Skepticism Without Nihilism

Featured image is The Philosopher Pyrrho from Elis, by Petrarcha

The Greek term skeptikos means, not a negative doubter, but an investigator, someone going for the skeptesthai or enquiry. As the late sceptic author Sextus Empiricus puts it, there are dogmatic philosophers, who think that they have found the truth; negative dogmatists, who feel entitled to the position that truth cannot be found; and the sceptics, who are unlike both groups in that they are not committed either way. They are still investigating things.

Julia Annas

In his autobiography, Charles Darwin lamented that he used to love poetry, but could no longer “endure to read a line” of it. He complains:

My mind seems to have become a kind of machine for grinding general laws out of large collections of facts, but why this should have caused the atrophy of that part of the brain alone, on which the higher tastes depend, I cannot conceive.

I think economics trained me to think this way. When I began a fresh foray into philosophy a couple of years ago now, I approached it from this stance. Every book went into the grinder, to mash up and join with others in the cage of general laws. I steamrolled my way through book after book; when I couldn’t follow them I just pressed on so I could get to the next one. There was no thought of reading for pleasure or respecting the book before me like I might respect a partner in conversation. What is more rude than completely dominating a conversation without consideration for the other person?

But I launched into reading as if quantity equaled quality, as if I could become an expert simply by reading a lot.

I did, indeed, learn a great deal. But for the last year or so, I felt that I had stumbled on authors who helped me grow in an important way—they helped me to see more clearly a wide and yawning ignorance in myself, including an ignorance of how far the ignorance itself extends.

Increasingly, I wonder: isn’t this what philosophy is supposed to teach? For all the flaws of the historical and fictional Socrates, don’t we still admire him for saying that he only knew that he knew nothing?

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Julia Annas on the Many Ways of Life Consistent With Virtue

More weighty is the claim that to make human nature the basis for ethics is to accept something unacceptably constricting: the imposition of a single form of life and preferred set of dispositions on everyone. Nagel is right that we have reason to reject this picture; from the viewpoint of my own deliberations I know that an ethical theory cannot be right that would impose a single way of life on me and everyone else just on the grounds that we are human.

However, what is this ‘singleness’ of the ethical way of life grounded in human nature? Nagel and many other modern critics clearly think that it is something which constrains the range of specific activities in a single life and implies that individuals, however diverse, should aim at the same specific goal. If this were the case, criticism would be easy; but it is not how we find the actual ancient appeal to nature functioning. We have already seen that reflecting on our final end does not prescribe one range of specific human activities against another. The importance of reflecting on my life as a whole lies in the opportunity for clarifying and rethinking my priorities and the ordering of my values. To be told that one way of doing this, as opposed to another, is natural, in accordance with human nature, is to be told two things. One is that there are constraints which my reflection must respect and priorities which are not up to me to settle. If it is true, for example, that human nature is so constituted as always to seek only pleasure, then this rules out certain theories as to how I should live—the Stoic and Aristotelian, for a start. It also directs me as to where to discover mistakes in my life. If it is true that I cannot help seeking pleasure in all I do, and if I do not seem to be very successful in this, then I must be making mistakes as to what pleasure is and how to achieve it; and searching for these mistakes, and rectifying them, is bound to revise my way of life.

But the appeal to nature is also an appeal to an ideal, an ethical ideal, articulated by ethical theory, in terms of whic hI can locate, criticize and modify those elements in my ethical beliefs which rely merely on convention. For beliefs which I have acquired in an uncritical way from my social environment cannot be relied on to take me in the righ tdirection; indeed (depending on how revisionary the theory in question is) they can be taken to be faulty and misleading. Appealing to nature gives me an ethical ideal in terms of which to reject those of my beliefs which turn out to conflict with it, and better to understand those beliefs which are in fact in conformity with it. For what is natural about me is objectively so, whereas many of my beliefs may rest on nothing better than convention. But we plainly do not, just from a conception of human nature (as aiming for pleasure, say) conclude that we should all do the same specific things in life.

Ancient theories, then, do not use the appeal to nature to establish a single specific way of life, or to encourage people to ignore their individual differences.

From The Morality of Happiness, by Julia Annas. I’m not a fan of how she uses the word “values” here, but in context she makes it clear it’s not the same thing as subjective valuation, which is what we typically associate with the word today.

See Daniel Russell on why the nature-as-ideal is necessary in ethics, and how it works in practice.

This post also provides further exploration of naturalism of this sort.

Responsiveness to Reasons

The ends do not justify the means. Getting the right results does not automatically make you a good person. Depending on what you did, and why, it might even make you a pretty bad one. A good person doesn’t just have good goals. He also acts the right way, given the circumstances, and for the right reasons.

What does it mean to act for the right reasons?

Consider a parent who breaks their back every day, working long hours at a job they hate so they can save up enough to send their daughter to college. This seems admirable, right?

But consider different sorts of reasons for doing this. Imagine if they want their daughter to be able to make more money because they feel entitled to whatever she earns—that is, they’re treating this like an investment for their own long-term earning potential. Or imagine the parent who desires the status among their peers that a college educated kid brings, or to avoid the embarrassment of a grown child without a diploma. That’s a better reason than personal gain, but it isn’t great.

Now imagine a parent who simply wants a better future for their daughter, as well as for her to develop as an independent person capable of making her own choices. These are admirable reasons, and the parent who is truly responsive to them is worthy of their role as parent.

Responsiveness to the right reasons is an important part of virtue as such. This is about much more than an intellectual exercise. Prudence (or phronesis, practical wisdom) as an intellectual virtue does involving being able to grasp what the right reasons are. But courage, temperance, charity, faith and hope all involve at least an element of wanting to do the right thing for the right reasons. It comes more naturally to some than to others. But often those who struggle at first end up the most virtuous further down their journey, for they had to grapple with the difficult task of making the path of righteousness their own. Those who have it given to them sometimes wander off and are less certain how to find their way back again. This is precisely Aristotle’s distinction between natural and true virtue, this element of making it your own as opposed to being born with it.

Like Aristotle, and Julia Annas and Daniel Russell, I think that you must grasp the reasons in order to become fully virtuous. Unlike them, I think a substantial part of this understanding—the largest part in fact—is tacit, rather than explicit. This does not mean they are completely inexplicable; it’s just that people vary in their ability to articulate their reasons, and it has not been my experience that eloquence and clearness of explicit thought go hand in hand with goodness. Often such people are able to talk themselves into perfectly ridiculous perspectives, or worse. The USSR and Maoist China were creations of highly educated people capable of being very articulate about their reasons, and equally capable of filling mass graves with the bodies of the innocent dead.

It is the rightness of the reasons, and the responsiveness to them, that matters. The ability to explain and defend them is absolutely a valuable quality, and especially crucial in a liberal democracy where talk and persuasion are paramount. But that does not detract from the fact that many truly good people are bad at rhetoric, and many skilled in that art are quite rotten.

How do we know what the right reasons are? Our whole lives are a joint investigation and negotiation of the answer to that question.

From childhood, parents and other adults, peers, and all of the stories we are exposed to, attempt to impress upon us an understanding of what the right reasons for acting are in a variety of situations. We are increasingly expected, throughout the course of our lives, to take more and more responsibility for grasping it in a given situation and acting accordingly.

Adulthood just is the moment when we take full responsibility for our part of any situation, for acting for the right reasons and doing the right thing. To rely on others to determine this for you is in some sense to remain a child.

That does not mean that there are no authorities that you defer to on rightness or any subject. It does mean that you hold no one responsible for this deference, and the trust that it implies, other than yourself. If your trust is misplaced, it was you who misplaced it.

Trust, and therefore faith, is the foundation upon which our grasp of “right reasons” rests. We have to trust not only the people we consider authorities, but all the people who are and have been in our lives and influenced our notion of goodness. Most of all, we must have faith in ourselves. The most central and unwavering faith of the Enlightenment was faith in one’s own ability to read the evidence and make a rational judgment. If our faith on this score is and should be more tempered than that, we still ought to believe in our own ability to become knowledgeable, to learn from mistakes and advice alike, and to become a good person.

If faith is our footing, hope pushes us forward. Hope that we will obtain an appropriate understanding of the right reasons to act in a given situation, and that we can act on them the way a good person would. Hope that if our trust is ever misplaced or abused, we will learn of it and learn from it, without losing our ability to trust entirely.

Gaining experience so that we can develop our grasp of the right reasons for acting over the course of our lives, working to be the sort of person who wants to respond to the right reasons, trusting and believing in our potential for goodness—these are the beginnings of virtue.


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Own Your Standards

What does it mean to be a master of a craft?

Alasdair MacIntyre’s notion of the goods internal to a practice self-consciously separates the standards of practitioners from mere material gain, which constitute “external goods”. As a follower of McCloskey, it seems clear to me that the sacred and the profane are not so cleanly separable. Previously, when I have written about this, I argued that external goods must be internalized in some way. That is, part of the way you become a good carpenter, or good lawyer, or good salesman, is by making money in a good way. That is to say, part of the ethics of a practice is precisely how you deal with your customers or clients or patrons or donors.

If you buy the argument that internal goods exist, what you think about the nature of them probably relates to your beliefs about the nature of morality in general. I have my own thoughts on the matter.

Regardless, it seems to me that our understanding of these goods is conjective. That means that it is contestable, negotiable, political—in short, a matter of persuasion.

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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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If You Can Fake That, You’ve Got It Made

My cousin, a diligent grandson, gave me a lift down to Virginia this past Saturday so that we could celebrate our grandmother’s 90th birthday. We drove back the next morning, meaning that we spent a lot of time with one another and no one else that weekend. We held up a conversation through most of it, so it was time well spent.

We kept circling back to the concept of authenticity. Jon, a film editor, spoke of attitudes towards it in film, but also in rap, and artistic creation in general. Authenticity—not originality.

On my mind was Julia Annas; a not uncommon occurrence since I read her tremendous history of Hellenistic ethics, The Morality of Happiness. The book on my mind this past weekend, however, was Intelligent Virtue, which I am currently in the middle of.  Rather than a history, it is a positive contribution to modern virtue ethics. A large part of her framework involves the idea that virtue is analogous to a skill. This is simple comparison; Annas dives deep into what it means to acquire and exercise a skill.

This section in particular was floating in my mind while Jon and I talked:

What the learner needs to do is not only to learn from the teacher or role model how to understand what she has to do and the way to do it, but to become able to acquire for herself the skill that the teacher has, rather than acquiring it as a matter of routine, something which results in becoming a clone-like impersonator.

And while describing this to my cousin something dawned on me. I always took the line “good artists borrow, great artists steal” to mostly be about originality, but if that’s all it was about, the distinction kind of eluded me. Both “borrow” and “steal” imply that the artist is getting their stuff from somewhere else, but what’s the difference between the two?

Thinking in terms of Annas’ explanation of the process of learning a skill, it finally made sense. The good artist is still learning their voice; when they take inspiration from other artists they merely borrow because their art is still fundamentally someone else’s. It is like “becoming a clone-like impersonator”. The great artist, on the other hand, steals in the sense that they make the art their own. This does not mean that they do “original” work; they still take it from somewhere, just as the pianist must acquire their skill from a teacher.

This concept of making something your own is a bit of a black box, where the human experience is concerned. The chasm between merely copying your teacher and the beginning of real understanding—how do we bridge it? Yet we all did it as children, and adults everywhere are doing it every day with new skills they acquire out of a desire to or for their work.

Authenticity is when you have made a skill, and your work, your own. That doesn’t mean it’s any good, of course—you can be authentically bad. But it’s a necessary achievement on the road to mastery.

The phronimos, person of practical wisdom, is one who has made their life their own and mastered the art of living well.