Temperance Against Slobs

Temperance is the virtue that most prominently displays the controversial aspects of Aristotle’s ethical system.

On the one hand, it is the virtue of restraint and self-command—fairly familiar concepts to us, if saddled to baggage of their own.

On the other hand, it is not the virtue of willpower, not really. The person who is able to resist the urge to do something wrong is merely encratic, or continent. This is also true of the person who is able to muster the strength to do the right thing even when it is unpleasant to do so. Lack of self-control is akrasia; but lack of self-control is not the opposite of temperance.

Becoming encratic is the first step to becoming temperate. The temperate person actually wants to do the right thing, in the right amount, under the right circumstances. In Aristotle’s system, the emotions and desires of the virtuous person align with right reason, rather than needing to be overcome.

I believe it was Julia Annas who said that this seems less weird if we simply ask the question “what would we rather our children be: someone who has a strong desire to do the wrong thing but can overcome it, or someone who genuinely wants to do the right thing?”

If you accept that we can discipline our desires to some extent through habit building (among other means), and that moral ideals are a matter of ascertaining what is good enough in context rather than achieving perfection, I think this begins to looks more reasonable.

It has recently occurred to me that the opposite of temperance is not lack of self-control—akrasia is the opposite of enkrateia, not of temperance. No, the opposite of temperance is indulging in every myopic, sinful, selfish desire without restraint. Across the chasm from the virtuous person who seems restrained and polished without effort is the utter slob and brute.

The most striking thing about the titular character of The Sopranos is not that he is a cold-blooded mobster—at this point we are all well exposed to mob movies. What’s striking about Tony, aside from the novelty of his anxiety and depression, is his complete intemperance. He lashes out in anger and gives in to lust and offends the people around him even when it is against his interests. It’s not out of a lack of prudence, either—he reflects often on how this problem often interferes with his business. He’s well aware after the fact that he’s behaved poorly even by the narrowest of selfish standards, but he can’t be bothered to do anything about it.

Maybe Aristotle’s ideal of temperance is too high for most people. I know that I haven’t even crossed the “good enough” threshold. Maybe self-control is a better standard, along the lines spelled out by people like Baumeister or Heath and Anderson.

But the slob definitely serves as a useful negative standard. So please: don’t be a self-indulgent, short-sighted, reactive, thoughtless brute. You owe it to the people around you and yourself to do better.

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The Fragility of Magnificence

Unlike the Stoics or Aquinas, Aristotle was quite haphazard with his list of virtues. The one that has caused possibly the most consternation among philologists and philosophers in general is megalopsuchia. “Greatness of Soul” is probably the best translation we have of it, but it is usually translated as “magnificence”. Aristotle’s account raises a lot of questions, questions which Julia Annas at least does not believe he provided the resources to answer.

Instead of sticking with Aristotle’s account, then, let’s simply speak of magnificence as greatness under the most extreme of circumstances. Sticking with my fellow Sweet Talker’s example, it need not even be moral greatness, necessarily.

As I have said, willpower is a scarce internal resource that must be managed. And as Heath and Anderson have said, most of the tools for managing our willpower are “external”; in our environment rather than in our bodies. Heath and Anderson worry that the transition from agrarian societies to modern societies has not resulted in a parallel transition in the institutional and social mechanisms for managing our willpower. It seems to me that this must be all the more so for those who strive for magnificence.

“It takes a community” not just to raise a child but to maintain our character and manage our willpower. In his critique of virtue ethics, Heath emphasizes how important our current peer environment—much more than our parents or the peer environment we grew up in—is for getting us to construe our circumstances in a way that promotes pro-social behavior. Putting it all together, virtue requires an embedded, institutional context.

Let’s return to the example of the NFL player. As boatfloating put it:

Within the current framework and rules of American professional football, certain traits are selected for. Just having the desire to hit, the tolerance to be hit, and the willingness to drop your factory job for a couple of weeks a year was no longer enough. You had to win the genetic lottery and be a physical and mental specimen of such rarity that one might scarcely believe you share the same genus as some your lesser fellow humans.

This also means that other, non-essential-to-football traits are disregarded. Does it really matter if an NFL-level talent is also a supertaster? Does it really matter if an NFL-level talent enjoys foreign films? Does it really matter if an NFL-level talent is a conscientious father or husband? Fuck no. But, of course, they are still of such rare quality, their relative weaknesses in other non-essential-to-football traits are hardly detriments to their career prospects.

Tantalizingly, the title of the post is “Even MLK Cheated On His Wife”, but the content is solely about the selection of professional athletes. Where David Duke hides his arguments inside of stories, boatfloating is our resident argument-by-hint specialist.

Football is an industry. The process of finding, “developing”, and moving talent up the ranks is all very streamlined. There are big institutions involved—including universities, among others. The resources for providing that external moral environment are there. That end simply has not been prioritized. We know that non-essential-to-football traits can be prioritized because some teams, like the Patriots, will punish players for what might be described as being un-classy in the media. Of course, this could be interpreted as being for the franchise—maintaining a certain image and all that. But surely the same logic could apply to not having domestic abusers and dog fight hosts on their roster?

On the other hand, the domestic abuse and dogfighting example are not, perhaps, the best ones for the angle I’m going for here. Those crimes take place at home; we wouldn’t expect any employer to be held responsible for what their employees do at home. A better example would be how players behave when the team is on the road, something that takes up a significant part of a player’s year. For all I know, NFL teams are actually good at providing an environment that encourages their players to behave during this time; I admit to total ignorance on this mark.

Some areas where the moral environment really is quite bad (from what I have heard) are the music and film industries. At least back when Johnny Cash was alive and doing drugs (a late in life interview of him serves as a point of reference for me here), the drug pushers were in the industry itself, you had a working relationship with them. Moreover, you were probably a young nobody who all of a sudden had rocketed to be a rich megastar, and the institutional environment certainly wasn’t set up to manage that transition well. And to top it all off, what peers you do have at this point are largely on drugs, too. Not all famous actors and musicians face this situation of course, but for those who do it becomes a black hole of self-destruction. And it seems to happen for at least some part of their careers to quite a large proportion of actors and musicians who make it big.

This is all very different from the case of Martin Luther King, Jr. in some very crucial ways. MLK truly was magnificent, in the sense of doing great things, taking hard stands, doing more than it seems possible for a long individual to do to bring justice where it was most needed. If justice was his cause, charity was his guiding star, and he pursued it with more courage than most. As an icon he has perhaps more glamour than any other figure in 20th century American history, perhaps more than any figure in all of our history.

Though his infidelity stains that glamour, it seems, in context, to be a highly forgivable sin. Some ideals, by their nature, cannot be attained in full, and so part of those ideals must involve an understanding of when “good enough” crosses the threshold into “good”. Would the content of MLK’s character have been improved if he had remained faithful to his wife? Certainly. And I hope that others do not take his infidelity to be an excuse to commit it themselves (“if even MLK cheated, how can I expect to be good enough to control myself?”).

But overall, the content of MLK’s character was extraordinary. He was magnificent, and it did not really come to the exclusion of other virtues, for the most part. His flaws were by and large the flaws of ordinary people, and his great qualities stand out as examples for us all.

I do think that aiming for magnificence makes us more vulnerable, as it necessarily involves goals that require nearly all of your focus and all of your time to have a chance of accomplishing. In a way, the Stoics were on to something when they spoke of virtue as being a necessary skill for even being able to properly enjoy external goods (which they referred to, oxymoronically, as “preferred indifferents” because of the fact that they were not necessary for happiness but we still prefer to have them rather than not). The people who are in a best position to stand firm against the temptations of sudden fame and fortune are those who are already virtuous and good at surrounding themselves with people who will help them stay that way.

But the risks of fame and fortune are very well known these days. And as I said, MLK did not, on the whole, lose his virtue after his rise. And so I remain skeptical of the claim that began this conversation.


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Do You Even Telos, Bro?

So I’m reading After Virtue, surprisingly (shamefully?) late in my virtue ethics reading list. It’s living up to its reputation so far; I think it’s safe to say that there’s something in it for everyone here; history, philosophy, and social science.

Alasdair MacIntyre’s account of the fall of virtue goes something like this:

  1. Aristotle and the ancients set up the virtue framework in which there is man-as-he-is and man-as-he-ought-to-be, the latter defined by man’s telos, his purpose. The gap is bridged with practical reason.
  2. The scholastics came along, though this framework was pretty awesome, but added that man-as-he-ought-to-be is man acting in accordance with divine law. Despite later claims to the contrary, these guys are still all about reason.
  3. The Calvinists comes along and ruin everything (note: MacIntyre is Catholic). OK, not everything, but they set the stage for the decline: they reject the idea that reason can bridge the gap between man-as-he-is and man-as-he-ought-to-be. But they still believe the gap can be bridged—it’s just that only divine grace can get us there.
  4. The Enlightenment philosophers inherited the Calvinist-influenced version of this framework and agree with the notion that reason can’t bridge the gap. Only they’re a bunch of secularists, so they don’t think divine grace has any place either. The gap can no longer be bridged.
  5. Eventually, man-as-he-ought-to-be is forgotten altogether, and the idea of telos is rejected in basically all and any contexts.
  6. Enlightenment philosophers begin the work of constructing a framework in which moral law (inherited from the notion of divine law) is grounded in “human nature” (which is basically just man-as-he-is) without reference to a telos.
  7. Despite investing the greatest minds of the era, perhaps of any era, they fail miserably.

As a result, we’re stuck with a bunch of fragments of the old framework that don’t work well on their own, and attempts to make them stand on their own that simply don’t pass muster.

That’s all very interesting, and you don’t have to have MacIntyre’s point of view to agree that there’s at least something to that characterization of how events unfolded.

But my question, as a concerned virtue ethicist, is: can we resurrect a human telos?

Telos gets a bum rap because a lot of people get the wrong idea when they hear about a human “purpose”. They think religion. But we needn’t have a religious notion of telos and Aristotle certainly didn’t.

The idea, explored at length by Philippa Foot in Natural Goodness, is sort of functional. When we speak of “a good sailor”, we think of someone who performs a specific role well. When we speak of “a good wolf” or perhaps “a good example of a wolf”, we think of a wolf that is able to operate with its pack effectively, that isn’t self-destructive or likely to get the rest of its pack and its kin killed, and so on.

The crucial question for ethics is whether it is meaningful to speak of “a good human”. Foot and MacIntyre think so, as do most virtue ethicists in general. And it’s hard for me to disagree when I read, for instance, Daniel Russell’s Happiness for Humans:

So here’s a piece of advice: the person with the best chance for a happy life is the one who can cope with change, finds people to love, and then loves them as if his happiness, his very identity, depended on them. On my view, doing all of that wisely is just what happiness is.

Let’s taken as a given, for the sake of argument, that this quote describes the parameters of an ideal life. If this is the sort of life that “a good human” lives, it is also clearly not the life that all people are living. Let’s tentatively bring man-as-he-ought-to-be back into the picture then.

But where does this telos come from? A popular argument circulating on behalf of things like the paleo diet is that we evolved in one environment and since then have moved on to ways of life that are drastically different from that. I’m skeptical of the particular application (you can pry my processed sugar and carbs from my cold, dead fingers) but clearly the line of thought involves man-as-he-ought-to-be and an evolutionary story to justify it.

Certainly psychology, self-help, and happiness studies all have an implicit telos of the healthy, happy, fulfilled human in mind. There are plenty of problems with particular instances of each of these areas but all I’m attempting to demonstrate here is that telos need not seem so remote and ancient to us as it is often presented as being.

MacIntyre argues that the is-ought divide is an artifact of a specific history rather than an intrinsic gap. I’m inclined to agree. But that’s a much longer conversation, to be returned to at a later time.