Archive for the ‘Virtue’ Category

The Virtues of Parenting

My husband I do not yet have children, so forgive me if I seem to be speaking beyond my area of expertise. Parenting has been on my mind a lot recently in light of certain articles of interest. First, David Brooks’ piece in this week’s New York Times is excellent, and responds critically to the author of the new controversial book Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother by Amy Chua. Chua’s book is a reflection on her own experience as a “typical Asian mother”: strict and uncompromising in discipline, rigorous in achievement, and unapologetic about the incredible pressure she placed on her children. In “Amy Chua is a Wimp,” Brooks writes perspicaciously

Chua’s critics echoed the familiar themes. Her kids can’t possibly be happy or truly creative. They’ll grow up skilled and compliant but without the audacity to be great. She’s destroying their love for music. There’s a reason Asian-American women between the ages of 15 and 24 have such high suicide rates.

I have the opposite problem with Chua. I believe she’s coddling her children. She’s protecting them from the most intellectually demanding activities because she doesn’t understand what’s cognitively difficult and what isn’t.

Practicing a piece of music for four hours requires focused attention, but it is nowhere near as cognitively demanding as a sleepover with 14-year-old girls. Managing status rivalries, negotiating group dynamics, understanding social norms, navigating the distinction between self and group — these and other social tests impose cognitive demands that blow away any intense tutoring session or a class at Yale.

While I wonder how Brooks knows the cognitive demands of a 14-year old sleepover, I do think he is onto something here. Personal achievement is more than the score one achieves on an exam or the chair one earns in the orchestra. It is about holistic functioning within complex group dynamics. He goes on

This skill set is not taught formally, but it is imparted through arduous experiences. These are exactly the kinds of difficult experiences Chua shelters her children from by making them rush home to hit the homework table.

The implication is that parents do best by their children if they not only push them to excel academically and in extracurricular activities, but also if they encourage them to participate in complex social interactions where they can develop their more emotionally-based cognitive activity like “the ability to trust people outside your kinship circle, read intonations and moods, understand how the psychological pieces each person brings to the room can and cannot fit together.”

The problem is that, as an excellent blog post on dot Commonweal observes, kids these days are doing pretty atrocious things in their group interactions that can seriously thwart personal achievement and overall flourishing. In his discussion of the MTV show “Skins,” Eduardo Peñalver cites Matt Zoller Seitz:

Is “Skins” bad for kids? Well, if shows directly influence behavior, over and above whatever morals that parents teach their kids – a big “if” — then yeah, maybe, I guess so. But on the other hand, I have yet to witness a scenario in either series that I didn’t personally fantasize about in some form or another when I was the same age as the teens that comprise this program’s target demographic. When I was in eighth grade (prime “Skins” age, I’m guessing) I snuck into explicitly violent and/or sexual R-rated films almost every weekend, furtively tried out adult substances, and spent hours futzing with the aerial on top of my parents’ TV set after they went to sleep hoping to catch a fleeting glimpse of fornication on a scrambled pay-per-view broadcast channel. If I were that age again in 2011, I’d probably watch “Skins” religiously for a couple of seasons, then get bored and move on to something else. The series would have been absorbing, silly, sexy and trashy no matter what critics said about it. The fact that it’s officially considered Bad for Kids makes it awesome.

Peñalver responds as I would: “it seems a little strained to call the idea that a show like this might influence kids’ behavior “a big ‘if’.”” If 14 year-olds are doing the sort of things portrayed on “Skins,” Brooks is right to call their sleepover parties “cognitively taxing.” More likely, such sleepovers are cognitively ruinous. It is no surprise that parents like Chua want to reign kids in with strict discipline and high expectations, even if it means social ruin, in order to save them from the sort of life ruin adolescent social interactions often lead to.

The challenge for parents is how to find a balance between pushing their kids to be the best they can be and letting their kids find their own way by watching their friends, experimenting, and making mistakes. The best solution I have seen recently was on my own new favorite television show “Modern Family.” In the most recent episode “Our Children Ourselves,” Phil and Claire Dunphy try and get their high-achieving daughter Alex to relax in fear that she is pushing herself too hard to be the top of the class (great scene with Phil and Claire staring on as Alex jumps on a trampoline, arms crossed, in the middle of the night). When Alex comes in second in the class, she tells her parents that she simply cannot compete with Sanjay, the first in the class who has a doctor and a professor for parents. “I’m doing the best with what I have.”

What ensues is a beautiful effort on behalf of Claire as she tries to prove herself to her daughter by going to a French film with Sanjay’s parents rather than attending the film of her choice–Croctopus. But her efforts fail, and Claire falls asleep during the film, bereft at the fact that she cannot live up to her daughter’s perceived needs. She leaves the theater not only confirming Brooks’ conclusion that social competence is sometimes more important than intellectual achievement (Sanjay’s father cannot work the parking validation machine), but also feeling more competent in her role as a parent, with the unique talents she brings to the table. Most importantly, she leaves the theater with renewed love for her husband and daughter and the family they try to make work.

Aquinas had firsthand experience with overbearing parents. His own father ordered the kidnapping of the adolescent Aquinas when he went off to join the new mendicant order of the Dominicans, the “Begging Friars.” As Chesterton writes,

[Thomas] said he wished to be a Friar, and his family flew at him like wild beasts; his brothers pursued him along the public roads, half-rent his friar’s frock from his back and finally locked him up in a tower like a lunatic.

Chua should know that we have a tradition of “tiger parenting” in the west too. But the moral of the story is that Aquinas would become what he became, try as his parents might to stop him. He would be a beggar and a philosopher, not an abbot and a politician. Chua’s children too will become what they become, despite her effort to “keep them in check.” In the end, parents must realize that the little life in front of them is not their own, not a precious commodity to be fostered into perfection, but a gift and a loan from the Creator who calls us all to our own vocation.

In the end, prudence is one of the most important virtue for a parent. In perfecting parents morally and intellectually, prudence allows parents to deliberate, judge, and command well in their role as steward over a new life. But no less important is hope, by which a parent is able to endure the difficulties of not knowing where their child will end up, but still maintaining the confidence that he or she is in the hands of God.

Few Lessons in Virtue in Karate Kid

A few days ago, I watched the new Karate Kid featuring Jackie Chan and Jaden Smith (If you haven’t seen the movie, be warned of the spoilers ahead). Basically, this Karate Kid is Rockie for pre-adolescents. Extensive scenes focus on the intense training regimen of the young Dre (Jaden Smith) who has been transplanted to China against his will and now has to defeat his enemy (and win the girl) in (get this!) an open Kung Fu tournament.

Besides the fact that I have problems with film makers turning kids into miniature adults in movies like this, my bigger problem with the movie was the end. The underdog Dre manages to make it to the final round of the tournament and face his foe, the school bully Cheng. Cheng has been trained in a dojo where he is taught to embody the motto “no pain, no fear, no mercy” as he utterly annihilates his enemies in ferocious moments of 12-year old rage. There are moments where you feel Cheng is not only capable of killing his opponent; he seems to actually be aiming for it.

The fight is unfair from the beginning. Dre is injured and Cheng has been told by his instructor to target the injury and break Dre’s leg. Somehow, Dre manages to stand up on his unbroken leg and take Cheng out in a gravity-defying kick, winning the fight and the tournament.

Here’s the problem. Cheng, our vicious, merciless, bloodthirsty adolescent stands up, and acknowledging his defeat, bows in respect towards Dre, and then bows in respect towards Mr. Han (Jackie Chan), Dre’s Kung Fu teacher. Then, all of Cheng’s peers (also portrayed throughout the movie as bloodthirsty merciless fighters) bow in respect towards Dre and Mr. Han.

I see two major problems with this conclusion. The first is that the challenges we face require a fight, and by winning the fight, we overcome the challenge. Pre-adolescents watching Karate Kid walk away with the moral that winning the fight (and I mean the literal fist fight) will allow you to overcome the influence of the school bully, a challenge a lot of kids face these days. Bullying though is rarely resolved through a fight.

Supporters of the film will say that this is not at all the intended lesson. Hey U.G.L.Y., a non-profit group dedicated to help kids overcome bullying, commended the film for its anti-bullying message:

Betty Hoeffner, author of the Stop Bullying Handbook and co-founder of Hey U.G.L.Y., said bullying is one of the most critical issues now facing U.S. students at all grade levels.

“And, as shown in the movie, bullying is a big problem in other countries as well,” Hoeffner said. “We need to help kids see beyond the bravado of bullies so they can recognize the pain and insecurity most bullies feel.”

But this film does little, if anything, to help viewers see the pain and insecurity of Cheng. He gets few lines, and is overall a flat character, portrayed throughout the movie as a ruthless and brilliant fighter, until the end when he is suddenly humbled in his defeat.

In commenting about the film, Jackie Chan said the martial arts are not for hurting people, but for protecting them. He hopes the film will introduce audiences to the reality of martial arts, instead of the dramatized movie versions.

Hoeffner warns parents that the film uses plenty of violent scenes among children to get the non-violent viewpoint across. But she believes it’s important for young people to recognize and talk about their own tendencies to victimize others, whether physically or emotionally.

The film also does very little to show that karate is not about hurting people (the tournament scenes left me cringing, including Dre’s final spar with Cheng), and it is unrealistic to expect kids to walk away with a message of non-violence buried amidst all the film’s violence.

The second major problem with the film is that it does not take into account the way our actions emerge from our habits. In the first place, Dre, in only a few months, manages to rise to the ability of a Kung Fu expert. In reality, mastering karate takes years of self-discipline, hard-work, and above all, repetition. Obviously, this would make a boring movie, but it is frustrating to see Dre go from days of putting his coat on and off a hook (at the behest of the mysterious will of Mr. Han), to immediately engaging in an expert spar with his instructor. Dre leaves this first fight looking in awe at his hands, hands that seem already magically habituated to deftly block and hit. Kids who pick up karate after watching this film will find the actual process much more laborious.

But this is movie world, and of course we expect Dre to master the art of Kung Fu by its conclusion. The bigger problem regarding the film’s dismissal of habits is at the end, where the film shows that bullies can change in a moment from irrationally bloodthirsty to rationally respectful, even friendly.

Cheng has been trained since childhood to be a fighter. Not only has he developed extensive physical habits as part of his athletic training (e.g. quick reflexes), he has also developed moral habits of mercilessness. The scenes in Cheng’s dojo are frightening in that they reveal how strong these habits of violence are. Cheng’s moral instinct is honed towards ruthlessness and malice. He does not have to think whether to spare his opponent. It has become second nature for him not to show mercy. Even if his bad character is partially a result of his bad upbringing, Cheng likely still has years of work to do before he overcomes his violent tendencies.

From the perspective of the Aristotelian-Thomistic tradition, the film’s conclusion makes no sense. Habits are qualities of nature formed over time through acting a certain way such that the habit becomes a sort of “second nature.” “It takes more than one sparrow to make a spring,” Aristotle says, “and so also a habit.” For Aquinas, a habit differs from a disposition in that a habit cannot be easily lost, whereas a disposition may: “disposition, properly so called, can be divided against habit in two ways: first, as perfect and imperfect within the same species; and thus we call it a disposition, retaining the name of the genus, when it is had imperfectly, so as to be easily lost: whereas we call it a habit, when it is had perfectly, so as not to be lost easily. And thus a disposition becomes a habit, just as a boy becomes a man” (I-II, Q. 49, art. 2, ad. 3).

In our society today, we too are largely dismissive of the role of habits in determining our actions. We expect change overnight, whether we are talking about our New Year’s weight loss goals, the state of the economy, or our civil discourse. As a result, we have lost sight of the importance of endurance.

The virtue of fortitude includes two senses (II-II Q. 128). The first is attack, the courageous “rushing forth” to face a some difficulty. This is the glamorous side of courage, but the other sense of fortitude—endurance—is perhaps the more important side of this virtue. Of this sense, Josef Pieper writes in The Four Cardinal Virtues, “in the world as it is constituted, it is only in the supreme test, which leaves no other possibility of resistance than endurance, that the inmost and deepest strength of man reveals itself.” According to Aquinas,

two things are requisite for the other act of fortitude, viz. endurance. The first is that the mind be not broken by sorrow, and fall away from its greatness, by reason of the stress of threatening evil. On this respect he mentions “patience,” which he describes as “the voluntary and prolonged endurance of arduous and difficult things for the sake of virtue or profit.” The other is that by the prolonged suffering of hardships man be not wearied so as to lose courage, according to Hebrews 12:3, “That you be not wearied, fainting in your minds.” On this respect he mentions “perseverance,” which accordingly he describes as “the fixed and continued persistence in a well considered purpose.”

In real life, Dre would not only need endurance to face the years of training ahead of him in becoming enough of a Kung Fu master to defeat Cheng in a tournament, he would also need endurance to face the years of dealing with Cheng’s bullying as he not only tries to protect himself, but also strives to reach beyond Cheng’s violent façade to the human underneath, the human who will also need to endure the challenges of his own character as he strives to become a better person. As Dre endures, he will also need humility, compassion, forgiveness, and love to truly overcome his bully opponent.

On this note, I like the Niebuhr quote David Brooks used in his recent op-ed on the habits of uncivil discourse we have developed in this country.

“Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in our lifetime; therefore, we must be saved by hope. … Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone; therefore, we are saved by love. No virtuous act is quite as virtuous from the standpoint of our friend or foe as it is from our standpoint. Therefore, we must be saved by the final form of love, which is forgiveness.”

We can add to this that most things worth doing then will require endurance. Unfortunately, few kids are learning these lessons today, and they certainly won’t learn it from Karate Kid.

Some New Years Articles of Note

If you are a regular follower of this blog, you have probably noted that the last few months have not been particularly fruitful. Defending a dissertation and traveling around the country for job interviews make blogging difficult. However, I hope to return to the blogosphere in a few days, but until then, here are some recent articles I have read that you may find of interest:

1. Can’t Kick Bad Habits? Blame the Brain. This is a short and easy to read piece exploring the neural underpinnings of habit formation, which all virtue ethicists should be attentive to. In brief, dopamine is the neurotransmitter which seems to play the biggest role in habit formation by conditioning the brain to seek out certain pleasurable activities again and again (like a glass of wine after work). Breaking a bad habit seems to be less about imposing rational control over one’s emotional reaction to a source of pleasure and more about putting oneself in the right situation where the cause of the bad habit is not readily available: “What you want to be thinking about is, ‘What is it in my environment that is triggering this behavior?'” says Nordgren. “You have to guard yourself against it.” Here’s a great quote from the article:

“People have this self-control hubris, this belief they can handle more than they can,” says Nordgren, who studies the tug-of-war between willpower and temptation. In one experiment, he measured whether heavy smokers could watch a film that romanticizes the habit — called “Coffee and Cigarettes” — without taking a puff. Upping the ante, they’d be paid according to their level of temptation: Could they hold an unlit cigarette while watching? Keep the pack on the table? Or did they need to leave the pack in another room?

Smokers who’d predicted they could resist a lot of temptation tended to hold the unlit cigarette — and were more likely to light up than those who knew better than to hang onto the pack, says Nordgren. He now is beginning to study how recovering drug addicts deal with real-world temptations.

2. Searching for the Source of Our Fountains of Courage. This New York Times article outlines research which will also be important for ethicists. One of the most interesting parts of the article describes a woman with a rare congenital syndrome leaving her completely fearless, “raising the question of whether it’s better to conquer one’s fears, or to never feel them in the first place.”

As Justin Feinstein, a clinical neuropsychologist at the University of Iowa, and his colleagues describe in Current Biology, the otherwise normal SM is incapable of being spooked.

She claimed to fear snakes and spiders, and maybe she did in her pre-disease childhood, but when the researchers took her to an exotic pet store, they were astonished to see that not only did she not avoid the snakes and spiders, she was desperate to hold them close.

The researchers took SM to a haunted house, and she laughed at the scary parts and blithely made the monster-suited employees jump. She was shown clips from famous horror films like “The Silence of Lambs” and “Halloween,” and she showed no flickers of fright.

This fearlessness may be fine in the safety of one’s living room, but it turns out that SM makes her own horror films in real life. She walks through bad neighborhoods alone at night, approaches shady strangers without guile, and has been repeatedly threatened with death.

“We have an individual who’s constantly putting herself into harm’s way,” said Mr. Feinstein. “If we had a million SMs walking around, the world would be a total mess.”

Yet more scientific evidence for the importance of Aristotle’s Doctrine of the Mean.

3. The Unborn Paradox: “No life is so desperately sought after, so hungrily desired, so carefully nurtured. And yet no life is so legally unprotected, and so frequently destroyed.” 20% of pregnancies end in abortion. Yet millions of women will spend tens of thousands of dollars on reproductive therapies this year. In the meantime, only 1% of pregnancies will end in adoption. A great basis for making an ethical argument on the adoption imperative.

4. Philosophy Lives: Who hasn’t seen the following quote from esteemed physicist Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow (on yet another important topic I failed to blog about in the last few months) from their new book The Grand Design:

“[Just] as Darwin and Wallace explained how the apparently miraculous design of living forms could appear without intervention by a supreme being, the multiverse concept can explain the fine tuning of physical law without the need for a benevolent creator who made the Universe for our benefit. Because there is a law of gravity, the Universe can and will create itself from nothing. Spontaneous creation is the reason there is something rather than nothing, why the Universe exists, why we exist.”

While Hawking and Mlodinow argue that these newest developments in physics signal the final death knell for philosophy and natural theology, John Haldane argues that “at its most abstract, theoretical physics leaves ordinary empirical science behind and enters the sphere of philosophy, where it becomes vulnerable to refutation by reason.”

5. Changing Our Minds: An overview of the implications of digital technology for an ethic of virtue. Heavy attention is given to the vice of curiosity, which Paul Griffiths has brought back in vogue recently, but also an interesting treatment of the virtue of recollection. I love the conclusion:

The findings of science as to the effect of Internet use on the human brain should impel us to dust off some of these neglected ideas and see what they have to say about the problem, and maybe come up with some new ideas of our own in the process. As Lisa Fullam noted in these pages (“Thou Shalt,” April 24, 2009), long years of treating morality as a laundry list of mostly sexual shalt-nots has crippled authentic moral thinking, and moral thinking is exactly what is needed to navigate the dramatic transformations of the digital revolution without damaging our very selfhood. We need to identify and describe not only the shalt-nots of the age, but also the shalts: recollection, mindfulness, interiority, awareness. Whatever you prefer to call it, it’s what’s needed to keep Google from making us stupid. Not brain surgery, but virtue.

I hope to do a real blog soon but in the meantime, what articles have you been reading that everydaythomist should be attentive to?

The Justice of Restricting Welfare Spending

This week, the Boston Herald revealed that Massachusetts welfare recipients have absolutely no restrictions on what they spend their government aid on:

Bay State welfare recipients can play the slots, pick up a six-pack of beer or nab a flat-screen plasma TV under loosey-goosey Bay State restrictions that allow those on the dole to treat taxpayers’ wallets as their own personal ATM.

Recipients of the Department of Transitional Assistance programs get Electronic Benefits Transfer cards that work like regular debit cards, allowing them to withdraw cash from ATMs and use it for whatever they want – all with scant oversight by the state.

Two days before the Herald revealed this, NY Mayor Michael Bloomberg sought federal permission to restrict the almost 2 million New York City food stamp recipients from using government-sponsored food stamps to buy soda and other sugary beverages. Bloomberg’s motivation is part of an overall anti-obesity campaign after a failed attempt to impose a “fat tax” on sodas (a move which everydaythomist supports). According to the NYTimes,

Public health experts greeted Mr. Bloomberg’s proposal cautiously. George Hacker, senior policy adviser for the health promotion project of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, said a more equitable approach might be to use educational campaigns to dissuade food-stamp users from buying sugared drinks.

“The world would be better, I think, if people limited their purchases of sugared beverages,” Mr. Hacker said. “However, there are a great many ethical reasons to consider why one would not want to stigmatize people on food stamps.”

The fear of stigmatizing welfare and food stamp recipients is doubtless one of the reasons that Massachusetts and other states place no limitations on how government aid may be spent (the Herald also revealed that California welfare recipients spent $1.8 million in government aid on casinos). However, Bloomberg’s effort to restrict food stamp expenditure on sodas (which have no nutritional value) reveals that placing restrictions on how food stamps may be used can also be an act of justice.

Aquinas sees an important role for human laws in society, but his understanding of the role of law is contextualized within his understanding of virtue:

Man has a natural aptitude for virtue; but the perfection of virtue must be acquired by man by means of some kind of training. Thus we observe that man is helped by industry in his necessities, for instance, in food and clothing. Certain beginnings of these he has from nature, viz. his reason and his hands; but he has not the full complement, as other animals have, to whom nature has given sufficiency of clothing and food. Now it is difficult to see how man could suffice for himself in the matter of this training: since the perfection of virtue consists chiefly in withdrawing man from undue pleasures, to which above all man is inclined, and especially the young, who are more capable of being trained. Consequently a man needs to receive this training from another, whereby to arrive at theperfection of virtue. And as to those young people who are inclined to acts of virtue, by their good natural disposition, or by custom, or rather by the gift of God, paternal training suffices, which is by admonitions. But since some are found to be depraved, and prone to vice, and not easily amenable to words, it was necessary for such to be restrained from evil by force and fear, in order that, at least, they might desist from evil-doing, and leave others in peace, and that they themselves, by being habituated in this way, might be brought to do willingly what hitherto they did fromfear, and thus become virtuous. Now this kind of training, which compels through fear of punishment, is the discipline of laws (I-II, Q. 95, art.1)

This is a long quote but it essentially means that the primary purpose of law is to restrain people from those vicious acts they are inclined to commit which prevent them from developing the virtue necessary to live a good life. Human law is rooted in the natural law, but, unlike the natural law, human law is not universal, but varies from group to group: “The general principles of the natural law cannot be applied to all men in the same way on account of the great variety of human affairs: and hence arises the diversity of positive laws among various people” (I-II, Q. 95, art. 2, ad. 3). Moreover, citing Isidore, Aquinas affirms that human law should be “just, possible to nature, according to the customs of the country, and adapted to place and time” in order to foster discipline (I-II, Q. 95, art. 3, c.).

With this in mind, we can look at restricting welfare expenditure as an appropriate use of human law. Those who are on welfare and food stamps are, for various reasons (many of them good ones) dependent on the government in order to manage economically. Ideally, the goal (or telos) of welfare legislation is to allow economically disadvantaged individuals to flourish through the development of virtue. Unrestricted welfare aid may seem merciful in that it strives to protect such individuals from discrimination, but it also fails to provide the restrictions necessary for the development of virtue. By restricting food stamp and welfare expenditure for items like cigarettes, alcohol, lottery tickets, and, yes, even sodas, the poor are taught through coercive legal measures, how to act in such ways that are conducive to the development of the virtues necessary to flourish, virtues like moderation in consumption, prudence in purchasing, and health in eating.

This may seem paternalistic and discriminatory, and, in a way, it is. But paternalism and discrimination are not necessarily counterproductive to the goals of justice, at least from a Thomistic perspective. Justice demands that each is given what is due to him or her, and if we are going to say that justice demands government expenditure for welfare and food stamps (which I think it does), then it is also perfectly reasonable and just to place restrictions on how such aid may be used in order to accomplish the just goals which justify its very existence. When people use welfare money on lottery tickets and cigarettes and alcohol, they are not becoming more virtuous; they are becoming dependent on nicotine, potentially abusive of alcohol, imprudent consumers, and more dependent on the government for their subsistence.

Restricting food stamp expenditure on soda may seem a step too far. However, the goal (telos) of food stamp money is to ensure that poorer individuals and families have access to the nutrition necessary to flourish. Soda is completely contrary to this telos. Sodas provide no nutritional value, and worse, contribute to obesity-related health problems that tax the healthcare system and endanger lives. Bloomberg’s proposal is discrimination, but it is a just discrimination which will hopefully receive the support the “fat tax” on sodas failed to get.

Facebook and Friendship: A Ciceronian Analysis

Charles Blow of the NYTimes has a brief op-ed analyzing how Facebook and other social networking sites are changing the nature of human relationships:

A report issued Wednesday by the Pew Research Center found that only 43 percent of Americans know all or most of their neighbors by name. Twenty-nine percent know only some, and 28 percent know none. (Oh, my God! When Roger (Cohen) dashes off to Paris this summer, I’ll become a “none.”)

Yet I have thousands of “friends” and “followers” on the social-networking sites in which I vigorously participate. (In real life, I maintain a circle of friends so small that I could barely arrange a circle.) Something is wrong with this picture.

But is there really something wrong? Let us turn to Cicero’s De Amicitia for a classical characterization of friendship. First of all, what is a friend? Laelius, the main speaker in De Amicitia writes that “In the face of a true friend a man sees as it were a second self. So that where his friend is he is; if his friend be rich, he is not poor; though he be weak, his friend’s strength is his; and in his friend’s life he enjoys a second life after his own is finished.”

Blow would likely agree with this, and bemoans the fact that we seek for such friendships on social networking sites, rather than in our neighbors. In fact, he seems to associate neighbors and friends quite closely, and sees a general link between the decline in neighborliness and true friendship. But Cicero would be wary in thinking that our friends should necessarily be our neighbors:

The Latin word for friendship (amicitia) is derived from that for love (amor); and love is certainly the prime mover in contracting mutual affection. . . Therefore I gather that friendship springs from a natural impulse rather than a wish for help: from an inclination of the heart, combined with a certain instinctive feeling of love, rather than from a deliberate calculation of the material advantage it was likely to confer. For nothing inspires love, nothing conciliates affection, like virtue. Why, in a certain sense we may be said to feel affection even for men we have never seen, owing to their honesty and virtue.

What attracts us to a friend is not necessarily proximity, but virtue. Proximity is important, however, but it may lead only to relationships, and not true friendship:

. . . [N]ature has so formed us that a certain tie unites us all, but that this tie becomes stronger from proximity. So it is that fellow-citizens are preferred in our affections to foreigners, relations to strangers; for in their case Nature herself has caused a kind of friendship to exist, though it is one which lacks some of the elements of permanence.

The difference between friendship and relationship is the bond of affection that exists in friendship, the true love that exists between friends that allows them to bear one another’s burdens, anxieties, cares, pleasures, and joys. The prerequisite for such love is virtue, for a selfish person cannot selflessly share in the joys of a friend, nor can an intemperate person share is the simple pleasure of conversation. The true problem with the “frienships” that we see on Facebook is not the lack of proximity between us and our 500 or so friends; rather, it is the lack of a shared pursuit of virtue which makes mutual affection possible. Facebook friends take on the nature of property, a collection which provide us some amusement but not the true solace of friendship. We are utterly un-discriminating when choosing our Facebook friends, as if the larger the quantity, the more happiness we will accrue. This isn’t a new problem, as Cicero reminds us:

He [Scipio] used to complain that there was nothing on which men bestowed so little pains: that every one could tell exactly how many goats or sheep he had, but not how many friends; and while they took pains in procuring the former, they were utterly careless in selecting friends, and possessed no particular marks, so to speak, or tokens by which they might judge of their suitability for friendship.

Blow is definitely onto something in his wariness towards social networking sites as the new venue for friendship, but he shouldn’t think it a problem that his actual circle of friends is small (Cicero maintains we can have only a few true friends) or that his friends are not among his neighbors (except for Roger Cohen, his NYTimes colleague). He should only be wary of his friendships if he finds that his “friends” are not men and women of exemplary character and virtue, that they do not share his interests, and that the bond of affection is woefully absent.

how can life be worth living, to use the words of Ennius, which lacks that repose which is to be found in the mutual good-will of a friend? What can be more delightful than to have some one to whom you can say everything with the same absolute confidence as to yourself? Is not prosperity robbed of half its value if you have no one to share your joy? On the other hand, misfortunes would be hard to bear if there were not some one to feel them even more acutely than yourself. . . .

Facebook gives us fast “friends,” people who share some context or some interest that we find amusing. But such relationships are not true friendships, as Cicero prophesied: “As a general rule, we must wait to make up our mind about friendships till men’s characters and years have arrived at their full strength and development. People must not, for instance, regard as fast friends all whom in their youthful enthusiasm for hunting or football they liked for having the same tastes.”

If we want true friendships, Cicero tells us, we must work on cultivating not more acquaintances, but rather, more virtue:

Nature has given us friendship as the handmaid of virtue, not as a partner in guilt: to the end that virtue, being powerless when isolated to reach the highest objects, might succeed in doing so in union and partnership with another. . . .This is the partnership, I say, which combines moral rectitude, fame, peace of mind, serenity: all that men think desirable because with them life is happy, but without them cannot be so. This being our best and highest object, we must, if we desire to attain it, devote ourselves to virtue; for without virtue we can obtain neither friendship nor anything else desirable. In fact, if virtue be neglected, those who imagine themselves to possess friends will find out their error as soon as some grave disaster forces them to make trial of them.

In conclusion, Facebook is only a problem if we find all of our friends through the site, and if we fail to cultivate those real relationships which are so essential to life. And we can only cultivate those relationships by first cultivating virtue. Facebook can help us in this task. We can use social networking sites to spread information about injustices in the world, about politics, about philosophical doubts and opinions. Using social networking sites to learn more about the world around us can incite the kind of moral awareness that can lead to virtue. Facebook can provide us with certain moral exemplars to follow (I, for example, am Facebook friends with Thomas Aquinas!). Facebook can help us develop virtue, if it helps us to involve ourselves more in the world and in the lives of those whose character we find excellent and worthy of imitation. So we conclude with the words of Laelius:

It is virtue, virtue, which both creates and preserves friendship. On it depends harmony of interest, permanence, fidelity. When Virtue has reared her head and shewn the light of her countenance, and seen and recognised the same light in another, she gravitates towards it, and in her turn welcomes that which the other has to shew; and from it springs up a flame which you may call love or friendship as you please. Both words are from the same root in Latin; and love is just the cleaving to him whom you love without the prompting of need or any view to advantage-though this latter blossoms spontaneously on friendship.

Now excuse me while I go post this on Facebook.

Is the Health Care Debate Missing the Point?

First, I have to apologize to my regular readers (I mean you, Dr. Camosy) for my failure to post anything new over this Lenten season. I was focusing on getting a full draft of my dissertation finished (success!) which kept me from dedicating any brain matter on blogging. So I have some catching up to do.

I would be remiss as an “EverydayThomist” to not post at least something on the health care debate. For those of you who live under a rock or in the 13th century metaphysics section of the library, Congress has passed a health care bill, expanding coverage to millions of uninsured. Historic, monumental, controversial.

Throughout the past months as the health care debate has totally consumed this country, I have been really confused about what the exact issue was. Expanding health insurance, sure, but why? It is not like health insurance is an intrinsic good, nor does there seem to be any clear link between health insurance and the common good. I never could really understand how expanding health insurance coverage made us a better society.

Now, maybe I am missing something. After all, I have been one of those people trapped under a Latin tome in the 13th century metaphysics section of the library (I can tell you more about judgment per modum inclinationis than health care reform, in all likelihood), but it turns out I am not alone in my ponderous state of trying to figure out the exact issue. In this month’s Atlantic Monthly, Megan McArdle questions the assumption about whether people with health insurance are necessarily healthier . . . or if those without health insurance are more likely to die:

Aside from an exchange between Matthew Yglesias of the Center for American Progress and Michael Cannon of the Cato Institute, few people addressed the question that mattered most to those of us who cannot buy an individual insurance policy at any price—the question that was arguably the health-care debate’s most important: . . . If we lost our insurance, would this gargantuan new entitlement really be the only thing standing between us and an early grave?

. . . Even Democratic politicians made curiously little of the plight of the uninsured. Instead, they focused on cost control, so much so that you might have thought that covering the uninsured was a happy side effect of really throttling back the rate of growth in Medicare spending. When progressive politicians or journalists did address the disadvantages of being uninsured, they often fell back on the same data Klein had used: a 2008 report from the Urban Institute that estimated that about 20,000 people were dying every year for lack of health insurance.

But when you probe that claim, its accuracy is open to question. Even a rough approximation of how many people die because of lack of health insurance is hard to reach. Quite possibly, lack of health insurance has no more impact on your health than lack of flood insurance.

McArdle cites a recent study by Helen Levy and David Meltzler on “The Impact of Health Insurance on Health” that finds that “many of the studies claiming to show a causal effect of health insurance on health do not do so convincingly because the observed correlation between insurance and good health may be driven by other, unobservable factors.”

While investigating some of these claims, I have also been watching, with a little bit of shame, Jamie Oliver’s new show Food Revolutions about the British cook’s efforts to make the unhealthiest city in America (“We are Marshall,” WV) a little bit healthier in part by bringing fresh, non-processed foods into the local elementary school menu and by teaching local families how to cook food that is both tasty and good for them.

In the first show, Jamie goes into the home of a family and lays out everything that the family eats on a weekly basis on the kitchen table. It’s pretty disgusting–lots of pizza and fried food, and what isn’t fried is processed. The whole family, including the cute little elementary school aged girl, is obese, which is why nobody is surprised (except for the parents) when Jamie takes them in to get a physical and finds their 14-year old son Justin is basically guaranteed to get diabetes. The doctor explains all the complications Justin is likely to face including the possibility of losing a limb, unless he makes some radical lifestyle changes. It’s a sad story, but Jamie’s point on the show is that it is not uncommon. On the first episode, he claims that this generation of children is likely to be the first generation in a century that does not outlive their parents due to early morbidity caused by diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure, and other complications linked to obesity.

Why do I bring this up? Because 14-year-old Justin’s problem is not a lack of health insurance (though it is true that those who lack health insurance are more likely to be obese, to smoke, and to drink excessively), but that he is simply unhealthy. We are an unhealthy nation, to be sure, but I still fail to see how expanding coverage is going to make us, on a whole, healthier. As long as our children keep eating pizza and “potato pearls” in their public school cafeterias, and as long as their parents keep feeding them pizza and chicken nuggets for dinner, and as long as our suburban lifestyles become increasingly more sedentary, no amount of health insurance is going to solve our problems, or at least, so it seems to me.

So why focus on insurance? Honestly, I think our legislators’ hearts are in the right spot, but they recognize something implicitly that Jamie Oliver’s show makes very explicit–it is really, really hard to change people’s deeply-ingrained habits. He are in this country habitually unhealthy. We have characters disposed to overeat, to eat junk food, to watch sports rather than play them. And as these habits become stronger, and we suffer more as a consequence, we realize how hard it is to change. There is no legislative quick-fix for bad character, character disposed to make bad choices again and again and again. Such character change would require massive, multi-faceted change–changing stringent USDA regulations so as to allow more fresh food in schools, ending corn subsidies, urban planning projects that encourage walking, extended recess and play periods for children and teens, education, and the list goes on.

Where could Congress even begin? I don’t know, but I do know that it was easier to try and change health care legislation than it was to change people’s habits. And this points to a larger problem with the way we do government in this country–we really don’t craft legislation conducive to national flourishing, legislation designed to make people better people, legislation aimed at increasing virtue, rather than vice. We craft legislation to “fix” problems, without probing to see the foundational issue.

One of the really cool things about Jamie Oliver’s show is that he realizes that to get kids who are habituated to eat horrible processed foods to start eating healthy, he actually has to teach them how to eat. This requires lots of steps–teaching them how to use a knife and fork to cut chicken rather than picking up chicken fingers with their own sauce-covered fingers, teaching them the names of vegetables and which of their favorite foods come from those veggies (surprised that none of the kids filmed knew that french fries came from potatoes and ketchup from tomatoes?), teaching them how to cook and helping them to realize that cooking your own food is fun, and most importantly, giving them time to eat and encouragement to eat the right things. In a crowded lunch room where none of the first graders are eating his homemade burritos and salad, Jamie begs the administrator to give the kids more time to finish, then he painstakingly goes through the room, encouraging each child, helping them to realize the food in front of them was good, and rewarding “clean plates” with stickers and applause. He ends up fairly successful, but look how much time, energy, and effort this takes. And these kids need such encouragement everyday for the next few years to reverse all the negative habituation they have had since birth to think that processed finger foods are good. These are not the things that government is good at doing. Sadly, it is what needs to be done.

And so now more people have health insurance, and I guess we will have to wait and see if we become a healthier nation as a result. I, for one, am not holding my breath.

Defining ‘Normal’ Behavior: The New DSM and the Old Manuals of Sin

Today’s NYTimes front page features an article on the new Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM V), due out in 2013. The DSM is the psychiatric field’s encyclopedia of mental disorders which allows practitioners to determine who is mentally “normal” and who is not.

This is no small deal:

“Anything you put in that book, any little change you make, has huge implications not only for psychiatry but for pharmaceutical marketing, research, for the legal system, for who’s considered to be normal or not, for who’s considered disabled,” said Dr. Michael First, a professor of psychiatry at Columbia University who edited the fourth edition of the manual but is not involved in the fifth. “And it has huge implications for stigma,” Dr. First continued, “because the more disorders you put in, the more people get labels, and the higher the risk that some get inappropriate treatment.”

One concern is that the revisions for the new DSM have “been the subject of intense lobbying by advocacy groups.” Considering the fact that many of the new diagnoses will also come with prescription drug remedies, many worry that the pharmaceutical industry is playing a big role in expanding the diagnostic criteria in order to increase profits from psychiatric drugs. Many of the comments on the NYTimes page note that it seems the new DSM is a matter of politics rather than medicine, or another move by “big pharma” making money by drugging people.

From the EverydayThomist perspective, the problem with the new DSM is that it assumes too much normativity in human behavior. Human behavior is not only incredibly complex, it also varies a lot from person to person. Some children are born with more of a natural tendency toward moderation in food and drink; others are prone to excess. Some children are very shy; others are prone to excessive anger and aggression. Human beings are too diverse to be able to neatly label as “ordered” or “disordered” to the extent that the new DSM attempts to do.

It reminds me of the manuals of moral theology, especially those written at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century which strived to precisely label and categorize every possible sin. This is, however, impossible, as Josef Pieper notes in his most excellent book The Four Cardinal Virtues:

How are we to react to a proposition such as this one, found in one of the most popular handbooks of moral theology: “To look at the private parts of animals out of curiosity, but without voluptuousness . . . is a venial sin”? Not to mention other distortions, it seems that here the limit beyond which casuistry becomes meaningless has been considerably exceeded. Propositions so constructed seem entirely to miss the true purpose and scope of casuistry, which is to provide a tentative approach and an auxiliary means for the practice of discernment. Is it not to be feared that a discernment schooled by such methods will be misguided toward an unrealistic rigidity and a prematurely fixed judgment, instead of toward a sober evaluation of the realities of life; and that this in turn may lead to a total incomprehension of the reality of man as a being who responds to the richly orchestrated world with every power of his soul, and thus reaches his choice?

The pre-conciliar moral manuals were striving toward certainty in their evaluation of human behavior, in much the same way that DSM V seems to be doing. Whereas the moral manuals wanted to define precisely in every possible case what could be considered “sin,” the DSM uses the more contemporary scientifically minded language of “pathology” and “disorder,” but the intent is the same–the desire for rigid and precise criteria to judge human behavior.

A virtue ethics perspective rejects the need for such certainty, recognizing that two people may do the same things, and yet act (in light of circumstances and intentions) in very different ways. As Josef Pieper writes,

It is temperantia, the virtue that realizes the inner order of man in himself, which St. Thomas has in mind when–in contrast to justice, in whose province that which is ‘properly and in itself right’ can and must be determined–speaking of ‘the other moral virtues which refer to the passions and in which right or wrong cannot be determined in the same fashion, because men vary in their attitudes toward the passions,’ he says, ‘therefore it is necessary that what is right and reasonable in the passions should be determined with reference to ourselves, who are moved by the passions.’ But especially in the province of temeprantia ‘we ourselves’ have the choice of innumerable possibilities: for example, to desire halfheartedly or wholeheartedly, to tolerate, to let things take their course, to give in to pressure or to be carried away. ‘Who could determine,’ writes the perceptive Thomist H.D. Noble, ‘who could determine when lack of control ends and where temperance begins?’ St. Thomas says that the realization of temperantia varies too much according to individuals and periods to allow the establishment of hard and fast, universally valid commandments.

Aquinas recognized in the 13th century that there was no such thing as “normal” human behavior. Which is why he referred to the virtues as powers within a person to help her realize for herself within a specific community with specific practices which behaviors would be conducive to happiness. But the problem for a lot of people with virtue ethics is that it leaves too much room for ambiguity, too much room for diversity in behavior which makes human beings, even the most open-minded contemporary human beings, very uncomfortable. So we’ve done away with sin manuals, but have we simply replaced them with an ever-expanding encyclopedia of mental disorders?

“I See You:” Avatar and Prudence

Spoiler alert: If you haven’t seen Avatar, don’t read this post.

People have had a lot to say about the movie Avatar—its pantheism, its overhanded critique of US foreign policy, its hodgepodge of superficial cultural references—but for me, the part of the movie that really stood out was in one of the final scenes where Neytiri, holding Jake in his vulnerable, clumsy, handicapped human form looks into his eyes and says, “I see you.” This motif is woven throughout the movie, as Jay Michelson of the Huffington Post explains:

In the Na’Vi cosmology, what’s really happening is the Ai’Wa in me is connecting with the Ai’Wa in you. This is echoed in their greeting, “I see you,” a direct translation of the Sanskrit Namaste, which means the same thing. (“Avatar” is also from the Sanskrit, though the film plays on the word’s two meanings of an image used in a role-playing game, and a deity appearing on Earth.) As the Na’Vi explain in the film, though, “I see you” doesn’t mean ordinary seeing – it, like Namaste, really means “the God in me sees the God in you.” I see Myself, in your eyes.

I don’t know anything about Sanskrit or the eastern religious traditions on which Cameron is drawing here, but I do know that this motif of “seeing” and its connection with right action and justice has an important foundation in the Thomistic tradition. As Josef Pieper writes in his beautiful little work The Four Cardinal Virtues, the virtue of prudence is the true perception of the way the world really is:

Man’s good actions take place in confrontation with reality. The goodness of concrete human action rests upon the transformation of the truth of real things; of the truth which must be won and perceived by regarding the ipsa res, reality itself.

Bill Mattison picks up the connection between prudence and seeing in his book Introducing Moral Theology: True Happiness and the Virtues. Mattison describes an article by Lorraine Murray in America Magazine called “The Lady in the Mirror.” Murray writes,

I am obsessed with food, but I assure you that I am not fat. I wear a size 10, and the weight charts brand me as “average.” The trouble is that when I gaze into the mirror, a fat lady stares back. I know that I am supposed to be God’s beloved child and I know I should love my neighbor as myself. Problem is, I have such difficulty loving myself because I am always criticizing my body.

Mattison explains,

Given how Murray says she sees herself, it is less surprising that she agonizes over her weight. [Paul Waddell] describes the moral importance of how we see things and claims it is crucial that we have ‘truthful vision.’ Put simply, we cannot act rightly if we do not see rightly. If we do not have an accurate grasp of the way things are, it is impossible to act virtuously. . . Being a prudent person is what enables one to see rightly and translate that truthful vision into action.

In Avatar, Neytiri’s vision, or prudence, is already highly developed. At one point, right before she is about to kill Jake, a seed from the sacred tree of Ey’wa lands on her arm with the outstretched bow and arrow. Her eyes turn to the spirit and back to Jake. She does not yet know what she sees, but she knows that she sees him differently. A similar thing happens when they are arguing about who Jake is. Neytiri complains that she does not know him because she does not see him. At that moment, the same seeds collect all around Jake, covering him. Again, Neytiri’s vision changes. She begins to see Jake. And both times, this vision translates into right action. Neytiri knows the right thing to do because she sees rightly. This is prudence.

But Jake’s vision develops slowly over the film. He must learn to see the truth of reality, and only when he learns to see will he know the right way to act. What is unfortunate about the film is that it traces Jake learning how to see everything but himself. Jake learns to see the Na’Vi and their world rightly, and in turn he learns to treat them rightly. He learns to see Colonel Quaritch for who he really is, and accordingly, can treat him appropriately as an enemy and threat. But Jake never learns to see himself.

Let’s return to “The Lady in the Mirror.” Murray can’t see herself. She has a false vision of who she is, a fat person, and so she does not know how to act rightly. She diets obsessively, abuses herself with thoughts of guilt over an ice cream sundae or piece of fried fish, and looks loathingly at her reflection in the mirror. She can’t act rightly toward herself because she can’t see herself rightly.

Jake is similar. He sees himself as a crippled, as a deficient being because he does not have functional legs. The reason he consents to the colonel’s deal to spy on the Na’Vi, an unvirutous action, is precisely because he sees himself as deficient without his legs, and the colonel promises him “his legs back” if he carries out the mission successfully. If Jake saw himself as a complete and beautiful human being, even with non-functional legs, he would not have been so quick to agree to the colonel’s deal.

While Jake is learning to see the world of the Na’Vi rightly, he still isn’t learning to see himself rightly. His avatar is beautiful, athletic, powerful, and seemingly invulnerable. Indeed, Jake can hardly wait each time he is out of his avatar body to get back in “where things seem more real,” where he gets to lead the Na’Vi into battle, and conquer their great unconquerable mythical bird, and make love to one of the most powerful beautiful Na’Vi ladies.

But in the end, the real Jake is not his avatar. The real Jake is a man, unshaven and unkempt, without functional legs. And Neytiri sees this. As she holds the dying Jake, she tells him “I see you.” This is what love is. Love is not trying to change the other person, to make them perfect, or to focus on their weaknesses. Love is seeing a person for who they are and embracing that person.

But Jake has no such revelation at the end. He doesn’t ever get to look at himself and say “I see you.” He gets his avatar body back. And this is the most unfortunate part of the film. Jake shouldn’t get to have his avatar body at the end. He should have to live among the Na’Vi in his wheelchair, with his respiration mask. He should have to learn how to see himself just as he learned to see the Na’Vi. He should be able to look in the mirror in all of his weakness and vulnerability and say to himself, “I see you.”

Here in real life, we don’t get our avatars. It’s celebrity doppelganger week on Facebook and everybody is posting images of celebrities who they resemble, but in the end, everybody has to go back to being themselves. Murray doesn’t get the model-thin woman she wants to see when she looks at herself. She just gets Lorraine Murray, not a model, but not fat either. And if Murrary wants to be happy, she has to learn how to see herself. Only then will she be able to treat herself right. And this is the most disturbing thing about Avatar–in the end, it’s happy ending keeps us from taking off our 3D glasses, leaving the theater, and seeing the world as it really is, and seeing ourselves for what we really are.

What Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink Teaches About Virtue

Malcolm Gladwell’s book Blink provides an anecdotal account of how split-second decisions are made through a process Gladwell calls “rapid cognition” or “thin-slicing.” Gladwell distinguishes this type of rapid cognition from intuition, which he claims is more emotional, claiming that rapid cognition is a distinctly rational process, a type of thinking that simply movers a little faster than ordinary conscious and deliberate decision-making.

One of the most interesting parts of the book deals with first impressions about race, particularly those that happen at a subconscious level. In the chapter entitled “The Warren Harding Error: Why We Fall for Dark, Handsome Men,” Gladwell describes the Implicit Association Test (IAT). The IAT, developed by Anthony G. Greenwald, Mahzarin Banaji and Brian Nosek, measures a person’s attitude on an unconscious level and the immediate and automatic associations a person makes before that person has time to think. In the IAT designed to examine automatic associations with race, a tested individual is timed to see how quickly they associate categories of good and bad adjectives with black and white faces. The test results reveal that the 80% of Americans more quickly pair words like “love,” “peace,” and “joy” with white faces and words like “terrible,” “evil,” and “failure” with black faces. The level of difference is a matter of microseconds, yet is still statistically significant.

What the IAT most significantly reveals is that unconscious attitudes and the behaviors which those attitudes give rise to may be completely incompatible with a person’s conscious values. Even those who consider themselves very enlightened in matters of race still overwhelmingly tend to have an implicit preference for whites. Gladwell himself, who is half-black, was found to have a “moderate automatic preference for whites.” As he notes in the chapter, he considers himself an enlightened and progressive individual on the matter of race relations, with a strong conviction that blacks and whites are equal. Gladwell’s point, however, is that just knowing of cognitively assenting to the idea that the two races are equal does not tell the whole story. He writes,

Our attitudes towards race and gender operate on two levels. First of all, we have our conscious level. These are what we choose to believe. . . . which we use to direct our behavior deliberately. . . . But the IAT measures something else, our attitude toward racism on an unconscious level. the immediate, automatic associations that tumble out before we have had time to think. We do not deliberately choose our unconscious attitudes . . . [and] we may not even be aware of them. The giant computer that is our subconscious silently crunches all the data it has from all the experiences we’ve had the people we’ve met, the lessons we’ve learned, the books we’ve read, the movies we’ve seen . . .and it forms an opinion. That is what is coming out in the IAT. The disturbing thing about the IAT is that it shows us that our unconscious attitudes may be utterly incompatible with our stated values.

The IAT does not just reveal what we subconsciously believe, which a virtue ethicist like myself would call a “disposition.” It is also a predictor of how we behave. A person with a subconscious preference for or dispositional tendency towards whites will in conversation lean in towards black people less, stutter more, and become visibly tenser. These subtle cues can have a major impact on our social engagements. Gladlwell cites law professor Ian Ayres’ study of racial discrimination by Chicago car dealers which found that car dealers gave the lowest initial offer to white men, and the highest initial offer to black men. Even after 40 minutes of negotiating, black car shoppers were still offered prices nearly $800 times higher than the initial offer made to white shoppers.

Much more disturbing is the discussion of Amadou Diallo, a black man who was shot 41 times by four cops who saw him standing on the street corner in the South Bronx late at night. Gladwell argues that these cops, though probably not explicitly or even consciously racist, displayed certain racially-motivated automatic implicit associations that caused them to make a prejudicial, and in this case, lethal split second decision:

The officers, observing Diallo on the stoop, sized him up and in that instant decided he looked suspicious. That was mistake number one. Then they backed the car up, and Diallou didn’t move. [Officer] Carroll later said that “amazed” him: How brazen was this man, who didn’t run at the sight of the police? Diallou wasn’t brazen. He was curious. That was mistake number two. Then Carroll and [officer] Murphy stepped toward Diallou on the stoop and watched him turn slightly to the side, and make a movement for his pocket. In that split second, they decided he was dangerous. But he was not. He was terrified. That was mistake number three.

Seven seconds later, Diallo was dead, shot 41 times, wallet in hand. When the four cops went to trial and were found “not guilty,” there were protests against what was widely perceived as a racial injustice. It seemed that these four cops were clearly guilty of overt racism that motivated them to shoot an innocent man. Gladwell, however, interprets the situation differently. He argues that these four cops, due to past experiences both personally and professionally with black people caused them to automatically and implicitly associate black people with danger, much more quickly than they might associate white people with a threat. These cops were habituated to automatically conclude that a black man in a dangerous New York neighborhood reaching into his pocket meant trouble, and their automatic implicit associations cost an innocent man his life. Gladwell’s point in describing these racial anecdotes is that even if we do not think of ourselves as racist, and even if our consciously held values hold that blacks and whites are equal, our split second decisions or “thin-slicing” activities, as Gladwell describes them, may indicate deep-seated, racist tendencies.

So what do we do about our subconscious, split-second tendencies to prefer whites over blacks? We cannot, as Gladwell argues, simply try to develop our conscious values. That is, we cannot just think more that blacks and whites are equal. Gladwell considers himself a consciously tolerant person and still, his IAT indicates an unconscious preference for white people.

“I’ve taken the race IAT on many occasions and the result always leaves me feeling a bit creepy. At the beginning of the test, you are asked what your feelings towards blacks and whites are. I answered, as I am sure most of you would, that I think of the two races as equal.”

Gladwell’s theory about rapid cognition or thin-slicing indicates that it is not enough to make certain conscious changes in attitudes or values, but must also acknowledge the subtle influences that can alter our subconscious, thereby undermining our conscious attitudes. Gladwell argues, however, that by taking control of the environment in which rapid cognition takes place, one can also control rapid cognition and prevent or lessen the mistakes made.

He suggests that we have a responsibility to not only alter our conscious values, but also to alter our environments in such a way to develop our rapid cognition to make the best possible split-second decisions. People’s results on the race IAT change if they expose themselves to images and verbal information about black people with positive connotations prior to taking the test. People who look at a picture or read a story about Martin Luther King, Jr. right before taking the IAT, for example, register much less implicit racial prejudice than other test takers. More practically, Gladwell suggests that putting ourselves in environments that expose us on a regular basis to racial minorities can alter our stereotypes of them and thus alter our unconscious automatic reactions to them. Thus, despite the fact that racial and other implicit attitudes operate on both a conscious and unconscious level, Gladwell seems to think that we are still morally accountable for even those automatic associations not governed by conscious choice.

Although Gladwell does address any theory of virtue or the moral psychology underlying a virtue ethic, his description of rapid cognition illustrates a remarkable parallel in contemporary psychology with what Aquinas calls a habit [habitus]. More remarkably, Gladwell inadvertently illustrates how habits—both good and bad—can be developed not through rational control over attitudes and behaviors, but by the subtle interaction between a person and her environment. Changing a bad habit, therefore, is not just about conscious effort. Any smoker can tell you this. A person who tries to quit smoking despite the fact that her friends are all smokers and much of her social engagements revolve around smoking is likely to be unsuccessful, no matter how hard she tries to change her habit. Rather, she must also change her environment. She must put herself in situations where she cannot reach for a cigarette for pleasure or stress-relief; she must surround herself with non-smokers, and engage in activities where smoking is contrary to enjoying the activity, like long bike rides. In short, developing virtue through habituation is as much about trying to make conscious dispositional changes as it is about putting ourselves into situations where we don’t need to try.

Additionally, if we take Gladwell’s book seriously, we must conclude that we are habituated in ways which we do not intend all the time. We may read fashion magazines and think that we approach these enlightened about body satisfaction and weight, but simply exposing ourselves to these magazines over and over again, whether we realize it or not, habituates us to associate beauty and desirability with thinness, as I wrote about here. We may think that we can watch overtly violent or sexually explicit films and not become influenced to be more violent or more lustful, but Gladwell’s research (and virtue ethics) says otherwise. We may live in an overwhelmingly white and middle-class neighborhood and think of ourselves as racially unprejudiced, but I bet the IAT would say otherwise. What Gladwell’s book teaches us is that our moral development is much more dynamic than we consciously recognize.

Your Local, Eco-Friendly Purchases Aren’t (Necessarily) Virtuous

My friend Matt passed this great article on to me, entitled “Buy Local, Act Evil: Can Organic Produce and Natural Shampoo Turn You Into a Heartless Jerk?” The author writes,

As the owner of several energy-efficient light bulbs and a recycled umbrella, I’m familiar with the critiques of “ethical consumption.” In some cases, it’s not clear that ostensibly green products are better for the environment. There’s also the risk that these lifestyle choices will make us complacent, sapping the drive to call senators and chain ourselves to coal plants. Tweaking your shopping list, the argument goes, is at best woefully insufficient and maybe even counterproductive.

But new research by Nina Mazar and Chen-Bo Zhong at the University of Toronto levels an even graver charge: that virtuous shopping can actually lead to immoral behavior. In their study (described in a paper now in press at Psychological Science), subjects who made simulated eco-friendly purchases ended up less likely to exhibit altruism in a laboratory game and more likely to cheat and steal. . .

. . .[T]he findings add to a growing body of research into a phenomenon known among social psychologists as “moral credentials” or “moral licensing.” Historically, psychologists viewed moral development as a steady progression toward more sophisticated decision-making. But an emerging school of thought stresses the capriciousness of moral responses. Several studies propose that the state of our self-image can directly influence our choices from moment to moment. When people have the chance to demonstrate their goodness, even in the most token of ways, they then feel free to relax their ethical standards.

This article illustrates the difference between an act-based and a virtue-based morality. According to an act-based morality, certain actions are right and wrong, and hence to be good, you simply need to perform the right actions and avoid the wrong actions. A virtue-based morality says that not only actions, but also dispositions or attitudes are necessary for an action to be good. In other words, it is not enough to simply do the right thing but you must also do it for the right reason.

When it comes to buying eco-friendly products, we assume that the act itself is virtuous. Clearly, a person who buys organic produce and local meat is better than a person who does not, right? But a virtue ethicist like myself would say that we need to look deeper and examine the motives and character from which our people are acting. Does the person buying organic and local really love the earth and want to do what is best for the environment, or are they just buying these products because they want to look good for their friends or because they want to feel good about themselves?

In general, I think that buying eco-friendly products only makes us virtuous if we do so mindfully, using our reason to examine and shape our inclinations. And we need to recognize that just because we decide to start buying eco-friendly products, these acts alone don’t immediately make us virtuous. Aristotle famously said that it takes more than one sparrow to make a spring, and so too, more than one act to make a virtue. Buying eco-friendly products is only truly virtuous if these actions proceed from a deliberate will motivated by love of the environment, ecological restraint, and moderation in consumption. And thus concludes the article:

Another strategy is to make worthy actions habitual. When volunteering at the soup kitchen—or turning off unused lights—becomes routine, you’ll stop basking in that halo every time. Cultural norms are also key. If everyone is driving a Prius and taking the stairs, I won’t feel so smug about doing the same. Now, for instance, I don’t feel heroic when I sort the paper and plastics and take the blue bin out to the curb. That’s just what people in my neighborhood do on Monday nights.

A decade or two ago, buying green products and other environmentalist measures might have just seemed idiosyncratic. Now such conduct is widely lauded—which is precisely why, according to researchers, it may be capable of producing this behavioral backlash. But, for the most part, it’s not yet a matter of course. What’s the lesson here? Let’s stop congratulating each other—and ourselves—for using nontoxic cleaning products and compost bins. After all, it’s really the least we can do.

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