I confess to being a fan of Amy Dickinson's advice column. Yet I wonder how practical advice-giving is. Does the person who needs the advice have the ability to understand and then follow it? Does the person who understands the advice really need it?
In a recent "Ask Amy" column, Baffled Bride wanted to know whether she was justified in scheduling her wedding just two weeks before her cousin's wedding. Her mother was upset because two large weddings so close together would be stressful for the family, but Baffled thought her wedding should be first because she had been engaged for 18 months and her cousin had been engaged for only 11 months.
What kind of advice could possibly be useful in a situation like this? Dickinson tells Baffled that she is being "petty and just a little hostile" and that she should change her wedding date. It's good advice, but will it do any good? Will someone who thinks a wedding is a competition be able to understand why she should change the date?
In Jane Austen's "Pride and Prejudice," Lydia is discovered to have run off with the disreputable Mr. Wickham. Her older sister, Elizabeth, reflecting on the lack of judgment that must have led to such a foolish action, observes that Lydia "has never been taught to think on serious subjects; and for the last half-year ... has been given up to nothing but amusement and vanity. She has been allowed to dispose of her time in the most idle and frivolous manner, and to adopt any opinions that came in her way." And it turns out that even after Lydia's reputation has been saved by the timely intervention of her uncle and Mr. Darcy, she is still unable to appreciate her own foolishness. She refuses to listen to any conversation that calls her behavior into question.
Austen's novels are mostly talk. She seems to know that doing what is right requires understanding what is right, and understanding comes through discussion. Her novels bring to mind the famous - and famously controversial - line from Plato's "Apology": "The greatest good is to discuss virtue every day, for the unexamined life is not worth living for human beings."
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Such a claim would not make sense for people who possess a clear and complete understanding of how they should act in the wide variety of circumstances that life presents, but nobody has such comprehensive understanding. The great virtue of Austen's novels is that the most admirable characters are not the ones who think themselves perfect, but the ones who are troubled by their inability to know what to do, and who therefore persist in talking, every day, questioning and being questioned.
Like Jane Austen and Plato, Amy Dickinson seems to understand that there is no set of rules that will provide infallible guidance on how to live - no fool-proof rules, that is, for how to run a company, how to raise children or how to be a friend. Rules are only as reliable as the judgment of the person who comprehends them. Good judgment isn't acquired in a few hours or a few days. You can't go to the library and check out a copy of "Good Judgment for Idiots." But you can talk about how to live. You can keep trying to figure things out, a little bit at a time.
Maybe advice isn't very useful for the person who needs it most. But a good advice column may be useful to the reader for whom it constitutes a small part of a daily conversation about how to live well.
If you don't agree, just go ask Amy.
The Ethical Life is a twice-monthly series of reflections on the ways ethical thinking influences our actions, emotions and relationships. Richard Kyte is the director of the D.B. Reinhart Institute for Ethics in Leadership at Viterbo University.