Thursday, January 17, 2013

Suspicion And Society

"If the officers and soldiers are suspicious of each other, warriors will not join up."*

* Zhuge Liang, quoted by Thomas Cleary in his introduction to Sun Tzu's The Art Of War.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

The Virtue of Virtue

Virtue ethics is problematic.  It certainly is helpful at times, but it is not helpful when it names virtues that others cannot relate to; or when we use it to describe virtues that only certain classes of people can ever attain; or when virtues entail a metaphysics to which others are unwilling to commit.   The very word “virtue” raises a red flag for some people because it is a gendered word, rooted in the Latin vir, meaning an adult male.  I often wish we had a better translation of the word Aristotle first used, arête, which means something like “excellence.”

At any rate, virtue ethics may have great value if we allow Aristotle’s description of arête to be a moving target, and if we appeal to it as an approach to governing our own conduct rather than as a way to make rules for others.  (Isn’t it the case that so often we write rules for others rather than for ourselves?  That should tell us something.)

Aristotle tells us that virtue is the mean between extremes, as the man of practical wisdom would determine it.  But which of us is the man of practical wisdom?  No one of us has that down.  So no one of us may be expected to understand virtue exactly.  This would appear to be an argument for a collective decision, and to some degree it is.  Our public deliberations about ethics, about methods of research, about law, about public conduct – all of these are, in a way, attempts by groups of people to figure out what a truly wise and prudent person would do.  

So to some degree, communities and their traditions are embodiments of decisions about virtue.  We must remember, however, that we’re always on the move, ever seeking, never fully finding. 

I am reminded of Kierkegaard’s citation of Lessing in Kierkegaard’s Concluding Unscientific Postscript:
“If God held all truth enclosed in his right hand, and in his left hand the one and only ever-striving drive for truth, even with the corollary of erring forever and ever, and if he were to say to me:--Choose! I would humbly fall down to him at his left hand and say: Father, give!  Pure truth is indeed only for you alone!”*
We live lives of unknowing, ever striving for what we might know.  "Now we see as in a glass, darkly; now we see in part."  And that's not so bad, is it?  Peirce might call the belief that we don't know fully a regulative ideal; or I suppose, in Rorty’s terms, we might call it a pragmatic hope.  If we take ourselves not to have arrived at perfect justice yet, that belief will drive us to keep seeking to improve our justice.

You’ve read this far, so you’re probably ready for me to make my point.  Here it is: as we talk about policies and politics, rules and laws—in short, when we are deeply concerned with governing others—let us not neglect governing ourselves, by reflecting on, and trying to enact, virtue in our decisions.  Life is uncertain.  We do not know what will come next, what we will be given, what will be taken away.  But no one can take away the small decisions we make, the small decisions that, one by one, make us.


*Soren Kierkegaard, Concluding Unscientific Postscript to Philosophical Fragments. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992, Vol I) 106. The quotation is a citation from Lessing by Kierkegaard.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Evolution and Education

Sometimes I meet students who are afraid that evolutionary science poses a threat to their belief in God.  I think it is helpful for them to ask themselves this question:
Is God capable of creating through natural processes?
There are only two answers to this question.  If you say no, you make God too small to be worth worshiping.  If you say yes, then you see that there's no prima facie reason why belief in God and belief in evolution need to be opposed to one another.

Of course, this doesn't clear up all the obstacles to reconciling religious belief and confidence in science, but it's a start.



If you're a teacher of students who also grapple with this, and you don't understand them, this might help.  Some of them will certainly be unreasonable.  For them, sometimes all you can do is be an example of reasonable beliefs and hope it sinks in someday.  But many of them are concerned about a few big questions, like these:
  • The trust they've placed in their community.  Think about it: if your parents or your pastor or someone else you trusted taught you that there's an irreconcilable conflict between science and faith, you might distrust anyone who said otherwise.  It might help such students to go back to that community and ask the question I posed above.  This may take time, because there's a lot at stake here.
  • An even bigger concern is the question of human dignity.  I think that's what's behind the old complaint that "I'm not descended from monkeys."  If the student is simply concerned about being descended from unwashed furry critters, they should probably look more closely at their family trees.  Monkeys are often nicer than our actual relatives.
  • But there's another concern here that's actually quite positive, because it means that they care about ethics, and they're trying to preserve that in the face of a perceived threat.  Some students correctly intuit that what's at stake in evolution is not merely a theory of descent but a whole theory of knowledge, and of metaphysics.  Natural sciences rest upon an assumption of methodological naturalism.  That is, they assume that it is possible to explain natural phenomena by appeal to nature and nothing else.  So far, so good.  But sometimes we then make a little leap to saying that therefore whatever naturalism cannot explain is unknowable or nonexistent.  This is not just naturalism but a kind of reductionistic naturalism, and it's tricky territory, because it might imply that there is no real basis for ethics, or for valuing others' lives.  I'm not saying we're not free to value others' lives; I'm just saying that some of these students want to believe that there are good reasons to expect everyone to value everyone, not merely a world of subjective interests.  And many of them are reasonably suspicious that reductionistic naturalism cannot itself be supported by science; after all, how could natural science prove that what it can't see isn't there?  Such claims sound a bit like the misdirection of Wizard of Oz: "Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain!"  We'd be better off avoiding such claims, both because we cannot prove them and because they do a disservice to science.
Acknowledging your students' concerns will help them to see that you care about them as people and not just as names or numbers on a page.  Which will already begin to address their deepest concerns.

Safe and Sound: Guns, Fear, and Virtue

What do guns do for us?  Do guns make our lives better, or do they just make us feel stronger and safer?  I know those aren't the only two options, but I want to distinguish between two notions of salvation: on the one hand, we may be saved by what makes us more safe, while on the other hand, we may be saved by what makes us more whole.  I'm using a theological word, but I'm thinking more etymologically than theologically, connecting "salvation" with the Latin salvus, which can mean both "safe," and "well" or "sound." (I know word origins don't dictate meanings, but they do help us understand how our ideas developed.) 

So again, what do guns do for us?  It's probably true that in many circumstances guns make us safer, or at least make us feel safer, and that's not unimportant.  But I do wonder whether they make us better people.  I don't think this question is easily answered.  It's not hard to imagine someone developing great skill, self-control, and confidence through target-shooting, and I've known police officers who regarded their guns as tools that helped them to make their communities better places.  But this passage from Kerouac offers another possibility.  Kerouac's protagonist Sal Paradise (Kerouac's fictionalized autobiographical persona) describes what it was like to be alone in San Francisco, thousands of miles from home:  

“I tried everything in the books to make a girl.  I even spent a whole night with  a girl on a park bench, till dawn, without success.  She was a blonde from Minnesota.  There were plenty of queers.  Several times I went to San Fran with my gun and when a queer approached me in a bar john I took out the gun and said “Eh? Eh” What’s that you say?”  He bolted.  I’ve never understood why I did that; I knew queers all over the country.  It was just the loneliness of San Francisco and the fact that I had a gun.  I had to show it to someone.  I walked by a jewelry store and had the sudden impulse to shoot up the window, take out the finest rings and bracelets, and run to give them to Lee Ann.  Then we could flee to Nevada together.  The time was coming for me to leave Frisco or I’d go crazy.”* 
"I had to show it to someone."
 It's not the gun that makes him threaten strangers or that makes him want to steal; but the gun doesn't help, and it's not neutral.  It's a catalyst for something else, and when Sal feels lonely the gun becomes a way of expressing his pain.  It might make him safer, but it also affords an opportunity (which he seizes) to become less virtuous.  His trust contracts as his pain dilates. My eyes keep pausing on the line "I had to show it to someone."  Pointing it at strangers in the men's bathroom is at once a threat of violence and a plea to be known, a disclosure of a secret. 

 Hard times can make us wary.  Another novel, Steinbeck's Of Mice And Men, comes to mind here, another novel about men drifting across America, searching for an elusive dream.  When Steinbeck's iconic drifters Lennie and George show up at a farm to look for work, the man who hires them remarks on how unusual it is for men to care for one another as they do: 

"Slim looked through George and beyond him.  'Ain't many guys travel around together,' he mused.  'I don't know why.  Maybe ever'body in the whole damn world is scared of each other.'"**

Maybe so.  If you know the novel, you know the complicated ways guns, trust, love, and fear figure into it.  If you don't, I won't spoil it for you. Nor will I try to sort out what our laws about guns should be. Not here, anyway, because something else is weighing on my mind even more right now.  The question of laws, and of safety, is important.  But so is the matter of being not just safe, but sound. 

We certainly need better laws; we always do.  Just as importantly, we need to become better people. People who "travel around together" in difficult times, because it is better to do so than to spend our lives scared of the whole damn world. 


*Jack Kerouac, On The Road. (New York: Penguin, 1991) 73.  
 ** John Steinbeck, Of Mice And Men. (New York: Penguin, 1994) 37. 

I am looking for a better word than "virtue," but haven't found one yet, unless maybe "excellence" fits.


A longer version of this post was published by the Chronicle of Higher Education in both print and online in the Chronicle Review under the title "Armed In Anxiety."  A subscription (often available through your library) is required to see the online version.