Self-transcendence as civic duty: lessons from Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

photo by Evstafiev on wikimedia commons

“In keeping silent about evil, in burying it so deep within us that no sign of it appears on the surface, we are implanting it, and it will rise up a thousand fold in the future. When we neither punish nor reproach evildoers, we are not simply protecting their trivial old age, we are thereby ripping the foundations of justice from new generations.”

So wrote Nobel Prize-winning Russian novelist Aleksandr Isayevich Solzhenitsyn in his monumental The Gulag Archipelago, detailing the history and horrors of the Soviet labor camps, published 43 years ago this week. The book was met with instant international acclaim; one review in the New York Times called its subject “the other great holocaust of our century.” In the wake of its publication Solzhenitsyn became something of a pop-culture cold war hero in the U.S., where interest in militarism and interventionist policies had been fading in the aftermath of Vietnam. Solzenitsyn’s belief that Russia should turn away from international military involvement and embrace the Church and its own rich cultural history was favorably received by conservatives, as was his view that the U.S. had capitulated too quickly in Vietnam. Liberals embraced him as a dissident and rebel, though he was criticized for his insistence that Lenin was as culpable as Stalin for the monstrous atrocities of Soviet totalitarianism, and that the political state is often its own end regardless of its founding ideology.

Solzhenitsyn’s unstinting criticism of Western materialism often made him a difficult figure. He spent nearly two decades in the U.S., yet never stopped railing against what he saw as its moral complacency and spiritual emptiness. In 1978 he shocked many with his commencement address at Harvard University, where he was given an honorary doctorate in literature. In it, he urged his audience to look beyond the material satisfactions of U.S. culture:

“If humanism were right in declaring that man is born only to be happy, he would not be born to die. Since his body is doomed to die, his task on earth evidently must be of a more spiritual nature. It cannot be unrestrained enjoyment of everyday life. It cannot be the search for the best ways to obtain material goods and then cheerfully get the most of them. It has to be the fulfillment of a permanent, earnest duty so that one’s life journey may become an experience of moral growth, so that one may leave life a better human being than one started it. It is imperative to review the table of widespread human values. Its present incorrectness is astounding. It is not possible that assessment of the President’s performance be reduced to the question how much money one makes or of unlimited availability of gasoline. Only voluntary, inspired self-restraint can raise man above the world stream of materialism.” Link

Critics often shrugged off Solzhenitsyn’s social commentary while acknowledging the truth of the horrors he wrote about; one anecdote in his New York Times obituary recounts Susan Sontag’s conversation with Russian poet Joseph Brodsky:

“We were laughing and agreeing about how we thought Solzhenitsyn’s views on the United States, his criticism of the press, and all the rest were deeply wrong, and on and on,” she said. “And then Joseph said: But you know, Susan, everything Solzhenitsyn says about the Soviet Union is true. Really, all those numbers—60 million victims—it’s all true.”

Also included in the Times obituary is the story of how Solzhenitsyn managed to smuggle out writing under the harshest conditions of Soviet internment. Banished under Stalin to Ekibastuz, a camp where writing was routinely confiscated and which would become the source of his novel One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch, Solzhenistyn used a special rosary fashioned for him by Lithuanian Catholic prisoners to commit 12,000 lines of prose to memory, using one bead for each passage.

Such conditions are almost impossible to fathom for Americans living today in a world of relative material comforts and freedom of the press. Yet his critique of our shallow moral standards and sense of entitlement is at least as relevant now as it was in 1978. Should we elect political leaders based on our satisfaction or dissatisfaction with our salaries, or the price of gas? Or should we also have a higher purpose in mind, a vision of somehow making the world a better place?

Solzhenitsyn was prescient about the effect materialism would have on the political landscape, seeming to forecast the yearning for what Ronald Reagan would articulate a couple years later as “morning in America,” the vision that rejected the economic and political uncertainty of the Carter years in favor of a nation characterized by plentiful goods, free enterprise, and military might. Now it appears we are in another 1978 moment, a moment characterized much as it was then, by economic fear, fear of international terrorism, and lack of faith in political leadership. In The Unfinished Presidency: Jimmy Carter’s Journey Beyond the White House, Douglas Brinkley describes the moment of Carter’s loss as one that seems on the surface very unlike our own, yet at bottom contains the same underlying fear and malaise. Carter’s era culminated in “inflation in the double digits, oil prices triple what they had been, unemployment above 7 percent, interest rates topping 20 percent, fifty-two American hostages still held captive in Iran, and unsettling memories of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.” Link

In contrast, the U.S. economy this October, just before the 2016 election, saw the biggest economic growth in two years, increased exports, and a shrinking unemployment rate, yet the economic insecurity of 2008 continues to linger eight years later, much as the effects of recession lingered throughout the 1970s. U.S. growth in October of this year was historically slow compared to historic measures, and our “gig economy,” where people drive their own cars for companies like Uber and Lyft, means that millions of workers are filling temp jobs because they can’t find stable, well-paying work. Link

Thus while we are not nearly as precarious economically as we were in 1980, we feel as precarious as we did in 1980. On the one hand, it is right to take note of economic conditions that leave too many people living in poverty, whether from the unavailability of any work or the availability of only the lowest-paying kind of work, and as a result choose to vote for better opportunities for everyone. On the other hand, faced with having too little, or thinking we have less than we should, or fearing we will lose what we have, some of us vote to have more, no matter the cost.

We find it hard to ask, whether in asking for more than we have, or more than we think we can get, if we are in fact asking for the right things. In the wake of a 2016 election defined for many by the fear of “falling behind,” of losing the material security promised by the American Dream, we need to think about how we define the contents of that dream and examine the entitlement behind the notion of “falling behind.” We now know that many more voters were galvanized this year by appeals to fear and entitlement than were moved by visions of social justice and equality. We need to address the appeal of fear and entitlement before we can go on to articulate a larger vision of a just society where there is opportunity for everyone.

Appeals to morality rarely win elections. We now know that “the unlimited availability of gasoline,” for example, while making certain economic sense, is not the best thing to ask for when electing public officials, especially given the devastating effects of carbon emissions on the global environment. Yet the virtue of self-restraint—temperance, really—called for by Solzhenitsyn in his Harvard commencement address is no more popular now than it was in 1978, when many Americans rejected it in favor of a 1950s-style domestic prosperity characterized by plenty of cheap gas and consumer goods.

President Carter, a famously moral person who spoke openly against violence and advocated daily prayer, was unable to effectively sell his vision that U.S. voters should cultivate temperate, self-transcendent characters. Solzhenitsyn’s warning in this era that human life must consist of more than “the search for the best ways to obtain material goods” vanished in a country weary of recession and fearful of international terrorism, and is similarly lost today in a nation where people fear slipping into poverty at home as a result of stagnant wages and vanishing jobs, and see only an unstable and violent world abroad. Yet Solzhenitsyn’s warning that Americans—humans—are prone to self-interest and self-indulgence is one we should still heed. His insistence that the human tendency to keep one’s head down in the presence of injustice proliferates injustice is especially urgent in our moment, when the temptation to retreat into private life can seem so seductive. In this dangerous world, getting involved is a necessary self-transcendence, “the fulfillment of a permanent, earnest duty,” a call to witness, and a call to action.

Jaime Hovey is Associate Program Director for Virtue, Happiness, & the Meaning of Life.

Meet our Faculty for our 2017 Summer Seminar “Virtue, Happiness, & Self-transcendence”


Our second summer seminar, “Virtue, Happiness, and Self-transcendence” is June 18  – 23, 2017 at the University of Chicago and features renown teachers in philosophy, psychology, and religious studies.

Our Seminar is intended for outstanding middle- and advanced-level graduate students and early career researchers in the areas of Philosophy, Psychology, and Theology/Religious Studies. Our aim is to involve participants in our innovative and collaborative research framework within these three fields, and to provide an engaged environment to deepen and enliven their own research.

Fr. Stephen Brock will lead the sessions, “Friendship” and “Law.” Read more here.
Fr. Stephen L. Brock is Professor of Medieval Philosophy, Pontifical University of the Holy Cross, Rome. He earned a B.A. in Philosophy at the University of Chicago and a Ph.D. in Medieval Studies at the University of Toronto. Brock writes widely on Thomas Aquinas and action theory, ethics, and metaphysics. He is the author of The Philosophy of Saint Thomas Aquinas. A Sketch (Wipf & Stock, 2015) and Action & Conduct: Thomas Aquinas and the Theory of Action (T&T Clark, 1998).

Jennifer A. Frey will lead the sessions: “Self-Love and Self-Transcendence” and “Happiness and Human Action.” Read more here.
Jennifer A. Frey is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at the University of South Carolina and principal investigator with Virtue, Happiness, and the Meaning of Life.  Prior to joining the philosophy faculty at UofSC, she was a Collegiate Assistant Professor of Humanities at the University of Chicago, where she was a member of the Society of Fellows in the Liberal Arts.  She earned her PhD in philosophy at the University of Pittsburgh, and her B.A. in Philosophy and Medieval Studies (with Classics minor) at Indiana University-Bloomington. Her research lies at the intersection of philosophy of action and ethics, with a particular focus on the Aristotelian-Thomist tradition.

Dan McAdams will lead the sessions “Psychological perspectives on virtue and morality” and “A virtue aimed at transcending and expanding the self:  Generativity.” Read more here.
Dan P. McAdams is the Henry Wade Rogers Professor of Psychology and Professor of Human Development and Social Policy at Northwestern University.  A personality and life-span developmental psychologist, Professor McAdams has explored the role of life narrative in human development, and how themes of agency, redemption, and generativity shape American biography, politics, society, and culture.  He is the author most recently of The Art and Science of Personality Development (Guilford Press, 2015) and The Redemptive Self:  Stories Americans Live By (Oxford University Press, 2006/2013).

VHML Candace Vogler photo by Marc Monaghan20150918_0001_1.jpg
Candace Vogler will lead sessions on “Virtue, Happiness, and Common Good.” Read more here.
Candace Vogler is the David B. and Clara E. Stern Professor of Philosophy and Professor in the College at the University of Chicago, and a principal investigator with Virtue, Happiness, and the Meaning of Life. She has authored two books, John Stuart Mill’s Deliberative Landscape: An essay in moral psychology (Routledge, 2001) and Reasonably Vicious (Harvard University Press, 2002), and essays in ethics, social and political philosophy, philosophy and literature, cinema, psychoanalysis, gender studies, sexuality studies, and other areas. Her research interests are in practical philosophy (particularly the strand of work in moral philosophy indebted to Elizabeth Anscombe), practical reason, Kant’s ethics, Marx, and neo-Aristotelian naturalism.

For more information on the seminar, the sessions, and to apply, click here.

Two Models of What a Virtuous Person Would Do

Chicago From Fullerton Beach. Photo by Chris Smith.

In philosophical literature about virtue, correct behavior is cashed out or, at least identified, in terms of what a virtuous agent would do. This idea is sometimes traced to Aristotle’s claim that the mean lies where a person of practical wisdom would determine it to lie. It finds its modern expression in Rosalind Hursthouse’s thesis that an act is right if and only if it is what a virtuous agent would characteristically do.

Explanation of correct behavior by reference to virtuous agents is partly tied to thinking there can be no canon of what is right, no general procedure for determining what it is right to do. Even if we cannot precisely specify what a virtuous agent would do, we can note an ambiguity in our understanding of the virtuous agent: does being virtuous mean doing what is best or doing what is good (enough)? That is, there are two models employed to understand what a virtuous agent does. These models may not tell us how to reach any particular decision, but will give us an idea of how a virtuous agent approaches decisions or the form such decisions take.

One model we might describe as a superlative or maximizing model. According to this model, a right act is the best act, or the most important one, or the one we have most reason to do, or the one that the situation calls for. Most commonly, if an act is right, on this model, it will be the unique right action for the situation, and one we are obligated to perform. And determining which act is right requires considering the available options for action, for rightness is determined by comparison with other action we could perform.

The second model we can characterize as a threshold or satisfaction model. According to this model, an act is right if it is good enough, meets a certain threshold or standard, or satisfies a condition in isolation from other available actions. When an act is right 0n this model it is usually one of many acts that are right in the situation. No one of them is obligated, but each is permissible.

These models are not always kept separate, sometimes causing us to slide from one into the other, though they have different implications. I also think that most people either presuppose the former or find it hard not to accept. For instance, it is sometimes suggested that a virtuous person is a perfect person, and it would seem that a perfect person does what is best. Alternatively, it is hard to deny that we can go right if we X even if there is more reason to Y. Now unlike a utilitarian view where there is a single value to be maximized, a good human life, on a virtue ethical view, is composed of different kinds of activities, like the exercise of different virtues. Part of the problem is determining from among these valuable activities which to engage in and when. For instance, I may have the opportunity to do something generous by volunteering my time or trying to cheer up a friend, or I may have the opportunity to take care of a standing responsibility, say to grade some papers. A virtuous person, according to the first model, can’t just maximize a single value. Rather she considers which opportunity it is more important to pursue given the facts of the situation and what kind of response the situation calls for. So if I have said I will return the papers early tomorrow, I should spend my time grading rather than doing something generous.

This model is tempting because of how easily it fits with certain decisions, especially when a decision is forced upon us or when we are committed to satisfying multiple interests. If I am on my way to fulfill a promise and an accident occurs in which a person needs immediate attention, then since I likely cannot both keep the promise and help, I need to decide which is more important. Or, again, if I have to do some grading this week but also want to have dinner with friends, it may be that circumstances determine that I have to do most of the grading today. Then it makes sense to speak of doing what is most important or what the situation calls for. But most situations do not call for anything in particular, and it is strained to speak as if we are always in a (“moral”) situation.

In what follows, I suggest two ways the maximizing model has difficulties incorporating aspects of a good human life.

I am going to assume that temperance is a virtue. Temperance is that trait that consists in being well disposed toward the pursuit of pleasures of the body: those connected with eating, having sex and doing drugs. One effect of temperance is to counteract the human tendency to overindulge our bodily pleasures. Yet if the virtues are connected with living a good human life, then temperance cannot prescribe denying bodily pleasures altogether. Under-indulgence of these pleasures is as problematic as overindulgence of them. For instance, an intimate partnership is part of a good human life. A healthy sex life is necessary for that partnership to go well and a healthy amount of sex is necessary for a healthy sex life. Again, we can be prone to drink to excess and that should be avoided. Yet as Peter Geach remarks, we do not always need to have our wits about us, and when we do not there is something good about the pleasures of drinking.

I am skeptical that the maximizing model can accommodate this account of temperance. On that model, a virtuous agent does what there is most reason to do. So if a virtuous agent indulges in drink or sex that is what is most important to do or what the situation calls for. This fails to fit how we think about deciding in such situations. We rarely compare the option of having sex with our partner to the other available opportunities. (This would be a mood-killing one thought too many.) Further, the cases in which having sex with my partner will satisfy the description “doing what is most important” or “what the situation calls for” must be rare. Having sex when it does meet these descriptions would run counter to having a healthy sex life and thus, also, to temperance forming part of a good human life.

I think the maximizing model will have similar trouble accommodating the pursuit of our personal interests. A good human life requires in addition to virtue a place for our own projects and for our own leisure. But enjoying some leisure time is rarely what it is most important to do. That description seems most fitting when we’ve worked so hard that we absolutely need a break. Indeed, if we think of comparing what else we could be doing with our time instead of spending it leisurely, almost anything else may win out.

Though I cannot begin to justify this here (or perhaps elsewhere), the maximizing model seems to distort what we generally pursue in our lives. On this model, we are meant to do what is most important, and given the role of the virtues in making a person good, the concerns of the virtuous would seem to have some primacy in deliberation. It can then easily look like the virtuous agent is always pursuing and trying to satisfy virtuous ends. But we are often just pursuing trivial or personal ends: doing our job, cooking dinner, watching TV, going for a walk, surfing the internet, etc.

This is no knock down argument. It is sufficient, however, to cast doubt on the fittingness of the maximizing model. After all, no reason is given for thinking it is correct. This should point us in the direction of the threshold model.

I will briefly indicate how we might fill in this model on a virtue ethical view. What matters on this model is not comparing our available options in order to select that which is most important. Rather, what matters is the contrast between good and bad. Aquinas claimed that an act is bad if it is bad in any respect, good if it is good in every. Now good and bad on a virtue ethical view are primarily tied to the virtues: an act is bad if it conflicts with the virtues or is in some way vicious. If there is no middle ground between good and bad—no acts that are indifferent—then an act that is not bad in any way is good. An act is right not by being the best act or the most important one but by being consistent with the demands of the various virtues.

Zack Loveless is a Ph.D. student in philosophy at the University of Chicago, and a graduate assistant with the project Virtue, Happiness, & the Meaning of Life.

Scrooge and Sudden Moral Change

Funny Ink Drawing of Scrooge

Neo-Aristotelian virtue ethicists, unlike Aristotle himself, seem willing to agree that significant moral change – a change wherein, for instance, a vicious individual becomes virtuous or vice versa – is possible.[1] They unanimously insist, however, that if and when such a change occurs, it can only occur over a prolonged period of time. A single experience or a sudden insight might lead to a desire or even a decision to change, but change itself is a slow and torturous process. Ebeneezer Scrooge is a favorite example of those who make this claim. Scrooge’s nocturnal visitors, scholars argue, might have inspired remorse and a desire to change, but (or so they insist) the Scrooge who wakes on Christmas morning is still – as far as his moral character is concerned – a mean and miserly man, and he will continue to be such for a long period of time, until his good actions gradually eat away at his vices and eventually replace them with virtues. Two related reasons are often given for this claim. First, it is said that experience is a pre-requisite of virtue: Scrooge’s character cannot change except via the experience of attempting to be kind or generous. Second, it is said that someone like Scrooge can have no hope of cultivating virtue unless his old vicious habits are lost. Since both cultivating virtues and eradicating vices are lengthy and time-consuming processes, it follows that Scrooge’s character can only change after a considerable space of time and a great deal of concerted effort.

While conceding that Scrooge’s nocturnal visitors might have brought about a conversion experience and a desire to change, scholars insist that Scrooge’s character itself could not have changed overnight; not, indeed, for a significant space of time afterwards. Why? Consider the following claims about why Scrooge (or someone like him) could not undergo a sudden change in character. Julia Annas says that Scrooge may well have recognized the value of virtue on Christmas Eve, but that he could not have changed, because “Coming to see that being loyal or brave is a worthwhile way to live is just the first step. Becoming virtuous requires habituation and experience…We need experience to understand what it is to be loyal or brave”.[2] Linda Zagzebski, similarly, argues that Scrooge may have had a “sudden insight or abrupt change of mind” but that he could not have undergone a sudden change in character.[3] Such changes are impossible, Zagzebski argues, because virtue presupposes a special form of moral knowledge, a knowledge that enables one “to know the right thing to do in a way that cannot be predicted in advance…an insight into particulars that may not be fully captured by any general rule.”[4] Such insight, Zagzebski argues, can only arise through experience.[5] Though Rosalind Hursthouse does not appeal specifically to Scrooge, she makes a similar claim about the space of time needed for moral change to occur, saying that an individual who decides to change nonetheless “has a lot to learn about people and about life before he acquires the sensitivity, perception, and imagination necessary for being thoroughly virtuous…one who has hitherto ruthlessly pursued money and power and now sees them as dross is not in the best position to deal with people of modest ambition as he should.”[6]

In all of the instances cited above, the argument for the necessity of experience does not center on virtue itself. The claim, rather, is that virtue presupposes a kind of moral understanding.[7] One might well wish to be kind (say) without any real understanding of what kindness is, but one cannot actually be kind without that understanding. What is kind will vary dramatically depending on the context and the person involved, yet genuinely kind people have no difficulty navigating these dramatically different contexts. Indeed, one’s ability to exercise the same virtue in dramatically different contexts is a mark of having it: kind people simply seem to “get” what kindness is.[8] The same can be said of other virtues as well. It is this – the understanding that virtue presupposes – that is asserted to be connected to experience.

If a kind of moral understanding is essential to virtue, an analogous kind of moral understanding seems equally essential to vice. The popular book (now an HBO series) Game of Thrones has a character, Ramsay Bolton, who is renowned for his cruelty. Ramsay is no mere bully. He delights in inflicting pain and enjoys devising ever more complicated and creative tortures. In fact, part of what makes him so despicable is the creativity of his cruelty. One of his favorite games is to allow his captives to think they have found a way of escaping, let them escape, and then recapture them just when they think their attempt has succeeded. In the season 6 finale, Ramsay has captured Rickon, the little brother of the protagonist Jon Snow. When Jon arrives with his army, Ramsay brings Rickon outside, tells him to run toward his brother, and begins shooting arrows at him. As Jon (of course) gallops to save his brother, Ramsay continues to shoot arrows, each time narrowly (and deliberately) missing Rickon. Only at the very last moment, as Jon is reaching down to sweep his brother up onto his horse, when escape seems imminent, does Ramsay allow his arrow to find its mark. Rickon dies, and Jon is forced to endure not merely the pain of losing his brother, but the additional pain of narrowly failing to save him. Mad with grief, Jon does exactly what Ramsay intended him to do all along: he orders his hopelessly outnumbered army to attack.

The example of Ramsay Bolton indicates that a kind of moral understanding is just as essential to Ramsay’s cruelty as it is to a virtuous person’s kindness. Ramsay is able to be extraordinarily cruel only because he has developed a thoroughgoing understanding of cruelty. His cruelty is creative, and his creativity stems precisely from his understanding of what will cause his victims the most pain. Among other things, he understands that if he allows his victims a hope of defeating or escaping him, it will make their inevitable failure all the more painful. Much as he enjoys inflicting physical pain, he also understands that one tortures more effectively by crushing spirits than by inflicting physical pain. He has enough insight, imagination and sensitivity to see that Jon cannot help but ride to save his brother and that he will blame himself for his failure to do so, however inevitable his failure might have been. Someone who lacked Ramsay’s understanding of cruelty could never be as cruel or as loathsome as he manages to be.

Cases like Ramsay’s indicate that moral understanding can play as much a role in vice as in virtue. It certainly does seem to be the case that virtuous action presupposes an ability to comprehend the morally relevant features of a situation. This comprehension may mean understanding what the actual practice of a given virtue involves, or it may mean exhibiting a kind of moral sensitivity or imagination. But a similar understanding is evident in vices like cruelty. The cruelest people manifest a deep level of understanding of how to inflict the most pain, and come up with tortures that others might never even conceive of. This very ability implies the possession of a sensitivity and imagination analogous to that possessed by the virtuous person. The thoroughly cruel individual is acutely good at understanding what will hurt his victims the most. For the remainder of our discussion, then, I will assume that vice involves a moral understanding analogous to that of virtue.

Is the moral understanding of virtue retained, even when one cultivates a vice? It is plausible to think that it is. In the first place, just as the virtuous man can put his understanding of his old vices to the service of his virtue, so too can the vicious man put his understanding of how virtuous people think to the service of his vice. In the second place, if we agree that conversions like Scrooge’s are at all plausible, then moral understanding must not be entirely lost. Scrooge’s conversion is made possible because he is reminded of how he used to see the world, and of how his old self compares to the new. Even if the reminder is not achieved by ghostly apparitions, I suspect most of us find it plausible that conversions can be achieved in this way. But this presupposes that the individual in need of conversion can comprehend those old emotions. If Scrooge had entirely lost the moral understanding he possessed as a child or a young man, his conversion would be impossible. He would be unmoved by the sight of his sister or his former self or the woman he loved. The fact that he can be moved, however, would seem to indicate that the understanding is still there, albeit buried under the weight of his vices.

I think that considerations like these make it plausible to think that moral understanding is not lost in the transition from virtue to vice any more than the understanding of a skill is lost when one ceases to use it. One might still argue, however, that the loss of a virtue or vice is importantly different from the loss of a skill, and that that difference means that the relevant understanding must be lost. I will conclude by considering some of these objections.

One difference between the typical case of the loss of skill and the loss of virtue is that ceasing to practice a skill might seem compatible with retaining understanding in the way that the loss of virtue does not. Suppose, having been a karate master, I stop practicing my art and become a maintenance man. My job as a maintenance man might well mean that I don’t think about my old skill and don’t practice it, but it is not antithetical to karate. I just now do something different. Consider, however, a rather different situation. The basketball great Charles Barkley was at one time a good golfer. Like many professional athletes, Barkley did not play golf often – so it would not be correct to say he had the “skill” of golf in the sense we have been using the term – but when he did play, he played well. But one day, Barkley developed what is known in golf as a “case of the yips”. The more he tried to fix his golf swing, the worse it became. Barkley is now spectacularly bad at golf, his swing the butt of jokes.

Barkley, of course, never developed the understanding of golf that a truly skilled golfer possesses. It’s not clear that it would even be possible, for instance, for Barkley to become spectacularly bad at basketball – a sport he does have the requisite understanding of – in the way he is bad at golf. But I raise the case of Barkley because one might argue that the loss that occurs in a significant moral change is more akin to the radical change that occurred in Barkley’s golf swing than it is to the loss that occurs when one simply ceases to practice a skill. That is to say, maybe the very process of becoming vicious necessarily drives out or eliminates one’s virtuous moral understanding in a way that merely ceasing to practice a skill does not.   Maybe the very process of becoming cruel means that kindness must become incomprehensible to me; maybe an inability to understand generosity is part and parcel of what it means to be greedy.

All that is required for significant moral change, however, is that the reasons characteristic of one’s former good habits cease to function as reasons, not that those reasons become incomprehensible. As Ebeneezer Scrooge became attached to money, his goals changed. In the light of his new goals, he came to view love as a frivolity and Christmas as an attempt to part him from his money. He created new habits and developed new ways of acting. The cultivation of those habits is, to be sure, incompatible with the actions characteristic of his old self. It is incompatible with Scrooge becoming a miser, for instance, that he regularly have generous or empathetic or loving thoughts or that he be moved by concern for others. On a daily basis, it even seems that empathy has become altogether incomprehensible to Scrooge: he tells the men who come to collect for charity that it would be better if the poor were to starve, and there is every indication that he means it. But that Scrooge acts in this way does not necessarily imply that his former moral comprehension has been irretrievably lost. It only means that it is not now action-guiding for him. Yet at the same time, the very fact that Scrooge can be moved by the sight of his former self and by the reminder of the sister who he loved indicates that his former moral understanding, however deeply buried, is still there. It is simply not an understanding that he has made use of. Scrooge’s conversion occurs not because his nocturnal visitors give him new reasons or a new perspective, but because they successfully re-awaken a moral comprehension that has long been dormant.

If virtues and vices are states of character that are permanent and difficult to change, shouldn’t what I am proposing already be ruled out? Isn’t the very notion of permanence incompatible with a relatively quick transition from virtue to vice? Not necessarily. On my account, an old vice or virtue is relatively easily resumed once the moral shift has been made. The now virtuous former philanderer can resume his old ways relatively easily if for some reason he is moved to reject his 30 year practice of chastity. Scrooge can resume the loving and generous practices of his youth if for some reason he comes to see his lifetime of greed as gravely misguided. Virtue and vice are stable states of character because the constant practice of them makes such moral changes deeply improbable. The more our former philanderer practices chastity, the better chastity appears to him, the more rewarding he finds the practice of it, the more difficult it will become for him to see his former life as appealing. Similarly, the more deeply the lust for money takes hold of Scrooge, the harder it will be for him to see the reasons that moved his former self as good reasons. In the end, it is the conversion experience itself that deeply ingrained habits render unlikely, and it is this that gives them their stability.

[1] Anton 2006; Bondeson 1974; Di Muzo 2000; Sielger 1968

[2] Annas, 12.

[3] Zagzebski, 123.

[4] Zagzebski, 119.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Hursthouse, 159. See also Milgram, Practical Induction.

[7] Annas is the only one who uses the term “understanding,” but her term seems to encompass what Hursthouse and Zagzebski have in mind.

[8] Annas seems to think that virtuous people will also have a certain level of articulacy but I see no reason to insist on this.

Angela Knobel is an Associate Professor of Philosophy at the School of Philosophy at The Catholic University of America and Scholar with Virtue, Happiness, & the Meaning of Life.

Thinking about Christmas like an economist

This post first appeared on the Stockholm University’s online 2016 Advent Calendar. For the original post and link to others in the series, click here.



What is Christmas? A time for communion with family and friends, perhaps, or a period of quiet reflection? If that’s what you think, it’s because you’re not a hard-nosed economist.


Ever since A. C. Pigou – the “father of welfare economics” – economists have measured welfare by subtracting what you did pay for something from what you would pay (at most). If you would pay as much as SEK 50 for a cup of coffee but the campus cafeteria only charges SEK 20, then the welfare effect of buying a cup is SEK 30, which is a good thing.


In 1993, the economist Joel Waldfogel asked his students to report, first, the retail price of the presents they had received at Christmas, and second, what they would be willing to pay for those things. He found that students would only pay two-thirds to nine-tenths of the cost of their gifts – meaning that one-third to one-tenth of all money spent of gifts for them was lost, which is a bad thing.


People Christmas shop to the tune of SEK 70 billion (USD 7.6 billion) in Sweden alone. Even if only a tenth of the value evaporates, the total “deadweight loss” would still equal SEK 7 billion (USD 760 million), which is an enormous amount of money.


If you think like an economist, the sure way to avoid deadweight losses is not to give presents. Perhaps you can invite the family to sit down by the Christmas tree and order something they were going to buy for themselves anyway from their preferred online retailer.


If you think like an economist, but still feel compelled to give presents, you can minimize losses by giving cash. Perhaps you can invite the family to sit down by the Christmas tree and exchange gift-wrapped SEK 100 bills – or just transfer money to each other using some mobile app.


Or, you know, you can not think like an economist.


Erik Angner is a  scholar with Virtue, Happiness, & the Meaning of Life, and Associate Professor of Philosophy at Stockholm University.

Holiday Greetings from our Scholars

December 2016 Working Group Meeting with (most of) the scholars of VHML: (from left) Josef Stern, Heather Lench, Kristján Kristjánsson, Jennifer Frey, Fr Thomas Joseph White, Dan McAdams, Candace Vogler, Marc Berman, Darcia Narvaez, Owen Flanagan, Angela Knobel, Reinhard Huetter, Michael Gorman, Paul Wong, Talbot Brewer, David Shatz.
Photo by Valerie Wallace.