Kristján Kristjánsson, Deputy Director in the Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues and Professor of Character Education and Virtue Ethics at the University of Birmingham, is the author of Virtuous Emotions, forthcoming in May 2018, Oxford University Press.
Heather C. Lench, Associate Professor & Department Head, Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences at Texas A&M University, is an editor on the volume Functions of Emotion, Springer, in January 2018.
“A thing must be loved before it is loveable,” G. K. Chesterton once said. Many of us want to know how we can become better people. We want to know how we can help our children and our students to become better people. Indeed, philosophers since Plato and Aristotle have been interested in how it is that people become virtuous, perhaps because, as Julia Annas puts it, “We cannot understand what virtue is without coming to understand how we acquire it.” And although philosophers have largely ignored Chesterton’s insight, he appears to have been exactly right, even prophetic.
Recent psychology suggests that an enormous factor in moral development—perhaps the great factor—is attachment. ‘Attachment’ is a fancy word for enduring love, the sort we see between parents and children, and in marriages and close friendships. None of us would want to live without such love. Few of us have ever lacked it completely, and the times we’re made to go without enough of it are oppressively painful, like going without sunlight or fresh air.
All of this is taken onboard by attachment theory, a research program in developmental psychology that aims at explaining the nature and significance of human attachments. One of the major claims of attachment theory is that, through their early experiences with a caregiver, infants form an internal “map” of what they can expect from others. If, for instance, the caregiver is warm and attentive, the infant will write this down on his map. He will then use his map to go about future socializing. He will expect others to be warm and attentive. He will trust that, if he shows his needs to them, they will care. He will be, as the experts say, “securely attached”.
If, on the other hand, the caregiver is a lousy bum, the infant will expect others to be lousy bums. Perhaps he will decide that he had better rely on himself to get his needs met. He will be “insecurely attached”.
Of course, both the writing of the map and the using of it are unconscious processes, only entering consciousness as a whiff of anxiety here or a sigh of relief there. And this may sound like so much Freudian mysticism. But the “map” here is really just a stored mental representation, and it is by now commonplace that the brain unconsciously creates mental representations of how things are, that it uses these to make predictions, and that it begins to do so no later than when we come screaming into the world.
Children who are securely attached have more of the stuff that virtues are made of. It is alarming, in fact. In a study from Jude Cassidy’s lab, for example, researchers interviewed children using puppets (they say it’s for the kids). They ask the children questions that elicit self-reflection. They code their answers in one of three ways:
Perfect: No negative comments about the self at all.
Negative: Globally negative remarks about the self.
Flexible: Globally positive remarks about the self, mixed with specific negative remarks.
What they found? Securely attached children were more likely to talk about themselves in the flexible way. What this seems to suggest is that being securely attached means you are better able to love and respect yourself while admitting to specific ways you could improve.
It’s worth underlining this. Consider how important this ability is to personal growth. Indeed, one of the great challenges of human life is finding a way to admit one’s gruesome imperfections without being crushed by the shame of it. One meets many people who deal with this by only embracing one side of the dilemma. One tells the truth, and is crushed. Or one avoids the crushing but only through self-deceit. The trick is to tell the truth, the whole damn thing, without sentencing yourself to life without parole. (An analogous challenge arises when it comes to our love for others: How do we love them when we discover their vileness?)
The Cassidy study only scratches the surface. Here is a list of eleven other virtue-related areas where the securely attached are better off:
In light of this stunning list, it appears Chesterton was right: A thing must be loved before it is loveable. We must be loved before we are loveable. As Steinbeck writes, “underneath their topmost layers of frailty men want to be good and want to be loved. Indeed, most of their vices are attempted short cuts to love.”
One of the most sublime scenes in Peter Pan has Wendy telling the lost boys how she and her brothers came to the Neverland. The boys are concerned, though. Won’t their parents miss them? This is her response:
“If you knew how great is a mother’s love,” Wendy told them triumphantly, “you would have no fear. … You see,” Wendy said complacently, “our heroine knew that the mother would always leave the window open for her children to fly back by; so they stayed away for years and had a lovely time.”
Wendy, too, is prophetic. The world can be for us a Neverland, a place of enchantment and wonder, where good things run wild, only if we know there is someone who has left the window open for us.
There is a thorn in all this, given the many people who endure a fraught childhood followed by a lonely adulthood. Aristotle thought that it was through practicing the virtues that we acquire them. “We become just by doing just actions,” he says. Recently, Julia Annas has taken this up, drawing an analogy with learning the piano:
I need first to work out consciously what is the right thing to do and then get used to doing it over and over again. This goes on from learning notes to learning scales and arpeggios and then learning how to play sonatas. As I become a skilled piano player … I can play sonatas and other pieces in a way that, as with driving, proceeds without conscious thinking.
Annas thinks acquiring virtues is like this, a view we might call the skill model. There is something right about the skill model, but something it leaves out as well. If you want to become virtuous, the research we’ve seen here suggests, not the practicing of the virtues, but the healing of the attachments. This is something done in therapy and by working towards healthy intimate relationships. Learning the virtues is like learning the piano, but many of us are playing with hands that have been broken and mangled. We do not need practice. We need rehab.
Annas, J., (2011), Intelligent Virtue, Oxford University Press.
Bowlby, J., (1980), Attachment and Loss, Vol. 3: Loss, Sadness, and Depression, New
York: Basic Books.
Cassidy, J., (1988), “Child-Mother Attachment and the Self in Six-Year-Olds”, Child
Development 59(1): 121-134.
Chesterton, G. K., (1909), Orthodoxy, New York: John Lane Company; London: John
Lane, The Bodley Head.
Clark, S., and D. Symons, (2000), “A Longitudinal Study of Mother-Child Relationships
and Theory of Mind in the Preschool Period”, Social Development 9(1): 3-23.
Colman, R., and R. Thompson, (2002), “Attachment Security and the Problem-Solving
Behaviors of Mothers and Children”, Merrill-Palmer Quarterly 48(4): 337-359.
Dykas, M., and J. Cassidy, (2011), “Attachment and the Processing of Social
Information across the Life Span: Theory and Evidence”, Psychological Bulletin
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Maternal Reminiscing Style in Cognitive and Socioemotional Development”,
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Contemporary Perspective, Julia Peters (ed.), New York: Routledge.
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“Attachment and Emotion Regulation during Mother-Teen Problem Solving: A Control Theory Analysis”, Child Development 64(1): 231-245.
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Brian Ballard recently earned his doctorate from the philosophy department at the University of Pittsburgh. His work address the nature of emotion and its role in the good life, and he was a participant in the 2016 summer seminar “Virtue & Happiness” for the Virtue, Happiness, & the Meaning of Life project.
James Baldwin’s work is widely recognized for its religious overtones and influences as well as for its critiques of racism and heterosexual norms. This exhibit displays books and essays by James Baldwin, alongside philosophical works that engage his work.
Said Knafl of the exhibit’s genesis, “I have wanted to mount an exhibit about James Baldwin since the release of the documentary “I Am Not Your Negro” in 2016. Baldwin’s works are known for their religious imagery but, given his complicated relationship to the church, I was curious about his philosophical influences and influence. I found a number of works that situated Baldwin in American philosophical traditions. In the exhibit, I juxtapose these with early editions of Baldwin’s works from the Library’s collection.”
Baldwin rose to prominence after the publication of his first novel in 1953, Go Tell It on the Mountain, a semi-autobiographical account of his childhood. By the 1960s, Baldwin had become the most recognizable African-American writer in the U.S. and the de facto spokesperson for the Civil Right Movement, a title he opposed.
Life is tragic simply because the earth turns and the sun inexorably rises and sets, and one day, for each of us, the sun will go down for the last, last time. Perhaps the whole root of our trouble, the human trouble, is that we will sacrifice all the beauty of our lives, will imprison ourselves in totems, taboos, crosses, blood sacrifices, steeples, mosques, races, armies, flags, nations, in order to deny the fact of death, which is the only fact we have. It seems to me that one ought to rejoice in the fact of death—ought to decide, indeed, to earn one’s death by confronting with passion the conundrum of life. One is responsible to life: It is the small beacon in that terrifying darkness from which we come and to which we shall return. One must negotiate this as nobly as possible, for the sake of those who are coming after us. But white Americans do not believe in death, and this is why the darkness of my skin so intimidates them.
This is part 5 of a 5-part series, “Don’t Ask about ‘the Meaning of Life’ (An argument in five blog posts)”.
Part 5. Epilogue: The meaning of life and the crisis of reason.
Is the question of the meaning of life even a meaningful question? That challenge was posed by positivist philosophers, who in their eagerness to identify truly scientific questions, capable of verification by empirical observation, dismissed whole classes of inquiry as meaningless. The positivists were right, in a way – the question of the meaning of life is a meaningless question – but in recognizing that they were not so much announcing a new discovery, as springing a trap positivists themselves had set. The trap was the dismissal of all moral evaluation as merely the expression of personal feeling.
This trap was built with the materials inherited from their predecessors in modern philosophy. The key figure in this story, as in so much else of modern philosophy, was David Hume. Hume embraced, and made others face, the inevitable consequence of the rationalist’s view of instrumental reason, that the mind cannot know the purposes or natures of things – or even whether there are purposes and natures of things – and so moral conviction cannot be grounded in knowledge of what things are. Given the continued power and success of science, it was only a matter of time before someone made the positivist move: to re-characterize science, formerly thought of pursuing the natures of things, as the formulation of empirically verifiable laws, with the concomitant relegation of all evaluative judgment (moral, aesthetic, and theological) to the expressions of feelings, technically irrational and meaningless.
Through much of modernity, even through early positivism, the question of the purpose of life was so powerful as to reassert itself even as the conception of reason grew ever more antithetical to it. Pascal responded to the early modern conception of scientific rationality, showing its limits in light of the “reasons of the heart,” and even coopting instrumental reason (in his “wager”) to reassert the question of how one is to live. Kant resisted Hume’s skepticism, trying valiantly to relocate ethics, metaphysics and even religion itself within the scope of rational inquiry. And as we have seen, in response to positivist conception of reason, Kierkegaard embraced the irrationality of religious faith as the very sign of its superior sort of truth. But in doing so – in accepting the positivist conception of rationality – Kierkegaard so subjectivized the question of purpose as to frame it in new terms, no longer as an intelligibly grasped purpose or goal or chief good of life, but as a personally felt, and extra-rational, meaning of life.
I think the reflections here and in the previous posts suffice to show that the emergence of the question of the meaning of life is not just a trivial semantic shift, superficially covering the persistence of a common, underlying question within a stable, coherent conceptual framework. The shift in the formulation of the question embodies a shift in the actual question being asked, which reflects a dramatic change in the general conceptual framework assumed by those questions – a dramatic change in the assumptions made about the world, about the human condition, about rationality, and about the kinds of questions that can intelligibly be asked. The question of the meaning of life just is not, and should not be confused with, the question of the end of man or the purpose of life. The two questions entertain different sorts of answers, give rise to different associated questions, and make different assumptions about the nature of man and reality.
In the face of this realization, we seem to face three options about how to proceed in talking about these questions and their relationship:
Option 1: We can ignore the differences, and continue acting as if the new and old questions are really different versions of the same question. This seems to have been the default approach, but it is, we now see, untenable.
Option 2: We can celebrate the shift, adopt the new question, and bid good riddance to the old question. Presumably there are some who would embrace that option; I will leave it to them to defend.
Option 3: We can find the new question problematic, and recommend not asking it, and work to recover the old question. The argument I’ve presented points strongly in this direction.
A fourth option is worth entertaining, but won’t be explored here. The 20th Century development of Catholic social and moral teaching suggests that it is at least possible to believe that the old question (the question of purpose) is more important and fundamental, while judging that the new question (the question of meaning) has a cultural purchase which cannot be ignored. Certain documents of Vatican II, and then the major writings of John Paul II, suggest an intentional strategy to use the meaning question to reawaken the older question of purpose – a development of the Catholic intellectual tradition that deserves further study by philosophers, theologians, and intellectual historians.
Joshua P. Hochschild is the Monsignor Robert R. Kline Professor of Philosophy at Mt. Saint Mary’s University.