Sunday, March 04, 2012

Care Bear Virtue Ethics

American Greetings Corporation, Inc., is one of the world's biggest greeting card companies, and the biggest if we consider only publicly traded companies -- only Hallmark is larger, and it is privately owned. They've been in existence since 1906, and did pretty well for much of their history, but in 1977, they introduced what was originally called Project I, a series of characters based on a character called Strawberry Shortcake, and followed this up in 1982 with the debut of what had originally been called Project II, a series of characters called the Care Bears. Both of these lines of characters became extraordinarily popular in the toy-conscious 80s. Of the two projects, the Care Bears have weathered somewhat better than Strawberry Shortcake.

Originally there were ten bears:

Tenderheart Bear
Friend Bear
Cheer Bear
Grumpy Bear
Bedtime Bear
Wish Bear
Birthday Bear
Funshine Bear
Good Luck Bear
Love-A-Lot Bear

Many more were eventually added: first the family of Baby Hugs, Baby Tugs, and Grams Bear. Then there was teh extraordinarily successful The Care Bears Movie in 1985, at the time the highest-grossing non-Disney animated film ever, which added Secret Bear and in which a new line of characters was begun with the Care Bear Cousins. That was the height of the craze; they continued to be successful, but no other venture in the line ever did as well.

Whenever I teach virtue ethics, I tell my students that one can see the strengths of virtue ethics in the Care Bears -- as well as the things usually criticized. For the Care Bears are virtue ethicists. Each Care Bear, and later each Care Bear cousin, reflects an aspect of the virtuous life, or of institutions or practices that contribute to, or have to be negotiated in, virtuous life. Tenderheart Bear represents sympathy, Friend Bear friendship, Cheer Bear good cheer, Grumpy Bear commiseration, Funshine Bear goodnatured play, Love-A-Lot Bear love, Champ Bear sportsmanship; we get things more indirectly with Bedtime Bear, as Care-A-Lot's night watchbear, makes sure people get a good night's sleep so that they can do good things during the day, Wish Bear helps people work towards making wishes come true, Good Luck Bear helps people take advantage of opportunities, Secret Bear looks after secrets among friends (hence the close link to Friend Bear), etc. The virtues are all related to the kinds of sentiments people express by greeting cards and they are heavily directed to the lives of children, in which birthdays and bedtimes (for instance) are major things and not knowing how to deal with someone who is grumpy, or feeling grumpy oneself, can really seem like it ruins your life. But it's all virtue related. A lot of it comes from the fact that greeting cards get their entire raison d'etre from the importance of communication, and particularly communication of feelings, for maintaining good human relationships.

I always go on to say in class that the Care Bears, like all good virtue ethicists, are cute, cuddly, and preachy; unlike most virtue ethicists, however, they drive cloud cars and shoot rainbows out of symbols on their tummy. That's a highly classified level of virtue technology even Aristotle never managed to discover.

In any case, I keep using the Care Bears as an example because I find that it sticks, and actually works. The Care Bears are an extremely simplified picture of virtue ethics, the sort that can be fit into a greeting card. But while American Greetings may have merely designed the Care Bears to sell greeting cards, people don't buy greeting cards to make American Greetings money; they buy greeting cards because they facilitate good communication, good wishes, and sociable interaction, and because the Care Bears are tailored to appeal to people looking for something that answers to these qualities, the highly simplified virtue ethics of the Care Bears is a genuine virtue ethics. These are not things made up by American Greetings; they are things that really are highly valued in human society and that is why American Greetings makes greeting cards for them. And precisely because they are cutesy and child-oriented and greeting-card simple, the Care Bears are a really good toy model of how virtue ethics works. The greeting card / children's merchandise aspect can still distort things. It's much more significant, and unfortunate, than one might think that in the most recent incarnation the de facto leader and spokesperson for the Care Bears is no longer Tenderheart but Cheer; with Tenderheart as the organizer of the group, the first emphasis was always on the importance of sympathy with others, regardless of the situation, but Cheer as the organizer of the group puts the first emphasis on the importance of feeling good. It seems small, but it makes a pretty big difference. But virtue ethics in general also has to deal with potential distortions of the culture around it, and with the complexity that arises from the fact that different virtues differently emphasized can put a very different texture on the moral life.

The Care Bears, because they are so feeling-oriented, are more Humean than Aristotelian; as in Hume, everything is about socially appropriate cultivation of sentiments, and, as in Hume, it's a picture of the moral life in which nice manners is a big part of morality. Not at all the most important part (for either Hume or the Care Bears), but it is arguably the part of morality we all have to deal with most often. Most of moral life, thankfully, does not consist of trolley problems or making decisions about world hunger; most of our time in the moral life is concerned with things like being gentle, cheering people up, working to get things done that have to be done, being fair about this or that, respecting other people's property, helping others out, and so on. An Aristotelian virtue ethics would have a place for these, but an Aristotelian approach would subordinate sentiment to reason and while there is no question that manners are actually quite important for Aristotle, this priority of reason tends to lead Aristotelians after him to treat manners as a secondary matter -- important in its own way, but almost a side issue in the context of the whole of moral life, a decoration or flourish. The Care Bears are very definitely in the Humean line of virtue ethics.

There is a feature, however, that they share with Aristotle as much as with Hume, and another feature that they arguably share with Aristotle more than with Hume. The first feature is that all of moral life has to start with what we have: with the actual feelings we feel, not some hypothetical about what we should feel, with our judgments about the situation, and with the social practices in which we are involved. If you feel grumpy you can't, Stoic-like, cut it away. On these accounts, virtue does not lie in pretending that you aren't grumpy, nor even necessarily in trying to "fix" yourself; rather, knowing what to do about the feeling is knowing what to do with it. Wishes won't wash the dishes, but human beings wish: ethics has to accept that fact. Good luck can't be counted on, but human beings hope for the improbable: ethics has to accept that fact. We have to deal with ourselves as we are, and we have to deal with other people as they are. This is a point that has unfotunately been somewhat de-emphasized by the disappearance of Tenderheart and the leadership of Cheer: sympathizing with people means starting where they are, wherever that might be, whereas trying to cheer them up risks the danger of putting you in a position where you are always trying to fix things. But even in the new iteration, Grumpy Bear still holds down the fort on this point: no matter what kind of life you lead, no matter what you do, you will never, ever live a life in which grumpiness is not an issue, and you just have to start with that. If you try to build an ethics that tells you not ever to be grumpy, you are trying to build an ethics that tells you not to be human. If you try to act as if nobody else should ever be grumpy, as if everyone who's down needs to be cheered up directly, you will end up making many situations worse. Virtue lies in what good can consistently be done even given that grumpiness, your own or that of others, is a fact of life and often, in fact, in finding constructive ways to turn that very feeling into good deeds.

The second feature, the emphasis on which is somewhat more Aristotelian than Humean, is that there's a lot of work involved in the moral life. We are always having to do something, just like the Care Bears are always having to do something. They never stop. There's always something new, and, because of dramatic necessity, the storylines in the television shows and movies have repeatedly ended up showing that things can sometimes get absolutely overwhelming. They have to hold on, and they have to keep going, and they have to work together, and sometimes it's almost impossible but they have to try anyway. And while Hume doesn't deny that this can be the case, it is the sort of thing that occupies a much larger place in an Aristotelian account of virtues than in a Humean account.

Of course, trying to live one's life in terms of Care Bear virtue ethics would be problematic in many ways. For one thing, it's obviously very incomplete, and could only be adequate for someone who has a very limited life. If you are a very young child, it's a salutary thing, but for adults there is something problematic and even disturbing about living the sort of moral life that can fit into the platitudes on greeting cards. There's something two-dimensional about that. (Unfortunately, I'm pretty sure I know such people.) Toy models are not real guides. Real virtue ethics, whether Aristotelian or Humean or any other kind, must be much more massive and complicated. But precisely because it is massive, the toy model can be useful sometimes for pointing out what's going on in the real thing. That's probably why students find it useful when trying to understand Aristotle.