On the Eve of a New Administration: Frederick Douglass on Civic Virtue in Turbulent Times

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Frederick Douglass. Image from VermontHumanities.org.

 

Frederick Douglass is alive.

 

At least, that was the impression given by the 45th President of the United States when he praised Douglass at a recent Black History Month event, saying: “Frederick Douglass is an example of somebody who’s done an amazing job and is getting recognized more and more, I notice.” The Atlantic, Feb 1 2017.

 

Douglass, one of the most important figures in the anti-slavery movement and one of the greatest orators America has ever produced, died February 20, 1895, and the widespread public amusement at Donald Trump’s remarks about him came from a sense that the President had almost no idea who Douglass was. However, if Mr. Trump read one of Douglass’s Reconstruction-era speeches on virtue and political change, he might almost be forgiven for believing that the greatest Black American leader of the 19th century still walks among us.

 

April 16, 1885 was the 23rd anniversary of the emancipation of slaves in the District of Columbia. President Grover Cleveland reviewed a parade of over 5,000 people marching near the White House, and that evening, Frederick Douglass gave a speech, “We are Confronted by a New Administration,” at the Lincoln Memorial Congregational Church.

 

The occasion of Douglass’s speech was ominous. The Republican party had lost power after 25 years of running a post-Civil War government the emancipated slaves had come to rely on. Faced with the prospect of diminished freedoms and the great work of Reconstruction left undone, Douglass spoke of the election as a bitter defeat: “We do not stand where we stood one year ago. We are confronted by a new administration. The term of steady, unbroken successful Republican rule, is ended. The great Republican party that carried the country safely through the late war against the rebellion, emancipated the slave, saved the Union, reconstructed the government of the southern states, enfranchised the freedmen, raised the national credit, improved the currency, decreased the national debt, and did more for the honor, prosperity and glory of the American people, than was ever done before in the same length of time by any party in any country, under similar circumstances, has been defeated, humiliated, and driven from place and power.”

 

For Douglass, this election is not just the defeat of a good cause, but the triumph of those opposed to justice: “For the first time since the chains fell from the limbs of the slaves of the District of Columbia; for the first time since slaves were raised from chattels to men; for the first time since they were clothed with the dignity of American citizenship, they find themselves under the rule of a political party which steadily opposed their every step from bondage to freedom; and this may well give a peculiar coloring to the thoughts and feelings with which this anniversary of emancipation is celebrated.”

 

He acknowledges that slavery and racial oppression do not exist apart from the social structures that justify and maintain them, “Like any other embodiment of social and material interest peculiar to a given community, slavery generated its own sentiments, its own morals, manners, and religion, and begot a character in all around it in favor of its own existence.”

 

Such attitudes are not those of a morally strong and healthy nation; Douglass praises the wisdom in the rejection of a two-nation system, one slave and one free, “hostile civilizations side by side, with a chafing bloody border between them,” in favor of “one country, one citizenship, and one liberty for all the people.”

 

Insisting that the divisions that led to the Civil War were moral, he suggests the solution to the unfinished business of Reconstruction lies in the cultivation of virtue: “There never was any physical reason for the dissolution of the Union. The geographical and topographical conditions of the country all serve to unite rather than to divide the two sections. It was moral, not physical dynamite that blew the two sections asunder.”

 

Douglass explains that: “Twelve hundred more colored votes in the state of New York would have saved that party from defeat,” and suspects these votes were lost because the campaign did not address moral issues: “Little was said, thought, or felt, about national integrity, the importance of maintaining good faith with the freedman or the Indian, or the protection of the Constitutional rights of American citizens, except where such rights were in no danger . . . No nation, no party, no man, can live long and flourish, on falsehood, deceit, injustice, and broken pledges.”

 

“On the other hand,” he notes, “where good faith is maintained, where justice is upheld, where truth and right prevail, the government will be like the wise man’s house, in scripture: the winds may blow, the rains may descend, the flood may come and beat upon it, but it will stand, because it is founded upon the solid rock of principle. I speak this, not only for the Republican party, but for all parties.”

 

Attempting to find common ground with Democrats, he appeals to democratic ideals of citizenship, “We boast of our riches, power, and glory, as a nation, and we have reason to do so. But what is prosperity, what is power, what is national glory, when national honor, national good faith, and national protection to the rights of our citizens are denied?”

 

Warning that the social unrest of the European under classes could just as easily happen in American, Douglass urges politicians not to abandon oppressed peoples, writing: “Who could blame the negro if, when he is driven from the ballot box, the jury box, and from the school house, denied equal rights on railroads and steamboats, called out of his bed at midnight and whipped by regulators, compelled to live in rags and wretchedness, and his wages kept back by fraud, he shall imitate the example of other oppressed classes, and invoke some terrible explosive power as a means of bringing his oppressors to their senses, and making them respect the claims of justice.” To this typed passage Douglass has added, in script, “denied a fair trial when accused of crime,” and, “This would be madness, but oppression will make even wise men mad.” Although he hastens to assure his audience that he does not hope for or approve violent means, his edits suggest he believes that repeated injustices inevitably produce violent outcomes.

 

Yet Douglass seems to sense that he is standing on the eve of a terrible era. One of the speech’s most chilling passages concerns the “recent” Supreme Court decision that Douglass says “came upon the country like a clap of thunder from a clear sky . . . a surprise to enemies, and a bitter disappointment to friends.” Douglass is referring to the Supreme Court’s ruling in The Civil Rights cases of 1883, a decision that would usher in 80 years of Jim Crow racial segregation and pave the way for the infamous “separate but equal” ruling of Plessy v. Fergusen (1896), as well as widespread lynching and other forms of racist terrorism. The Civil Rights cases of 1883 laid the groundwork for Plessy by ruling that public accommodations were not reached by the Fourteenth Amendment, and that Congress and the courts could not stop hotels, clubs, and restaurants from discriminating on the basis of race. Justice John M. Harlan was the sole dissenting voice, and Douglass praises him for being a “grand representative of American Justice standing alone.” Harlan’s famous dissent in the Civil Rights cases would someday serve as the basis for civil rights jurisprudence—but not until after World War II.

 

Despite his sense that the lives of Black Americans were about to get much worse, Douglass speaks to the “soul of the nation” and its virtues, the “spiritual side of Humanity” that cannot be burnt or drowned so long as it holds fast to its moral ideals, declaring: “The life of the nation is secure only while the nation is honest, truthful, and virtuous, for upon these conditions depends the life [o]f its life.” He talks about the great Chicago fire as one that left the city in ashes, yet could not eradicate the ideals of its inhabitants because they were possessed of civic virtue: “[T]here remained the invisible soul of a great people, full of energy, enterprise, and faith, and hence, out of the ashes and hollow desolation, a grander Chicago than the one destroyed, arose as if by magic.”

 

Douglass’s speech concludes with an appeal to civic virtue and civic involvement as crucial to surviving political change, not just as because civic virtue cultivates the self, but because it helps form a democratic community of brave and just citizens. As we celebrate Black History Month, we might take to heart his sense that a morally virtuous citizenry is the bedrock of a flourishing democracy. Quoting a poem by Sir William Jones that asks, “What constitutes a state?” Douglass answers with lines emphasizing courage and justice as virtues that carry the nation even in its most turbulent eras: “Men who their duties know,/ But know their rights, and, knowing, dare maintain.”

 

For the full text of Douglass’ speech, visit “Speech on the 23rd Anniversary of Emancipation in the District of Columbia,” also known as “We are Confronted by a New Administration” here.

 


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

Bad and Good Self-Transcendence

This piece originally appeared in the Positive Living Newsletter as “The Varieties of Self-Transcendence: The Good and the Bad.”

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Recently, I have touted the benefits of self-transcendence (ST) in several publications (e.g., Wong, 2016a, b). Since all things exist in polarity (Wong, 2016c, d), naturally, ST also has its downside. This essay will explore the dark side of ST and suggest ways to prevent it.

Examples of Negative Self-Transcendence

An estimated 21,500 civilians have been killed in East Aleppo, more than 400,000 refugees have fled Aleppo, and over four million citizens have left Syria. Yet, Syrian President al-Assad, in an interview with the French media, asserted that all the bombings and killings of innocent people were necessary for the noble cause of liberating them! (BBC, 2017).

Similarly, suicide-bombers and other terrorists justify their atrocities in the name of a holy war against infidels. The Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) firmly believe that it is necessary to sacrifice millions of lives in order to achieve the noble cause of “religious cleansing” and establishing an Islamic State (Erimtan, 2015).

During the second world war, Adolf Hitler was responsible for the termination of more than six million Jews. He too justified the Holocaust with the perverse ideology of ethnic cleansing and creating the Third Reich—the third glorious age.

History abounds with atrocities and genocides in service of some causes greater than personal interests, such as redressing current injustice, revenging past wounds, restoring past glories, and creating a strong homeland.

The troubling question is: Why are so many rational people prepared to commit such evils for the sake of some cause? How can people use their intellect and twisted logic to justify unimaginable evils against other human beings?

Justification for Negative Self-Transcendence

Several hypotheses have been put forward to explain terrorism and wars. Moghaddam’s (2005) hypothesis in “The Staircase to Terrorism” proposed that the terrorist act represents the final step of a narrowing staircase for those who feel deprived and treated unfairly without a voice in society. When they are recruited by terrorist organizations, they are given a legitimate reason to attack the privileged out-group members as being evil.

In a similar vein, Kruglanski (2006) suggested that terrorists could use terrorism as a tool to achieve the “greater good” of justice or a better future for their people. Recently, Friedman (2016) expounded on a similar view regarding terrorism and the ISIS movement.

From a different perspective, Pyszczynski, Solomon, and Greenburg’s (2004) terror management theory (TMT) argues that culture worldview (CWV) serves the function of buffering our existential anxieties; therefore, we often become hostile towards those endorsing different beliefs, which threaten our own sense of security. Some extremists may resort to terrorism to protect their beliefs.

In an interview with Jason Tucker and Jason VandenBuekel (2016), Jordan Peterson recognized that “in a sophisticated religious system, there is a positive and negative polarity. Ideologies simplify that polarity and, in doing so, demonize and oversimplify.”

Peterson’s (1999) book and course entitled Maps of Meaning was designed to teach these ideas. In that interview, he also said: “I was particularly interested in what led people to commit atrocities in service of their belief. … One of the things that I’m trying to convince my students of is that if they had been in Germany in the 1930s, they would have been Nazis. Everyone thinks ‘Not me,’ and that’s not right. It was mostly ordinary people who committed the atrocities that characterized Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union” (Tucker & VandenBeukel, 2016).

That is really scary—ordinary people could be indoctrinated to commit atrocities! What can be done to counteract the insidious process of radicalization?

In sum, there are two justifications for the bad kind of ST: (1) Sacrificing innocent people is needed to achieve some goals greater than oneself; and (2) violence against others is justified in order to protect our own beliefs and values.

Both justifications raise serious questions of ethics and values. First, no civil society can long survive if any social agent is allowed to employ violent means to achieve whatever one considers as a good cause; there have to be more rational and ethical ways to accomplish the common good.

Second, democracy is possible only when all people are of equal value; there is no legal or ethical justification to sacrifice some individuals or some groups of people for the benefits of any special group of individuals.

Third, ultimately, human life must be valued as sacred; it cannot be demonized or reduced to something that can be easily terminated in the service of one’s beliefs. Thus, one way to counteract radicalization and terrorism is to educate people regarding the value and sanctity of human life.

Is There a Solution?

I propose that Viktor Frankl’s theory of good ST (Wong, 2016e) will reduce the likelihood of negative ST. Because of his own harrowing experience in the hands of Hitler and Nazism, Frankl took great pains to emphasize the need for treating others with ethnical responsibility.

Thus, ST by definition is based on the values of benevolence and universalism (Schwartz, 1992, 1994), according to the best lights of one’s conscience and the highest standard of enduring values (Frankl, 1985). ST represents a loving and virtuous way of relating to ourselves and others according to the better angels of our nature (Pinker, 2011).

There are always two options—a staircase to spirituality (Haidt, 2012) and a staircase to terrorism (Moghaddam, 2005). When we keep the values of love and life at the forefront of our consciousness, one will choose the positive types of ST; when we value hate and revenge, one will be attracted to the negative type of ST. Education in ST is needed to enhance human adaptability and reduce global terrorism.

I want to conclude by quoting from my earlier publication:

The present self-transcendence hypothesis states that all purposes are not equal. Misguided life purposes, such as pursuing pleasure and power with total disregard for ethical and legal issues, eventually will result in self-destruction. However, when we strive to serve a higher purpose and greater good, then each step of the journey is rewarding and inspiring, even when we do not receive recognition or reward. (Wong, 2016e)


References

  1. BBC. (2017, January 9). Syrian war: Assad says Aleppo bombing was justified. Retrieved from http://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-38552913
  2. Erimtan, C. (2015, May 10). ISIS and its mission: Religious cleansing, genocide, and destruction of the past. RT. Retrieved from https://www.rt.com/op-edge/257253-syria-iraq-is-politics/
  3. Frankl, V. E. (1985). Man’s search for meaning (Revised & updated ed.). New York, NY: Washington Square Press.
  4. Friedman, T. L. (2016). Thank you for being late: An optimist’s guide to thriving in the age of accelerations. New York, NY: Farrar, Straus &Giroux.
  5. Haidt, J. (2012). Religion, evolution, and the ecstasy of self-transcendence. TED. Retrieved from https://www.ted.com/talks/jonathan_haidt_humanity_s_stairway_to_self_transcendence
  6. Kruglanski, A. W. (2006). The psychology of terrorism: “Syndrome” versus “tool” perspectives. In J. Victoroff (Ed), Tangled roots: Social and psychological factors in the genesis of terrorism (pp. 61-73). Washington, DC: IOS Press.
  7. Peterson, J. (1999). Maps of meaning: The architecture of belief. New York, NY: Routledge.
  8. Moghaddam, F. M. (2005). The staircase to terrorism: A psychological exploration. American Psychologist, 60(2), 161-169. doi:10.1037/0003-066X.60.2.161
  9. Pinker, S. (2011). The better angels of our nature: Why violence has declined. New York, NY: Viking.
  10. Pyszczynski, T. A., Solomon, S., & Greenburg, J. (2004). In the wake of 9/11: The psychology of terror. Washington, DC. American Psychological Association.
  11. Schwartz, S. H. (1992). Universals in the content and structure of values: Theoretical advances and empirical tests in 20 countries. Advances in Experimental Psychology, 25(1), 1-65. doi:10.1016/S0065-2601(08)60281-6
  12. Schwartz, S. H. (1994). Are there universal aspects in the content and structure of values? Journal of Social Issues, 50(4), 19-45. doi:10.1111/j.1540-4560.1994.tb01196.x
  13. Tucker, J., & VandenBeukel, J. (2016, December 1). Interview with Dr. Jordan Peterson: Universities are pandering to students and lying to them. Sott. Retrieved from https://www.sott.net/article/336197-Interview-with-Dr-Jordan-Peterson-Universities-are-pandering-to-students-and-lying-to-them
  14. Wong, P. T. P. (2016a, November 7). Acceptance, transcendence, & yin-yang dialectics: The three basic tenets of second wave positive psychology. Positive Living Newsletter. Retrieved from http://www.drpaulwong.com/inpm-presidents-report-november-2016/
  15. Wong, P. T. P. (2016b, December). From Viktor Frankl’s logotherapy to the four defining characteristics of self-transcendencePaper presented at the research working group meeting for Virtue, Happiness, and the Meaning of Life Project, Columbia, SC. (Funded by the John Templeton Foundation).
  16. Wong, P. T. P. (2016c, October 18). The good life through polarity and transcendence. Virtue, Happiness, and the Meaning of Life. Retrieved from https://thevirtueblog.com/2016/10/18/the-good-life-through-polarity-and-transcendence-part-1/
  17. Wong, P. T. P. (2016d, October 19). The good life through polarity and transcendence. Virtue, Happiness, and the Meaning of Life. Retrieved from https://thevirtueblog.com/2016/10/19/the-good-life-through-polarity-and-transcendence-part-2/
  18. Wong, P. T. P. (2016e). Meaning-seeking, self-transcendence, and well-being. In A. Batthyány (Ed.), Logotherapy and existential analysis: Proceedings of the Viktor Frankl Institute (Vol. 1; pp. 311-322). Cham, Switzerland: Springer.

 

 


Paul T.P. Wong is Professor Emeritus of Psychology at Trent University and Scholar with project Virtue, Happiness, & the Meaning of Life.

Self-transcendence as civic duty: lessons from Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

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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”

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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.

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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).

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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.

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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).

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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.

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.

Higher Education in a Wider Context – part 1

A close up shot of Arnaldo Pomodoro’s Grande Disco sculpture at the University of Chicago
“Brave New World”- photo by Chris Smith. [A close up shot of Arnaldo Pomodoro’s Grande Disco sculpture at the University of Chicago.]

I will tell us two stories—the first is about a group of highly successful people in their early 30s—doctors, business people, and a few junior partners at good corporate law firms. One is a former student. I began meeting the others in planes several years ago. (I travel a lot on the same airline; the miles make it possible for me to provide plane tickets for people who can’t afford to fly; they also get me a lot of free upgrades.) All of the professionals I met had impressive undergraduate records at good secular four-year colleges or universities. The doctors and lawyers had very respectable advanced degrees. Unlike some high-achievers, the ones I met were more likely than not to have children and several even belonged to churches. And, one-on-one, individually, each one talked to me about how things were going. My former student was about to flee a wildly successful job at Goldman Sachs in New York. The others just wanted to talk to someone, and even though telling people that you teach philosophy does not inspire quite the revelations that one of my colleagues gets when he tells people that he’s a psychoanalyst, when people hear “philosophy” they sometimes get thoughtful. And confidential.

 

To the extent that I could tell from brief acquaintance with the strangers (and long, if sporadic, association with my former student) these shining people had done everything they thought they were supposed to do to lead full lives. They were educated. The doctors had not done much with anything in the humanities because they had to get through so many requirements to get their pre-med out of the way and because there is really no time for that when you are in med school and doing your residency, but they listened to music or saw art occasionally when they could. To the extent you can tell by looking, my acquaintances were healthy. Most were still paying back some student loans, but they were doing well—many were buying homes of one kind or another. They had friends. They had some sort of family. As I say, a few belonged to churches. A few had some other sort of community, if only at work. And they were, to all appearances, pretty good human beings.

 

Here is what I learned about these young men and women, who were everything that parents concerned about the soaring costs of higher education could see as evidence that the investment was worth it: they were lost people.

 

A few were angry about that. A few felt guilty about that. And all of them expected that a philosopher ought to understand what was wrong. So I asked a lot of questions—you can ask a lot of questions on a long airplane flight and these poster children for our culture were accustomed to talking about themselves. They were high-achievers. They had made their parents proud. They were popular. I like to listen. And what I wanted to hear was how the machinery of very good institutions of higher education that were, as we say, secular—we are in the U.S. where the term was invented to mark the separation of church and state as in ‘no state religion; many sects,’ by which lights my university used to be secular and has become merely unaffiliated. Anyway, I was trying to understand how institutions of higher learning with no religious or faith affiliation had failed these people. The strangers had attended brick-and-mortar institutions. They had had teachers in classrooms with them. They had been in communities. Learning communities. And their lives were hollow.

 

Instead of something like happiness they had scattered moments of excitement or pleasure. Instead of challenging and nurturing intimacy they had phones with lots of photographs of pets or children to document the moments when things felt more or less okay. As Karl Marx put it in the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, I was meeting human beings who lived like birds—they had nests or, at least, large loans at low interest rates attached to what would be their nests. They flew here and there gathering things to bring back to the nests to feed and shelter and amuse themselves and any nestlings. They woke each morning with a huge to-do list hitting them in the face. And then flew off again. At least they were busy. Very, very busy. But there was no sense of meaning. There was no sense of purpose. There was, instead, the creeping realization that a busy life is not a full life, and that they had managed to get through a lot of higher education without ever developing the inner orientation or wider attachments that make all of the knowledges they had acquired and skills they had learned have a point.

 

One could object that their universities had not failed them. After all, the whole culture directs them to do what they did, and to focus their energies in the way that they had focused them. But Institutions of higher learning have tremendous influence on young people, and my strangers had all gone straight from secondary schooling to universities or four-year colleges.

 

Faced with my unhappy thirty-somethings I tried to think about the difference between people whose lives are hollow and people whose lives are full. I am a philosopher. We don’t have data. We have anecdotes. And in stories and writings we look for patterns, and we tend to look for patterns in an abstract sort of way with an eye toward catching sight of a problem.

 

It did not take much work to sense the problem that had hollowed out the lives of these beautiful young people. They had been fed a steady diet of the need to perform, to actualize themselves, to get an increasingly articulate sense of who they were and what they cared about, to find themselves, to express themselves, to meet the standards of their professions, to get ahead, and to use all of that effort to put together a secure life for themselves and any children who might come their way. Hollow people running to and fro in the shells of very busy lives punctuated by highs having to do with additional achievement spikes at work, fancy holidays in exotic places, and the undeniably wonderful things that the children said and did now and then, or genuinely heartwarming exchanges with the dogs or the cats. Higher education in the United States had prepared them for nothing better than this.

 

Frankly, it’s not worth it if that’s all we have to offer.

 

We are meant to guide and help them make a transition from home to the world in a way that equips them to act well. At their ages, with their tasks, and with our resources, moral formation will take place on campuses whether we like it or not. Higher education failed my thirty-somethings either by failing to attend to this obvious point, or else by attending to it and having whole modes of formation built right into the design and conduct of every class that cannot but churn out highly successful hollow people who are, of course, more likely than many to pay back their student loans.

 

I have been working with a grant from the John Templeton Foundation called “Virtue, Happiness, and the Meaning of Life.” We are a network project, bringing together an extraordinary group of empirical psychologists of many stripes, philosophers, theologians, and religious thinkers to read each other’s disciplinary works-in-progress with a shared set of foci. We want to understand the connections between virtue, happiness, and a sense of meaning or purpose in life. We want to use that shared focus to intervene in our separate disciplines. It is an unusual grant. So far, it is going very well.

 

It looked to me like happiness and virtue came apart in the lives of the thirty-somethings, and that senses of meaning or purpose were at best temporary, local, episodic, goal-based, and not quite the things that add up to any overall sense that life is worth living.

 

Now, there are scholars of Aristotle who will insist that these people are not really virtuous, because if you really are virtuous, then you will be a good human being who enjoys the special kind of happiness that comes of living a good human life. I have never known what to make of this view, even though I know one genuinely happy Aristotelian virtue ethicist who think just this, and two very serious Aristotle scholars who likewise seem to believe it, and to be both good human beings and pretty happy.

 

They are interested in the happiness that is sometimes called “flourishing,” which is the spiritually muted English translation of the Greek term eudaimonia. The daimon-bit in eudaimonia suggests some sort of traffic with divinity—a topic that is difficult and strange in Aristotle. So one can think of “flourishing” as the acceptable English translation that highlights what humans have in common with every other living thing.

 

These thinkers are very comfortable with the thought that the thing that people most want is happiness, and even my preferred neo-Aristotelian, Thomas Aquinas, takes some such view on board, although the desired happiness is not properly identified with good feeling or satisfaction or contentment in temporal life—the thing that my restless thirty-somethings found inexplicably absent both at work and at home.

 

It might be the case that there are no necessary connections between happiness and virtue, or between either of these and having a sense of meaning or purpose in life. Perhaps stubborn insistence that these things ought to connect up has more to do with a philosophical fantasy than with the business of leading a good life. I don’t think so, although I confess that I have never thought about happiness as a thing to go after, or unhappiness as a sign that I must have gone off the rails in some way. Still, partly in deference to a long tradition of thinkers much greater than I, I got very interested in the difference between hollow lives and full lives, and I had the hunch that full lives were lives lived with a keen sense of participating in, and working for, a good that was larger than just my own welfare, achievements, success, and self-actualization alongside the well being of those in my intimate circle. What was missing from the lives of those accomplished young professionals was, I suspected, a way of living that was fundamentally attuned to common good. Sadly, at this level of description, I think that there really is a place to ask questions about virtue and character and formation from a Thomistic neo-Aristotelian position.

 

As I read Aquinas, there is no such thing as genuine virtue that is entirely self-serving, even when I expand my sense of my self to include, say, members of my immediate family and my friends. The term that our research project uses to mark this point is self-transcendence—initially introduced in motivational psychology by Abraham Maslow to mark an orientation to life that was superior to an emphasis on self-actualization.

 

What, you may be asking yourself at this point, does all this talk of hollow lives, happy lives, self-transcendence, and good character have to do with higher education?

 

To answer this question, it helps to ask other questions:

What is the point of seeking higher education in the United States these days?

What are we meant to be providing for our students?

What should they have when they compete their degrees that they did not have when they first matriculated?

 

In the next post [scheduled for Friday, November 18], I will consider these questions and tell a couple of stories about moral education and everyday life.

 


Candace Vogler is the David B. and Clara E. Stern Professor of Philosophy and Professor in the College at the University of Chicago, and Director and Principal Investigator for Virtue, Happiness, & the Meaning of Life.

Is Morality Rational?

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Our Principal Investigator and Philosopher Jennifer A. Frey was a writer for the “Big Questions” blog yesterday, November 8, 2016. Here’s an excerpt, with a link to the full piece.

 

When we think of morality, we tend to think of things that we must or must not do if we are to count as good persons. In general, most of us recognize that a moral person does not do things like lie, steal, cheat, murder, rape, torture, slander, neglect duties and responsibilities, and so forth. And we further recognize that a moral person does not merely refrain from such detestable things, but also acts in certain ways that we find praiseworthy, for instance, being generous, kind, honest, respectful, loyal, brave, or self-controlled.

 

And while we deeply admire moral persons, we also know that morality is demanding of us. Let’s face it, sometimes the moral life can feel like a real drag. And though we may find it relatively easy to be just when things are going reasonably well for us, it is often far more difficult when justice demands that we sacrifice career prospects, harmony in our families, fulfillment of our deepest passions, and, perhaps, even our very lives.

 

Furthermore, even a casual observer of human affairs might notice that people who have been wildly successful in life are not always or even typically very moral. The self-sacrificing and just person might look around and begin to worry whether she has been exercising poor practical judgment. After all, if practical wisdom is about living well —  and so many immoral people seem to be living well — perhaps carrying out the demands of justice is not our best option.

 

This raises a difficult philosophical question: Is it rational — practically wise — to be moral and just?

 

This question is put to Socrates in Plato’s Republic. In the dialogue, Socrates’ interlocutors force him to confront a sordid truth: that the unjust man appears to have the upper hand in life, since injustice allows him to accumulate the money and power necessary to live freely — to live unencumbered by any relations of servitude or need to others.

 

But Socrates is unmoved by this argument. He contends that “anyone who is going to be blessed with happiness” must love justice both for its own sake and for the sake of its good consequences. He is adamant that justice does have intrinsically good consequences — that justice “benefits its possessor” — though the moral person does not pursue justice only for the sake of those consequences.

 

This is an argument that appeals to human nature. The idea is that, as political animals, we need to stand in just relations to one another, for we can live well together and be happy only if we have laws that both regulate and promote sound modes of social interaction. This is why the laws of any city in which citizens can flourish and excel must be just. So we can say that justice is in a sense necessary for us — that we must pursue it. The natural desire to live happily together is not a matter of individual choice but, rather, a fact about us as humans. If we accept this picture of human nature, it is reasonable for us to be just — it both befits and benefits us given the kind of beings we are.

 

Plato was not the only classical author to make this connection between the good man and the good state. It’s a connection that often puzzles contemporary readers, because we have lost the conception of the human person that grounds it. It’s helpful here to remember that it was central to ancient and medieval philosophical traditions that humans possess, by nature, a function or goal that provides a standard against which to measure whether we are living well. Just as it is the goal or function of a knife to cut — such that a knife is good insofar as it cuts well — so it is the goal or function of man, Aristotle argues, to live according to judgments of right practical reasoning, to be practically wise. In other words, virtue only make sense in relation to a given goal or function. So, if the function of a knife is to cut, then the virtue of a knife is its sharpness. Similarly, Aristotle argues that the cardinal virtues — justice, courage, temperance, and practical wisdom — enable us to perform our function well, to live a reasonable life in which we make practically sound choices.

 

According to this view, because we are rational, political animals, we can carry out our function only together, within the context of a political community. Continue to the full piece 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.