Praise for the Judgmental

Featured image is a self-portrait of Joseph Ducreaux

Let’s talk about courage for a spell. Here are a few scenarios that require courage:

  • Going into a battle
  • Standing up to a bully, especially a physically larger one
  • Highballing a salary requirement for a job you are emotionally invested in getting
  • Lowballing your offer on the house you’ve fallen absolutely in love with

There are degrees, and there are qualitative differences, but it is still appropriate to speak of courage in each case.

Here are two ways you might take this:

  1. The word “courage” can mean many things—indeed, it can be used to mean just about anything, because words only mean what we use them to mean. Therefore it isn’t inappropriate, but the use in each case means something entirely different.
  2. Using “courage” across all of them points to some sense in which there is a true unity. Within this perspective, we can agree or disagree on whether a given scenario ought to be included, while still agreeing that a big plurality of types of scenarios can be unified in just this way.

Whether or not he means to, it seems to me that Akiva is committed to a version of the first one, whereas I am committed to the second. Most of the problems we see in one another’s perspectives flows from this fundamental disagreement.

Akiva and I share a great deal more with each other than we do with most people, which is part of why I tried to conjure up a stark scenario we could disagree on. We both believe in in the spiral of morality; the constant conversation across people on the level of practice as well as articulation. We both believe that it is a journey which never ends, except in death.

Neither of us believe that something like courage is capable of being specified with the precision of a mathematical or logical theorem. Nor can they be defined in a meaningful sense; they can only be understood “from the inside”; that is, within human experience, not through a formula or formalization.

While I am a proponent of the second perspective above, I am not exactly a moral objectivist. The courage in the four scenarios described above is a true unity, but it’s nothing like the conceptual unity between the protons of two different atoms. The insistence on a unity, but the elusive nature of it, are the source of both disagreement and misunderstanding with Akiva.

Let’s address the misunderstanding first. Like many critics of virtue ethics, Akiva is worried about monism; imposing one single form of life on everyone without regard to particularity.  He quotes Nozick, who lists a bunch of specific people and then asks “Is there really one kind of life which is best for each of these people?” Akiva continues:

For Nozick in particular, the separateness of persons is a core ontological and moral fact, without which we ignore basic elements of our world and what it is to be dignified human being. To impose one form of life or association is to ignore this key observation, to disrespect fundamental notions of personal choice, autonomy, and the understanding that there are multiplicity of paths to “the good life”.

Later, he adds “I think the facts about flourishing that are absolutely universal are fairly minimal.”

This is at least partly a misunderstanding, I think. The four scenarios at the top of the post hint at the multitude of others that fall within the virtue of courage. Eudaimonia is similarly plural, and its unity has a similar elusive quality. This is why it’s easy for analytic virtue ethicists to exaggerate their agreement with colleagues who subscribe to very different frameworks; you can find a huge range of cases where all agree.

While virtue is elusive where formal specification is concerned, two people who share a language can talk about it and be more or less understood. I’d wager that Akiva will know what I mean when I say that the people in the four scenarios are brave, even if he would disagree. I wouldn’t be surprised if he even agreed. So when I say elusive, I don’t want you to think I mean meaningless or arbitrary. Rather the opposite, in fact.

I believe that virtue and the good life can be talked about meaningfully and non-arbitrarily because of something intrinsic to our nature as thinking, speaking, dependent animals.

I read Akiva as attempting to preserve meaningfulness while allowing that it is all fundamentally arbitrary, and I think this approach cannot work. Here is the core of the argument:

Higher and lower lives are emergent from the preferences, values and interests of a person seeking to interact with the world, given the facts about them. If the man as Adam describes him is happy in the basement, I see no reason to judge him as inherently living a worse life, just because we have social expectations that presume otherwise. If it should turn out that this lifestyle is bad for him on his own terms, then we have not sacrificed his dignity through our criticism, but rather deeply honoured it.

It is OK to criticize someone as failing on their own terms, but not for failing on your terms, and still less for failing by some inherent terms.

From my point of view, these distinctions become blurred rather than sharp, which may obscure our disagreement again. But while I believe all of this comes down to the orientations of the people involved, I also believe that they are oriented around something—certainly something more primary than their preferences, values, and interests; the sources of each of these. These sources are elusive in the sense mentioned above, and often contradictory, but they are more “inherent” than merely your terms or mine. What we understand their nature to be is essentially contested, another level of debate below the one Akiva and I are having over whether they exist at all.

Charles Taylor has argued that it is impossible to get away from sources of this kind. We can see this in Akiva’s argument, which seems to posit an existential void but in fact rests on Nozickian assumptions about individual autonomy. Once such assumptions enter the scene, I find myself asking: on what basis may Akiva say that virtue ethics is wrong? Isn’t doing so judging my rightness on his terms rather than mine?

For instance, he is worried about the impact of my rhetoric:

While Adam may claim his adherence to the basic principles of toleration (“Hey man, virtues are about becoming a rad dude, none of that fascist break down your door stuff!”), I want to remind Adam of an insight he has long stressed- that of the importance of rhetoric, ideas, and norms as key social elements. As John Stuart Mill famously argued, public opinion, and the prejudices that we as a mass public may hold of the lives of others can deny them their respect and dignity as much as any law we might pass. If the rhetoric we use has impact, and Adam surely seems to think that it does, our criticisms of those with diverse lifestyle preferences do little more than to restrain them from having the full psychological liberty or even the basic ability to act so as to be truly free.

But on what basis am I restrained from restraining others with my rhetoric? If the moral journey is the thing, if the existential experience is truly primary, then how can Akiva tell me to reject what I have found on this journey, and justify this on his own terms? Or perhaps Nozickian automony is…dare I say it? …Inherent??

The dangers of picking any theory of our moral sources are quite real, and Akiva is right to be wary of them. But the dangers of a tepid relativism, which is what an on-your-own-terms-only criteria must collapse into, are just as real. Many years ago, after we had allowed a member of our group to mistreat too many people for too long, a friend said to me “we became so open minded that we forgot what right and wrong are.” I will never forget these words.

It is my contention that Akiva’s framework does not provide us with the resources to resist abusers so long as the victims do not ask for help, and especially when the victims explicitly say that they do not want to be helped. And moreover, it is highly unlikely to be effective in resisting some very evil theories of our moral sources, in the realm of rhetoric or in the realms of politics and war.

Akiva’s warning that virtue ethics tends towards illiberalism is heard loud and clear. As someone whose vision of the good life is specifically liberal-democratic, cosmopolitan, and sustained by vibrant commerce, this is a critique I feel I must meet. But it seems to me that Akiva’s argument is in fact that any sort of moral source ends up being illiberal.

If Akiva is right about that, and what I have said here about the necessity of moral sources is also right, then the liberal project is doomed. But I do not think he is right.

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