Some of the Mysteries of Good Character, by Christian B. Miller

The topic of character is one of the oldest in both Western and Eastern thought, and has enjoyed a renaissance in philosophy since at least the 1970s with the revival of virtue ethics. Yet, even today, character remains largely a mystery. We know very little about what most peoples’ character looks like. Important virtues are surprisingly neglected. There are almost no strategies advanced by philosophers today for improving character. We have a long way to go.

We do know, though, that matters of character are vitally important. Consider the news these days, dominated by people like Harvey Weinstein and Kevin Spacey. Or consider the behavior of our heroes, like Lincoln and King, or our villains, like Hitler and Stalin. Or consider the latest scandals in the entertainment world, professional sports, or politics. So much of what has happened can be traced back to the character of the people involved. And to take it one step further, thanks to the latest psychological research, character traits have been linked to all kinds of things that we care about in life: optimism, academic achievement, mood, health, meaning, life satisfaction…the list goes on and on.

To say that philosophers—who have been studying character extensively for thousands of years—are mostly in the dark about the topic, surely sounds like I am exaggerating, right? Maybe that’s true, but let me offer two concrete illustrations.

1. Neglected Virtues. The moral virtues are good character traits like justice, temperance, and fortitude. Here are two questions (among many others) you can ask about these virtues. First, conceptually, what do they involve? How, for instance, would you characterize a temperate person? Or a heroic one? Secondly, on empirical grounds, do people actually have the virtues (and if so, how many people and which virtues)? For instance, are there actually any temperate people today?

To help with the empirical question, there has been a recent flurry of interest among philosophers in consulting studies in psychology, and thinking about whether the behavior displayed in those studies is virtuous or not. For a virtue like compassion, real progress has been made in reading the relevant studies carefully, with the conclusion being that most people are not in fact compassionate. Unfortunately, philosophers don’t have much of an idea about what is going on empirically with most of the other virtues (and I’m not sure anyone else does either, for that matter). Part of the reason why is that for some moral virtues there just isn’t the wealth of existing studies to analyze, in the way that there is for compassion. Stealing is a good example—as you might imagine, it is hard to do helpful experimental studies of theft.

But part of the reason is also that some virtues have simply not been on our philosophical radar screens. The attention of philosophers has been elsewhere.

Take the virtue of honesty, for instance. If any virtue is on most people’s top five list, it is that one. Yet it has had no traction at all in the philosophy literature. In fact, there has not been a single paper in a mainstream philosophy journal on the moral virtue of honesty in over fifty years.

Or take the virtue of generosity—just three papers in the past forty years (by way of comparison, there are over two dozen papers on the virtue of modesty—who would have expected that to happen!).

So the upshot is that compassion is likely to be a rare virtue. But at this point it is not at all clear how we are doing with the rest of them. Indeed, in some cases we are not even clear what the virtues look like in the first place.

2. Virtue Development. The natural suspicion, of course, is that across the board we are not doing very well when it comes to being people of good moral character. History, current events, the local news, and social media all seem to confirm this. Hence it seems apparent that there is a sizable character gap:

There are moral exemplars, people like Abraham Lincoln and Sojourner Truth, whose character is morally virtuous in many respects.

Examining their lives ends up reflecting badly on most of us, myself included, since it illustrates in vivid terms just how much of a character gap there really is.

To try to at least reduce this gap, it would be helpful to have some strategies which can, if followed properly, help us to make slow and gradual progress in the right direction. Naturally philosophers needn’t be the only ones who can come up with these strategies, but it would be nice if we had something to say that is practically relevant, empirically informed, and actually efficacious if carried out properly.

By and large, we haven’t had much to say. But there are signs that this is beginning to change, thanks to the work of Nancy Snow, Julia Annas, Jonathan Webber, and a few others. In fact, the development of character improvement strategies strikes me as one of the most promising areas of philosophy in the coming decade. Many good and innovative dissertations are there for interested graduate students to tackle.

My hope is that this groundswell of interest in how to cultivate the virtues will continue to expand in the coming years. These are indeed early days in the philosophical study of character. And exciting days too, full of so many worthwhile possibilities to explore.

This article was originally published at OUPBlog.

~ Christian B. Miller is the A. C. Reid Professor of Philosophy at Wake Forest University and author or editor of eight books including The Character Gap: How Good Are We? (Bio credit: OUPBlog)

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Who is the Expert on Your Well-Being? by Anna Alexandrova

Justice et Inégalité – Les Plateaux de la Balance, by Frachet, 2010, public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Consider a syllogism:

There is now a science of well-being.

Scientists are experts in their field.

Therefore there are now experts on well-being.

I submit this argument is sound–which is to say the premises are true and the conclusion follows validly. But it does not imply that there is a scientific way to live your life and does not imply that science should supersede your own judgment or the judgment of your therapist, rabbi, or wise friend. There are different ways of knowing well-being and none is superior to another in every way.

The “science of well-being” (aka positive psychology, quality of life or happiness studies) applies scientific method to what was previously personal, inscrutable, philosophical–happiness and good life. These scientists say that today measures and methods are so much improved, that happiness and good life are no longer hidden, no longer elusive. They also tout great practical payoffs–typically evidence-based therapies and truly scientific self-help. Increasingly the discoveries of this field are picked up by businesses, human resources managers, life coaches, and indeed governments.

As citizens, employees, and clients we would be wise keep our eye on this new development–knowledge is power and power over happiness is far from innocent. But here I pose the question purely from an individual’s point of view – is it wise to arrange your life in accordance with the findings of this science?

Consider some things scientists of well-being claim to know:

“Unemployment and loss of mate are the hardest to adapt to.”

“Rise in income only predicts rise in well-being in the presence of other factors.”

“Pro-social behavior increases the givers’ subjective well-being.”

If you want to know whether to avoid unemployment and loneliness, pursue better income, volunteer, or do whatever else the science recommends, you need to notice two things. First, these claims are value-laden. Second, they are about kinds of people, not individuals. These two features imply two ways in which this knowledge might fail to fit you – first, because you reasonably disagree with the value judgments these scientists make and, second, because their claims are not about you. Let me take each in turn.

When I say that the claims of this science are value-laden, I mean simply that a value-judgment about good life is needed to identify a questionnaire as valid, or a given data point as relevant. ‘Answers to a life satisfaction questionnaire are valid indicators of well-being’ is a value judgment because it presupposes that it is good for a person to judge her life as living up to some ideal she has adopted.

The process of arriving at a good measure of well-being is the process of making such judgments at many stages: what questions to include, to whom to pose them, which other questionnaires are related, and so on. Following much statistical testing, questionnaires that emerge are complex amalgamations of the factual and the evaluative. This is totally normal and legitimate – there would be no science as we know it if scientists did not use metaphors, analogies, judgments – all seats of commitments about morality, politics, beauty, and culture.

But scientists are not the only authority on values. Judgments about good life are familiar to all of us. My nine year old wants to make YouTube videos and wants help to record his gaming sessions and upload them online. I want to encourage his creativity, but worry about exposing him to the world of ‘likes’ and anonymous comments earlier than need be. Many of my everyday decisions are decisions about well-being: mine, my family’s, my students’. Sometimes I make a mess of things but I still have some expertise about living my life. Classic liberals, such as John Stuart Mill, held the extreme view that only the individual is an authority on their own well-being. This flies in the face of facts – we can be blind to things that people who know and care about us can plainly see. Equally scientists who validate questionnaires of well-being can also make decent value judgments on this matter – clinical researchers usually go to great lengths to ensure that when they measure, say, frailty they define this value-laden concept properly and comprehensively. Most likely there is more than one authority on values, including on well-being.

It follows that claims about validity of a given well-being measure can be challenged by challenging the value judgments on which they depend. ‘You used life satisfaction data in your study, Dr. Scientist, but I have reasons to believe that life satisfaction is not well-being’. No special expertise is necessary to raise such challenges. They need to be made in good faith, with attention to why scientists choose a given measure, and with due reflection, but they can be made. And this is one way in which the claims of well-being science can fail to be relevant you.

The second way stems from the inevitable and justifiable focus on kinds rather than on individuals. My point is not just the familiar idea that scientific hypotheses are about averages and any individual may deviate from average (of course most of us often wrongly believe we are well above it). This is true but unsurprising and can only justify ignoring science if you have strong evidence regarding which side of the distribution you are on. Rather when checking that a given claim of science is properly about us, we should check whether ‘the kind’, that is the class of people, about whom this claim is made, is the kind to which we belong.

Positive psychologists who write books with happiness formulae sidestep this issue and advertise their findings as applying to humans in general – pick a job you love, maintain positive relationships, do your gratefulness exercises, volunteer, find meaning in life. But such vague generalities only take you that far in life. Better grounded is research that zeros in on people in specific circumstances – caretakers of the chronically ill, single mothers on welfare, refugees, adopted children, psychosis patients, and so on. People in these similar circumstances people tend to face similar challenges, or at least more similar than when you consider humanity as a whole. As a result they yield more informative evidence. Clinical research and social work is a treasure trove of knowledge about how to live well with a particular illness, particular disability, or particular challenge. In contrast with positive psychology, these are more modest and more local findings.

To make the same point with pictures, science that promises this:

Is far less reliable for individuals than science that promises this:

Image courtesy of the author.

If there are findings on well-being relevant to the kind to which you belong, good, use them. Nevertheless, because each of us is a member of many different kinds, the authority of these findings will again quickly run. What do you do when you have psychosis and you are a single parent, and when studies exist about well-being of each, but not at the same time? You think for yourself and you ask for advice (of which science is but one source).

Mine is not a criticism, just an observation that well-being as an object of science is not well-being as an object of personal reflection. Living well is as big of a riddle as ever, even in the age of positive psychology.

This article was originally published at OUPBlog

~ Anna Alexandrova is a Senior Lecturer in Philosophy of Science at University of Cambridge and a Fellow of King’s College, having previously taught at the University of Missouri St Louis. She writes on philosophy of social sciences, especially economic modelling, explanation, and the sciences of well-being. She was a recipient of the Philosophy of Science Association Recent PhD Essay Prize. Her book, A Philosophy for the Science of Well-Being has recently been published by OUP.

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Abortion: Conflict and Compromise, by Kate Greasley

View of a Foetus in the Womb, c. 1510 – 1512, drawing by Leonardo da Vinci

A few years ago, when I told a colleague that I was working primarily on abortion rights, he looked at me quizzically and replied, “But I thought they had sorted all of that out in the seventies”. Needless to say, he was a scientist. Still, while the idea that the ethical questions implicated in abortion were somehow put to bed in the last century is humorous, I knew what he meant. The end of the ‘sixties and beginning of the ‘seventies marked watershed developments for reproductive freedom in both Britain and the U.S. – developments which have (with some non-negligible push and pull at the boundaries) continued to set the basic terms of abortion regulation ever since.

In Britain, the 1967 Abortion Act widely legalised termination of pregnancy for the first time and codified the grounds upon which abortions could be legally carried out. Shortly after, the 1973 Supreme Court decision Roe v Wade famously declared that there was a constitutionally protected right to abortion in the United States, albeit with some qualifications. Since those events, there have been no revolutionary changes to the system of abortion regulation on either side of the Atlantic, although there have been many meaningful ones.

Of course, legal resolution by no means signalled the end of moral disagreement about abortion. A significant minority voice has continued to vehemently oppose abortion practice. What was settled back then secured far more of a grudging détente than a happy compromise. (Like so much legislation, the Abortion Act was a product of political expediencies; I once heard one of its drafters describe the pandemonium of last-minute back-room deals in the Houses of Parliament, and the hotchpotch of provisions that emerged from all of the bargaining necessary to get it through.) As such, the political resolutions, whilst enduring, have always been intensely fragile, especially in the US where Christian conservatism and the anti-abortion lobby overlap so much. Of late, that fragility has become increasingly apparent. Recent developments in the United States and elsewhere have revealed just how misplaced any complacency about reproductive rights truly is.

It is, in truth, hardly surprising that abortion compromise is so precarious when one considers the nature of dissent to abortion practice. If one side of that debate really believes—as many claim to—that abortion is murder, akin to infanticide, then it is hard to see how they can ever truly accept legal abortion merely on the strength of its democratic pedigree. Against such a belief, rehearsing the familiar pro-choice mantras about women’s rights and bodily autonomy is a bit like shooting arrows at a Chinook helicopter. For what strength does control over one’s body and reproductive destiny really have when measured against the intentional inflicting of death on another?

Of course, if ideological opponents of abortion rights really believe that abortion amounts to murder, it may be hard to make sense of some of the traditional exceptions they themselves have defended, in circumstances, for example, of rape or incest, or where the pregnancy endangers the very life of the pregnant woman. If killing the fetus is no less than homicide, then how can it be justified even in these dire conditions? We certainly do not permit the out and out killing of born human beings for comparable reasons. This may be an indication that opponents of abortion who make such concessions do not truly, deeply, believe the claim that killing an embryo or fetus is like killing a child. Alternatively, it may just suggest that such concessions are rarely ever authentic, but adopted merely as a matter of political strategizing, to avoid losing moderate support in the wider conflict. If that were true, it would be unsurprising to see those traditional concessions gradually withdrawn as opponents of abortion become emboldened by increasing success.

Either way, defenders of abortion rights have a constant decision to make about how to respond to attacks on reproductive freedom and the denunciation of abortion as a moral horror. The approach most traditionally favoured, at least in public spheres, is to simply ignore all talk about abortion being murder and try to refocus attention on women’s stakes in abortion freedoms. As the Mad Men character Don Draper always quipped, “If you don’t like what’s being said, change the conversation”. This strategy can have its uses, but also its drawbacks. Most importantly, whilst reminding everyone of what women stand to lose through abortion prohibition is likely to strengthen the resolve of those sympathetic to abortion rights, it does nothing to address the consternation of those that are genuinely conflicted about the issue – who are not sure that abortion isn’t murder. As an effort to persuade avowed opponents of abortion rights to think again, it is even more pointless. For those who decry abortion as unjustified homicide do not usually need to be convinced that women can be hugely benefited by it, and harmed by its outlawing. That is not where their main ground of opposition ever lay.

It is for this reason that I think any effective defense of abortion rights must meet that opposition on its own terms, and confront the claims that abortion is homicide and the fetus the moral equivalent of a child. The task can seem daunting; how does one even begin to argue about whether or not unborn human lives have exactly the same right to life as mature human beings? But there are many reflections one can bring to bear on that question, and especially on the question whether, when examining our own or others’ beliefs, we are really committed to the claim that embryos are equal in moral value to human children. For one thing, as some philosophers have pointed out, if we really believed that claim, we may have to ask why infinitely more resources are not devoted to the prevention of natural miscarriage, which, it would follow, is the single biggest cause of child mortality – far greater than famine, disease, or war. At any rate, if defenders of reproductive freedoms do not concern themselves with the fundamental questions of abortion ethics, they are in danger of being left with little effective argument if and when the fragile settlements that have held for some decades threaten true collapse.

This essay was originally published at OUP Blog: Oxford University Press’s Academic Insights for the Thinking World

Developing the Virtues, by Darcia Narvaez

mothers-love-by-isaias-bartolomeu-public-domain-via-pixabay-croppedHelicopter parenting is denounced by onlookers (e.g., David Brooks) as babying children who should be self-reliant, a highly valued characteristic in the USA. Children should not need parents but should use their own capacities to get through the day. The notion of a good person is intertwined with this individualistic view of persons and relationships. Good people know how to behave. They stand on their own, with little dependency on others. They are given rules and obey them. Bad people don’t–they are whiny and weak.

It should be noted that when one applies this view to babies, to make them “independent,” one not only misunderstands baby development but creates the opposite result—a less confident, regulated and capable child (see Contexts for Young Child Flourishing).

This machine-like view of persons and relationships contrasts, not only with what we know about child development (kids’ biology is constructed by their social experience) but with longstanding theories of virtue and virtue development. A virtue-theory approach to persons and relationships emphasizes their intertwining. One always needs mentors as one cultivates virtues throughout life. Relationships matter for moral virtue. One must be careful about the relationships one engages in or they can lead one astray.

What does it mean to be virtuous? Virtue is a holistic look at goodness and, for individuals, involves reasoning, feeling, intuition, and behavior that are appropriate for each particular situation. Who the person is—their feelings, habits, thinking, perceptions—matters for coordinating internally-harmonious action that matches the needs of the situation. This holistic approach contrasts with theories of morality that emphasize one thing or another—doing one’s duty by acting on good reasoning and good will (deontology) or attending to short-term consequences (utilitarianism). (Most moral systems pay attention to all three aspects but emphasize one over the others.)

The high-demand definition of goodness in virtue theory suggests that few of us are truly good. Instead, most of us most of the time act against our feeling, behave in ways that counter our best reasoning, or completely miss noticing the need for moral action. In other words, our feelings/emotions, reasoning, inclinations are not harmonious but in conflict.

Some philosophers are particularly concerned with the inconsistencies in people’s behavior—for example, a person might be honest on taxes, but dishonest in business dealings or interpersonal situations.

However, among social-cognitive psychologists inconsistency is not a surprise. Each person has habitual patterns of acting one way in certain types of situations and a different way in another type of situation. Traits like honesty don’t adhere to a person like eye color but vary from situation to situation, e.g., outgoing with friends but shy with strangers. Individuals show consistent patterns of behavior for particular types of situations (person by context interaction). Thus, a person may have learned to be honest on taxes but not yet have learned how to be honest in business or has other priorities when with family. Expertise also plays a role in that when someone is new to a domain: behavior will be inconsistent as one learns the ins and outs of best behavior. All of us need mentors to help us learn good behavior for particular situations. Virtue is a lifelong endeavor.

This essay was originally published at OUPblog on Oct 22nd, 2016

~ Darcia Narvaez is Professor of Psychology at the University of Notre Dame. She brings evolutionary theory, neurobiology and positive psychology to considerations of wellbeing, morality and wisdom across the lifespan, including early life, childhood and adulthood and in multiple contexts (parenting, schooling). Bio credit: OUPblog

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