help a community thrive, not just individuals, see e.g. Jonathan Haidt (contrary to e.g. Richard Dawkins). So the best kind of human being would be the ones who help their own community thrive. The usual virtues of what make a human good apply here: bravery, kindness, innovativeness, just, and so on. These virtues are good because they help humans possessing them in a community thrive and be better, both as individuals and as a community. By the same token, the usual vices of what make a human bad apply here: cowardice, cruelty, conventionality, unjust, and so on. They are bad because possession of these vices destroys the community.

However, as our community evolve over the ages, from small settlements, to large cities, and to virtual communities on the internet, the moral rules will have to evolve as well, because what makes these different kind of communities thrive changes. It would be a most interesting question to ask whether the old virtues still apply in the age of Globalization and internet, and whether we need new virtues.