The Cool Dude or: I am Not a Virtue Ethicist

Aristotle doesn’t talk about the Moral Person. He talks about the Cool Dude!

Thus said one of my undergrads after reading the Nicomachean Ethics. What did he mean? Partially, he meant something similar to what Anscombe said when she said the following:

If someone professes to be expounding Aristotle and talks in a modern fashion about “moral” such-and-such he must be very imperceptive if he does not constantly feel like someone whose jaws have somehow got out of alignment: the teeth don’t come together in a proper bite.

The label “cool dude” seems, according to my undergrad, to fit Aristotle’s excellent person more than the label “moral person” does. After all, he has high self-esteem, an expensive house in impeccable taste, a penchant for giving great parties, not to mention a wonderful sense of when to tell jokes, when not to brag, how to accept honors without being “ranking-obsessed” (as undergrads called the honor-lover that year). The label “moral person” does not seem to have much to do with these things. When I told a friend about my undergrad’s comments, the friend suggested that someone translate the Nicomachean Ethics for undergrads. Whenever it says “virtuous person” we should say “cool guy”. Whenever it says “fine” or “noble” we should say “awesome”. That way we can quote Aristotle as saying:

The cool guy does awesome things because they are awesome.

In one of my talks, someone shouted “you mean awesome de re”, but that’s already interpretation.

I don’t just admire Aristotle. I often enjoy Aristotle. His use of cases and the way he does, long before “analytical” philosophy was officially a thing, dig so masterfully into to the truth beyond common beliefs and the paradoxes they create. But I am not a virtue ethicist. Everywhere I travel people tell me, critically or approvingly, that I am a virtue ethicist. Come on! A person is allowed to have the word “virtue” in the title of her book without being a virtue ethicist! Kant wrote The Doctrine of Virtue. He talked about virtue. A lot. Hume, of course, talked about virtues. We might owe it to 20th century virtue ethicists that talk of virtue has regained an important place in ethics, but we can’t give virtue ethicists a monopoly over the word “virtue”. To be fair, “virtue ethics” is not used as a super-precise term, but I don’t think it can be stretched to fit me. Here’s (the short version of ) why not:

1. When I say “a virtuous person” I don’t mean “the cool dude”, the fine human specimen, the person who is excellent at being a person, or the person with arete. I also don’t mean the phronimos. The natural language term that I have before me is “good person” (or “very good person”) and its counterparts in Hebrew and in Basque. Also German, I suppose, though I forgot my German. The point is that ancient Greek has nothing obvious to do with it). I also like the ever-so-dull and dreary term “moral person” and use it interchangeably with “virtuous person” (though I have been known to refer to the opposite number of the virtuous person with the less dreary term “asshole”, the word “vice” having been regrettably drained of its moral force by being used to refer to eating ice cream.) At least according to the dictionary, this is a legit use of the term “virtuous person”, but some people who identify as virtue ethicists don’t like it. Others do own up to talking about the moral person, someone having a long time ago discreetly removed wit and magnificence from their list of virtues and put charity and honesty in, but still think of her, the virtuous agent, also as a fine human specimen and a phronimos. I don’t. Some of my reasons not to have been better articulated by others, some coming up.

2. I think you can be a perfectly good person and still not always do the right thing in the right circumstances. That’s because doing the right thing sometimes requires that you be smart in addition to being good, and sometimes it also requires that your judgment not be clouded by, say, depression,or anxiety, or that you not be saddled with autistic difficulties in understanding other people’s emotional cues, or that you have life experience. Perhaps you cannot be unintelligent as the cool dude (what do I know about coolness? Ask my undergrad!) and perhaps being below a certain level of intelligence makes it harder to have a good life, but even if these things are true, I don’t think anyone should ever be regarded as less morally good because she is not very smart – it’s like saying one is less moral because one is blind or deaf.  Granted, to be morally good, a person needs to be conceptually sophisticated enough to have concepts like “harm” and ‘truth”,  which rules out my cats as potential moral agents. You might protest that the phronimos possesses wisdom, not smartness, but wisdom comes on top of smartness;  it seems to require quite a bit of smartness to get off the ground. Now, even in a smart person, conditions like autism, depression, anxiety, or lack of experience seem to interfere with the possibility of acting with practical wisdom. I need not deny that some of these conditions can interfere with your chances of a good life, but morality again is something else. I know so many people who think they are somehow bad people because of their depression or autism or anxiety or cluelessness! Typically, we tell them that they are mistaken. These conditions are morally neutral and while there are some situations where a person of strong virtuous motivation can overcome their influence, she often cannot. I agree with Kantian intuition that an honest-to-God good will shines through regardless of just about everything, most especially including cognitive limitations and suchlike obstacles. There’s just this small disagreement about what “will” is…. (All of this has been argued for in my last book and in a paper called “Duty, Desire and the Good Person”).

3. And then there’s Eudaemonia. Or happiness. Or wellbeing. In a forthcoming paper I argue that while virtue ethicists such as Hursthouse have said convincing things to the effect that if you want to flourish, you shouldn’t let yourself become a narcissist, a Nazi, a cynic or a purely selfish sort, this does not – as Copp and Sobel already pointed out –  amount to an argument in favor of being downright good as an obvious path to flourishing. Granted, some parts of Wolf’s “Moral Saints” seem to depict Ned Flanders rather than an actual moral paragon (Father Knows Best? Really?) and I don’t agree that even very moral people are automatically uncool men and women. Still, I argue that a person who is somewhere between “decent” and “jerk” – a morally mediocre agent – often has no reason to pursue further moral virtue, and has some reasons not to pursue it, in so far as what she wants is to flourish (she might, of course, have other reasons to be a better person). Imagine a morally mediocre person who has loving relationships with other individuals, good health, decent material conditions, and cool (though not necessarily morally significant) things he can do, with a bit of work, using his talents and abilities. Is he likely to become happier if he starts noticing injustice in the news and feeling the resulting heartache, or if he starts working in a soup kitchen during time that he would have spent playing Jazz with his friends? I argue that it’s often not the case. Some virtue ethicists  would argue that you cannot have good, truly loving relationships with other individuals unless you are all-around kind and honest. That’s, on my view, like saying that you can’t be genuinely, lovingly devoted to your dog, cat, or other cherished nonhuman animal unless you are also a vegetarian: it sounds like it should be true, yet it is clearly false.

4. Umm, yes, I forgot to mention that I don’t think that the reason helping the person bleeding by the side of the road is the right action is that it is what a good or benevolent person would characteristically do. I am still trying to figure out what the reason is, but right now I imagine something along the lines of  “it is an action that protects the bleeding person from severe illbeing without violating any rights (…)”. I don’t think any facts about the habits or concerns of moral agents are built into the right-making features of this action: the relevant facts are about what it does or doesn’t do to moral patients.

There’s more, but ok, that’s enough. So why do I like to talk about virtues anyway? Because I think our intuitions about the rightness of moral actions and the worth of moral motives are deeply and interestingly intertwined, and these in turn are intertwined with our intuitions of the goodness and badness of persons, and each of the three topics is fascinating in its own right. Even if one does not endorse defining the right action through reference to the virtuous agent, as I do not, one can still see that some of the best clues to what morality is about come from looking at what we expect a moral person to be concerned with (or an immoral person not to be concerned with).

A very tall man was once at a talk I gave. When it was time for questions, he got up, towering over me in the small room, and said “I’m sorry, the reason I’m standing up is not to be intimidating but to make eye contact”. He then asked: do we really care about the inner lives of agents? When I talk to my kids, I teach them right and wrong actions. Nothing about motives”. I pointed out that if we didn’t care about the inner lives of agents, it would have been enough for him to do the right thing – stand up – and he needn’t have bothered to make sure that I know he was doing it in order to make eye contact – a fact about his inner life.  Where there is natural talk of right and wrong actions, there is also talk of good people and assholes. You don’t have to be a virtue ethicist to be interested in these things. Or, I suspect, an ethicist at all. If you like gossip, you’re probably in.

Back by Popular Demand

Metaethics! Guitar: Michael Smith.

 

Lyrics:

It ain’t necessarily so

it ain’t necessarily so

What ethicist say

Can sound good in a way

But it ain’t necessarily so

 

Morality trumps other oughts

Morality trumps other oughts

Morality trumps other oughts

No rational action

Can be an infraction

Morality trumps other oughts

 

For Eudaemonia

(You get the idea)

Be virtuous by day and night!

Departures from virtue

Are all gonna hurt you!

Sometimes I wanna say “yeah, right!”

 

We always give laws to ourselves

We always give laws to ourselves

We lose our potential

For being agential

When we break them laws

From ourselves

 

I say it ain’t necessarily so

It ain’t necessarily so

i’ll say this, though, frankly

They’ll stare at me blankly:

It ain’t necessarily so!

 

Reflections on the Concept of Mental Disorder

“Nomy, our purpose here is to help you become just like everyone else”.

That’s what the school counselor told me when I was a kid. And then another school counselor. And then another. I am not paraphrasing, or dramatizing, or anything. Translating from Hebrew to English is all. They all referred my parents to psychologists and psychiatrists, who would help me even better toward this goal, being like everyone else, which they firmly assumed I shared, no matter what I said. Little wonder, then, that by the time I became a teenager, I was certain that the concept of a mental disorder was nothing but a tool of oppression used against unusual people by those who want everyone to become just like everyone else.

(PSA: if you have a child who is beaten up by the other kids because she’s reading Great Expectations at 11, like I did, or because she looks unusual, or because of some incidental vagary of child social dynamics, or even because she has bad social skills, do think carefully before sending her to some kind of shrink. You need to make sure your child does not get the message “the other kids beat me up because there is something wrong with me, and my parents agree, so they are sending me to be fixed”.)

Years later I had to give up my Szasz-ian extremism, because depression, along with hypomania and anxiety, threatened to kill me. Slowly it dawned on me that while the professionals of my childhood were wrong to try to cure me of reading Great Expectations, there was a case for calling some things mental disorders. Seeing my roommate react with fear and trembling to a small spider provided one datum: there was no way that her suffering was “socially constructed” in the English department sense of the term. It was real, and the term “disorder” seemed to fit it. It also seemed to fit my depression, hypomania and anxiety.

So what is a mental disorder, then? I knew what I wanted cured: my suffering. So, was I going to call any extended mental state or brain state constituting or leading to significant distress a mental disorder? That used to be pretty close to the DSM definition, and many shrinks will still tell you that if it causes either distress or disruption in functioning, it is a mental disorder. But this plausible-sounding theory is pretty terrible upon reflection. My love of Spinoza as a teenager caused me significant distress, because it caused kids to beat me up. It also interrupted my functioning, because it’s hard to function when you are beaten up. Still, loving Spinoza is not a mental disorder. Being gay in the 1970s caused one enormous suffering – everything from self-hatred to trouble with the law – and that helped keep homosexuality in the DSM till 1973 and “ego-dystonic homosexuality” (homosexuality, provided that one wants it “cured” in oneself) till much later. The distress-bad functioning based definition of mental disorder, in other words, does not block the term from being used, in the oppressive manner typical of the school-counselors of my childhood, by those who want to tell gay people to be just like everyone else.

Some later DSM writers tried to solve the problem associated with defining a mental disorder as a state of mind/brain/behavior/whatever that causes distress or trouble functioning by simply adding to it a disclaimer along the lines of “the problem has to be with the individual, not with a conflict between the individual and society”. That didn’t work, because it is the job of a definition of a mental disorder to tell us when there is a problem “with the individual” and when there isn’t. Presently, we don’t have a definition that can do this job. The reason we no longer think that a woman who refuses to be a homemaker is showing a problem with functioning is not that our definition of mental disorder improved. It’s that our moral outlook did.

Part of the trouble with defining mental disorder the way philosophers try to define things is that this would be at cross purpose with what the writers of DSM are trying to do. Philosophers look for the true, or at least the coherent. Shrinks look for the useful. Let me explain. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders is becoming a thicker and thicker book. More and more things are called mental disorders. There is a cynical hypothesis about the cause: shrinks want people to go to them and give them money. However, there is also a charitable hypothesis: shrinks want to help people, and nowadays, however obvious a person’s suffering, she can’t get the insurance company to fund psychiatric help if the suffering isn’t defined as a disorder. If a person who suffers from grief wants to take some pills to help with insomnia or make it easier to go back to work, her grief needs to be redefined as a major depressive episode, and therefore a disorder. You have to call something a mental disorder if people are to receive help for it.  Thus, however they define “mental disorder” in the introductions to their books, when you look at the long list of things that are classified as mental disorders you see that the one thing they have in common is popular demand for insurance coverage. The trouble is, of course, that “something is a mental disorder iff people want psychiatrists to help them with it” does not sound like a definition that captures a natural kind. It is basically another incarnation of the distress/bad functioning thing.

What about natural language? “Mentally ill” replaced terms like “insane”, “crazy” and “nuts”, which are, in many ways, colloquial ways to say “patently irrational”. The things that were considered forms of insanity or forms of “neurosis” when Freud was alive and are still considered paradigmatic mental illness today basically are forms of gross irrationality, or cause gross irrationality. These would be: psychosis that leads a person to think, irrationally, that he is Napoleon; depression that becomes so bad that the person thinks that the fact that she forgot to buy milk makes her as despicable as a Nazi, or, against all evidence, that her family will be delighted to see her dead: mania that leads a person to spend all his money and run off with his secretary to pursue a business deal that he is normally plenty smart enough to see is nonsense: terrible fear of tiny, harmless spiders: etc. To this day, being told that one’s thoughts or feelings or actions are symptoms of a mental disorder can be insulting or reassuring in a way that only being told one is being grossly irrational can be. Let me explain.

Maybe I’ll start with the reassuring. Suppose you are really afraid that there is a monster under your bed – literally or figuratively – and someone convinces you that your fear is a symptom of a mental disorder. That can be wonderful news. When I express fearful or self-hating thoughts, being told “Nomy, that sounds crazy” can be music to my ears.  I am irrational! The fact that I forgot to answer an email from the secretary does not mean I am worthless! My fear or sadness is unwarranted!  Now for the insulting: if you are very sad purely because your attempts to make your country a democracy have failed, and someone refers to your sadness as a clinical problem, it can be infuriating. No, you think, I am not irrational. I am responding appropriately to reasons. Calling it a disorder is refusing to see that. This is one reason people have been angry when the last DSM amended the definition of depression in such a way that it now includes many grieving people. People who don’t want their grief in the DSM do not deny that they are suffering and do not always deny that they could use some professional help. What they want to deny is that there’s anything grossly irrational about their grief. Of course, rationality and irrationality can be woven fine. A person can start being depressed because he lost his job – presumably a reason to be sad – but then, despite the fact that he was fired due to a recession, start feeling worthless or bad because he’s unemployed, and that’s where irrationality can creep in – even gross enough irrationality for the person to count as having a disorder.

So paradigmatic mental disorders involve serious irrationality. To that you can add conditions often thought of as disabilities rather than disorders, in which the problem is not irrationality but cognitive impairment of some sort (e.g low intelligence, lack of some kind of know-how). Perhaps they too belong in some divine version of DSM.  But what about conditions that do not grossly affect one’s rationality and involve no cognitive impairment? My hunch is that there is something very problematic in calling them mental disorders, as opposed to problems, troubles, eccentricities, ways of being neuro-atypical, or sometimes even vices. If you think the DSM, considered from the aspect of truth and not insurability, is getting too thick, this just might be what’s bothering you.  But to be continued.

Kantianism vs Cute Things

“We love everything over which we have a decisive superiority, so we can toy with it, while it has a pleasant cheerfulness about it: little dogs, birds, grandchildren”.

Immanuel Kant

I don’t normally argue for or against Kant, recognizing that figuring out exactly what he means takes expertise I don’t have. I normally argue with contemporary Kantians, because if I don’t get what they mean, I can email them and ask, or they can tell me I’m wrong in Q&A. Yet I can’t resist the quote above. It is, of course, offensive to grandparents everywhere, and to anyone who has ever valued the love of a grandparent. See, your grandparents “loved” you because you were so small and weak and they could toy with you and relish being on the right side of the power imbalance between you. It doesn’t sound like love to me. It sounds like some kind of chaste perversion.

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The Problem with Imagining

The problem with human imagination is really two problems. One is that our imagination is very limited. Thus, for example, I can’t properly imagine the life, or even the schedule, of someone who has two children. The second problem is that we trust our puny imagination a huge deal, enough that we accept its testimony despite perfectly good evidence to the contrary. Thus, for example, an academic with a young child might say things like “they told me that I won’t get any research done the first few months but…. I guess I didn’t take them seriously!”. In other words, he received reliable information but ignored it because his imagination told him he could just get work done when the baby is asleep.

My favorite cases involve not believing a person when she talks about her inner life. Far be it from me to think that people are never wrong about their inner lives, but when a person tells you she thinks or feels or wants something, the simple fact that you can’t imagine thinking or feeling or wanting it is not in itself a reason to doubt her. I once told a relative stranger that though I grew up in a certain country, I do not feel identified with it. The man said “that’s highly unlikely”. I am still a little angry at the person telling me what I feel, but I don’t have the right to feel superior to him. After all, for decades, I believed that any person who claims to be “full” after a salad – a mere salad! –  is either lying to me or lying to herself. To my defense, there exist some people who confess that they have kidded themselves on this particular topic, but I admit that the main reason I failed to believe people who claim to be full after a salad is that I can’t properly imagine being full from eating (only) a salad. That’s a bad reason.

Continue reading “The Problem with Imagining”