Sep 9, 2011

This Field Required: Poverty and Virtue Ethics

Here’s an interesting blog posting by Pamela Stubbart, exploring the implications of a concept that’s being talked about quite a bit in psychology and some in ethics:  will-power depletion.  The general idea is that each human being has, at any given time, a certain amount of willpower — capacity to stick to or follow through on a difficult decision or action, also, in the older ethical literature, known as “self-control” — on reserve, and it can be exhausted as it gets used over time making decisions.

There have been some empirical psychological studies, which seem to indicate — you should always be rather skeptical of “studies show… ” until you’ve looked carefully at how the study was carried out and what reasoning the researchers employed — that there is something to this idea of “willpower depletion.”  And, this in turn has some implications for those in poverty:
the less money you have, the more sit­u­a­tions you will encounter in which you must restrain your­self and make dif­fi­cult pur­chas­ing trade­offs, and this means you’ll have less willpower left­over later to deal with other sit­u­a­tions in which you might need it
What does this mean for virtue ethics?
we might won­der whether it is rea­son­able to main­tain a com­mon­sense view that willpower and self-control are virtues: sta­ble states of char­ac­ter with ratio­nal, affec­tive, and behav­ioral com­po­nents, and which agents cul­ti­vate over time. Instead, the depletable self-control hypoth­e­sis sug­gests that the behav­iors of indi­vid­u­als are largely sub­ject to the cir­cum­stances in which they find them­selves, finan­cially and choices-wise. The fact of the psy­cho­log­i­cal mat­ter may be that willpower is less of a trait that one devel­ops and more of a force to which one is susceptible.
There’s an alternative:
I think it makes bet­ter sense to think about the depletable willpower hypoth­e­sis not as evi­dence that willpower isn’t a virtue, but as sup­port­ing the view that devel­op­ing the virtues requires a suf­fi­cient amount of cer­tain exter­nal goods (such as money, health, being born into a good fam­ily, etc).
Are these the only alternatives?

It’s worth noting that classical virtue ethics don’t seem to have construed willpower or self control as actually being virtues — Aristotle is pretty clear about this, for one — though they are connected with the virtues.  More to think out along these lines, no?

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