Morality Is And Ought To Be Circular

Featured image is Spirals, by M. C. Escher.

A lot of bad moral philosophy boils down to a simple assertion that X is bad because Y. X is something we all agree is bad ahead of time, and Y is the justification the philosopher is attempting to supply after the fact. The problem is not that this reasoning is motivated. The problem is the reasoning itself.

If X is bad because of standard Y, why is standard Y good? Well, because of meta-standard Z, of course. And on and on—we have entered the classic infinite regress. Foundationalism from Descartes to the present attempted to find the last step in chains like this—Z because Alpha, full stop. But foundationalism is a failed projected, doomed because it attempts to supply a firm answer to a bad question.

Lest you think I exaggerate the viciousness of these regresses or the folly of foundationalism, see the discussion in the comments of this post. This fellow earnestly believes that “because it impeded humanity’s progress” is the correct answer to the question “why was it wrong to mass murder six million innocents?” When pressed on the matter, he pointed out that we’ve had “thou shalt not kill” for thousands of years, but people keep on killing each other. Thus, we need something more persuasive to make it stop, and apparently “killing impedes progress” is it.

Except there seems to be a problem here, according to the very criteria introduced. The notion of progress is very old itself, yet many of schools thought reject the very idea of it. What is more, the very people who perpetrated the mass murder of 6 million innocents believed that they were doing it to advance the cause of progress. So it seems that not everyone has been persuaded either that progress is good, or that that its being good entails mass murder being bad.

Maybe yet another link in the chain of reasoning is needed. Progress is good because it hedges our bets against extinction, and does so by preserving and creating diversity. Thus, to mass murder in the name of progress is an error, because that reduces diversity. Conceptual problem solved!

But why should we care about extinction, or hedging against it? That might not be a problem in our lifetime. In the meantime, I could indulge in a myopic hedonism, which could include relishing the suffering and death of my enemies and their tribes.

But I belabor this example. The problem has its roots in foundationalist thinking in general. To move beyond it, we must look elsewhere.

Morality properly understood is circular, though not a closed circle. We might instead call it a spiral.

In a previous post on the subject I drew an analogy with how we understand what a good heart is. We do not say that a properly functioning heart should pump blood because blood is good because oxygen is good, and so on. We observe the function of the heart in the context of the circulatory system, which itself is understood in relation to the other systems which make up the body. The operations of the body help us see what the heart is, and seeing what the heart is helps us understand the operations of the body.

The moral spiral is just this sort of back and forth movement between the system—in this case frameworks of evaluation—and the particular good or bad. Human life as it is lived, in practice, points to such frameworks, which in turn provide the context for understanding particular episodes in specific lives.

For this reason, portrayal in art is a far richer resource for morality than philosophy or any other intellectual field. Narrative, painting, poetry, and even music disclose worlds to us that can only be accessed through portrayal of this sort. Worlds that always exceed what we articulate about them. Who can read Eli Wiesel’s Night and believe some external justification is required to demonstrate that the Holocaust was an atrocity? Only the coldest rationalist, committed to an inappropriately applied ethic of inhumanly detached reason. For the rest of us, it is plain enough to see.

The task of philosophy is to flesh out articulations of these implicit frameworks, however finite and flawed these articulations may be compared to the multitudes contained in artistic portrayal and lived practice. But these articulations do create more resources for evaluating our practices; in the factories of death we may see the moral deformity of industrial society as a way of life in general, and the art which implicitly defends it. Articulation is not a mere rationalization of what is implicit in the practice; it provides the means not only for defense but for criticism. From there the argument becomes hermeneutical—do we read Night in the way described, or does it better fit into a framework which reduces all actions coordinated by government to violence? There are no knock-down arguments here, but if we are open to our interlocutors, we can muddle our way through, doing the best we can to find the correct framework.

Finally, the fact that these articulations owe their origin to culturally specific practice should not be taken for evidence of some specific metaphysics. All of the above could be consistent with platonism, theism, or some version of materialism. Charles Taylor, from whom I have taken most of this, believes that the latter is precluded. His former student Joseph Heath does not. For myself, I think some version of aristotelianism is the most likely candidate.

But that is a larger discussion. The main takeaway I’d like to leave you with is that morality has this circular structure, and that many alternatives remain in play as possible explanations.

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Torturing the Data, Attending to the Text

by Timo Elliott
by Timo Elliott

The risk of talking about context is the temptation to treat it as some undifferentiated thing. Just add three more cups of context, stir, and voila—a valid interpretation of the facts. I tried to show by example that this was not so, but the distinctions among context are worthy of independent investigation.

Continue reading “Torturing the Data, Attending to the Text”

Universals and Meaning As Use

Take the sentence “Fido is a dog.” From this, we are entitled to infer various other sentences by substituting for a subsentential component. Thus we are entitled to infer “Fido is a mammal.” We are also entitled to infer “My pet is a dog.” The difference is that the latter inference is reversible, while the former is not. From “Fido is a mammal” we are not entitled to infer that “Fido is a dog,” whereas we can infer “Fido is a dog” from “My pet is a dog.” The particular, in other words, is that segment of the sentence that has symmetric substitution relations, while the universal is the one that does not. It is this symmetry that gives us the notion of different particulars being “coreferential,” and out of that, the very idea that there is an object to which singular terms refer.

Joseph Heath

This simple insight just saved you hours of cannabis fueled dorm room philosophy debates about the existence of universals. You’re welcome.

The key all along was to think of the meaning or content of a word as being derived from its use in a sentence—that is, from its contribution to a judgment. And judgments are things we do. They are actions… speech actions, like the act of asserting something. Just as a valid chess move is governed by shared rules over permissible actions rather than the intrinsic properties of a chess piece itself, shared rules of inference and judgment govern valid moves in discourse, rather than the intrinsic properties of words and concepts—much less the arbitrary phonemes that attach to them.

Leonardo_polyhedra[1]

It’s easy to see how this resolves a lot of the problems created by the other school of thought, the one that locates meaning and content in reference, in sign and signified. If meaning comes from reference, then what does the universal “dog” mean absent its particular instantiations? Platonists thought the question demanded there must be an ideal dog, an abstract object with reality just as real as the particular Fido on your lap, perhaps an idea in the mind of God. Nominalists rightly thought that was absurd, and so instead posited that universals are just names that refer to particular things with common properties—preserving the same meaning as reference that led Plato down the wrong track in the first place.

It’s edifying to realize thousands of pages of scholarship, and centuries of debate within Medieval Europe, stemmed from a confusion generated by the inferential structure of ordinary language. Indeed, the failure to make meaning as reference “work” as a theory, combined with the odd resistance to giving it up, has led generations of “semioticians” to radical conclusions like nihilism, post-structuralism, and moral error theory, when it turns out the starting premise was unmotivated in the first place.

Wittgenstein’s Beetle in a Box analogy provides a great illustration of the basic idea. It shows how we can talk meaningfully about concepts, i.e. signs, even without direct access to the private, subjective perception of the thing “signified”. Instead, the shared, public meaning of any given word (like beetle) is given by its use, its pragmatics, particularly in the context of a sentence.

That’s why Wittgenstein argued a language can never be totally private. The rules of discourse, like the rules of chess, only make sense insofar as they are shared. Sure, you could invent a new board game with all new rules that only you know. But when you make a move in a game that no one else around you can recognize you might as well be speaking gibberish.

How We Think: a Simple Model

mind
Drilled Mind by Roman Klco

Forgive the clumsy workings of a mind untutored in philosophy of mind. But it has always been my way to read, and think, and argue, and then try to pull the threads together and see what emerges. What I lack in training I will try to make up for with brevity.

Crucial for understanding anything is understanding the context. The context is what is meant when people speak of the whole truth as opposed to partial truths. However, context—the whole truth—is boundless, and so whenever we attempt to grasp it, we’re always projecting and simplifying.

A partial truth might be dropping something, and a projection of the whole truth would be classical physics.

We can make sense of the centuries long tug-of-war between Enlightenment rationalists and empiricists from this perspective. The rationalist argument boiled down to the idea that we can never make sense of observed truths, which are always partial, without working out the whole truth abstractly beforehand. Empiricists basically believed the opposite; you add up a lot of partial observations until you get the whole truth.

Philosophical hermeneutics for the past century has taken another path, saying, in essence, you need both at once.

As Jonathan Haidt points out, people don’t really have a rational model of morality in mind when they make in the moment ethical judgments. His observation could be extended to nearly any judgement; more of the whole gets left out than is brought in explicitly. But there is an important two-way relationship between part and whole here. So how does it work?

Crucially, we externalize most of the tools for our thinking; Andy Clark calls this “extended cognition.” Joseph Heath and Joel Anderson point out that the most important way individual knowledge is externalized is through the social environment; that is, through other people. In large part this is accomplished by trusting the people in our lives and the people we perceive to be authorities on a subject, and having faith that the apparent contradictions or limitations to what is known can either be worked out, or aren’t very important.

But neither the trust nor the faith are blind. When we are confronted by partial truths, or assertions by people we trust, that stand in conflict with the whole truth as we understand it, or as other people we trust have explained it—they are subject to reevaluation.

Essentially, what the typical person brings to the fore in confronting the partial truths in their daily life is not an actual model of the whole, but prejudices. Hans-George Gadamer speaks of prejudices in just this sense as “pre-judgements,” similar to how a judge will make provisional judgments that influence the decisions he makes throughout the trial, before actually rendering a final verdict.

These prejudices aren’t simply mindless assumptions or “givens”, nor is the process by which we come to them. They always point back towards some skeleton projection of a whole truth, which can be fleshed out and scrutinized. Haidt leans hard on the fact that people will cling to their prejudices even when unable to come up with any reasons to justify them. But the fact that I might not be able to remember how to solve a quadratic equation in the moment does not invalidate mathematical reasoning as the correct way to solve such an equation. Nor does it mean I should abandon my belief in mathematical reasoning!

Context matters, and part of specifically human context is the knowledge that we have largely externalized. Haidt and his researchers are presumably complete strangers to their subjects, and the subjects in question knew that they were inside of a psychology experiment. Would the subjects have treated the matter differently if they were in a setting they trusted to be private, discussing the questions with a priest, a teacher, or other trusted moral authority who challenged their prejudices and explained the reasoning for doing so?

The very best projections of the whole truth that humanity is capable of mustering can get incredibly complex, and take years of training to really understand. Physics, chemistry, advanced mathematics, computer science, but also moral systems, offer up huge, interconnected sets of theories. Connecting these systems to people’s prejudices is a matter of persuasion. Non-specialists must be persuaded that specialists have authority on a given subject, and specialists must also persuade one another on any given point of contention.

Persuasion isn’t a matter of cold, logical syllogisms, but of rhetoric. But that doesn’t mean it is irrational. It appeals to thought processes as they actually occur in people. Among specialists, of course, this will often involve a great deal of technical details. But technical details alone cannot tell the whole story of what we ought to believe or why we ought to change our point of view.

In every case, the one attempting to persuade will draw on narratives and metaphors and examples from life that make the subject, as well as what is at stake, concrete for the people he wants to persuade. They will employ a situated reason. But reason, none the less.

 

The Empty Defense

hollow

While searching for wisdom on the subject of trust, I turned to a book by that name by Francis Fukuyama. This is where he popularized the idea of “high trust” and “low trust” societies, characterized by the ability of huge numbers of strangers in that society to cooperate.

Fukuyama begins by saying that neo-classical economics is right on most things, but is missing something important—the way sociology shapes economic relationships. So far, so good. But his approach to this “non-economic” determinant of economic behavior is vulnerable to Deirdre McCloskey’s critique of the neo-institutionalists in economics (see Paul and my discussion of that critique).

For Fukuyama, trust is simply the thing we accumulate in order to build social capital. What is social capital, you ask? Why it’s just the thing that allows us to cooperate on a large scale rather than free-ride or otherwise defect.

It is basically a black box. Just like tradition, as understood by Burke, was just a black box, irrationality and prejudice that formed the basis of rational behavior. And indeed Fukuyama explicitly defends religion as an irrational basis for economically and socially rational behavior.

But tradition is rational, not irrational. And so is religion. Religion and tradition writ large have inner logic—or internal narratives—that are not separable from the so-called functional aspects or power relations (perhaps more properly, relations of authority). Instrumentalist analyses like Fukuyama’s give you a decent approximation of the machinery—Joseph Heath, to my mind, takes this about as far as it can go in his analysis of norms and choice. But ultimately this machinery is not content-neutral, and to call it machinery or functional or instrumental leaves out an important part of the picture. To my mind, the most important part.

If the only defenders of religion left were people like Fukuyama, who simply see something instrumentally useful, religion would be doomed to fade into oblivion. Once religion becomes nothing more than a club, a vehicle for community building, it is destined to lose to organizations that compete specifically on that margin. Or simply to the desire to not be bothered by other people at all; perhaps to sit at home writing blog posts instead!

I can hear my fellow nonbelievers giving a shout of approval—so be it! But this problem is not restricted to religious apologetics.

I believe that the basic ideals of our way of life in this country are rich, meaningful, and important. The particulars of this are, to me, the core answer to a number of very important questions: what is the point of America as a political entity? To protect our way of life. What value does “American” as common cultural identity hold?  It connects together hundreds of millions of people who share a commitment to the same basic outline of a way of life, and fosters an ongoing conversation about the best particular ways to fill out that outline.

In short, politics, society, and commerce, all have value in the way they come together to form and preserve a way of life.

But the empty, instrumental pluralism that has become increasingly popular among intellectuals and elites will not suffice to preserve that way of life. In as much as such people continue to go to bat for our way of life, it is a fragile, tenuous defense. Their commitment is like a lapsed Catholic who continues to go to church because they like the people there. As I said above, once a church becomes entirely full of such people, it cannot last. Nor can our way of life persist, if these are our only defenders left.

Because people do have substantive beliefs about what a good life should look like. And many of them are quite hostile to ours. I’m not just talking about groups like Al Qaeda or ISIS, which constitute one answer to the modern world cosplaying as pre-modern. I’m also talking about others on the radical left and right who see our way of life as fundamentally and irreparably immoral. Whether because they reject the tragic nature of the world and so blame any ugliness that exists on the status quo, or because they just have different answers to important questions than our way of life allows, they are not going to be satisfied by aspirationally neutral functional arguments.

Because in truth those arguments aren’t neutral at all, but presuppose some notion of the good. And unless that notion is defended directly, it will not last.

Even then, there are no guarantees.

 

Tradition, Authority, and Reason

When I started reading up on the virtues and following the trails through philosophy that I found along the way two years ago, I was pretty sure that I was a Burkean traditionalist of some sort. It was Alasdair MacIntyre who began to throw a wrench in this when he pointed out that Burke treated tradition as a sort of black box—something that actual adherents to traditions do not do. Moreover, Burke somehow did this while remaining an economic liberal for his day, something very much not traditional to his nation.

We are apt to be misled here by the ideological uses to which the concept of a tradition has been put by conservative political theorists. Characteristically such theorists have followed Burke in contrasting tradition with reason and the stability of tradition with conflict. Both contrasts obfuscate. For all reasoning takes place within the context of some traditional mode of thought, transcending through criticism and invention the limitations of what had hitherto been reasoned in that tradition; this is as true of modern physics as of medieval logic. Moreover when a tradition is in good order it is always partially constituted by an argument about the goods the pursuit of which gives to that tradition its particular point and purpose.

MacIntyre presents a different sort of traditionalism from Burke, one more like Michael Oakeshott’s. There is reason and reasoning but these are only made coherent by the traditions they are situated within.

Continue reading “Tradition, Authority, and Reason”

Interrogation, Dialectic, and Storytelling

Millais_Boyhood_of_Raleigh
The Boyhood of Raleigh by John Everett Millais

As far as I can tell, “deconstruction” is a word that simply means “academic trolling,” at least when it is performed by the man who coined it—Jacques Derrida.

This can clearly be seen in his deconstruction of speech act theorist J. L. Austin, which Jonathan Culler provides an account of in On Deconstruction.

Austin was arguing, against his predecessors, that language is not simply about making descriptive statements. He pointed out that fitting language into that straightjacket meant treating as exceptional what in fact was characteristic of huge amounts of discourse. As an alternative, he proposed the idea of language as including both constative statements, those which are true or false, and performative statements, those which have some consequence within the social reality in which they are stated. The canonical case of the latter would be the making of a promise.

Continue reading “Interrogation, Dialectic, and Storytelling”

Science is Persuasion

persuasion-1

Even Heterodox Economics is Misguided

Earlier this week, Arnold Kling—who taught the first economics class I ever took—wrote a post comparing behaviorism in psychology to Samuelsonianism in economics. In his view, the chief failings of these approaches are an overemphasis on mechanistic models on the one hand, and a “blank slate” view of human nature on the other. For both reasons, he’s rereading Stephen Pinker, enemy of blank slate models and enthusiastic booster of computational, rather than mechanistic, models of cognition.

I argued that computational models are not different in kind from mechanistic ones, they are just more sophisticated. I pointed him towards works in the rhetoric of inquiry tradition, in particular Economics and Hermeneutics, an excellent collection edited by the late Don Lavoie and available for free online.

It seems that he’s now reading that very collection, which is great. However, I remember my own first encounter with this tradition of thought—through Deirdre McCloskey’s The Rhetoric of Economics—and I found it quite baffling at the time.

I think there are a lot of people educated in economics who sense that something is wrong in the house that Samuelson built. However, the tools that most heterodox schools have to offer—and here I include even most versions of the Austrian school—simply won’t help you see some of the fundamental errors of the mainstream view. At best the problems of the mainstream schools are replaced with more nuanced, subtle, and complex models that nevertheless share the same underlying characteristics.

This is the basis of McCloskey’s critique of the neo-institutionalists; they think they’ve moved beyond Samuelsonian limitations, when in fact they’ve simply subsumed the idea of an institution into a Samuelsonian framework. Thus instead of conveying meaning or providing frameworks of interpretation or shaping conjective reality, institutions are treated as structures of reward-and-punishment designed in just such a way to make utility maximizers cooperate with one another.

The writers in the Project On Rhetoric Of Inquiry, as well as hermeneutics and what Lavoie calls “the interpretative turn” in general, can be hard for outsiders of that tradition to get their head around. So this post will be my attempt to introduce one version of that line of thinking. My intended audience are primarily heterodox economists, but the argument will be relevant to economists and social scientists in general, and indeed any scientist or scholar.

Continue reading “Science is Persuasion”

Character, Moral Education, and the Good: A Response to Joseph Heath’s Dismissal of Virtue Ethics

As some of you are aware, I am currently working on a business book based on the virtue ethics framework. Knowing this, Samuel Hammond recommended his very favorite book on business ethics: Morality, Competition, and the Firm: The Market Failure Approach to Business Ethics by the formidable Joseph Heath.  From the very beginning of the book, I suspected Sam was up to something—I’m no fan of Pareto-type reasoning in moral matters, and that is basically all of what Heath had originally intended to offer on the subject of business ethics. I did greatly enjoy the chapter (which was originally this paper) in which Heath argued that we should treat agency theory (and by implication, most of game theory and economics) as a branch of critical theory. That is, we need not treat it as revealed truth, but rather as a series of thought experiments from which we can draw valuable lessons. Thus, while there is far less opportunism than agency theory would predict, the “fault lines” of major corporate scandals fall right where agency theory would lead us to believe they would be. This is a profoundly McCloskeyan perspective.

But when I got to the chapter on virtue ethics, I realized that old Sam had laid a trap for me, and I had walked right into it. Heath is ruthless in his dismissal of virtue ethics, calling it “debunked” and essentially no better than “folk psychology”. Ensnared in Sam’s machinations, I feel at this point helpless to do anything but see his diabolical scheme to completion. That is, I’d like to offer a response.

Heath offers three critiques: first, that psychology has demonstrated that character as virtue ethics understands it does not exist. Second, that sociology has demonstrated that the process of moral learning virtue ethicists embrace is at odds with reality. And finally, that the notion of the good in virtue ethics is at odds with liberal neutrality.

The Situationist Critique

Heath’s criticism from psychology is largely the same situationist argument that has been lobbed at virtue ethics for years, pursued especially by John Dorris. The long and short of this argument is that hundreds of psychological experiments have shown that people’s behavior is highly sensitive to situations. Moreover, people who seem to have a virtue in one area show little correlation with displaying the very same virtue in another area—the clearest case of this being Harshorne and May’s study demonstrating that many students who are honest in one context are frequently deceitful in another.

My response to this critique cannot compete with the many virtue ethicists who have already risen to the task. But I will draw on their responses, and defend them as decisive.

Heath argues that good behavior in an area where we have settled habits don’t “correlate in any significant way with behavior in other types of situations, even ones that are only slightly different.” This is odd, given that Harshorne and May’s finding was that there was typically a .23 correlation between any two areas where honesty was called upon, a correlation which I should think would be considered quite large in most areas of social science research. Situationists have a tendency to focus on the fact that those apparently influenced by the situation comprise a supermajority, and neglect the fact that a substantial minority do not fit this narrative. Those who invoke the Milgram experiment, for instance, forget that 45% of the participants refused to complete the experiment.

These experiments, moreover, have a few serious defects if the goal is to “debunk” the psychology behind virtue ethics. First, other than the Harshorne and May experiment, most of these were one-time affairs. The virtue ethics of Aristotle, and of people such as Julia Annas who emphasis the skill analogy of virtue, has moral learning as one of the central components. The problem with one-shot experiments is that we don’t get to see whether those involved took anything away from their own actions, once the point of the experiment was revealed. Second, in order for these experiments to have “debunked” virtue ethics, it must be supposed that virtue ethicists believe that most people have achieved complete virtue.

Aristotle certainly did not believe such a thing. Deirdre McCloskey may believe something like that, but I follow Christian Miller in thinking that most of us have merely developed a variable range of local character traits, but only a minority manage to develop global character traits—that is, most character traits for most people are domain-specific. Nevertheless, there is nothing about this which suggests that the domain cannot be expanded, and eventually become global. Moreover, this possibility is suggested by the minority of participants in psychology experiments who do exhibit good character in a number of circumstances.

Local character traits also answer another point made by Heath—that if full virtue is indeed rare, then:

Of course, it is then incumbent upon the virtue theorist not only to show that such rare individuals do exist, but that other people are able to identify them reliably (so that emulation of these persons can serve some kind of useful function in everyday morality).

But if the path to complete virtue (which most people never finish) involves developing a lot of local character traits along the way, then everyday morality would by and large involve learning from virtue as it is observed in local contexts. And indeed Annas emphasizes just this, without using the terminology of local character traits. In Intelligent Virtue, she argues that we grow to recognize courage in a variety of specific contexts—on the one hand, seeing one’s parents chase off a vicious dog, on the other, watching a video of the passive resistance tactics used during the civil rights movement. Two very different types of courage; each possible to develop in a local way. But the locality of each does not preclude the possibility of developing them into a more global character trait, with time and experience.

Following Annas, I also think that Heath significantly misunderstands what she calls the “intellectualist” aspects of Aristotelian virtue. Once it is understand that practical wisdom unifies the virtues through a combination of habituated dispositions and reasoning, Heath’s argument loses a lot of its bite. To quote Annas:

Doris gives an example where a colleague invites you to dinner when your spouse is absent, and an attempt at seduction is clearly in the offing. Only the situationist, he thinks, will have the intelligence to avoid the dinner at the outset; the person who relies on character feels ‘secure in the knowledge of [their] righteousness’ and goes along – only for it to be probable that their reliance will turn out to be misguided. Doris misses the point that the virtuous person would have an intelligent understanding of what fidelity requires, and would do just what Doris says the situationist would do. Only somebody clueless about what virtue required would rely on the force of habit alone.

“Lead me not into temptation” is a prudent, time-tested strategy for preserving one’s virtues.

This is particularly relevant to Heath’s observation that how people behave often has more to do with construal of a situation than with anything objective about the situation itself. He suggests that business ethicists could more productively focus on influencing how their students construe particular situations. But if this is possible—that is, if a professor is capable of teaching a student how to construe future situations in such a way that makes them behave ethically when they would not have—how can this be described as anything but a persistent character trait in the student? How is such a thing in any way at odds with the traditional conception of practical wisdom? Aristotle’s phronesis is quite literally the ability to read a situation—to determine how to do the right thing, in the right way, in relation to the right people.

The student-teacher relationship brings us to the second part of Heath’s criticism.

Peers Are More Persuasive Than Teachers

On the subject of moral education, Heath argues:

The concern raised by criminological studies is that virtue theory, despite being social, may be social in the wrong way. It emphasizes the “vertical” dimension of behavioral transmission, from parents or authority figures to children, instead of the “horizontal,” from one peer to another. It also assigns greater importance to interactions in the past—on the grounds that they produce habits, which sediment to form character—over interactions in the present. Criminological research suggests that this puts the emphasis on the wrong set of social interactions. When it comes to determining criminality, horizontal interactions appear to be far more important than vertical ones.

To the extent that virtue ethicists have over-emphasized the role of parents, teachers, mentors, and authority figures in general in moral development, this is an appropriate criticism. Like Protagoras, I believe that we spend all our lives teaching and being taught how to be virtuous by everyone we encounter. Our peer group is always much larger than our mentor group, and since we are of the same status it is them that we are expected to emulate (though our mentors obviously prefer us to emulate only the best of them).

Annas observed of skills in general that “Skilled dispositions are not static conditions; they are always developing, being sustained or weakened” and further argued that it is all too common for skills to “ossify and decay” when allowed to. Given the important role that peers within our skilled community play in providing points of reference for, and sometimes constructive criticism and error correction, it makes sense that our skills may languish if we fall into a peer community with low standards and a poor ethic when it comes to the maintenance of the skill in question. Practical wisdom is the skill necessary for the exercise of the virtues, and a peer group that lacks wisdom can inhibit one’s ability to hone and maintain that skill, or acquire it in the first place. Again, this is implicit in the important role that Aristotle gives to friendship and community, and explicit in MacIntyre’s own formulation.

Nevertheless I don’t think that crimonology is the best basis for drawing conclusions about people in general. Heath does, because of the conclusions about character he drew from psychology (which I contested above) and because he buys into Hannah Arendt’s theory that evil is banal, inspired by a patently false understanding of Adolf Eichmann’s character. The Milgram experiment is frequently invoked in discussions of the banality of evil, this in spite of the fact that the participants who went along with their instructions were often agitated and shell-shocked by what they were doing. They were hardly simple yes-men who were blasé to the apparent suffering they were inflicting or the possibility that they were doing something wrong.

A Neutered Liberalism

Heath’s final argument is that virtue ethics flies in the face of modern democratic liberalism because it posits a substantive notion of the good. Heath embraces Rawls’ “reasonable pluralism” and calls for neutrality “with respect to all ‘big-picture’ views” in political matters.

This is perfect rubbish. Liberalism is a notion of the good, and it must be. Otherwise, why not be neutral with respect to people’s choice to form a community of pedophiles, or a community where murder laws are not enforced? Attempts to take the very historically specific compromise under which modern liberal states emerged and justify them in terms of neutrality is a fool’s errand. John Rawls failed in the task, and so will anyone else that attempts it. The idea that a political order must be justified by some sort of consensus—real or the result of some ethical autoCAD—is itself a substantive idea of the good of politics. Equality, which Heath holds up as a cardinal liberal political virtue, is as far from neutral as it gets—and this goes for both the ideal of equality before the law and the ideal of equality in outcomes.

There are certainly pragmatic reasons to argue for greater or lesser variety in the conceptions of good that people are allowed to pursue within the bounds of the law. But we need a substantive conception in order to draw those boundaries—or else we fall into the problems found in pure narratives of federalism, where we find ourselves with no rationale for opposing slave-states and other horrors.

If You’re So Smart, Why Aren’t You a Saint?

Heath concludes the sociology section with the following:

Again, it is always possible to design a more sophisticated, cognitivist version of virtue theory, which would avoid any commitment to these discredited common-sense ideas about bad upbringing and deviant values. Yet this is an uphill battle, because the traditional Aristotelian-Thomistic theory of virtue is the primary source of these common-sense ideas in Western societies. Rather than trying to rehabilitate the old-fashioned vocabulary, there is a lot to be said for starting from scratch, with the empirical evidence, and developing a vocabulary that is better suited to accounting for what we know and understand about norm-conformity and social deviance.

In business, when you work closely enough with someone on a regular enough basis, it doesn’t take long before you can anticipate how reliable they will be in a number of respects. Will they recognize moments where they can take initiative in a valuable way, and do so? Will they do the bare minimum of what is asked of them? Will they fail to even do the bare minimum, and simply come up with an excuse after the fact?

These are observable regularities. The fact that I cannot show Heath or anyone else these regularities in perfectly sterilized and controlled experimental conditions does not eradicate their existence. Evidence is important but like McCloskey I believe that our idea of what should count as evidence is often excessively narrow. If the only perspective that is allowed to count is one that self-consciously steps outside of life as it is lived and puts people in highly contrived scenarios that they frequently have little prior context for, then human nature is going to look very unrecognizable indeed—because that is not the perspective from which most human lives are lived.

In short, I think Heath significantly overplays the extent to which the core of virtue and character have been “discredited”, though I do not think we should ignore the enormously valuable contributions of the researchers that Heath draws upon. I also reject his remark that most virtue ethicist responses to situationists make virtue ethics unfalsifiable—though I hope he doesn’t have an overly positivist idea of what falsifiability entails. Christian Miller’s response opens the door to a number of possibly fruitful avenues of experimental investigation.

As a parting thought, I’d like to suggest that “starting from scratch” in ethics has rarely worked out very well, and that perhaps the “old-fashioned vocabulary” has persisted for a reason.