On Politics and Pigeonholes

D.A. Ridgely

D.A. Ridgely holds degrees in philosophy and law. (He doesn't really hold them, they just hang there on the wall or peek out as initials after his name. (Actually, that isn't true, either. Those are mere symbols giving evidence of his possession of those degrees. (“Possession,” strictly speaking, being a metaphor of sorts.))) (He is overly fond of parenthetical expressions.)

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24 Responses

  1. “…if your tastes run to that sort of thing, virtue ethics.”

    My tastes do run to virtue ethics, and I think virtue ethics is primed for a huge renaissance as we learn more and more about the brain, particularly that component of the brain we refer to as the “will”.Report

    • Oh, it seems to me that it’s all the rage these days already. I still can’t for the life of me see that virtue ethics of either the classical or contemporary types do anything but change the point of focus. That is, whatever we might argue is correct conduct because it facilitates self-fulfillment or eudaimonia or whatever must still reduce to either utilitarian or deontological justifications. Or else, being a bear of very little brain, I’m missing something entirely.Report

      • “That is, whatever we might argue is correct conduct because it facilitates self-fulfillment or eudaimonia or whatever must still reduce to either utilitarian or deontological justifications.”

        Um, why? I’d appreciate a little more explanation on these breezy philosophical points. Virtue ethicists certainly don’t think their positions reduce to Mill or Kant — what are their arguments? Why are these arguments wrong? Also: if virtue ethics reduces to one of these other two positions, why do the virtue ethicists come to different conclusions about what people should do?Report

        • Beat’s me why virtue ethicists do what they do. However, by way of a start of an answer, note the following introductory paragraph on the topic from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:

          Virtue ethics is currently one of three major approaches in normative ethics. It may, initially, be identified as the one that emphasizes the virtues, or moral character, in contrast to the approach which emphasizes duties or rules (deontology) or that which emphasizes the consequences of actions (consequentialism). Suppose it is obvious that someone in need should be helped. A utilitarian will point to the fact that the consequences of doing so will maximise well-being, a deontologist to the fact that, in doing so the agent will be acting in accordance with a moral rule such as “Do unto others as you would be done by” and a virtue ethicist to the fact that helping the person would be charitable or benevolent.

          It then proceeds to the usual considerations of what virtue ethicists mean by virtue, practical wisdom and eudaimonia and so on, and maybe we can discuss these things another time.

          My perspective, however, is that unless you’re simply satisfied with a sort of deer in the headlights acceptance of some arbitrarily asserted human teleology, and I’m not, it always makes sense to ask why being charitable or benevolent is either something one ought to do or something prudential or otherwise useful in some consequential sense.Report

          • I don’t think it’s right to say that virtue ethicists arbitrarily and naively assert a teleology for human beings. Alasdair MacIntyre, as I understand him, holds that our conception of the telos must be elucidated, elaborated, and corrected through the process of rational disputation.

            Anyway, the virtue ethicists I’ve read would object to the whole idea of justifying an action abstracted from the story of who’s performing it. Once you make this abstracting move, then of course you have to go to the deontological/consequentialist axis. (See MacIntyre’s “How Moral Agents Became Ghosts,” if you’ve got a JSTOR subscription.)Report

          • Simon K in reply to D.A. Ridgely says:

            Doesn’t the same criticism apply to deontology? Unless you’re satisfied with a sort of deer in the headlights acceptance of some arbitrarily asserted human nature, of course.Report

            • D.A. Ridgely in reply to Simon K says:

              That’s a fair observation. Mind you, I haven’t said I find nothing problematic in deontological or consequentialist ethical theories.

              That said, and I don’t intend to argue the point in detail in this thread, I personally find the notion that human beings are per se worthy of moral respect (however that may subsequently play out) intuitively stronger than the notion that human beings are per se beings with purposes or final causes, etc. or that the good life, whatever that means, can be articulated in some way that will be applicable to all people.

              Your point, nonetheless, is well taken.Report

              • Please do argue this point in detail sometime in the future, because it seems like caricature and outright dismissal of virtue ethics requires a lot of unfounded assumptions and logical leaps.Report

              • Caricature? How so? I may have been sketchy or even breezy in my characterization of virtue ethics as I understand it, but I fail to see how anything I have written could reasonably be described as a caricature.

                For that matter, what unfounded assumptions or logical leaps have I made? I have not, to be sure, exhaustively argued my view of any ethical theory here, nor am I likely to do so, this being a blog and not qualifying examinations for a PhD. Were I to pick up the gauntlet every time I made an observation or proffered an opinion and attempted to explain or defend it to the satisfaction of others, I fear there would not be world enough and time.

                For the record, I have made one statement regarding the ethical justification of libertarianism; to wit, that I believe it to be defensible on both consequentialist and deontological grounds and, insofar as it is indeed a third sort of ethical perspective, on virtue ethics grounds, as well. Mind you, I’ve merely made an assertion on this point and have not claimed to defend it yet.

                I have then said that I have personally not read anything purporting to be virtue ethics, ancient or modern, which did not, in fact, analyze as either consequentialist or deontological. Now, maybe I’m wrong in that regard. Certainly, I do not claim to have read exhaustively in that area of normative ethics. I am not, e.g., an Aristotle scholar. I have done a bit of reading and thinking about ethics over the years, however, and I’ve come to some conclusions. Are they in at least some respects tentative such that I’m willing to accept the real possibility that I can be dissuaded about them? Sure.

                Truthfully, it isn’t that important a point to me. If you wish to give a shot at dissuading me, by all means have at it. But please don’t tell me I’ve made (presumably invalid) leaps of logic or that my assumptions, founded or not, are unreasonable without being more specific. Else how can I see the error of my ways?Report

              • I didn’t mean to imply that your argument was underhanded or that you were being unreasonable, but you did say that virtue ethics reduces to deontology and consequentialism, and I think if you’re going to make a claim like that – that virtue ethics essentially does not exist – you should provide some sort of justification. If your justification is that in your experience everything you’ve read reduces to those two, I can’t really refute that.

                I am hoping you could go into some detail on it. I’m with you on your ethical justifications of libertarianism. I’m open to the possibilitythat perhaps we’re just talking past each other. But, I believe that the virtue of, for example, “justice”, loses meaning when we put it into some sort of deontological construct to guide us in making a specific decision and is prone to high rates of error when we attempt to extrapolate “just” actions consequentially.

                I don’t want to suggest that virtue ethics doesn’t have these and other problems, and I want to emphasize that I feel totally unqualified to even have this conversation, but, for me, my primary ethical considerations as I go through life have recently tended towards the “being” rather than the “doing”. “Being” a good father, rather than “doing” things a good father might do prepares me for uncertainty and puts me in touch with my moral instincts and intuition, which I tend to trust for whatever reason more than deontological proscriptions or consequentialist rationcinations. Through metacognition, I have grown increasingly satisfied with this personal, subjective approach to virtue ethics.Report

    • Chris in reply to Christopher Carr says:

      I wonder what you see in modern brain science that will lead to a renaissance in virtue ethics. Are you thinking of Casebeer or some other naturalized ethics?Report

      • Christopher Carr in reply to Chris says:

        I’m thinking specifically of the study on Tibetan Buddhist monks from 2004. Here is an excerpt from Sharon Begley’s writeup for Science Journal:

        Lately, however, scientists have begun to wonder whether the brain can change in response to purely internal, mental signals. That’s where the Buddhists come in. Their centuries-old tradition of meditation offers a real-life experiment in the power of those will-o’-the-wisps, thoughts, to alter the physical matter of the brain.

        “Of all the concepts in modern neuroscience, it is neuroplasticity that has the greatest potential for meaningful interaction with Buddhism,” says neuroscientist Richard Davidson of the University of Wisconsin, Madison. The Dalai Lama agreed, and he encouraged monks to donate (temporarily) their brains to science.

        The result was the scans that Prof. Davidson projected in Dharamsala. They compared brain activity in volunteers who were novice meditators to that of Buddhist monks who had spent more than 10,000 hours in meditation. The task was to practice “compassion” meditation, generating a feeling of loving kindness toward all beings.

        “We tried to generate a mental state in which compassion permeates the whole mind with no other thoughts,” says Matthieu Ricard, a Buddhist monk at Shechen Monastery in Katmandu, Nepal, who holds a Ph.D. in genetics.

        In a striking difference between novices and monks, the latter showed a dramatic increase in high-frequency brain activity called gamma waves during compassion meditation. Thought to be the signature of neuronal activity that knits together far-flung brain circuits, gamma waves underlie higher mental activity such as consciousness. The novice meditators “showed a slight increase in gamma activity, but most monks showed extremely large increases of a sort that has never been reported before in the neuroscience literature,” says Prof. Davidson, suggesting that mental training can bring the brain to a greater level of consciousness.

        Using the brain scan called functional magnetic resonance imaging, the scientists pinpointed regions that were active during compassion meditation. In almost every case, the enhanced activity was greater in the monks’ brains than the novices’. Activity in the left prefrontal cortex (the seat of positive emotions such as happiness) swamped activity in the right prefrontal (site of negative emotions and anxiety), something never before seen from purely mental activity. A sprawling circuit that switches on at the sight of suffering also showed greater activity in the monks. So did regions responsible for planned movement, as if the monks’ brains were itching to go to the aid of those in distress.Report

        • Chris in reply to Christopher Carr says:

          I’d be lying if I said I had any idea what that had to do with virtue ethics. Richardson’s work, as well as the others who’ve been studying monks over the last decade or so, has shown that monks are, after years of meditation training, able to do some interesting things with visual imagery and positive emotions, but I’ll be damned if I can put that work together and come up with neuroscientific support, or even a neuroscientific basis, for virtue ethics.Report

          • Christopher Carr in reply to Chris says:

            You wouldn’t characterize compassion meditation as an activity that is consistent with virtue ethics?Report

            • I’d have to say that strikes me as a stretch, too. As a threshold concern, virtue ethics presupposes that there is an individual whose potential can be actualized (to paraphrase the jargon) and / or who, by doing this or that will lead “the good life,” whatever that means.

              That’s hard to reconcile with what I understand to be a fundamental tenet of all forms of Buddhism which is that the self is, itself, an illusion.Report

              • If the self is an illusion, why engage in compassion meditation at all? Why not simply commit suicide? Surely there is more to Buddhism than coming to think of the self as an illusion, and surely within the concept of nirvana there is some overlap with the western idea of the good life. Surely an objective, Aristotelian eudaimona is not the lynchpin on which the entire theoretical construct of virtue ethics hangs? Focusing on the character of the moral agent isn’t neccesarily reducible to a priori and a posteriori concerns for action.

                I still think the compassion meditation studies are a ringing endorsement for both the positive value of virtue ethics for modelling individual moral systems and approaches to morality and for the normative value of virtue ethics in crafting personal, sophisticated moral codes beyond the ratiocinations of deontological rule-making – unless we’re talking past each other here or there is some linguistic confusion. I more or less subscribe to Hume’s take, and I think it’s pretty tough to claim that that take doesn’t have a proper place in our ethics.Report

              • Are you asking me to defend Buddhism or claiming that my assertion regarding one of its principle tenets is incorrect?

                I am, for what it is worth, reasonably confident at this point that you are correct both that we are talking past each other and that there is some linguistic confusion afoot.Report

  2. JohnR says:

    1. Any man that hates children and dogs, and/or leads off with a Groucho quote, can’t be all bad.
    2. Parentheses are the thinking man’s best friend.
    3. We get into trouble when we forget our opinions don’t actually represent reality.
    4. Belief systems can’t plausibly be represented as a one-dimensional range, but rather as a three- (or even four-?) dimensional cloud.
    5. Humans aren’t built to think; we’re built to process information as quickly as possible, and then act on it or not (whichever gives us the most immediate pleasure).
    6. Post-hoc rationalizations are all you need to be a Serious Person. Predictive accuracy is _so_ over-rated.
    7. Polysyllabilitarianism: Never use one short word where two long words will do. The curse of the modern ‘educated’ class.

    I think that’s all the immediate thoughts. Enjoyed the column; looking forward to more.Report

  3. Will H. says:

    These days, I prefer to describe myself as a RINO.
    There is considerable utility in this.
    For the most part, agree with the RINO; and for those portions where I don’t, I then claim to be the last remaining RINO to believe such nonsense, as a previous long and illustrious line of RINOs believing such nonsense have come before me, only to have their numbers ravaged by one wave after another of extremist thought, and alas! it is but I who remains.
    By defining yourself as ‘Libertarian,’ you’re clearly identified as being part of an ascendant movement; and so, to differ significantly from them, you would be obliged to start a whole new line of libertarian thought.
    Much more cozy to me to be on the brink of extinction.Report

  4. Sorry it has taken me so long to reply to everyone. I was busy today. I wrote a piece in praise of virtue ethics for my own website for anyone interested:

    • As is sadly often the case in philosophical discussions, what appear to be terms of art are nonetheless used and understood differently by different people. Could you perhaps give a simple statement of what you mean by the phrase “virtue ethics”?Report

      • To be honest, ethics isn’t something in which I’m particularly well-read, but I understand utilitarianism/consequentialism to be an emphasis on the results of a particular action; deontology is an emphasis on rules, and virtue ethics emphasizes the character of the actor.Report