Patience: The Heart of EthicsBarbara Jaquish
While fidgety children may be told that “patience is a virtue,” a philosopher has found patience to be much more profound than simple, passive waiting. Rather, Irene McMullin says, patience is “the living heart of ethics.”
Her analysis of patience is part of a larger project aimed at showing everyday ways people acknowledge the “personhood” of those around us. Patience is a “neglected virtue,” little examined by philosophy or society at large.
“I call patience a neglected virtue because we don’t value it as much as courage or generosity because it involves a withholding of self,” McMullin says. “In business, for example, we don’t recognize good management as patient, such as when a manager steps back and lets others be part of the creative process.”
The self-restraint particular to patience in one person is specifically oriented to another person’s “agency” or ability to act. McMullin uses an example of letting her young nephew take his time tying his shoelaces. She holds herself back from doing the task for him. Her restraint is characterized by “a hovering attentiveness, a silent co-willing, an expressive encouragement and recognition of his struggle.” While she wants the laces to be tied, her attitude is directed not to the goal of tied laces, but primarily toward her nephew’s achievement of the goal. This type of attitude involves both a willingness to share one’s time with the other person and an acknowledgement of the limits of human agency.
She contrasts patience with impatience, which can include an element of contempt for another person’s abilities or a refusal to acknowledge the awkwardness and difficulties of so many human activities. McMullin calls impatience “a type of rage in the face of human finitude.”
The impatient person — the one who taps a foot while someone else negotiates the ATM instructions — communicates a sense of being offended, even wronged, by the failures of others and the necessity of sharing time with them. In a sense, the very fact that the other person is in the world takes away from the impatient person.
McMullin distinguishes patience from tolerance. “When I tolerate someone, I do not share the drama and meaning of his struggle,” McMullin said. “Though tolerance is an important and necessary part of shared public life, patience involves a deeper form of recognition and accommodation of the other’s presence as an individual struggling to act in the world.”
McMullin observes that in patience, a person subordinates his or her own wishes and goals to another’s future, sometimes a future they will never share. An individual practicing tolerance simply waits for the completion of activity — for the other person to walk away from the ATM, for instance. In contrast, the patient individual encourages the other person to take the time necessary for successful completion.
“Though we may not be able to characterize patience as a ‘heroic’ virtue,” McMullin says, “the ability to accommodate and forgive the limits of human agency in its struggle for self-expression is the bedrock of our public life.”
Irene McMullin is an assistant professor of philosophy in the J. William Fulbright College of Arts and Sciences.