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"As with musical improvisation, living well involves substantial preparation."
That's University of Chicago philosopher Daniel Groll in his essay "Improvisation and Ethics: Improvising Music, Improvising Ethics," posted at the Martin Marty Center's Religion & Culture Web Forum.
"In order to be virtuous, we must be educated in the right kind of way . . . . [so] that we come to appreciate things from the right point of view. The parallel between the preparation necessary to improvise musically and to live well is, to me at least, quite striking. In neither case does the preparation consist of coming to know a set of rules or principles which we then apply in all cases we confront . . . and certainly we do not prepare by considering (per impossibile) every case we might encounter.
"Instead, the point of preparation, in both the musical and ethical cases, is to attune one to certain kinds of considerations: to make one see or hear situations in a particular way, and to develop the dispositions to respond appropriately to how one sees or hears things."
These thoughts have echoes from Aristotle to U. of C.'s own Martha Nussbaum. We usually get stuck on thinking about ethics as resting on commandments or absolute general principles; but even if they are lurking around, applying them in everyday life is bound to involve some improvising along the way.
The analogy can be taken in several different directions, as the invited (expert) commenters discuss. On a significantly less elevated plane, two thoughts occurred to me: Some folks never do learn to improvise, or to appreciate the process in others. And some are just tone-deaf.