I’m currently involved (along with some other members of the POT blog) in an online reading group on Lisa Tessman’s book Burdened Virtues, and while there’s a lot in the book that I admire, I want to grump here a bit about some of the things that Tessman says in ch. 3, which is where we currently are in the book. (The main focus of the book is on how to understand what Aristotelean-style virtue ethicists see, and what Tessman rather forlornly longs to see, as a harmonious and mutually reinforcing relationship between virtue and well-being, in the context of oppressive social structures that impose often devastating costs on those who attempt the sorts of resistance to oppression that virtue seems to require. That’s an interesting and important topic, but – be warned – I say virtually nothing about it in the present post.)
Despite the occasional perfunctory acknowledgment (e.g. at p. 62, n. 15) that views on which morality and flourishing can come apart were “quite thinkable within the ancient Greek context,” Tessman nevertheless persists in treating ancient and modern views as divided by some deep conceptual gap; hence she contrasts the “contemporary meaning of the word happiness” with the “ancient Greek understanding of … eudaimonia or flourishing” (p. 57), as though conceptions of eudaimonia centered on wealth or subjective pleasure or the amoral pursuit of power were alien to the ancient Greek context. But in fact the virtue-centered conception of eudaimonia common among philosophers in the broadly Socratic lineage (e.g. Plato, Aristotle, the Stoics) seems by no means to have been automatically congenial to Greeks generally; indeed in Plato’s dialogues Socrates’ interlocutors often react with puzzlement or disbelief or even mockery to his insistence that morality and self-interest cannot come apart.
In 1981, Alasdair MacIntyre published the book that would make him famous (in the small world of professional philosophy): After Virtue. I read it soon after it was published, and it was way over my head. The book promoted the importance of history of philosophy, Greek philosophy in particular, and virtue ethics. Indeed, I believe it was a major stimulus to the revival of virtue ethics in analytic philosophy that took place soon thereafter. I recall it having the status of an “it book.” Still, the book’s main argument was abstract and somewhat obscure, so that although I was eager to be persuaded, I was left feeling that I mainly just didn’t understand it very well. I also figured it was my fault, because I didn’t know enough to comprehend the historical argument.
I still have my original copy of After Virtue, full of my marginal comments and handwritten notes shoved between the pages. But I haven’t reviewed any of it now. Instead, this post is stimulated by my happening upon a brief passage at the end of MacIntyre’s discussion of Joseph Butler in his 1966 book, A Short History of Ethics. This passage presents what seems to me a précis of the argument of After Virtue. It may be that this is not fair. To the extent that it isn’t, then obviously the comments and criticisms I make here will be inapplicable to the argument of After Virtue. That’s all right: the argument given in A Short History of Ethics is interesting in itself and worth commenting on. That will be my task in what follows.
In my last (recent) post on this topic, I argued that it seems absurd to blame people, or pass moral judgments of any kind on them, for what they experience in dreams. It follows that it’s absurd to blame, judge, or morally assess someone for having racist dreams, or generally, vicious dreams. But, I suggested, certain sorts of passing, stream-of-consciousness thoughts seem to bear a closer similarity to dream states than they do to conscious convictions. If so, thoughts of this variety are not a proper subject of moral assessment either, or at least less so, in proportion to their similarity to the relevant features of dreams.
One implication of this claim is that a person who encounters a lot of racist noise in his head, even racist noise voiced in the first person, is not necessarily a racist himself, and not to be judged a racist simply on that evidence–a claim that contradicts not just Hursthouse’s view, but one held by other moral philosophers. A second implication is that insofar as implicit bias/association tests function to detect a propensity to give voice to involuntary, osmotic mental noise, we have (yet another) plausible explanation for their invalidity and unreliability, and should consider dramatically ratcheting back the use we make of them. Continue reading
When I first read Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics maybe thirty years ago, I was both puzzled and disappointed by his discussion of the moral virtues in Book IV–generosity, magnificence, friendliness, wit, and so on. It seemed a waste of space. A whole book on this? What were such banalities doing in a classic work of moral philosophy?
Aristotle’s (very brief) discussion of the place of humor in social life seemed a case in point. On Aristotle’s account, wit turned out to be a moral virtue, buffoonery and humorlessness, vices.
Those who go to excess in raising laughs seem to be vulgar buffoons. They stop at nothing to raise a laugh, and care more about that than about saying what is seemly and avoiding pain to the victims of the joke. …
Those who joke in appropriate ways are called witty, or in other words, agile-witted. For these sorts of jokes seem to be movements of someone’s character, and characters are judged, as bodies are, by their movements (NE IV.8, 1128a5-12).
Really? That’s what morality requires? Telling the right jokes at the right time, in the right way, for the right reasons, etc. etc.? Continue reading
Today is Thanksgiving, a day on which it’s appropriate to give public thanks for the gifts we’ve received from life itself. Until recently, I had great disdain for Thanksgiving–just last year, I wrote a bitchy attack on it–mostly because until recently, bitterness and resentment were my favorite go-to emotions.
Paradoxically, I had to lose a lot in the past few months to appreciate what I have, and to grasp the true meaning of gratitude: a job, a marriage, a house, a car, tens of thousands of dollars, hundreds of hours of labor, and a large handful of illusions, for starters. I sold the house, but stand to make very little from it, so I count it as a loss. I sold the car for a ridiculously lowball figure, so I regard that as a loss. I’m in litigation, make a nominal wage at a dirty job doing hard physical labor, and lack permanent housing or the means to pay for it. I have temporary housing, but it lacks running water. So there are challenges. And yet, life has never been better. Last year, I had everything I now lack, and made sure to get up bright and early “to take a crap on Thanksgiving.” Now I’m writing a paean to gratitude. What a difference a year makes. Continue reading
Friday was the second anniversary of the tragic Parkland shooting. The shooting was remembered in an appropriate-enough way in the media, except for one (to me) conspicuous thing: the continued, thoughtless, fact-free demonization of Scot Peterson, the School Resource Officer universally blamed for not entering the building where the shooting took place. Almost without exception, journalism about Parkland continues to take for granted the unexamined dogmas that Peterson “failed” to enter Building 12 and “failed” to confront the shooter, that he knew where the shooter was but deliberately hid from danger, and that his malfeasance goes beyond cowardice to legally actionable neglect, and beyond civil wrong to outright criminality. Continue reading
Apologies for the delay in posting the fourth part of my five-part series on character-based voting. Here are parts one, two, and three, which are probably necessary as background to part four. Earlier in the series, I make reference to what I call a “Murad-type meeting,” referring to Donald Trump’s behavior at a recent meeting with Nobel Peace Prize winner Nadia Murad.
The first part introduced the topic of character’s ambiguous relation to “policy.” The second part focuses on character’s instrumental relation to policy. The third part considers the possibility that expressions of character might be constitutive of “governance.” This part considers the possibility that expressions of character might have normative significance out of relation to policy or governance, at least on conventional construals of those terms. Continue reading
Readers of Policy of Truth know that I’ve been doing a series of posts on what I call “The Unwarranted Demonization of Scot Peterson.” Scot Peterson was the School Resource Office, or armed law enforcement officer, assigned to guard Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, scene of what’s now known as the Parkland shooting of February 2018. Peterson is often described in press accounts as having “hid” or “done nothing” for the duration of the shooting, and has widely been ridiculed as a “coward” as a result. He was arrested in early June of this year, briefly held in jail, and charged with several counts of child neglect, culpable negligence, and perjury. Here’s a link to the arrest warrant detailing the charges against him (41 page PDF). Continue reading
For the past six months or so, I’ve been working on a project on what I call “character-based voting” (CBV), construed as voting for a political candidate based on her traits of character, as contrasted with “policy-based voting” (PBV) which is voting for a political candidate based on the expected consequences of the candidate’s expected policies.
It’s a rough and in some contexts problematic distinction, but clear enough to work with. There’s a clear enough distinction to be drawn between voting for a candidate because you regard her as more honest than her rival, and voting for a candidate because you expect her to enact policies X1…Xn, which have expected consequences C1…Cn, which you regard as net favorable, but which you don’t expect her rival to enact. My modest claim is that CBV can in principle be justified, and has its place. Continue reading
I’ve recently been teaching Justin Tosi and Brandon Warmke’s paper, “Moral Grandstanding“–and simultaneously been working on a paper on Jason Brennan’s critique of character-based voting–and happened to see an interesting connection between the two. So this post harks back to, and ties together, two topics we’ve recently been discussing here at PoT–Michael’s recent post on grandstanding, and mine on character-based voting.
Suppose, as per Brennan’s argument in The Ethics of Voting, that character-based voting is justified insofar as character functions either as a proxy for the policies that a candidate might enact once elected, or more generally, for the quality of governance he might be expected to engage in. Now suppose that character-based voting sometimes is justified on those grounds, so that character sometimes does function as a proxy variable for predictions about a candidate’s capacities for good governance in the future. Continue reading