Nov 13, 2014

Does Virtue Help Make Us Aware of Our Vices?

Some time back -- while I was grading some student essays from the Spring 2014 semester -- I posted an insight one of my students had expressed, but not entirely developed, on my Facebook page.  It then spurred a short but very pregnant discussion with one interlocutor, one which I decided I ought to keep, file away, and then return to think out more later on.

It's now later on -- time to revisit this interesting original remark, "virtue works in ways that makes non-virtuous people aware of their viciousness," as well as the comments and questions by my interlocutor, and my own off the cuff remarks.  But first, let's take a look -- and give a read to -- the conversation under discussion:

Nov 3, 2014

Aristotle on Anger, Virtue and Vice.

I was recently invited up to Green Mountain College, just across the border in Vermont, to provide a faculty development workshop and also to give a talk about Aristotle, anger, and virtue ethics.  The latter talk was intended primarily for undergraduate students taking an Ethics course in the Environmental Liberal Arts core program at Green Mountain, and it provided me with a useful occasion to do a bit more thinking about some of the topics corralled together in a book I'm writing, focused specifically on Aristotle and his theory of anger.

As I remarked early on in the talk -- which you can hear here, or watch here -- one of the most distinctive features of Aristotle's approach to anger is that, unlike so many other ancient, medieval, and modern thinkers, he doesn't consider anger uniformly or even generally bad.  In fact, he comes right out in saying that there are times when we ought to get angry -- to feel the emotion and to act upon it.  It's not just a question of whether it's psychologically good for us to express our anger sometimes, nor is it simply an issue of prudently maintaining boundaries or responding to bullying -- for Aristotle, anger is at its very core a moral issue, a matter of character.

Oct 22, 2014

Philosophical Courage and Temperance in Plato's Phaedo

The Phaedo, a recounting of Socrates's last conversations with his friends on his deathbed, ostensibly provided by the young man for whom the dialogue is named, includes early on in the discourse a short and startling discussion of the nature of several virtues -- courage and temperance first, and then wisdom and justice.  Plato has Socrates advance a doctrine that is entirely uncompromising, and in some respects paradoxical -- only philosophers actually possess these virtues.

As Socrates explains, everyone else is not only mistaken about the nature of these two virtues, i.e. temperance and courage -- that would not be surprising after all, given that even Socrates concedes a lack of knowledge about these in aporetic dialogues like the Laches and Charmides (or even virtue itself in the Meno!).  The "virtues" they possess, what they call and consider to be "courage" or "temperance" aren't really so.  In fact, the courage of the many (or even the non-philosopher one) is actually a kind of cowardice.  The temperance of the many really amounts to a sort of intemperance (or if you prefer more contemporary language, self-indulgence, lack of self-control).

Sep 18, 2014

Honor and Ethics: Some Initial Reflections

A friend and colleague of mine, Bruce Weinstein, raised a provocative question, tapping the expertise and sounding the sentiments of his many Facebook friends:  "What do you think of "Live Honorably" as my proposed slogan? I'd use it as a way to let people know how they would benefit from my talks, training, books, and consultations."  It sparked a conversation revealing -- and reflective of -- quite a few different viewpoints on the relationship between honor and ethics.  He also proposed that I weigh in on the matter, so that's precisely what I intend to do here.

As a side-note, I have to thank Bruce for providing me this occasion to do something I've been intending for some time, but just hadn't cleared the time to do -- to start writing again in Virtue Ethics Digest.  Last month, I managed to reformat and write new posts for my three other blogs -- Orexis Dianoētikē, Sadler's Existentialism Updates, and Heavy Metal Philosopher -- but despite having some topics in mind, I simply didn't find the time and the energy needed to effectively restart this one.  So, Bruce's question, which dovetails very nicely with some other ethics-related matters I've been mulling over, provides a very convenient (and needed) "get-on-the-stick-and-get-it-done" opportunity!

Nov 20, 2013

Updates on New Projects

I've been finding myself with progressively less and less time available for blogging this last year -- which is actually a good thing, since the time has been going into:
  • producing a number of Philosophy-focused YouTube videos
  • regular activity on platforms like Facebook, Google+, LinkedIn, and Twitter
  • producing educational materials and uploading them in Academia, Learnist, and Curious
  • responding to comments and carrying on correspondence
  • teaching my current classes at Marist College, and exploring web-platforms to begin designing and delivering new online classes
  • educational consulting work, providing workshops, and delivering talks through ReasonIO
  • and. . . working on several book projects
For the time being, I'm going to be putting this blog (and my other blogs) on hold.  I'm hoping to be able to return to blogging here sometime next year.  I remain open to discussing projects, and you can reach me at greg@reasonio.com

Oct 5, 2013

Are the Virtues Already In Us?

In my Ethics classes, one type of assessment and exercise I routinely require my students to engage in is what I call an Application Assignment.  I provide them with a complex, morally ambiguous, problematic scenario, which they then have to analyze along various lines.  I'll write more about those parameters in a follow-up post, and discuss just how the assignments work to foster student learning at several different levels.  For now, what I'd like to focus on is one very interesting, common, and revealing mistake I see some students make semester after semester.

A key component of the assignment is competently applying three of the moral theories we've been studying to the case in question.  This requires that the students do a bit of explaining about the key concepts of the theory, and then go on to particularize these to the characters of the narrative.  Students do all right with Egoism, with the authoritarian Might-Makes-Right theory, and often enough with Utilitarianism.  Many of them run into problems with Virtue Ethics, and there are a variety of distinct misunderstandings and misapplications.  I'm particularly interested in one recurring way students get matters wrong.  Some students interpret Virtue Ethics as asserting that the virtues lie within each and every person, ready to be used when situations call for them.

Mar 31, 2013

More on Virtues In Augustine's Free Choice of the Will

A few weeks back, I started discussing Augustine's conception of the (cardinal) virtues in his work On Free Choice of the Will, promising this follow-up post where I would explore and explain certain of the themes set aside for the time being in the earlier post.  Now also having shot a video delving into the topic in the meantime, and now having some spare time on my hands over Easter Break, it's about time to make good on that pledge to tell the fuller story about virtue -- and vice -- in this classic Augustinian work.

In the first post, I stuck to book 1 -- and admittedly, there's already quite a bit going on in Augustine's examination of the virtues in that early portion of the larger work.  But really, his identification and definition of the four cardinal virtues, the connection between the virtues, the will, and eternal law, even the impediments impose upon a person by the vices opposed to virtue -- these are just starting points, or better, outlines, which will be filled in and expanded in his fuller discussions about virtue and vice in books 2 and 3


Mar 12, 2013

Virtues in Augustine's On Free Choice of the Will

We've been studying St. Augustine's On Free Choice of the Will in my Introduction to Philosophy class these last two weeks (here's video 1, 2 and 3 of the sessions).  This book has long been one of my favorite Augustinian works -- ranking up there with his Confessions, the City of God, On Christian Doctrine, and (what might come as a surprise, since they are considered minor works), the treatises On Lying and Against LyingOn Free Choice of the Will is really quite masterful as a dialogue -- real discussion and exploration is going on in that text -- problems are raised, resolved, just to give rise to new deeper problems -- and gradually, a through what initially appear digressions, a complex picture gets systematically sketched out.

Time is always an issue in teaching Introduction classes -- there's never enough, even if everything goes exactly as it ought to, to devote adequate attention to everything in the monumental texts I am privileged to teach -- and one of the casualties this time around, specifically with respect to this text, is Augustine's discussions about the virtues, mainly carried out in books 1 and 2.  There's nothing like a full-blown and systematic Augustinian treatment of the virtues and vices in On Free Choice of the Will -- we learn much more, and much that is important, from other writings of his, not just from major works and specific treatises, but even from remarks made in his various Letters.  In fact, only the four cardinal virtues are examined in this work.  But, what he does say is interesting in its own right -- if all we had of Augustine was this one work, it would still represent an advance -- or, perhaps a departure -- in the tradition of virtue ethics.


Feb 28, 2013

Seven Deadly Sins at the Library Book Sale

Accompanied by my wife, who is at least as great a bibliophile as I, last weekend, I ventured into the venerable, low-linteled cellar of the Kingston library, where one of the periodic book sales was in full swing.  Two full rooms, with shelves of all materials and construction laid out, and filled with books. The organization was decent enough, at least as far as categorization of the books -- to be sure, I found a bit more interesting philosophy works in the foreign language section than in the actual spot officially dedicated to that subject.  You see quite an assortment of human beings, of "interesting types," you might say euphemistically, at these sorts of events, just as you do, really, at any affair or establishment centered around the printed -- and bound -- page.  I will say this about that particular occasion: I've never been in a place -- and I've been in quite a few unusual and intense spots of this sort  -- where such a high proportion of the people seemed either oblivious to, or entirely and egoistically careless of, the space and intentions of other people.

I would suppose that for some the lack of body consciousness, the closedness to other people, except insofar as they intersected with one's desires and its objects, is actually their normal mode of being.  This was not, at least some of them, what you would call a "well-socialized" lot.  For others of them, I suspect, that is not their ordinary condition, but a state they somehow lapsed into, prompted by their desires, at the book sale.  Being a tall, wide-shouldered, fairly bulky man -- and one who doesn't hesitate long to break a stranger's concentration, whether real or feigned, to impose one of the formula of social politeness and movement -- I could get, eventually, to the books I wanted to look at.  My wife, in some corners and passages, garnered less regard, and found herself having to be more insistent with certain of the patrons.  I've been thinking off and on for quite some time about the traditional Seven Deadly Sins (a subject on which I gather material and images when they cross my paths) -- and this got me thinking about our experiences at the book sale.

Feb 11, 2013

Virtues and Knowledge in Plato's Meno

Anyone who has read the Meno in an Introduction to Philosophy class -- as I started my own batch of students on this semester -- carries away from it the commonplace that the dialogue is about trying to define virtue, and all of the interlocutors fail in this project, though not without making certain efforts and attempts.  This is one of those things that "everybody knows" about that text, a bullet-point, a blurb equally fit for inclusion in Wikipedia, as an examination question, or on a Trivial Pursuit card.

Certainly no useful definition gets arrived at in the back and forth between Socrates and Meno -- the real centerpiece attraction and achievement being articulation of the Platonic doctrine of recollection.  In its failures, the dialogue bears affinities with other aporetic dialogues where specific virtues are supposed to be -- but turn out not to be -- defined through dialectic:  the Euthyphro, where it turns out nobody really knows what piety is; the Laches, where it's courage that remains an enigma; the Lysias, with friendship, the Charmides with temperance -- and one might point out as well, throughout a number of these, justice and wisdom get brought up, but never really worked out.