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

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.

Jan 31, 2013

What is the Emotivist Person Like?

I'm back in full swing once again teaching an Ethics course at Marist College (actually, just coming off of teaching a very intensive 4-week online Ethics course, before launching right back into Spring face-to-face courses), and we just finished discussing Alasdair MacIntyre's diagnosis of Emotivism (in After Virtue) as the moral theory that has become embedded and embodied in our late modern culture.  Last year, around this point in the semester, I wrote two blog posts focusing on that diagnosis (here and here). There's three particularly important features to MacIntyre's account -- precisely why I have my students read chapters 2 and 3 of After Virtue at the start of the semester.

First, MacIntyre does not think that many people in our contemporary culture explicitly endorse one of the academic forms of emotivism (derived from Ayer or Stevenson, Nietzsche or Sartre) -- rather their behavior, actions, expressions betray an implicit reliance on that moral theory as their default, the horizon within which they act and move and work out their being. Second, MacIntyre also does not think emotivism is remotely close to being correct or adequate as a moral theory.  But, if there are many people who on some gut-level do seem to think it the right theory, and act, judge, and communicate as if it was, that has some real implications for our moral environment.  Third, MacIntyre does not see these developments as particularly good ones -- even for the emotivist.  And, that is what I'm going to discuss here -- starting from the question: what kind of person does a lived-out commitment to Emotivism make one into?

Dec 20, 2012

What Do Students and Teachers Deserve?

Down the years, and more recently than in my earlier career, I've had the happy experience of being thanked and acknowledged in various ways by the students who I've taught in my classes.  When you consider the alternatives -- and they are most definitely live, often-experienced and -witnessed alternatives, ranging from being entirely ignored until a student wants something (a grade, an explanation, an exception, what's going to be on the exam), through suspicious arms-length-maintenance, or wariness of instructional idiosyncrasy, unpredictability, even malevolence, all the way to the outright contempt displayed in some settings -- the exhibition by students of a grateful and gracious attitude becomes deeply gratifying to any instructor who understands the value and process of education in which they are involved.

I have to admit at times feeling a bit bewildered by my students' responses to and admissions about my teaching and how it affects them -- and that, I suppose, is due to a remnant of the pedant still within me -- the part of myself which far more attentive to all that has been left out by a student's robust but still rudimentary presentation or reflections upon some item or idea of study than gladdened by just how much distance has been traversed, how much potential has been brought to actuality and consolidated within the mind, the soul, the memory, even the heart, of the young man or woman charged to learn with me for the space of a semester.  That competent but sterile, and in some sense dense or tone-deaf, part of myself responds all too easily by raising all sorts of other related matters, at risk of contextualizing away whatever spark of excitement, whatever haven for learning, whatever inertia newly-directed along a path of ongoing reflection that the way I structure and run my classes has afforded my students.

Dec 2, 2012

Rational Limits on Pursuit of Pleasure

I've been researching and writing the follow-up post to my Thanksgiving-time reflections on gratitude -- digging into corners and crannies of texts I've run through previously but hadn't reread recently -- portions of writings of Cicero, Immanuel Kant, Rene Descartes, David Hume, Thomas Aquinas, and Adrian Peperzak.  Rather than attempt to draw all those varied threads into one knot, or at least braid at this time, I've decided today to write instead about one of the several topics I'll be discussing tonight at the first in a new series of philosophy-centered events:  Philosophy Eats.  Tonight, it's Hedonism on the menu, both figuratively -- I'll be giving a talk and then leading a discussion -- and quite literally -- the chef and owner of Global Palate, Jessica Winchell, has assembled an amazingly aphrodisiac set of courses.

One of the matters I mean to bring up -- but not to go into full detail about -- has to do with setting rational limitations on the pursuit of pleasure, as well as one the avoidance of pleasure's contrary or opposite, pain.  There are hedonists, of course, for whom there are no restraints upon pleasure-seeking -- the popular conception associating hedonism with the adage "eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die" -- but in point of fact, most hedonists (and certainly those who thought enough about it to leave behind some coherent moral doctrine) don't act according to such an extreme, and likely short-lived, interpretation of that basic idea. 

Nov 23, 2012

A Few Reflections on Gratitude

Another Thanksgiving day has come and gone,bringing in its wake postings and platitudes, and occasionally deeper reflections and expressions of gratitude, the disposition, emotion, or attitude inextricably involved with thanks.  Thankfulness and giving thanks are important, but often overlooked, matters for ethics, a soon-or-later necessary dimension of any sustained, common, well-oriented moral life. Why do we discuss it as infrequently as we do in my field, moral theory?

I suspect for many of the same reasons it's not all that much more often discussed specifically, thematically, whether we look to other academic or professional disciplines,  or turn our gaze upon the broader spheres of ordinary activity -- we've got so much else to focus on, attend to, and talk about together.  Time runs out, seemingly more quickly each passing year -- and so paradoxically, we have to cut out and dedicate a portion of that ever-scarcer resource in order to "make the time" for giving thanks, let alone thinking about, meditating upon, pondering gratitude.  And yet, if we pay attention, it is not too difficult to discover, even stumble across philosopher and theologians who did examine and analyze this distinctively human attitude, affect, and activity.