It’s difficult to be a good person. No, let me correct that… It can be exceptionally EASY to be a good person, but society, culture and our own personalities MAKE it difficult to be a good person. I recently read a post by a fellow blogger named Jason Youngman who, if you aren’t doing so already you should follow. He wrote a post entitled Dignity Remains Steadfast where he discusses the nature of vice and it’s vicious effect on people. He ends the post with a comparison that I find extremely fitting where, and I’m paraphrasing here, the sweetness of candy is a slow pleasure that doesn’t show the damage it does until your teeth begin to rot.
It got me to thinking about the nature of vice and how we behave in society, a point which I don’t usually address beyond an immediate situation that may have occurred in my daily life. But that in itself is a form of vice. After all, most people are geared towards living in the immediate moment and don’t usually consider the consequences of what’s to come. And from a Buddhist’s standpoint, I’ve decided it would be a good idea to share my thoughts on this subject with you.
Just to be clear, when I refer to vice, I don’t mean the iron clamping device used by a trade’s person or the nickname given to certain American police units. A vice is what’s referred to as a bad habit, behaviour or character trait that a person may have that is considered wrong by their respective society. That last part is important since depending on where you live and what culture you happen to be a part of, something can be a vice in one culture but not another.
Here’s the reality: no matter who you are or what kind of lifestyle you live, you have vices. Maybe you chew your nails. Maybe you’re a smoker or a drinker. Maybe you tend to judge a book by its cover. These are things that can be considered vices and are negative character aspects that we navigate daily life without usually even acknowledging. This is mostly because we don’t consider them to BE bad habits, even if they may have a negative impact on ourselves or those around us.
Let’s take cigarette smoking as an example, and this is a discussion I’ve had with many a friend who actually smoke. The average smoker (if there really is such a thing) believes that their use of cigarettes is a vice that affects them and only them. It’s not such a bad thing, because they’re not hurting anyone but themselves. Right? Makes sense? Here’s the problem: the eventual health complications caused by your smoking will inevitably lead to a strain on health care systems and your family, especially the if they need to provide care for you when you develop terminal illnesses brought on by your smoking habit.
Further, there’s the pollution aspect from smoking, even if you do it outdoors, the littering from all the cigarette butts left lying around and the financial constraints you’re placing on your household due to the excessive rising costs of cigarettes. I have no idea what the current cost of a pack of cigarette might be at the moment, but I’ve plenty of people complain that it’s a lot. Now, I’m not trying to use my blog as a platform against smoking. To each their own. This post is meant to be about vice, so I’ll move things back in that direction. But smoking is a good example of a common vice that many people partake of.
Another good example is sin. I was raised in a Roman Catholic household. And if I’m being honest, just about everything that someone did was considered a sin in some given way, shape or form. I may be exaggerating to an extent, but it sure felt that way as a child. Now, Catholicism differentiates vice and sin as the habit of sin and an individual morally wrong act, respectively. And they list their seven deadly sins or vices as Pride, Envy, Wrath, Sloth, Avarice, Gluttony and Lust. Does this means that when I shave and pay attention to personal grooming in the morning, that I’m guilty of Pride? If I go out to a buffet dinner with friends, am I indulging in Gluttony? Perhaps.
I use Catholicism as an example, because it’s what I grew up around and it’s familiar. But most organized systems of faith have a list of vice and/or sinful actions that they consider particular. Buddhism does as well, in fact. So if I avoid those seven indulgences, does this mean that I’m free of vice as a Catholic? And do I still have vices from another culture and/or religion’s perspective. This is the problem with vice. It can be insidious and not always noticeable in the every day.
One thought I’ve always had on vice and something I discussed with Jason Youngman, is how does it fit in the perspective of someone who is unaware of it? For example, if a person grew up in a household where there was no faith-based upbringing, are they genuinely guilty of vice? What does sin mean to someone who knows nothing of it? I think that perhaps some vices (not all) may not be viewed as such to certain people, depending on their circumstances. Some vices should just be common sense; rudeness and criminal behaviour should be a given, and every person should know to avoid them, regardless of upbringing, faith or education. But such is what makes these things a vice in the first place: the fact that people don’t acknowledge them as common sense
He made a very good point in stating that regardless of religious or faith-based upbringing, the majority of households will ensure that their children are raised on some level of morality, be it a personal or system-based one. He also pointed out that it’s necessary to acknowledge the consequences of our actions, whether we believe our actions are vice-related or not. From a legality standpoint in Canada, the Criminal Code is pretty clear on the fact that ignorance of the law is no a defence. The same can be said from a moral viewpoint, as well.
This can be easily tied in to Buddhism, as the Four Noble Truths describe that very same thing. Whereas the first Noble Truth explains the existence of suffering in the world, the second Noble truth goes on to explain that we are responsible for that suffering. The third Noble Truth covers the fact that we need to bring an end to this suffering and the fourth Noble Truth explains HOW to do so, which is described as being by following the Noble Eightfold Path.
The Noble Eightfold Path includes Right View, Right Aspiration, Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood, Right Effort, Right Mindfulness and Right Concentration. Through those practices, one can achieve peace and enlightenment, although the latter can be fleeting and difficult to achieve. The point is that one needs to live well in order to contribute to the overall good in the world and help to eliminate suffering.
I could go into detail and describe each of the Eightfold Path, but I think this post has gone on long enough. I want to keep y’all engaged and reading, not using my blog as a substitute for warm milk. The take home lesson here is that we all have vices. We may not always recognize them or acknowledge them as such, but even the smallest ones will have a negative impact if left unchecked. Like the flapping of a butterfly’s wings that eventually cause a ravaging storm on the other side of the world, actions have consequences. ☯