Stand Up with Aristotle

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

Thanksgiving, Gratitude, and the Flower of Life

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

The Unwarranted Demonization of Scot Peterson (6): Vengeance Is Theirs

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

Character-Based Voting and the Ambiguities of “Policy” (Part 4 of 5)

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

The Unwarranted Demonization of Scot Peterson (4)

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

Character-Based Voting and the Policy of Truth

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

Moral Grandstanding and Character-Based Voting

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

Chris Sciabarra on Objectivism and Disability

Here’s a must-read interview with Chris Sciabarra at Folks magazine, on Sciabarra’s  lifelong struggle with Superior Mesenteric Artery Syndrome, along with his lifelong attachment to the work of Ayn Rand (and Nathaniel Branden).

One doesn’t usually think of Rand or Objectivism as offering much insight into the nature of disability, but Chris clearly does:

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Heading Out to the Highway (with David Brooks)

The ethics of driving is a topic dear to my heart, having lost my two closest childhood friends (and the wife of one of those friends, who was also a friend) to traffic accidents, and living as I do in north Jersey, where every day’s commute is a near-death experience. I hate cars, I hate driving, and above all, I hate driving in New Jersey, so I’m always open to anyone who’s willing to trash the way “we” drive, ascribe it to “our” moral failings, and demand that “we” do better. (I hijacked a presentation on the Aristotelian virtue of eubolia at the Felician Ethics Conference this past fall to insist that in the modern world, eubolia is a virtue best exemplified by virtuous drivers.)

This anti-driving (or anti-bad-driving, or anti-ubiquitously-bad-driving) attitude competes with another downer sentiment of mine: I can’t stand David Brooks. Just to be clear: I can’t fucking stand David Brooks.

So I opened up this morning’s New York Times, turned to the Op-Ed page, and faced a bit of a dilemma. Here was David Brooks trashing the way “we” drive, describing Jersey drivers as people who “treat driving as if it were foreplay to genocide,” acknowledging that “driving means making a thousand small decisions” (internalized eubolia, anyone?), and getting a few things right. But like so many so-called dilemmas, this one wasn’t an instance of that fabled entity, the irresolvable ontologically-based moral dilemma, and collapsed before long. Because as per usual, Brooks managed to snatch polemical failure from the jaws of success, re-confirming my hate for everything he writes.   Continue reading

Hursthouse on the Repentant Racist: Error, Evil, and Moral Luck

Some of you may have seen this material before, but I don’t think I’ve ever posted it at PoT, so I’m exhuming it in the interest of getting some comments on it, as I’d like to work on the paper a bit this summer, and am hoping to trundle it about at conferences this fall. (Apologies if I’m breaking blind with that claim, but this is the age of the Internet.) I’m particularly interested in getting comments and/or bibliographical suggestions on some of the empirical issues implicitly raised by the paper.

David Potts recently cited Martin Seligman’s claims in Authentic Happiness to the effect that childhood experiences count for little as regards adult experience. I haven’t fully digested Seligman’s claims (and references), but I don’t think that he had childhood upbringing in mind when he wrote Authentic Happiness. At any rate, I’m interested in empirical answers to questions like the following:

  1. What are the longitudinal effects of a racist upbringing? How powerful are they? How amenable to control or reversal? And in what form? Naturally, the longitudinal effects of racist upbringing are a function of the effects of upbringing, so I’m interested in the more general phenomenon, as well.
  2. What is the role of trauma in the production of racial identity in racists? Does trauma explain the production of racial identity? If so, what is the mechanism?
  3. What does racism (or “racism”) look like in small children? I’ve put “racism” in scare quotes because arguably children with racist upbringings may lack the cognitive sophistication to do anything but act as though they believed in the truth of racism. But behavioral racism without cognitive understanding does not strike me as genuine racism. A child who imitates racists is not herself a racist (at least not necessarily).

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