Commencement Address

Professor Craig Evan Klafter delivered the Commencement address at the American University of Myanmar’s graduation ceremony on April 8, 2018. His address is reprinted here:

The topic of my address today concerns virtues and vices. The traditional view is that human beings possess settled dispositions or character traits, some of which are considered worthy of praise while others deserve blame. Moral philosophers have regarded the first sort as “virtues” and their opposites as “vices.” Over the past 15 years, however, a new school of moral philosophy, Situationism philosophy, has challenged the traditional idea that our character traits are fixed.

Thomas Hurka of the University of Toronto, for example, defines moral virtues and vices as attitudes taken up in reaction to goods and evils. Hurka is acknowledging a controversy stemming from certain results in social psychology that he takes to rule out any robust conception of personality traits. He argues that the theory of robust character traits that are stable across situations is undermined by what has been termed “the power of the situation.” In experiments no longer permitted by twenty-first-century ethical guidelines, subjects were duped into administering what they were led to believe were severe electric shocks to their “victims” or invited to “role-play” as prison guards to such an extent that the subsequent sadistic behavior caused the researchers to abort the exercise. According to Hurka, our sense of virtues and vices changes depending on circumstances. Furthermore, he argues that human beings possess the ability to change their character traits.

The first question that I raise for your consideration today is whether Myanmar between 1962 and 2011 created “the power of situation” sufficient to alter people’s conceptions of virtues and vices. First, we need to understand what the accepted virtues and vices were prior to 1962. One source is religion. While there were and are many religions practiced in Myanmar, for the purposes of my analysis I will focus on Buddhism as Myanmar’s most practiced religion. Buddhism offers four virtues – benevolence, compassion, empathetic joy and equanimity, and ten categories of vices – absence of shame, absence of embarrassment, jealousy, stinginess, remorse, drowsiness, distraction, inactivity, anger, and concealment of wrongdoing.

Another source of guidance on virtues and vices is the 1947 Myanmar Constitution. It makes a virtue of the free expression of convictions and opinions, of peaceable assembly with others including in forming associations and unions, and of the acquisition of reasonable amounts of property. It also suggests vices including the acquisition of excessive amounts of property, arbitrary discrimination, paying women less than men for similar work, and creating monopolies or cartels. The teachings of religions and the wording of the 1947 Constitution contributed to what were regarded as the virtues and vices of Myanmar society prior to 1962.

On March 2, 1962, General Ne Win led a successful coup d’état and imposed martial law. A month later, the Burmese Way to Socialism was published by the Revolutionary Council as a blueprint for economic development, reducing foreign influence and increasing the role of the military. In 1974, the Burmese Way to Socialism was incorporated in a new Constitution. The 1974 Constitution made changes in the 1947 offerings of virtues and vices. The “free expression of convictions and opinions” was eliminated in favor of “freedom of thought and of conscience.” It is a virtue to think what you want, but it is a vice to tell anybody what you think. “Peaceable assembly of people” including “the formation of associations and unions” was replaced with “the right freely to take part in political, social, class and mass organizations permitted by law.” In fact, there was little assembly permitted by law. The 1947 Constitution made a virtue of acquiring reasonable amounts of property; the 1974 Constitution made a vice of owning any amounts of property. The vice of arbitrary discrimination was limited in the 1974 Constitution because discrimination was permitted when mandated by laws or the public interest. The vice of paying women less than men for similar work was eliminated, and the vice of creating monopolies or cartels was transformed into a virtue, when the State created monopolies and cartels. Overall, the 1947 Constitution created inalienable rights that could not be limited, whereas the 1974 Constitution created alienable rights that could be limited.

The 1974 Constitution, unlike the 1947 Constitution, references some virtues and vices of Buddhism. The virtues of benevolence, compassion, and empathetic joy are described as responsibilities of the State, and the vices of jealousy and stinginess were implied to be unnecessary for Socialism ensured the equal distribution of wealth. Of course, this turned out to be a fallacy for the Burmese Way to Socialism created, according to the economist Dr. Aung Ko Ko, the greatest disparity of income in the world.

The Constitution was revised again in 2008. While it effectively declares the Burmese Way to Socialism dead, it actually changed little regarding its exposition of virtues and vices, and its encroachment on the virtues and vices of Buddhism. The period between 1962 and 2011 constituted a drastic change in circumstances compared to the period before. Consequently, it did present the kind of “power of situation” described by situationism philosophy. But, where does this lead us today?

The circumstances of Myanmar have been changing. The goals of the last USDP and the current NLD governments have been to have a democratic society, a prosperous mixed economy and peace. This begs the question, what are the character traits (virtues and vices) needed to excel in Myanmar’s new environment?

I am not going to offer you an answer to this question for this is something that you should all answer for yourselves. What I will do is offer some guidance on how you can do this. Regardless of your faith, I encourage you to reacquaint yourself with the teachings of your religion. The “power of situation” of Myanmar’s past may have led to the emphasis of some virtues over others and the minimization of some vices as compared to others. You may wish to recalibrate. Think about the expressions of virtues and vices in the 1947 Myanmar Constitution to determine whether any are worthy of revival today. Think about what virtues and vices you wish to lead your lives by. Think about the character traits you admire in others and do not like in others.

Many people in Myanmar are cautious about change. On the one hand, this caution is understandable because there is uncertainty about the current direction of the country. On the other hand, without change, there can be no progress and the goals of recent years will not be met.

You, today’s graduates, have the knowledge and intelligence to change the way you live your lives. You have the ability to define the virtues and vices that will guide your lives, to change your character and to influence how others live their lives by the examples you set. In this respect, you have the ability to assume social and moral leadership positions.

The power that you possess to influence others is particularly profound at this moment in Myanmar’s history for you have the power to help shape a new society. I encourage you to seize and relish this opportunity.

Professor Craig Evan Klafter, DPhil (Oxon)