Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Dimensions of Patience

I've been trying to work out what an Aristotelian model of patience might look like which takes patience to be more than the virtue of wise waiting (on the grounds that constancy to a task is also a form of patience, though some might call this instead perseverance), and which can make sense of Eamonn Callan's remark in "Patience and Courage" that, “in patience anger and despair are the things to be controlled if we are to cleave to the good against the temptations of impatience or a dejected passivity.” I'm not hellbent on making an Aristotelian account (virtue as a mean) work, but I am hoping that the attempt will be instructive. (And here I will omit the reasons why I think we should take Callan's remark seriously.) What follows is something of a summary of how things are shaping up and where I think they are headed.

A feature of Aristotle's account of the moral virtues that isn't always appreciated fully is that it appears that not all moral virtues are "one-dimensional" in the sense that the mean is located at some point on a single continuum (or emotional axis). His account of courage shows this, since he claims that courage is the mean of both confidence and fear. In short, one can have too much or too little confidence, and too much or too little fear, and so there are really four quadrants of potential deviations from the mean. (Whether confidence and fear intersect at right angles is something I won't worry about here!)

This led me to suggest that perhaps we should think of patience in the same way. I begin by taking on, as one relevant axis, the virtue Aristotle calls "mildness" (or "good temper") since this is the virtue dealing with anger. This seems relevant since a patient person is slow to anger, and I, for one, think of much of the anger I experience as a kind of impatience. So, in short, that captures half of Callan's claim above.

But despair (which Callan identifies as "dejected passivity") does not seem to be a deficiency of anger. So, I suggest that despair can be understood as a sense of helplessness and hopelessness, and thus involves a diminished (or crushed) sense of personal efficacy. The judgment that one really has no hope and can do nothing will at least sometimes (often?) be incorrect (or involve a constricted understanding of one's alternatives), and a general tendency toward despair might thus be regarded as a kind of vice. (Apologies if this seems to "moralize" a psychological disorder.) I think we can oftentimes think of this kind of despair as a failure of reasonable confidence (again, pulling from Aristotle). And someone who is in the grips of despair of this sort, and is consequently passive, isn't being patient. On the other hand, an excess of confidence might be able to explain some failures of patience that take the form of getting ahead of oneself, rushing too quickly into action, or rushing through an activity. Someone in the grips of a kind of mania--thinking oneself able to do anything--will not have the restraint necessary for (or constitutive of) patience.

I'm now to the point where I suspect that this leaves out something important, which is that patience, both in waiting and in constancy (which may involve action beyond waiting), requires an understanding of oneself, others, and the world--the time it takes for certain things to develop, the limitations of oneself and others, and the ways in which the world may fail to cooperate with our plans, giving rise to delays, disruptions, and worse. To wait wisely requires some knowledge. And to do some activities well requires a kind of attention, stillness, and deliberateness which, in the face of looming distractions and interferences and our own anticipation, will often require patience. (That is, we can sum up what's needed as a need for patience.) Mildness and confidence help, but my suspicion is that I need a third dimension that squarely captures the need for attention, and I think this could be called mindfulness (which of course is a crucial part of the Eightfold Path in Buddhism). I need to read up on mindfulness in the Buddhist tradition, but in a rough attempt to frame mindfulness as a virtue in Aristotelian terms, it involves awareness and attention to details and surroundings (being "present" rather than "absent" and distracted), and so a receptivity to information. "Excessive" mindfulness would be something like losing the forest for the trees, being caught up in minutiae and mistaking minor details for important ones, etc. A deficiency of mindfulness would be a tendency toward distraction and being "absent" as one acts. (Think: students texting or whatever during class.)

Those who insist upon thinking about patience in narrow terms as waiting probably won't like any of this, but the dictionary would suggest that patience has these other meanings as well. (The OED entry is rich.) I'm not entirely happy with the application of confidence above, as it seems the most awkward, and on the surface out of line with ordinary usage. Maybe instead of emphasizing the sense of personal efficacy, I should emphasize hopefulness. But either way, the important point would be that patience is a function of "hitting the mean," as it were, along all of these dimensions, and so perhaps it shouldn't be surprising that if we try to think of (or see) patience in its fullness by focusing on any particular dimension, we will only be seeing part of the story.

Once I sort this out, I'll return to the issue of anger and mildness, and Seneca's challenge to the Aristotelian view that there is ever a right amount of anger.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Ecological Humility

With some trepidation, I post a link to a draft of a paper I have been working on. [File updated 5.31.12).] Here's the abstract:
Humility is often invoked by environmental ethicists as the corrective to human arrogance and pride, but has only been afforded close attention by a handful of environmental philosophers. Here, I wish to consider what kind of an environmental virtue humility can be. Rather than presuppose that humility requires particular axiological commitments, I will attempt to elucidate conceptually why we might expect the cultivation of humility to increase environmental consciousness, to underwrite to ecologically responsible action and change, and to promote an appreciation of value in nature that transcends instrumental and human-centered concerns. In the penultimate section, I consider at some length Paul Weiss’ notion of “adventurous humility,” in order to come to terms with the tension between a humbled attitude toward the natural world and the need to use, and sometimes struggle against, nature. I conclude by suggesting that humility answers a “paradox” that Rolston poses for environmental virtue ethics.
As I say in the paper, I have tried to avoid sentimentality (including the sort of worry Tommi mentions here). Any thoughts about the extent to which I have succeeded or failed would be appreciated.

Tuesday, May 08, 2012

Moral Courage for Free

This is for those of you who subscribe to the blog feed (and so might not catch the updated post below): International Journal of Philosophical Studies and Taylor & Francis have made "Moral Courage and Facing Others" open access. Enjoy.

In Print: Moral Courage and Facing Others

In International Journal of Philosophical Studies 20(2), here. As you may recall, this essay won a nice prize, and I feel both humbled and honored to have had the essay selected as the winner.

UPDATE (5.8.12): This article is now freely available to all. (Thank you, IJPS and Taylor & Francis.)

Friday, May 04, 2012

Scarre On Courage

My review of Geoffrey Scarre's On Courage is at Philosophy in Review, here.

(Check out their Books for Review if you have a philosophy-relevant Ph.D. and are looking for some summer reading; it's a real smorgasbord!)

Patience & Privilege

My wife drew my attention this evening to a Facebook post by a friend of hers which read, "Whoever said patience is a virtue never had to wait for anything." At first, this struck me as pseudo-wisdom. (Cf. Bo Derek: "Whoever said money can't buy happiness simply didn't know where to go shopping.") But then it occurred to me that perhaps there are two possible redeeming interpretations:
(a) that waiting is just part of life, and so there's nothing particularly virtuous about waiting without losing your head.

(b) that "virtue" is the language of the privileged (or the bourgeois), and part of being a member of the privileged class is that you usually don't actually have to wait in the ways that the underprivileged do. (The privileged don't wait for the bus.) To think that patience is a virtue is the result of a narrow understanding of what life is like for most people, which connects this interpretation to the first one.
However, I don't know whether either of these interpretations really, fully works. The quip looks more like a complaint: "waiting sucks." Indeed. And presumably it sucks even more if one lacks patience or if what one is waiting for isn't really worth the wait. If there's any truth in the attempts to redeem the complaint, it's that it can clearly be condescending and show a kind of bad faith (in a master-slave sort of way) for someone to tell another, who is being forced to wait unreasonably or unjustly, that since patience is a virtue, he or she should not complain. So I can see the legitimacy of something like this complaint when "patience" is invoked as a means of controlling others. But what's requested by the "master" in such cases is not patience so much as servility. And so the problem here isn't that genuine patience is not a virtue.

Thursday, May 03, 2012

Gratitude Toward Nature: A Brief Sketch and Defense

Part of a work in progress:

To learn from nature is to have our own lives enriched. In this way, the lessons of nature benefit us—nature, as it were, does us good. And this good comes to us free of charge, as a gift. One might say that we pay in the currency of time, we must pay for these lessons with patience, but the practice of attention and the silencing of the self so that others may speak is itself a benefit rather than a cost. The “price” of learning from the natural world is simply the price of cultivating intellectual and moral virtue. Thus, we not only learn from nature in a first-order sense, but also learn how to learn. And what is the proper response to these gifts but gratitude? Some will ask: “But who shall we thank?” But I do not see why it is inappropriate that we simply direct our sense of thankfulness to the tree, or the mountain, or the bird, or the sea. If it is not incoherent to feel gratitude toward a deceased family member who leaves us a fortune, then the problem cannot be that nature cannot say, “You’re welcome.” Neither can our loved ones who have passed. Some will say: “But nature has no intention to teach us.” But this is often true of the people from whom we learn, whose accomplishments or efforts or ideas inspire and improve us, though they do not know who we are or that we even exist. If their example benefits us enough, we are nonetheless filled with gratitude, and no one would find it strange if we thanked a stranger for the good they have unintentionally contributed to our own life.