Sunday, March 30, 2014

Why Patience is Always a Virtue

I'll be presenting a paper thus titled this coming weekend in Bowling Green Kentucky at the KPA. These ideas will be familiar to regular visitors here. Here's the abstract:
ABSTRACT: It is sometimes suggested that traits commonly regarded as virtues are not in every instance virtuous. On such views, these traits are not univocally good: one might possess too much courage or too much patience. Such talk has a natural feel — “be patient, but not too patient!” — but it conflicts with traditional ways of thinking about the virtues. In this paper, focusing on the case of patience, I illustrate a way of resolving this conflict that accords with the spirit of the traditional approach — in particular with the thought that the virtuous traits are themselves always good. That means, for example, that patience is always a virtue, and that one cannot be “too patient,” even though those claims seem to conflict with other rather ordinary ways of thinking and talking about patience. The approach illustrated herein can also be applied to similar conflicts and disputes about other virtues.
Comments welcome. I'm hard at revisions and re-writing of the book manuscript, which is a challenge in part because I'm generally trying not to copy and paste from these various papers and presentations, in an attempt to write in a way that is as non-technical as possible (for me and my aims, at least). I hope, however, to merge key ideas in many of these shorter papers into some kind of a journal article (or two) that will hopefully complement the book, and build on some forthcoming book chapters that are also about patience.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Niether Duck Nor Rabbit

As a follow-up to my last post and the comments: as I was reviewing my discussion with Reshef, it occurred to me that my not knowing what the "right" response is on some nights when I stare into the vast sky and can, on the one hand, be filled with thoughts of our smallness and the seeming groundlessness of things, and then, on the other hand, with thoughts about how wondrous the whole world is--perhaps this state of not knowing, of not moving decidedly into either aspect (or way of viewing the world), is itself a "position" rather than a failure to know what the "right" position is? Perhaps this is obvious to those who have considered the issue of aspect-seeing, that the real temptation is to think that the tension between seeing things one way or another must ultimately, in all cases, be resolved. That the true "resolution" is to resolve to learn to accept certain fundamental ambiguities, to accept the tension between apparently contradictory aspects. Perhaps this is why Simone Weil says, in Gravity and Grace:
The contradictions the mind comes up against—these are the only realities: they are the criterion of the real. There is no contradiction in what is imaginary. Contradiction is the test of necessity.
This might shed a different light on Wittgenstein's distinction in the Tractatus between the worlds of the happy man and the sad man, or show that there are different ways of being the happy or the sad. On the one hand, the happy man might be the one who sees the world as a wondrous miracle, and the sad man the one who sees everything as awful and pointless. But on the other hand, the happy man might be the one who has accepted the tension between the two aspects (and yet sees and feels the weight of both aspects, at different times, forcefully), and the sad man the one who cannot accept this ambiguity.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Waxing and Waning (Gaita)

I just recently learned of (and quickly obtained and read) Raimond Gaita's collection of essays After Romulus, each of which reflects on something to do with his book Romulus, My Father. I think it is all very much worth reading if (a) you've read Romulus and (b) are interested in Gaita's philosophy. The essay on the process of bring the book to film was, if nothing else, a good reminder for me to see the film (which I did, and it is beautiful and sad).

I've been meaning to post something about a couple remarks in the essays that stood out to me, but I think now I'll stick with just this one. In the final essay, "An Unassuageable Longing," Gaita writes about his mother, in part to address her seeming lack of character in comparison with his father. [Their relationship and struggles are rather too complicated to summarize here.] He suspects that she and his father did not understand each other, and that on her side, "She didn't understand the conception of morality that made me say that, like Socrates, my father would prefer to suffer evil than to do it" (186). He emphasizes that this attitude is rare and seems strange to many (my comment: recall what Socrates says about this in Crito), and so his mother's failure to understand this about his father is not the result of some special moral failure on her part. Then he says this, which is what struck me:
But even someone who takes the Socratic perspective has only occasionally a full understanding of what is revealed to him from it. His sense of the reality of good and evil waxes and wanes. (186-7)
This surprised me, and I scrawled "hm..." in the margin, but I continue to reflect on this and whether I understand this. One might first wonder how Gaita can know this--unless one assumes that he has internalized the same moral outlook as his father, which is of course plausible. But then it seems surprising that a person who had the kind of moral seriousness as his father (although informed also by what Gaita describes in this book and in Romulus, My Father as "compassionate fatalism"), would have a sense of the reality of good and evil that waxes and wanes.

Perhaps this has something to do with Socrates' thought that evil is always the result of ignorance. For if one emphasizes the ignorance, then one might be led to think that "real" evil does not exist, only ignorance that has latched onto a false sense of what is good. But then one confronts some terrible action and then evil seems again quite real and in need of serious resistance.

I have come to connect these remarks to a kind of waxing and waning that occurs in my own thought that stems from moving back and forth between taking seriously notions about the ultimate groundlessness of our values and the deep impression that there is value in the world--that life is sacred and beautiful and so forth. Between gazing at the sky on a clear night and being struck by how small and fleeting our lives are, and how silly so many of our concerns, and gazing at the same sky and, like Wittgenstein, wondering at the existence of the whole world (and in doing so, finding it good). But I am not sure that I know what a "full understanding" of all of this would amount to. That both aspects are "real" (or revelatory) and that the tension between them is not one that can ever be eliminated or dissolved?

Tuesday, March 04, 2014

All God's Creatures?

In The Philosopher’s Dog, Raimond Gaita relates the following story:
[M]y daughter Katie and I were watching a nature program on television. We saw baby rodents, more ugly even than baby rats, under the desert sand of Saudi Arabia. ‘Look at that,’ I said to Katie. ‘Aren’t they awful.’ With little hesitation, she replied that they were also God’s creatures.
I was humbled by her response, ashamed, in fact, that such simple words should show up the grossness of my attitude. I could think of no words that could express better and at the same time so simply this wonderful acceptance of all living creatures.
Gaita goes on to explain that it is nothing about theism as a metaphysical thesis (or the "God of the philosophers") that underwrites his response to Katie's remark, for he does not himself believe in God. I think I understand the idea that "God-talk" can be appropriate and meaningful even when not, as it were, "literal," but then I wonder about what the normative force is of the figurative God.

The idea that animals are all God's creatures would seem to express at least the following two ideas: (1) that there is goodness in the life of every creature (in Genesis, everything that God makes is found by God to be good) and (2) that animals are not "ours"--they do not belong to us.

Now it might be asked whether this "goodness" is non-instrumental or only instrumental (Genesis does not tell us), and what the practical implications of human non-ownership of animals are. But it might also be asked whether we have any reason to accept the overall picture of (1) + (2) if we are only able to speak figuratively--if we are able to speak at all--about God.

Those familiar with Gaita's (Wittgensteinian) approach to questions of normative grounding will know that he will ultimately accept that fundamental values are groundless but are at the same time bound up intimately with our particular form of life. Accepting the picture--and making use of the words--above is less (if at all) a matter of reason, but instead a question of one's fundamental attitude toward the world: say, whether one accepts the world as good and (as he discusses) whether one sees life as a gift for which to feel gratitude.

But I have found myself wondering still about the normative force of figurative (or some might say, "fictionalist") expressions invoking the divine, particularly in the context of animal and environmental ethics.

One might, for example, think of the idea of God as the idea of an "ideal observer" and adopt a dispositionalist theory of moral truth (or correctness) such that it doesn't matter whether there actually is an ideal observer (or a God). Rather, what matters is what judgment an ideal observer (a God) would make if there were one.  (Firth [1952] is the place to start looking into this idea.)

But before we even get to what judgments the ideal observer would make or how we could have epistemic access to this information, it seems like one might ask why we should care at all about the judgments that flow (or would flow) from an uninstantiated point of view. I suppose the response is these judgments would be the correct ones, and if we don't care about what the correct judgment is in ethical matters, then the conversation is simply over. (There are other worries about the coherence of the idea of an ideal observer, or similarly, the idea of God, but let that pass.)

The differences between the ideal observer and God the creator might matter here. For the ideal observer is not a creator (or an owner) of anything--only a judge. And if animals (and everything else) were not really created by God, then we cannot say that they (and everything else) belong to God. But this might emphasize the notion of ownership too strongly. "All God's creatures" might mean (A) that animals are all God's property, but it might instead mean (B) something roughly equivalent to the thought that we are all God's children. True, some will point out that only humans were "made in God's image," but then we would have to ask what it would take to live up to our divine lineage when it comes to our dealings with animals. And if the emphasis of "all God's creatures" should be fixed not on the notion of divine ownership, but rather of divine authorship, then we have to take into account the idea that animals (and everything else) was fashioned by divine hands. (Abusing and mistreating animals would be like defacing the ceilings of the Sistine Chapel.)

But then we run into the problem that if God is not really the author/creator of all creatures, which in fact evolved somewhat willy-nilly, there is no true divine origin that imbues the lives of animals (etc.) with the special significance that a work acquires when it is the work of a true master.

What now? Well, here's one thought: if we are so impressed that evolution led to us humans, then why should we not be as impressed by its other results, its other "innovations", etc.? (Some of them are harmful to us, but that was true on the other picture, too. Many of them are absolutely amazing and beautiful.) Those "awful" baby rodents are "also God's creatures" insofar as they sprang from the same primordial process as we did, whether that source is God or not.

(Obviously, these are all new thoughts on which I'm working, trying in part to figure out where the center is...)

Friday, February 14, 2014

Mother Jones Article on "Ag Gag" Laws

I mainly want to pass along the article, "Gagged by Big Ag," which certainly speaks for itself. I can understand business wanting to protect themselves from fraudulent job applicants (such as PETA investigators who plan to document animal abuse by getting hired by these operations), but there are laws, I'm guessing, against such fraud already. That these "Ag Gag" laws also make it illegal for, as it were, "genuine" workers (and even people not on the business's property) to record and report abuse and illegal activity in a way that makes the gravity of the problem clear, is absolutely appalling.

(Hat tip to my friend Ed in the EKU Department of Agriculture for passing this article along. I'd sent him an article on recent research on the psychological trauma and physical risks of slaughterhouse work, "A Slaughterhouse Nightmare," by Georgetown Professor Jennifer Dillard.)

Tuesday, February 04, 2014

Ruti's The Call of Character

From my inbox: This looks intriguing (link is to first chapter): The Call of Character: Living a Life Worth Living. "Self-Fashioning" of course has a seemingly inescapable ring of self-indulgence (as Ruti seems aware), but the kind of passionate if idiosyncratic living that Ruti appears interested in is probably often going to be part of a life that is much more concerned with something other than self.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Situationist Critiques of Virtue Ethics

In her NDPR review of Mark Alfano's new book, Neera Badhwar begins as follows:
Mark Alfano's book adds to the growing literature on empirical challenges to Aristotelian notions of virtue and other character traits. In its most recent avatar, this literature argues that our innate cognitive biases and other flaws make the central moral and intellectual Aristotelian virtues, as usually understood, impossible for the vast majority.
My reason for this post is: But isn't that what Aristotle thought, too? (Isn't that what many virtue theorists think?)

Response: "But if ought implies can and these studies (or the situationists' readings of them) are correct, then it makes no sense to say, to most people, that they ought to be virtuous. Virtue ethics as a normative ethical theory (for general consumption) is thus unworkable."

But I've never thought that was the right way to make sense of virtue ethics. An ideal is to be aimed toward, if never met perfectly. Some ideals are always ever in the distance. We don't need to be able to travel to the North Star in order to navigate the world by referring to it.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Check-In from the Hills

I've gone a bit AWOL. I should have time this semester to tease out a few ideas that have been dancing around in my head, especially regarding Murdoch and my ongoing work on patience. Recently, I've been re-reading closely Seneca's On Anger while revising a chapter on Seneca and (vs.) Aristotle on anger. I noticed that Leiter has a link up to a new talk by Nussbaum on anger that I need to watch. The blurb suggests that she is quite close to Seneca's view, but given her past rejection of Stoic ideas (although very sympathetic with Seneca's ideas about anger in The Therapy of Desire), I will be interested to see whether she gets into what dividing line, if any, there is between her position now and Seneca's.

In the therapeutic part of On Anger (Book III), he mentions that, "Pythagoras used to play the lyre to settle his mind when it was upset" (III.9.2).

That's an academic lead-in to the confession that I've also been short on blogging because I bought a banjo over the holiday break. I have been learning to do what some people call "frailing" and others call "clawhammer" (so, not Earl Scruggs' style, if that means something to you), and amassing mountain banjo music albums from the EKU and Berea College libraries. (This is a nice place to be for that.) I've always liked certain old-timey kinds of music (though never actively sought out this kind of music) and the sound of the banjo (though not so much the hard-driving bluegrass stuff). I went into the local music store actually looking to replace a long-broken harmonica (I played guitar and harmonica quite a bit in high school), looked at a couple banjos while there, went home, stewed, researched, looked around some more, and got an open-back banjo. Still haven't gotten the harmonica...

(My wife thinks I've lost my mind...the banjo is so misunderstood. Perhaps I should have opted for the lyre.)


Thursday, January 02, 2014

Some Charming Bastard

[I've been sitting on this post for a few days. Need to post it, to pay some small tribute.]

My good friend Craig Nelson passed away on Saturday, December 21, 2013. He was traveling from Gainesville, Florida, to Fayetteville, Arkansas, and had stopped to visit me the Monday before he passed away (likely of a massive heart attack while traveling through Tennessee; he pulled off into a rest stop, fell asleep and never awoke). I hadn't seen him in several years, and I'm still coming to grips with the fact that it was to be the last time. Certainly the fact that I had just seen him, just broken bread with him, made it all the harder to believe the sad news. He was 46.

I must have been 18 or 19 when I first met Craig at a place called Common Grounds in Fayetteville. I was writing fiction at the time, and we hit it off as fellow writers, smokers, and skeptics. Craig was a passionate person whose mind seemed to race (more than he liked at times). I was drawn--as I think so many were--to his expansive personality. He would always say exactly what was on his mind. Brutally honest but at the same time, somehow, a gentle giant. My children were instantly drawn to him when they met him. (Carissa had "met" him before when she was an infant; he had taken pictures of our family in Fayetteville, and had been the photographer at our wedding.) I'm not sure how the moniker "Some Charming Bastard" came to be attached to Craig, but it fit.

Craig took the picture above Monday night after we had drank a couple beers and visited. He posted, along with the picture, on Facebook that it had been a good day, and we had another good one on Tuesday, too, before he headed to see a friend in Lexington and then to Asheville, NC, before turning toward Fayetteville. We had talked about the usual things. He seemed eager to return to Fayetteville; he was moving back with what he had in his car. He appeared happy with how his daughter and her family were doing, including two young (grand)children. I think he had gone back to Florida (where he was from) in part to be nearer to her, but was now ready to be back in Fayetteville, where he found a lot of artistic inspiration and had made so many friends over the years. He will be missed.

Here's a link to a series of portraits he did, and a blurb on an exhibit of a selection of them in the University of Arkansas' Mullins Library.