Since my talk on honesty at the seminar was so well-received, I’ve been thinking about lecturing on other virtues at upcoming seminars. While it would make sense for me to return to start with the primary virtue in Objectivism, rationality, I think that I would like to focus on the virtue of productiveness next instead. My reasons are primarily personal, in the sense that productiveness is the virtue I have struggled with most over the past year. The problem is not that I’m unproductive, but rather that I think I could be so much more productive if I instilled good habits within myself. Or perhaps not. I just don’t know. So productiveness it is and shall be!
What follows are simply some preliminary notes on the direction I think such a lecture should take.
As usual, I would like to integrate a theoretical understanding of the virtue with its practical applications. As those who are familiar with my previous work on virtue, good habits will be just that link between theory and practice. (I was dissatisfied with my explication of the function of habit within the virtue of honesty in my recent lecture “White Lies, Black Lies.” I fear that I failed to convey the richness and robustness that habit brings to theory and practice of honesty. Additionally, there is much, much more in the psychology of habits that would be useful and productive for me to explore. For example, I am presently reading what promises to be an excellent and useful book entitled The Seven Sins of Memory. In short, I want to be sure to fully explicate the role of habits in any forthcoming lectures on virtue.)
From a theoretical perspective, the Objectivist case for productiveness is fairly simple. We need to create values in order to survive. Productiveness means creating those values necessary for life and happiness. Of course, there is always the perennial and thorny question of the prudent predator — or in this case the prudent moocher and prudent looter. I think the basic answer to these apparent counter-arguments is that we are wasting time and energy, not to mention creating bad habits, by keeping ourselves open to and on the lookout for such opportunities for predation. In other words, being on the prowl has consequences all its own.
Another theoretical issue concerns the relationship between the virtues of responsibility and productiveness. In common parlance, productiveness seems to relate primarily to work and career, while responsibility concerns all of life’s activities. So it would seem that responsibility might be the primary virtue, with productiveness as one aspect of it. This is essentially what David Kelley has argued. He conceives of productiveness as primarily relating to the creation of wealth. Responsibility is the more fundamental virtue of achieving all the values necessary for a long and happy life. He has a point.
However, I’m not sure that I entirely agree with this conceptual schema. Productiveness perhaps ought to be defined as David Kelley defines responsibility, as the virtue of achieving all the values necessary for a long and happy life. After all, one of Objectivism’s more interesting insights is the way in which the pursuit of value in an individual’s personal life is fundamentally the same as in the economic sphere. For example, Objectivists don’t just see trade as only activity of business relationships, but also something we do in friendships, in romantic relationships, and familial relationships. (The trades in such personal relationships, of course, tend to be longer-term, unaccounted, and more spiritual in nature than in business. But the fundamentals of trade still apply.) So it would not be unprecedented in Objectivism to take a virtue that seems to primarily apply to the economic sphere and broaden it to apply to all areas of life. Such would be essentially consistent with much of the Objectivist project in ethics.
Speaking of the relationship between virtues, I should also think about the nature of certain key minor virtues within productiveness, such as self-discipline, ambition, creativity. I will want to be able to given account of these aspects of productiveness, given how essential that are in daily life. One interesting topic along these lines would be an account of competitiveness, rational and irrational.
Also, on both a theoretical and a practical level, I am interested in comparing and contrasting the Objectivist virtue of productiveness with the ideas in the current business self-help literature, as well as the Protestant ethic of thrift and industry championed by Benjamin Franklin and others in years and centuries past.
From a purely practical perspective, the major issue seems to be how to become more productive in daily life. In other words, how can we make ourselves maximally-efficient pursuers of value in all areas of life? I think that I might find a great deal of insight in the business self-help literature. (But I will need to be careful not to get mired in the business side of productiveness, if I do take the virtue to be applying to all of life.) Some relevant question include:
- What sort of habits of productiveness can we cultivate?
- What are some tricks that help us get past the blocks?
- How can we motivate ourselves to grand visions without burning out?
- What is the role of relaxation and down time?
- How does an active mental life contribute to productiveness?Those are just a few of the issues that come to mind at the moment. I’m sure there will be more!
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