Mar 7, 2012

Self-Promotion from a Virtue Ethics Perspective

Over the last several months, I've written a series of posts (part 1, part 2, part 3) on Orexis Dianoētikē motivated originally by a Chronicle of Higher Education post, The Art and Science of Academic Self-Promotion.  The issue originally raised was one which is particularly pressing in contemporary academia, where stiff competition for more and more scarce resources is rapidly becoming the "new normal," relatively new social media open up interesting new opportunities for publicizing or promoting one's legitimate achievements, academia remains beset by the radically uneven lighting of its own self-replicating class and tier system  - and yet many people remain chary of engaging in self-promotion, unsure of themselves, noticeably uneasy with the efforts of less restrained colleagues and coworkers.  Still, as in every time and place, some people definitely do cross the lines.

How should one draw the lines, though -- that's a question not so easily answered.  Egregious violations of good taste, collegiality, reciprocity, those we can all get behind, or rather against, forming some kind of consensus.  Practicing a parsimony of publicity -- meeting only whatever requirements of reporting come down from one's chair, or dean, tenure committee, provost -- entering the data supposedly comprising one's career into whatever digital (or God forbid, still paper!) portfolio one's school demands -- that seems the safe route.  But it is the sagacious course to adopt?  It's hard to say, because there seem to be no real rules, except those of rather ad hoc compilations reminding one more of unintentionally stuffy etiquette lists, or prudential "how to make friends and influence. . . " bulletpoint blocks.
Virtue Ethics -- Aristotle's version of it -- to the rescue!  It seemed to me not only that this was the sort of contemporary problem that might be illuminated by perennial texts and modes of thinking, but that Aristotle himself might actually have quite a bit to contribute on this very topic.  And, indeed, he did -- even mining veins of virtues and vices confined to one text, the Nichomachean Ethics.  

The virtue of truthfulness -- more specifically about oneself -- situated between the vice of boastfulness and the opposed vice of self-deprecation, was a natural place to start.  But, his discussions of shame and shamelessness -- framing the person of good character as neither shameless nor actually ashamed, but being the sort who avoids (and identifies) shame-bringing actions -- were also fruitful for thinking out this matter.  Those were the rather obvious moral characteristics addressed by Aristotle to examine, and then in the light reflected from them, to scrutinize self promotion (perhaps even to hold up a mirror -- this is a live, existential issue for me, I'll admit!).

Are there any other virtues and vices, any other moral distinctions about the things that aid or hinder our own moral discrimination, relevant to determining whether, how, and to what extent one ought to engage in self promotion?  In my third post, I brought up justice and injustice -- that concept so complex and contested in Aristotle's view.  And, deferring those to a future post, I mentioned a last set of ethical discussions that might be promising: the virtues and vices bearing on the sense and the good of honor, of respect in the eyes of oneself and others.  Well, this is not Orexis Dianoētikē, but this is that promised post.

One of the most distinctive virtues in the Aristotelian scheme is megalopsychia -- "magnanimity" or "greatness of soul."  The magnanimous person takes pleasure in being honored, but mainly from those who he or she considers to be "up to their level," so to speak -- if not equally talented in their field, at least equalized in some other plane: moral worth, power, dignity -- and will be uninterested in acclaim from the masses.

Aristotle points out an interesting feature, a sort of social distortive or illusory effect: those who are wealthy, who have power, who are high-born -- and all sorts of analogues suggest themselves as we transpose this into the somewhat cloistered world of academics -- having gone to the "right schools," studied with the bestowers not only of pedigree but prestige, being awarded this fellowship or post-doc position, making one's way into circles where publishing and presenting opportunities come quicker and easier because of the network one has assimilated into -- those who have the "gifts of fortune" are thought by many to be great-souled, but in fact tend towards arrogance, towards the associated vice of vanity.  "Those who possess the goods of fortune," Aristotle cautions, "without virtue are not justified in claiming high worth, and cannot be rightly called great-souled." 

In fact, genuinely virtuous and magnanimous people -- the "real deals," as I've called those like this who I've met or been fortunate enough to study or correspond with -- are unlikely to be self-promoting.  They will even engage in measured downplaying of their qualities and accomplishments.  They will instead devote themselves to promoting others, to using their position to proffer those in whom they sense potential.

The opposed vices -- at this level -- are being "small souled," retiring from honors our of a wrong sense of one's worth, and being vain.  In self-promotion, the small-souled will err in their feelings or assessments, and thus their actions and words about their own worthiness.  The vain, on the other hand, have an inflated sense of self-worth, stemming in Aristotle's view from foolishness, a deficiency of self-knowledge -- though we would today also likely ascribe to them a certain nagging tenor of insecurity (something with which Aristotle was by no means unconversant, given that he sees the rash facsimile to courage precisely as such).  They will definitely engage in -- and sooner or later go far too far with -- self-promotion. 

Aristotle also mentions a fourth possibility:  the person who, as he says, deserves little and claims little, the type that will later be praised as "humble," temperate, even urbane (asteios), congenial (summetros).  Will such a person engage in self-promotion?  I suspect that perhaps in our current culture, they would, but in a very modest manner.

This provides a good segue into another set of virtues and vices analogically aligned with those we've just briefly mentioned, for there is also the use and pursuit of honors, of publicity, the limelight but on a diminished scale, a more restrictive -- or to put a good face on it -- a cozy, more intimate stage. Again, there are two vices, one of excess, one of deficiency -- ambitiousness and lack of ambition, the latter of which is easily confused with humility, the former with drive and love for the finer things.

Interestingly, of the middle term between the two of these, the virtuous state, where one seeks honors to the right degree, in the appropriate ways, Aristotle says that we don't have a name for it.  In fact, "compared with ambitious, it appears unambitiousness, and compared with unambitiousness it appears ambition."  Even in his own time, at this lower, closer-to-home level,  it was difficult to draw the line between the range of what constituted legitimate self-promotion and what went too little or too far. 

I'll end this series of posts scattered over multiple blogs simply by noting two things, sides of the same coin.  If we want a robust virtue ethics understanding of self-promotion, apparently Aristotle is one major resource.  And yet, his measures, his calibration, if you will, in matters of honor, pride and humility are challenged by other, later virtue ethicists, even those who, like Thomas Aquinas, greatly admired and assimilated his thought.

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