Explaining Apparent Features of Modesty

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This post is one of two of excerpts from the paper “Modesty as an Executive Virtue,” forthcoming in American Philosophical Quarterly. Yesterday’s excerpt was “Modesty and the Moderate Evaluative Attitude.”

 

I have described the main features of the moderate evaluative attitude, which I claim to be central to modesty. Note that modesty’s operative requirement is a negative one. It serves to exclude various things (e.g., not having the stance that one is fundamentally worthier than others), rather than to positively require something (e.g., believing that all persons are equal). In this section, I show how my account can explain why a modest person has the apparent features of modesty, by which I roughly mean the patterns of behavior, desire, cognition, or attention that people commonly ascribe to a person they consider modest.
To begin, it is commonly said that a modest person tends not to be arrogant or
undervalue others even if she has superior qualities. This feature can be explained by the fact that the way she respects herself and others checks the possible temptation to think that her excellent qualities render her fundamentally worthier than others. Recall that my account does not require the modest person to evaluate herself as less worthy than she really is. Such an evaluative attitude would be more appropriate for self-deprecation or servility. Thus, my account does not ground modesty in any disposition to focus on one’s flaws or to underrate one’s own worth. I believe self-deprecation and servility are vices related to the way one evaluates oneself, just like arrogance and self-conceit. The reason modesty is commonly confused with self-deprecation or servility, while contrasted to arrogance or self-conceit, is because human beings are inclined to have higher opinion of themselves than they really deserve. This is analogous to the reason courage is often confused with recklessness while contrasted to cowardice, although both are vices associated with it. If human beings were naturally inclined to lower and efface themselves, modesty would have rarely been confused with self-deprecation or servility.

 

Another apparent feature of modesty is that a modest person tends to de-emphasize or downplay the worth attributed to herself for her good qualities (e.g., “Oh, stop it. I’m not that great!”). This is because, on my view, a modest person is committed to the evaluative stance that such excellences do not make her fundamentally worthier. Thus, she is less likely to accept and enjoy the praise that she thinks she does not deserve. Also, a modest person tends not to dwell on her superior qualities or show them off because she does not find the source of her self-esteem in possession of such qualities or others’ recognition of them.

 

The moderate evaluative attitude can also explain why a modest person tends not to care excessively about her rank or relative social position. This is because a modest person is disposed not to ground her self-esteem in the rank of her qualities among others’, and thus tends not to regard their comparative value as important. This point also explains why the modest person is less likely to overrank herself. This is because her evaluation is not easily biased by the self-centered incentive for higher rank. She is thus more likely to make an accurate assessment of her own qualities.

 

It is important to note that, on my account, these apparent features are not themselves constitutive of modesty. This has two implications. On the one hand, the apparent features of modesty mentioned above do not necessarily instantiate modesty; modesty is instantiated only when and to the extent that those apparent features express or are based on the underlying moderate evaluative attitude. On the other hand, the apparent features of immodesty may not actually instantiate immodesty. That is, as far as a person retains the moderate evaluative attitude, she would not be disqualified as a modest person just because she displays certain patterns of behavior, desire, cognition, or attention that appear inappropriate for or incompatible with modesty. For example, a modest person on my account may sometimes enjoy contemplating her good qualities or draw other people’s attention to them. Not all cases of ‘apparent immodesty’ instantiate a failure in modesty; some of them may be compatible with, though not particularly expressive of, modesty.

 

Then, how can we distinguish an instance of apparent immodesty that is compatible with modesty from one that is not? My suggestion is that apparent features of immodesty instantiate immodesty when they express some attitude incompatible with the modest evaluative attitude. To see this point more clearly, compare the following two cases. Suppose that Ben the gold medalist occasionally talks about the medal he won in the Olympics to enjoy the feeling of high self-esteem he takes from other people’s positive evaluation of his superior athletic ability. Ben’s act of mentioning his achievement in this case instantiates immodesty, since the attitude expressed here is incompatible with the moderate evaluative attitude. Now consider Sam the award-winning tutor. He mentions to his student that he has earned many teaching awards, but, unlike Ben, only to help the student learn better by building her trust in his ability as a teacher. (Suppose that there was no better way to earn her trust.) There is no intention to bathe in the student’s admiration or indulge in his past achievements. In this case, since Sam’s act of mentioning his achievements is not motivated by any attitude incompatible with the moderate evaluative attitude, it does not instantiate immodesty.

 


Sungwoo Um is a PhD candidate in the Philosophy Department and the Assistant Director of the Center for Comparative Philosophy (CCP) at Duke University. He holds philosophy degrees from Oxford University (BPhil) and Yonsei University (BA and MA). He works mainly in ethics, moral psychology, and social and political philosophy. Um was a participant in the Virtue, Happiness, & Meaning of Life “Virtue & Happiness” Summer Session in 2016.

Modesty and the Moderate Evaluative Attitude

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This post is one of two of excerpts from the paper “Modesty as an Executive Virtue,” forthcoming in American Philosophical Quarterly

Introduction

Many accounts of modesty offer to capture the distinctive features of modesty and explain its admirability as a virtue. I believe many previous accounts mistakenly regard things that are either results of modesty or loosely associated features as central to modesty. The main problem is that they do not pay enough attention to the admirable evaluative attitude that is characteristic of a modest person, which I call the moderate evaluative attitude. In this paper, I argue that modesty is best understood as an executive virtue with the moderate evaluative attitude at its center. My aims are to describe the main features of this evaluative attitude and to distinguish it from other features that are only contingently associated with modesty. In particular, I argue that many features that people frequently attribute to a modest person instantiate modesty only to the extent that they express or are based on the moderate evaluative attitude. Then I show why it is appropriate to understand modesty as an executive virtue, which helps exercise other virtues without having its own characteristic end. Next, I examine some of existing accounts and show why they are inadequate. Finally, I finish with the claim that modesty as a virtue does not depend on possession of excellent qualities.

Modesty and the Moderate Evaluative Attitude

Before describing in detail what I mean by the moderate evaluative attitude, let me make a few preliminary points about my view on modesty. First, the modest person’s characteristic evaluative attitude is supposed to be related to herself. One can be either modest or immodest only about qualities that one recognizes as one’s own, or at least as closely related to oneself in a certain sense (e.g., the intelligence of one’s son). This implies that we would not be instantiating immodesty no matter how highly or frequently we praise the good qualities of someone else, as far as we do not think those qualities are related to ourselves in any way.  This self-other asymmetry shows that modesty is essentially related to the person whose modesty is in question.

The second point is that a modest person’s characteristic evaluative attitude is typically toward herself in relation to others. In most cases, the context of modesty is set in the situation where some others are involved in the evaluation, and the scope of the ‘others’ may vary according to particular contexts. Suppose, for example, that Pericles has an evaluative attitude characteristic of modesty only in relation to the citizens in Athens, but not in relation to non- citizens such as women, slaves, and foreigners. It would be inappropriate, I think, to say that he is not modest at all, just because his attitude fails to cover wider scope. It would be more reasonable to say that he is modest at least in relation to citizens, while not in relation to non- citizens. In this sense, the scope of ‘others’ in my characterization of modesty is open and can be fixed only in the given context. Now let me describe the main features of the evaluative attitude characteristic of a modest person, which I call the moderate evaluative attitude. First, a person with this attitude is committed to the evaluative stance that she deserves no more respect than others in a fundamental sense. She feels, thinks, and acts based on the (possibly implicit) evaluation that her worth is not fundamentally superior to others, whether her qualities are excellent or not. She tends not to treat others in a disrespectful manner or look down on them even if their qualities are inferior to hers.

Note that my view is to be distinguished from the ‘egalitarian’ view proposed by Daniel Statman (1992) and Aaron Ben-Ze’ev (1993). According to the egalitarian view, modesty essentially involves the evaluative stance that all persons are fundamentally equal. First, what I impose on a modest person is the negative requirement that the agent does not take herself as fundamentally worthier than others. It implies that, unlike the egalitarian view, my view is compatible with ascribing at least some degree of modesty to a person who regards herself as less worthy of respect than others. Of course, such a person might be better described as self-deprecating or servile rather than as modest, and I don’t think such an attitude is required for modesty. However, it seems reasonable to say that she would be closer to being modest than a person who regards herself as more worthy of respect than others. My view can make this kind of distinction, while the egalitarian view cannot. Second, as I mentioned above, my account leaves it open in relation to whom one is modest. One can be modest or immodest in relation to many different entities including God, other compatriots, other persons, or even other animals. In contrast, the egalitarian view limits modesty to modesty in relation to persons.
Moreover, my view is neutral as to why a modest person would be committed to the evaluative stance that she is not worthy of more respect than others in a fundamental sense. The reason may be human beings’ shared vulnerability, shared rational agency, shared insignificance before God or something else. At least, my view of modesty does not rely on Kantian conception of equal respect for persons. The moderate evaluative attitude also involves a modest person’s characteristic way of holding herself in esteem. Respecting someone as a person is one thing, and holding her in high esteem is another. For example, although a virtuous figure like the Dalai Lama and a petty thief may deserve equal respect as human beings, hardly anyone would think that they are not different in any aspect of value. Let us say that to evaluate a person highly based on the worth of her qualities is to give her high esteem, rather than respect. A modest person tends not to find the source of her self-esteem in the mere superiority of her qualities compared to others’. Whether her qualities are superior or inferior to others is not in itself important to her.

Note that modesty understood in this way is compatible with having high self-esteem and does not essentially involve low self-esteem. Consider Sandri, a modest girl who is very smart and pretty. Although she happens to know that she is smarter and prettier than most other people, she does not take this fact as a reason to have higher esteem for herself or to have lower esteem for other people. As far as she finds the source of her self-esteem in her  outstanding intelligence and beauty as something good rather than as something better than others’, she may have high self-esteem without being immodest.

 

Moreover, a person with the moderate evaluative attitude tends not to take others’ positive evaluation on her qualities as itself a reason to have higher self-esteem. Although she may appreciate others’ praise on her, the real source of her self-esteem is not the praise itself, but what the praise indicates—that she has good qualities. Thus, if the modest person believes that the praised qualities are not her own or that they are not good enough, then she would not take the praise itself as a reason to have higher self-esteem. Consider Jimi the modest guitarist, for example. Suppose that people praise Jimi as they listen to a recorded guitar song that they believe he played. If Jimi believes that the song is in fact played by someone else, he would not have higher self-esteem based on this misdirected praise. Or if he believes that, although he did play the song, it is not good enough on his own standard, he would not hold himself in higher esteem merely because of people’s praise. In this sense, a modest person does not find the source of her self-esteem in mere comparative value or others’ praise. Ranking or reputation would serve merely as an imperfect indicator that one’s qualities are good.

Tomorrow: EXPLAINING APPARENT FEATURES OF MODESTY


Sungwoo Um is a PhD candidate in the Philosophy Department and the Assistant Director of the Center for Comparative Philosophy (CCP) at Duke University. He holds philosophy degrees from Oxford University (BPhil) and Yonsei University (BA and MA). He works mainly in ethics, moral psychology, and social and political philosophy. Um was a participant in the Virtue, Happiness, & Meaning of Life “Virtue & Happiness” Summer Session in 2016.

Clockwork Corporations: A Character Theory of Corporate Punishment

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The abstract and introduction below are from the paper published in the Iowa Law Review, Forthcoming; U Iowa Legal Studies Research Paper No. 2017-32.  Link

Abstract

Retribution and deterrence currently drive the politics and scholarship of corporate criminal law. Since the potential harms and private gains of corporate crime are so large, corporate punishment under these theories must be exacting…too exacting. In fact, it is difficult under current law to punish many corporations formally without killing them. Ironically, this fact leads to the under-punishment of corporations. Prosecutors — understandably hesitant to shutter some of the country’s largest economic engines — increasingly offer corporations deferred prosecution agreements in lieu of charges and trial.

 

This Article considers corporate punishment for the first time from the framework of a third major theory of punishment — character theory. Character theories of punishment focus first and foremost on instilling good character and civic virtue. Criminal law scholars have largely marginalized character theory because it struggles as a suitable framework for individual punishment. But the practical and moral problems character theory faces in the individual context do not arise with the same force for corporations. In fact, character theory offers the possibility of punishing corporations in a way that preserves and enhances the social value they create while removing the structural defects that lead to criminal conduct. Along the way, the Article defends some heterodox proposals, including abolishing the corporate fine and allowing sentencing judges to balance the need to punish against non-criminal aspects of a corporate defendants’ “character.”

 

“How about this new thing they’re talking about? How about this new like treatment that gets you out of prison in no time at all and makes sure that you never get back in again?” ~ Anthony Burgess, “A Clockwork Orange”

 

Introduction

 

It is actually not so new. Though unpopular for the last few decades, punishing criminals by reforming them was once the predominant approach. Anthony Burgess poignantly described one prominent concern that led to its demise: Coerced reform risks turning people into “clockwork toy[s] to be wound up by . . . the Almighty State.” Forcefully changing character and personality is an affront to the self-defining freedom that is the root of human dignity.

 

While generally marginalized today, punitive reform is undergoing a resurgence for a different kind of “person”—the large, publicly-traded corporate criminal. Prosecutors are at the forefront of the movement. In the deals they cut with corporate suspects, prosecutors often require programs of reform. Implicit in how prosecutors now treat corporate defendants is the recognition that their fundamentally different nature allows for a different approach to punishment. Burgess’ complaint loses all its force in the corporate context. Corporations are not, and cannot be, free, selfdefining loci of dignity.

 

Scholars and lawmakers are still behind the curve. While prosecutors have been experimenting with reform-as-punishment, the dominant academic and political discourses on corporate crime still focus on deterrence and retribution. There is the seed of a third path in what prosecutors are doing. This article seeks to uncover the implicit logic behind corporate prosecutors’ decisions. In its present form, prosecutorial practice is focused on reform and rehabilitation. Were the logic of the practice pushed and perfected as an approach the entire criminal justice system could take toward corporate punishment, an organizing theory that is different from deterrence and retribution emerges—character theory. As argued below, character theory opens new conceptual space for solving some of the most persistent problems in corporate criminal law.

 

One of those persistent problems is the dark and unjust underbelly to the way prosecutors handle corporate criminals—criminal justice is often softer on corporate criminals than on real people. On paper, the Department of Justice officially treats corporations as ordinary people. Somehow, though, corporations are much less likely to see criminal charges. Less than .03% of corporations faced prosecution in the last quarter century. To put this in perspective, 8.6% of the U.S. adult population has a felony conviction. There are many possible explanations for this discrepancy, including over-criminalization of some forms of individual conduct and over-enforcement against certain demographics. Another possibility is that the large, public corporations that are the focus of this article receive some of the lightest treatment.

 

The perception that large, public corporations routinely escape conviction is troublingly paradoxical. These corporations are among those most likely to commit crimes, and their conduct most deeply impacts society. They have an extremely wide base of liability. Under current doctrine, they are automatically liable for almost any crime any individual employee commits on the job. This adds up to a staggering degree of exposure for large corporations—the seventy-five largest corporations in the United States employ over 100,000 potential points of liability.  Though the de jure scope of corporate criminal liability has continued to expand since the early twentieth century, the chance of conviction for large public corporations continues to shrink. This is particularly puzzling in an environment where the outrage of Wall Street Occupiers over corporate unaccountability still reverberates in public sentiment. Failure to hold corporations accountable frustrates society’s effort to condemn corporate criminality and can cast a shadow on the broader legitimacy of criminal law.

 

This discrepancy between the scope of corporate criminal liability and the infrequency of conviction is in part to due to how prosecutors go about trying to reform corporations. For every conviction of a public corporation, and with increasing frequency, there is at least one other where prosecutors decline to take the corporate suspect to trial and instead enter into a specially negotiated deal: a deferred prosecution agreement (DPA) or non-prosecution agreement (NPA). Unlike guilty pleas, these agreements do not result in a guilty verdict; they may not even require an admission of wrongdoing.  Corporate DPAs and NPAs are extremely controversial. They face a bevy of criticism from many perspectives: that they are too onerous, that they are too lenient, that they violate basic tenets of political morality, that they fail basic norms of transparency, and more. It is through these DPAs and NPAs that prosecutors frequently impose the reforms that interest this article. In addition to undermining corporate convictions, this article discusses below how poorly positioned prosecutors to be agents of corporate reform.

 

Many people blame prosecutors for the pitfalls of DPAs and NPAs, but prosecutors are hard to fault. DPAs and NPAs are a reasonable response to the legal and practical constraints prosecutors face, including, most importantly, the effects a successful conviction can have on a large public corporation. In 2004, prosecutors learned a hard lesson—their shortlived courtroom success against Arthur Andersen, one of the largest U.S. accounting firms, turned into a long-lasting catastrophe that put the company and its 75,000 employees out of business.  For many firms, including Arthur Andersen, there are life-ending collateral consequences that automatically follow conviction, such as debarment or revocation of the privilege of doing business with the government. When a successful conviction could entail massive harm to the very social welfare prosecutors are supposed to protect, DPAs and NPAs are a natural choice.

 

There is a way to keep the good without the bad—to hold corporations accountable without destroying them and to reform corporations without relying on prosecutors to do all the work through DPAs and NPAs. This article argues that the stark choice that forces prosecutors to decline corporate prosecutions in favor of DPAs and NPAs is an unnecessary feature of corporate criminal law. It draws attention for the first time to punishment theory as a potential source of problems and solutions. The article argues that low conviction rates and a host of other familiar problems with corporate criminal law are, in large part, a consequence of the focus on deterrence in scholarship and retribution in public political discourse. These drive prosecutors and corporations out of the courtroom.

 

Though prosecutors are increasingly attentive to corporate reform, scholars and lawmakers have overlooked character theory as a framework for corporate punishment. While adopting a broadly consequentialist perspective,38 the Article points out that preventing corporate crime does not necessarily require deterring it. The Article does this by introducing character theory as a systematic approach for structuring corporate punishment. Character theory would refine the sorts of reform and rehabilitation that prosecutors currently pursue and make them the exclusive mode of corporate punishment. Character theory would avoid the need for DPAs and NPAs, and ultimately do more to prevent corporate wrongdoing than deterrent approaches can. It could also bring corporate criminal law into better alignment with the goals of retributive theorists. While various actors already attempt to reform corporations at various stages of the criminal justice system, their efforts are piecemeal and ineffective because they lack any coherent, coordinating theory. Poor execution and the distorting influences of deterrence and retribution continue to hamstring any chance of success. Fixing corporate character as the sole criterion for the extent and method of corporate punishment leads to some surprising, though ultimately beneficial, recommendations, such as abolishing the corporate criminal fine.

 

After detailing the problems retributivism (Part II) and deterrence theory (Parts III) bring to corporate criminal law (Part IV), the article introduces character theory (Part V) as an alternative. With the conceptual foundation set, the article shows the work character theory could do improving a diverse range of problems in corporate criminal law (Part VI). The article closes by addressing concerns that may arise from the perspective of other theories of punishment—the character approach proposed here performs well by their metrics too (Part VII).

 

One goal of this Article is to work so far as possible within the constraints of present legal and political realities. In theory, there may be ways to promote corporate reform and solve the problems discussed in this Article without turning to character theories of punishment. Some scholars think that scrapping corporate criminal law entirely and relying only on civil liability would improve things.41 But such proposals are fanciful in the current political climate. It is also far from clear whether the sorts of corporate reform that this Article advocates could be accomplished by using non-criminal fora. As such, abolishing corporate criminal law and other similarly radical options are outside this Article’s methodological ambit. It takes the basic contours of corporate criminal law as given and shows how they can function best. Character theory can do that work.

The full paper can be downloaded without charge from the Social Science Research Network electronic library here.


Mihailis Diamantis is an associate professor of law at the University of Iowa, in the College of Law and the Department of Philosophy.  He writes about criminal law, corporate responsibility, and the philosophy of action.  He holds a PhD in philosophy from NYU and his JD from Yale.  Prior to joining the faculty at Iowa, Mihailis was an instructor and researcher at Columbia Law School.  He clerked for Judge Alex Kozinski on the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals and worked on white collar investigations as an attorney at Debevoise & Plimpton LLP.He attended the 2016 Summer Session “Virtue & Happiness” of the project Virtue, Happiness, & the Meaning of Life. 

Virtue and the Bonds of Love

 

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Photo by Graeme Scott.

“A thing must be loved before it is loveable,” G. K. Chesterton once said.[1] 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.”[2] And although philosophers have largely ignored Chesterton’s insight,[3] 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.[4] 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.[5]

 

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,[6] 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:[7]

  1. Self-worth[8]

 

  1. Realistic self-image[9]

 

  1. Emotion regulation[10]

 

  1. Cooperative problem solving[11]

 

  1. Self-reliance[12]

 

  1. Understanding of others’ needs and emotions[13]

 

  1. Understanding of one’s own needs and emotions[14]

 

  1. Acceptance of vulnerability[15]

 

  1. Resilience[16]

 

  1. Conscience development[17]

 

  1. Open and elaborative conversational style[18]

 

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.[19]

 

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.

 

References

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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Goodvin, R., S. Meyer, R. Thompson, and R. Hayes, (2008), “Self-Understanding in

Early Childhood: Associations with Child Attachment Security and Maternal

Negative Affect”, Attachment and Human Development 10: 433-450.

Harcourt, E., (2013), “Attachment Theory, Character, and Naturalism”, Ethics in

Contemporary Perspective, Julia Peters (ed.), New York: Routledge.

Kobak, R., Cole, H., Ferenz-Gillies, R., Fleming, W., and W. Gamble, (1993),

“Attachment and Emotion Regulation during Mother-Teen Problem Solving: A Control Theory Analysis”, Child Development 64(1): 231-245.

Laible, D., and R. Thompson, (2000), “Mother-Child Discourse, Attachment Security,

Shared Positive Affect, and Early Conscience Development”, Child Development 71(5): 1424-40.

Laible, D., and R. Thompson, (1998), “Attachment and Emotional Understanding in

Preschool Children”, Developmental Psychology 34(5): 1038-1045.

LeDoux, Joseph, (1996), The Emotional Brain, New York: Simon & Schuster.

Mikulincer, M., and P. Shaver, (2012), “An Attachment Perspective on

Psychopathology”, World Psychiatry 11(1): 11-15.

Mikulincer, M., Shaver, P., and D. Pereg, (2003), “Attachment Theory and Affect

Regulation: The Dynamics, Development, and Cognitive Consequences of

Attachment-Related Strategies”, Motivation and Emotion 27(2): 77-102.

Narvaez, D., (2016), “Baselines for Virtues”, Developing the Virtues, J. Annas, D.

Narvaez, and N. Snow, Oxford University Press.

Oppenheim, D., and N. Koren-Karie, (2009), “Mother-Child Emotion Dialogues: A

Window into the Psychological Secure Base”, Stress and Memory Development: Biological, Social and Emotional Considerations, J. Quas and R. Fivush (eds.), Oxford University Press.

Pollak, S., (2011), “Mechanisms Linking Early Experience and the Emergence of

Emotions: Illustrations From the Study of Maltreated Children”, Current

Directions in Psychological Science 17(6): 370-375.

Raikes, H., Virmani, E., Thompson, R., and H. Hatton, (2013), “Declines in Peer Conflict

from Preschool through First Grade: Influences from Early Attachment and Social Information Processing”, Attachment and Human Development 15(1): 65-82.

Raikes, H., and R. Thompson, (2008), “Attachment Security and Parenting Quality

Predict Children’s Problem-Solving, Attributions, and Loneliness with Peers”,

Attachment and Human Development 10(3): 319-44.

Reese, E., (2002), “Social Factors in the Development of Autobiographical Memory: The

State of the Art”, 11(1): 124-142

Sroufe, L., (1983), “Individual Patterns of Adaptation from Infancy to Preschool”,

Minnesota Symposium on Child Psychology, Vol. 16, M. Perlmutter (ed.), University of Minnesota Press.

Sroufe, L., Fox, N., and V. Pancake, (1983), “Attachment and Dependency in

Developmental Perspective”, Child Development 54(6): 1615-1627.

Thompson, R., (2015), “The Development of Virtue: A Perspective from Developmental

Psychology”, Cultivating Virtue, N. Snow (ed.), Oxford University Press.

Thompson, R., (2000), “The Legacy of Early Attachments”, Child Development 71: 145-

152.

Waters, S., Virmani, E., Thompson, R., Meyer, S., Raikes, H., and R. Jochem, (2010),

“Emotion Regulation and Attachment: Unpacking Two Constructs and Their Association”, Journal of Psychopathology and Behavioral Assessment 32(1): 37-47

 

 

[1] Chesterton (1909), p. 89.

[2] Annas, (2011), p. 21.

[3] An important exception is Harcourt (2013).

[4] See, for instance, Bowlby (1980).

[5] LeDoux (1996), Ch. 7.

[6] Cassidy (1988).

[7] I’m offering here a laundry list. Naturally, some psychologists have developed more systematic views that incorporate data in this area; see, for instance, Narvaez (2016) and Thompson (2015).

[8] Colman and Thompson (2002); Goodvin et al. (2008); Sroufe (1983).

[9] Clark and Symons (2000); Dykas and Cassidy (2011).

[10] Kobak et al. (1993); Mikulincer et al. (2003) et al.; Waters et al. (2010).

[11] Raikes and Thompson (2008); Raikes et al. (2013).

[12] Sroufe et al. (1983); Thompson (2000).

[13] Laible and Thompson (1998); Pollak (2008).

[14] Openhaim and Koren-Karie (2009).

[15] Mikulincer and Shaver (2008).

[16] Colman and Thompson (2002).

[17] Kochanska et al. (2004); Laible and Thompson (2000)

[18] Fivush et al. (2006); Reese (2002).

[19] Annas (2011), p. 13.


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.

The meaning of life and the crisis of reason

The explorer

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.

Assessing the difference between meaning and purpose

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This is part 4 of a 5-part series, “Don’t Ask about ‘the Meaning of Life’ (An argument in five blog posts)”.

Part #4: Assessing the difference between meaning and purpose.

In the three previous posts, we saw that the question of the meaning of life is a late 19th Century invention, which effectively displaced what had previously been the dominant question about human life, namely its purpose or goal.  Now we may take stock of the significance of this shift.

 

To suppose that the question of “the meaning of life” is a timeless, universal question, would be to insist that it captures what is formulated in terms of the question about man’s ultimate end or good or purpose.  This would be very hard to sustain.  The question of the purpose of life, if taken seriously, is intrinsically teleological and essentialist.  It presumes that there is such a thing as true human fulfillment, rooted in human nature, which reflects a definite purpose or intention of its maker.  In Aristotelian terms, the question implicates three of the four causes: in asking about the end (final cause) of man, it presumes that there is an essential human nature (formal cause), which has been communicated to man from an agent (efficient cause).

 

Put another way, to ask after the purpose or end of human life is at once to create a field for practical moral questions – How should we live? For what end should I act? – and to frame that field in the context of fundamentally metaphysical questions – what is the true origin, nature, and destiny of human beings?  This is exactly what we see reflected in the the design of the whole of Aquinas’s Summa Theologiae – which places the moral reflection of the Secunda Pars (previously mentioned) in relation to God, as creator of human nature (explored in the Prima Pars), and Who alone can lead us to the fulfillment of our end (explored in the Tertia Pars).

 

By contrast, the question of the meaning of life almost seems formulated precisely to avoid both the moral field and metaphysical frame.  Meaning is subjective, placing an emphasis on the interior life, feelings, emotions, awareness, consciousness.  What makes me feel purposive doesn’t necessarily speak to the question of an intrinsic, essential purpose.  “Meaning” does indeed suggest directionality – something is meaningful or significant if it makes reference to something else.  But this is not the directionality of action toward an end, rather it is the directionality of symbol to what is symbolized.  To ask about the meaning of life is almost to ask an aesthetic question: what will my life evoke, what will it represent?

 

As a consequence, notice what questions further arise after we open up the question of “the meaning of life”: is it the same for everyone, or a matter of individual perspective?  Do we make meaning, or discover it?  Do we entertain the possibility that there is no meaning?  If my life feels meaningful to me, is it really meaningful?  These are existentialist questions – questions of real moral seriousness, to be sure, but raised from a position disconnected from a moral or metaphysical framework.  By contrast, notice what further questions arise from the question of the purpose or end of life: where does it come from?  How can I achieve it?  Is this or that action compatible with it?  These are questions of theology and ethics – questions of moral seriousness strongly rooted in a metaphysical framework.  The question of life’s meaning places an emphasis on subjective fulfillment; the question of life’s purpose can include that, but relates the notion of personal fulfillment to a question that draws one outside of oneself: what is my life for, how can I bring my life into its intended order.  It is the difference between asking what might happen to make me feel fulfilled given my circumstances, and asking what should fulfill me in light of the true structure of reality.

 

So consider the kind of answers one could give to the old, more permanent question about the goal or end of life: virtue, happiness, union with God, life everlasting.  “Why did God make you? God made me to know Him, to love Him, and to serve Him in this world, and to be happy with Him forever in heaven.”  No wonder the authors of the Baltimore Catechism, like Thomas Aquinas, could use the question of human purpose to structure an instruction in Christian wisdom.  Do answers like this even make sense as answers to the question of the meaning of life?  One would have to say, in Kierkegaardian fashion, only if one chose to make the leap of faith, to believe those answers, to make them meaningful for you.

 

Alasdair MacIntyre has defended a teleological approach to ethics by connecting it to the possibility of making life intelligible as a narrative.  This might sound like it is a version of making life “meaningful,” although MacIntyre strongly denies an easy equation between an Aristotelian purpose and existential meaning.  Simply finding meaning cannot be the telos of life.  True, if one is not aware of a purpose in one’s life, one will feel that one’s life is meaningless, but that doesn’t mean that “living a meaningful life” makes sense as the goal of life.  MacIntyre is even willing to allow that Kierkegaard, for instance, did have a teleological view of life.  Kierkegaard departed from Aristotle in his understanding of the mode of perceiving one’s actions as oriented toward a telos.  MacIntyrean narrative is a kind of rationality, but Kierkegaard (as Tolstoy) was eager to place “meaning” outside of rationality.  For Kierkegaard, man’s fundamental motives are more a matter of non-rational psychological mechanisms – hence Kierkegaard’s “ethical” reasoning is closer to “aesthetic” feeling than to more familiar forms of rational intelligibility.

 

So it is not a surprise that, even when taken seriously as the ultimate question of human life, it is widely recognized that the question of the meaning of life is highly personal.  Unlike the question of the end of man, which is a general question about the essential good of human nature as such, the question of the meaning of life is individualistic and particular.  The strength, and the weakness, of the question is that it seems to put the weight of responsibility on the one asking it to supply an answer from his or her own private, inarticulate resources.

 

As a consequence, those who take the question of the meaning of life most seriously seem to turn the question around, and make it less a question of abstract moral theorizing than a question of personal commitment.  As earnestly characterized by Viktor Frankl, the question of the meaning of life seems to transform from a common question about human life, to a personal question about finding one’s unique vocation.  Describing the challenge of life in the concentration camp, he says:

We needed to stop asking about the meaning of life, and instead to think of ourselves as those who were being questioned by life—daily and hourly. Our answer must consist, not in talk and meditation, but in right action and in right conduct. Life ultimately means taking the responsibility to find the right answer to its problems and to fulfil the tasks which it constantly sets for each individual.

 

These tasks, and therefore the meaning of life, differ from man to man, and from moment to moment. Thus it is impossible to define the meaning of life in a general way.

 

So even for Frankl, concerned as he is with helping to find meaning in the face of what could so easily seem meaningless, the question of the meaning of life admits of no general answer, and is not even the right question to ask.

 

Next:  POST #5, EPILOGUE: THE MEANING OF LIFE AND THE CRISIS OF REASON

 


Joshua P. Hochschild is the Monsignor Robert R. Kline Professor of Philosophy at Mt. Saint Mary’s University.

What “the meaning of life” replaced

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Aristophanes & Sophocles. Photo by rai_19 on Flickr.

This is part 3 of a 5-part series, “Don’t Ask about ‘the Meaning of Life’ (An argument in five blog posts)”.

Part 3. What “the meaning of life” replaced.

 

In the previous two posts, we traced the circumstances of the emergence of the question of “the meaning of life,” which, far from being a timeless question rooted deep in the human heart, is a late 19th Century invention in a particular European intellectual context.

 

What then did people wonder about before they wondered about the meaning of life?  This is not a difficult to discover.  The question about human life asked for most of Western history, up into the 20th Century, is not about the meaning of life, but about the goal, good, or end of life.  The question was most commonly formulated in terms of “the end of man” or “man’s chief good” (where “man” is obviously the gender-neutral term for the human species).  The Greeks called it the “telos,” Latins the summum bonum or ultimus finis.  We may call it the question of human purpose – where by “purpose” we don’t mean an individual agent’s intention or conscious sense of purpose, nor a personal vocation or path to fulfill, but the intrinsic, essential why of the species.  What are human beings for?  What is the ultimate point of our existence?

 

This is the question that dominates the center and largest of the three parts of Thomas’ Aquinas’s Summa Theologiae – Question 1 of the First Part of the Second Part is “On Man’s Last End,” and the following several hundred questions examine all that is entailed in answering that question.  The question of man’s purpose or end is addressed in Augustine’s City of God and Confessions.  It is the question that motivates Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics.  Many of Plato’s dialogues consider the human good or end explicitly (e.g. Republic and Philebus), and those that don’t can easily be read as relating their subjects – virtues, laws, speech, knowledge, pleasure, friendship, love and death – to that question.

 

The tone could be said to be set by Greek drama.  Could we imagine trying to interpret Sophocles’ Antigone as a meditation on the meaning of life?  Hardly.  It is clearly and forcefully about the end or good of man.  Even the great Western stories about a particular character finding his personal path – Illiad and Odyssey, the Aeneid, the Divine Comedy – only make sense as reflections on how an individual’s destiny makes sense as a the pursuit of the human good.  It would seem to trivialize these epic stories to force them into the paradigm of exploring “the meaning of life.”

 

Into the 19th Century, even as the new question of the meaning of life was beginning to be formulated, the question of an intrinsic human purpose remained dominant in secular and religious contexts.  When Thoreau set out “to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life,” he did so explicitly questioning the catechism’s answer to “the chief end of man,” but still in pursuit of his own, alternative answer.  We do not find Marx speaking of “the meaning of life,” though he did formulate his materialistic anthropology in terms of “the purpose of life.”  Herbert Spencer, even while articulating a utilitarian ethics grounded in positivism, still speaks of human nature and human purpose; the question of life having “meaning” does not arise for him.

 

The purpose of life was, quite explicitly, the primary pedagogical question of Catholic instruction.  Major 19th Century Catholic thinkers, like John Henry Newman and Orestes Brownson, never asked about “the meaning of life,” but frequently spoke of “the end of man” or “the chief good of man.”  And of course the 1885 Baltimore Catechism’s very first lesson – the starting point from which it proceeded to instruct in the essentials of the faith – was entitled, “The End of Man” – a phrase further glossed by the catechism as “the purpose for which he was created.”

 

Next:  POST #4, ASSESSING THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN MEANING AND PURPOSE


Joshua P. Hochschild is the Monsignor Robert R. Kline Professor of Philosophy at Mt. Saint Mary’s University.