Review of Austin’s _Virtues in Action_

Here’s a draft of a review of Virtues in Action, edited by Michael Austin.  As always, comments, criticisms, and suggestions are most welcome.

This ain’t your grandma’s virtue theory.

In Michael Austin’s bold new collection, Virtues in Action: New Essays in Applied Virtue Ethics, gone are the pretentions of defining right action generically as what a virtuous person would do in the circumstances, while acting in and from character, provided that a virtuous person would end up in those circumstances, and what a virtuous person would advise otherwise.  Instead, we find detailed explorations of specific virtues and vices related to specific fields of activity and problems, with attention (some of it careful – some less so) to relevant empirical literature and elbowroom for alternative normative approaches and conceptions.  Aristotle tells us about courage, temperance, generosity, magnificence, magnanimity, even temper, pride, justice, and friendship.  The first wave neo-Aristotelians such as Geach (1977) tell us about prudence, justice, temperance, courage, faith, hope, and charity.

Contributors to the present volume tell us about instilling openmindedness and curiosity in students (Bassham), promoting a sense of competitive honor and magnificence in business executives (Demetriou), fostering humility through sport (Austin), cultivating sexual tenderness (Van Hooft), reconciling Mencius’s sprout of ren with Aristotle’s notion of virtue-habituation (Giebel), promoting pacifism because the training of soldiers harms their character (Trivigno), the relation between virtue and abortion (again – Flannagan), developing Buddhist compassion in the face of environmental catastrophe (Frakes), learning to live with the rest of nature through ecological humility (Pianalto), learning to hope to learn (Snow), translating virtue theory into the contemporary dual-process model of psychology (Tessman), and charitably debating fraught political and moral issues (Garcia & King).

That’s twelve chapters in just over two hundred pages – roughly 7000 words per chapter.  Naturally, then, many of the discussions are truncated.  In some cases, this makes the chapter a breezy jaunt through a novel topic; in others, the reader is left feeling that the discussion was facile and superficial.  To put the chapters in perspective, Austin has arranged them into four parts: professional (education, business, and sport), social (sex, partiality, war, and abortion), environmental, and intellectual.  Some of this categorization works better than others.  For instance, Bassham’s chapter on education concerns not the virtues of educators but the prospects and problems of educating for virtue – especially intellectual virtue.  It might fit better in the last part.  Likewise, Tessman’s chapter on dual-process theory might have found a more natural home among the papers on social virtue.

Given the diversity of topics covered in this volume, few readers will be equally interested in all of the papers.  Two of them are must-reads: “Sex, Temperance, and Virtue” by Stan van Hooft and “A Virtue Ethical Case for Pacifism” by Franco Trivigno.  I’ll describe these two chapters in some detail below.  Most of the rest of the chapters are quite readable.  I’ll give summarize their main points.  A few of the chapters are notably weak; I’ll briefly mention why.

Van Hooft explores the relation between virtue theory and sexual activity.  He uses as a stalking horse Raja Halwani’s (2010) claim that temperance-intemperance is the sole dimension on which virtue theorists should consider sex and sexual activity.  Halwani argues that there are two aspects to temperance: rational control and regulation over sexual behavior and mentation, and avoiding the use of independently wrong actions (lying, stealing, rape, injustice, unkindness) as means to sexual ends.  Van Hooft correctly points out that the second aspect has nothing to do with sexuality specifically, but that the first aspect applies also to moderating other natural bodily appetites related to eating and drinking.  In other words, neither aspect of sexual temperance, as Halwani characterizes it, is distinctively sexual.

On Van Hooft’s account, this error replicates Aristotle’s own failure to think through the differences between sex on the one hand and food and drink on the other hand.  As he pertly puts it, “If sex raised only the same ethical problems as eating and drinking, the paradigm case of sexual activity would be masturbation” (p. 64).  Such a conception of sex is, obviously, “seriously deficient” in at least three ways.  First, sex – even masturbation, which often involves fantasizing and imagination – is typically social.  Second, as Freud taught us, sex is polymorphously perverse, capable of eroticizing just about anything.[1]  Third, unlike eating and drinking, the enjoyment of sex is often not only passionate but agentic.  These considerations lead Van Hooft to conclude that, pace Halwani, the distinctively sexual virtue is tenderness, not temperance.  Such tenderness answers not just to the value of moderation but also to such values as agency, privacy, timeliness, intimacy, generosity, considerateness, and trust.

Trivigno mounts an argument for contingent pacifism based on psychological and related investigations of moral injury to soldiers.  The ingredients for this argument are a proper understanding of what contemporary military training does to the moral character of soldiers, the knock-on consequences of this training for the soldiers, and the knock-on consequences of this training for other people (enemies in combat, civilians and bystanders in war zones, and soldiers’ civilian compatriots).  Trivigno argues only for contingent pacificism, which he describes as “a very strong presumption against the use of military force” given current military training techniques (p. 86).  What are these techniques, and why are they so objectionable?  The vast majority of adult humans harbor a deep resistance to killing conspecifics, which seems to be bound up with both empathy and the natural tendency to see others, even enemy combatants, as human beings.  Studies reveal that during World War II, for instance, between 80% and 85% of American soldiers in combat did not fire their weapons or fired them harmlessly into the sky.  In the last six decades or so, militaries have developed techniques for overcoming this resistance to killing.  Trivigno focuses on three: automating the process of firing weapons through operant conditioning, euphemizing the act of killing, and dehumanizing enemies and potential enemies.

Through conditioning, soldiers learn to fire their weapons without deliberating about the nature of their actions.  Thus, they become capable of killing without realizing in the moment that that’s what they’re doing.  The other two techniques are meant to ensure that they aren’t later debilitated by the recognition of what they’ve done.  Action, as Davidson (1980) taught us, is always intentional under some description.  If the only available description for what you’ve done is “killing another person” and you’ve embodied (as almost all of us have) a norm against killing, then even if you judge that you did the right thing, you may feel devastated.  Moder military training erects a Potemkin village of euphemisms for the horrific actions that soldiers are sometimes ordered to commit.  You’re not “killing a person.”  You’re “servicing a target,” “achieving an objective,” “wasting a towel-head.”  The first two euphemisms work through sanitization.  The third transitions to the final technique: dehumanization.  As Tirrell (2012) explores in more detail, dehumanization is a prelude to and perhaps even a constitutive part of atrocity.  The Nazis described Jews as vermin.  During the Rwandan genocide, Hutu Power called Tutsis cockroaches.  Modern military training[2] typically severs the empathic connection between the soldier and everyone other than his comrades (since everyone else is at least a potential enemy) by portraying the other in demonic or bestial language and imagery.

Shocking.  Horrifying.  Depressing.  What does it have to do with virtue and pacifism?  Trivigno traces two main connections.  First, the capacity for empathy, while hardly sufficient for good character and flourishing, is a constituent of it.  By destroying or corrupting soldiers’ capacity for empathy, modern military training harms their moral character and their chances for flourishing.  Second, the techniques used in modern military training (automaticity, euphemism, and dehumanization) are too coarse-grained to prevent extremely bad consequences such as atrocity.  Given the way soldiers are currently trained, we should expect incidents like My Lai, Abu Ghraib, and the Fallujah massacre as a normal part of war.  Expressions of shock in the face of such atrocities reflects either ignorance or wishful thinking.

Although Van Hooft’s and Trivigno’s contributions stand out, there are plenty of other solid chapters in this collection.  Gregory Bassham furnishes six reasons to prefer a model of education in which students cultivate virtues (intellectual and perhaps even moral) rather than merely acquiring knowledge.  First, historically, this is how education has been conceptualized.  Second, this is what liberal universities are explicitly committed to in their mission statements.  Third, since a university education is meant to have a “deep and positive impact” on students, they should aim for virtue, which is deeper than knowledge.  Fourth, arguably an incomplete education that involves virtue but not knowledge is more easily parleyed into a complete education than one that involves knowledge but not virtue.  Fifth, focusing on virtue-development makes education more of a collaboration among educators, students, families, and communities.  Finally, education intrinsically aims at personal development, which includes among other things virtue.

Dan Demetriou argues that, regardless of one’s political preferences, the rapid rise in income and wealth inequality throughout the developed world should be troubling.  In response to this, he recommends promoting competitive honor and magnificence as virtues for business executives and other obscenely wealthy people (e.g., workers in the finance industry).  There’s always more money to be had.  But being the most honored (or the second most-honored, or the third) is an artificially scarce resource.  For this reason, it would be better for everyone if people with the absurd amounts of power currently afforded to the ultra-wealthy pursued the prestige that accrues to magnificent generosity than yet more wealth.  Demetriou may be right, though if he is, one is forced to ask he awkward question: if we’ve been reduced to encouraging super-managers (as Piketty 2014 calls them) to voluntarily redistribute their ill-gotten gains, perhaps more drastic solutions are called for.

In his chapter in his own book, Michael Austin argues that sport – even if it hasn’t been successfully harnessed for such purposes, can and should be aimed at cultivating and displaying virtue the moral virtues of athletes.  First, there are positive values embedded in the practice of sport.  Second, participating in sport can foster humility, as one submits oneself the standards inherent in the practice.  Third, sport can be used in the cultivation of prudence, courage, temperance, and justice.  Austin’s account of how sport can be used in this way is – for reasons of space, perhaps among others – brief.  It also makes dubious use of the empirical literature on ego depletion (pp. 43-4).  One question that Austin doesn’t ask but which clearly must be considered is how sport relates not to participants but to spectators and those related to them.  Does watching football (American or otherwise) on the television in any way help a spectator to cultivate virtue?  Does it contribute to the spectator’s vice?[3]

Chris Frakes argues that, while Western conceptions of compassion may leave on debilitated in the face of monumental environmental degradation and injustice, Buddhist compassion may be more robust.  In particular, someone who embodies Buddhist compassion is able to direct her attention and action well in the face of suffering, and is motivated to adopt an environmentally mindful lifestyle.

Nancy Snow discusses hope as an intellectual virtue.  In so doing, she distinguishes the attitude of hope, which has particular ends, from the agentic disposition of hope, which does not.  To hope for X is to perceive X as good but regard its occurrence as uncertain, and in so doing to exercise imagination and agency to see to it that X occurs.  The disposition of hopefulness, in turn, involves being inclined to have the attitude of hope towards various ends.  According to Snow, hope motivates the pursuit of knowledge by holding out the possibility that one will discover the truth, immunizes the hoper against setbacks and frustrations, and thus constitutes a method for acquiring knowledge.  Perhaps surprisingly, Snow fails to consider the ancient fatalist conception of hope exemplified in the myth of Pandora’s box: what if hope is the greatest of evils because it leads us to persevere through suffering for no reason?

The last chapter worth reading is co-authored by Robert Garcia and Nathan King, who document two fallacies that tend to undermine frank and engaged discussion of morally fraught issues: assailment-by-entailment and the attitude-to-agent fallacy.  Assailment-by-entailment is basically a failure of perspective-taking.  You believe that p entails q, and that q is morally repugnant.  Your interlocutor asserts that p.  You infer that your interlocutor not only believes that p but also believes (like you) that p entails q and therefore believes that q.  In fact, she rejects q or at least suspends judgment on it.  You thus end up attributing to her a belief that you find repugnant and that she is not committed to.  The attitude-to-agent fallacy is a relative of the fundamental attribution error, in which people all-too-quickly infer something deep about an agent from something superficial, such as a one-off behavior or the expression of an isolated attitude.  Against these errors, Garcia & King recommend cultivating and expressing intellectual humility and charity of interpretation.

I’m afraid I cannot recommend reading the chapters by Heidi Giebel, Matthew Flanagan, Matthew Pianalto, or Lisa Tessman.  Giebel’s contribution merely summarizes some well-known views of Mencius and Aristotle.  Her attempt to deal with the threat of situationism to virtue theory is shockingly under-informed.  Flannagan engages in reactionary turn of the screw in the interpretation and response to Hursthouse’s arguments about abortion.  Pianalto serves up character assassination rather than argument, suggesting that “the person who gets depressed when considering his or her life from a wider perspective feels this way because the wider perspective challenges his or her own attitude of self-importance,” belying an “attitude of arrogant or vain self-importance” (p. 140).  A word to the not-so-wise: when your best evidence is your own phenomenology, don’t accuse others of vice for honestly reporting their own phenomenology.

Finally, Lisa Tessman does that voodoo that she does, arguing in her chapter that virtue ethics is consistent with the prominent dual-process framework in contemporary psychology, and that virtue thus understood means that lots of decisions are tragic decisions (in this case, pitting automatic, affect-laden, “System 1” intuitions against effortful, deliberative “System 2” judgments).  An keen observer of Tessman’s publication record might note that this is more or less the conclusion of everything she’s published in the last decade years.

In sum, the chapters by Van Hooft and Trivigno alone make Virtues in Action a worthy acquisition.  Many of the other chapters are edifying.  A few are best avoided.  Such are the virtues – and the vices – of Virtues in Action.

 

References

 

Davidson, D. (1980). Essays on Actions and Events. Oxford UP.

Geach, P. (1977). The Virtues. Cambridge UP.

Halwani, R. (2010). Philosophy of Love, Sex, and Marriage: An Introduction. New York: Routledge.

Piketty, T. (2014). Capital in the Twenty-First Century. New York: Belknap.

Tirrell, L. (2012). Genocidal language games. In I. Maitra & M. K. McGowan (eds.), Speech and Harm: Controversies over Free Speech, pp. 174-221. Oxford UP.

 

[1] My favorite example is this exchange from the BBC show “Blackadder”:

SAMUEL JOHNSON: Ah, I see you’ve underlined a few: ‘bloomers’, ‘burp’, ‘fart’, ‘fiddle’, ‘fornicate’?

GEORGE: Well…

JOHNSON: Sir!  I hope you’re not using the first English dictionary to look up rude words!

EDMUND: I wouldn’t be too hopeful; that’s what all the other ones will be used for.

BALDRICK: Sir, can I look up ‘turnip’?

EDMUND: ‘Turnip’ isn’t a rude word, Baldrick.

BALDRICK: It is if you sit on one.

[2] And, I should add, police training at least in the United States, given the rapid militarization of law enforcement.

[3] The question is serious.  Domestic violence spikes in countries that endure losses in the World Cup.

Alt-CV

It’s that time of year again… time to update the old CV.  While I was at it, I decided to try a couple of visualizations in addition to the ordinary, eye-glazing text version.  Here they are.

The first is a bar graph of publications and citations by year and job, subdivided by type of publication.  The y-axis on the left numbers the pubs, the y-axis on the right the cites:

Screen Shot 2014-08-14 at 8.05.23 PM

The second is the same graph in cumulative form:

Screen Shot 2014-08-14 at 8.05.34 PM

The third is a “publication signature”: basically, a representation of how many pubs I have in each of the areas I work in (excluding areas like aesthetics where I have only one pub).  I haven’t decided yet whether it makes since to try to include citations in this one.  Key them to what I think the pub is about?  Or to the area in which the citing pub is focused?  Probably best not to include at all.  Publications that are substantially in multiple areas (e.g., a paper on Nietzsche’s moral psychology) get double- or triple-counted.  The axis on this one is logarithmic.

Publication signature

A conceptual analysis of swagger

Swagger, as they say, don’t come cheap.

a swaggering douchebag

But what is swagger?  I contend that it’s a third-order reflexive emotion.

A what?

Start with a few distinctions.  Emotions are a particular category of attitude.  Like other attitudes, they have objects.  When you’re angry, you’re angry at someone or something.  When you’re proud, you’re proud of someone or something.  Next, as Adam Morton convincingly argues in Emotion and Imagination, emotions, like desires, can take other emotions as objects.  You can be relieved that I’m pleased with you.  I can be proud of your approval of me.

Morton successfully analyzes various complex, moral emotions using this recursive embedding/nesting structure.  For instance, guilt is a complex emotion.  When I feel guilty, I emotionally identify with a point of view from which anger is directed at me (it might be the real point of view of someone I’ve offended, but it might equally be the idealized point of view of a ‘rational observer’).  When you feel shame, you emotionally identify with a point of view from which contempt is directed at you or your action (again, it might be the real point of view of someone who’s currently observing you, but it might equally be the idealized point of view of a ‘rational observer’).  When you feel moral indignation (rather than mere first-order anger), you approve of a point of view from which anger is directed at someone, someone’s behavior, an institution, or whatever.

There’s a general abstract structure to such moral emotions.  Let Ea(X) represent a’s having emotion E towards X.  A moral emotion, according to Morton, has the structure E1a(E2b(X)).  On this account, guilt = approvala(angerb(a)).  Similarly, shame = approvala(contemptb(a)).  And moral indignation = approvala(angerb(X)).

This general structure can be iterated.  For instance, a third-order emotion has the structure E1a(E2b(E3c(X))).  Using this model, I suggest that swagger = delighta(shockb(contempta(X))), where b is the point of view of conventional opinion, squares, or what have you, and X is an otherwise unoffensive social norm, person, or institution.

Why not just say that swagger = contempt?  I think there’s something special about swagger.  Contempt can be smugly held close one’s chest.  Someone who’s swaggering wants others to know that he (usually it is a he) is contemptuous.  Beyond that, someone who’s swaggering wants to shock and appall people with his contempt.  If actual people are shocked and appalled, terrific.  If not, he’ll at least imagine their point of view.  Swagger is contempt that’s flaunted.

Why not just say that swagger = knowledgea(shockb(contempta(X)))?  Because the swaggerer doesn’t just know that others are shocked by his arrogance.  The swaggerer is positively delighted by it.  Indeed, he almost certainly cares more about the reaction of third parties than he does about the reaction of the person towards whom he directs contempt.  They’re just a tool for generating the outrage he wants to bask in.

Kanye West and Jay-Z delighting in your shock at their contempt for norms of modesty and humility

Some instances of swagger might even be fifth-order.  Call these episodes of watch-the-throne.  The swaggerer not only expresses contempt for an otherwise unoffensive social norm, person, or institution.  The swaggerer not only delights in imagining the shock of popular opinion at his contempt.  He also knows that popular opinion will be outraged by his delight, and finds that hilarious.  Take your conventional mores and your conventional shock and shove it.  If this analysis is on the right track, watch-the-throne = hilaritya(outrageb(delighta(shockb(contempta(X))))).

This Thing of Darkness I Acknowledge Mind: Chapter on Responsibility and Implicit Bias

Here’s a draft of the chapter of my moral psychology textbook. It’s on implicit bias and responsibility.  This one was much more depressing to write than the one on preferences.  As always, questions, comments, suggestions, and criticisms are most welcome.

 

“This thing of darkness I acknowledge mine.”

~ William Shakespeare, The Tempest, 5.1.289-290

1 Some incidents

At 12:40 AM, February 4th, 1999, Amadou Diallo, a student, entrepreneur, and African immigrant, was standing outside his apartment building in the southeast Bronx. In the gloom, four passing police officers in street clothes mistook him for Isaac Jones, a serial rapist who had been terrorizing the neighborhood. Shouting commands, they approached Diallo. He headed towards the front door of his building. Diallo stopped on the dimly lit stoop and took his wallet out of his jacket. Perhaps he thought they were cops and was trying to show them his ID; maybe he thought they were violent thieves and was trying to hand over his cash and credit cards. We will never know. One of them, Sean Carroll, mistook the wallet for a gun. Alerting his fellow officers, Richard Murphy, Edward McMellon, and Kenneth Boss, to the perceived threat, he triggered a firestorm: together, they fired 41 shots at Diallo, 19 of which found their mark. He died on the spot. He was unarmed. All four officers were ruled by the New York Police Department to have acted as a “reasonable” police officer would have acted in the circumstances. Subsequently indicted for second-degree murder and reckless endangerment, they were acquitted on all charges.

Like so many others, Sean Bell, a black resident of Queens, had some drinks with his friends at a club the night before his wedding, which was scheduled for November 25th, 2006. As they were leaving the club, though, something less typical happened: five members of the New York City Police Department shot about fifty bullets at them, killing Bell and permanently wounding his friends, Trent Benefield and Joseph Guzman. The first officer to shoot, Gescard Isnora, claimed afterward that he’d seen Guzman reach for a gun. Detective Paul Headley fired one shot; officer Michael Carey fired three bullets; officer Marc Cooper shot four times; officer Isnora fired eleven shots. Officer Michael Oliver emptied an entire magazine of his 9 mm handgun into Bell’s car, paused to reload, then emptied another magazine. Bell, Benefield, and Guzman were unarmed. In part because Benefield’s and Guzman’s testimony was confused (understandably, given that they’d had a few drinks and then been shot), all of the police officers were acquitted. New York City agreed to pay Benefield, Guzman, and Bell’s fiancée just over seven million dollars (roughly £4,000,000)in damages, which prompted Michael Paladino, the head of the New York City Detectives Endowment Association, to complain, “I think the settlement is a joke. The detectives were exonerated… and now the taxpayer is on the hook for $7 million and the attorneys are in line to get $2 million without suffering a scratch.”

In 1979, Lilly Ledbetter was hired as a supervisor by Goodyear Tire & Rubber Company. Initially, her salary roughly matched those of her peers, the vast majority of whom were men. Over the next two decades, her and her peers’ raises, which when awarded were a percentage of current salary, were contingent on periodic performance evaluations. In some cases, Ledbetter received raises. In many, she was denied. By the time she retired in 1997, her monthly salary was $3727. The other supervisors – all men – were then being paid between $4286 and $5236. Over the years, her compensation had lagged further and further behind those of men performing substantially similar work; by the time she retired, she was making between 71% and 87% what her male counterparts earned. Just after retiring, Ledbetter launched charges of discrimination, alleging that Goodyear had violated Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, which prohibits, among other things, discrimination with respect to compensation because of the target’s sex. Although a jury of her peers found in her favor, Ledbetter’s case was appealed all the way to the American Supreme Court, which ruled 5-4 against her. Writing for the majority, Justice Samuel Alito argued that Ledbetter’s case was unsound because the alleged acts of discrimination occurred more than 180 days before she filed suit, putting them beyond the pale of the statute of limitations and effectively immunizing Goodyear. In 2009, Congress passed the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, loosening such temporal restrictions to make suits like hers easier to prosecute.

Though appalling, Ledbetter’s example is actually unremarkable. On average in the United States, women earn 77% of what their male counterparts earn for comparable work. A longitudinal study of the careers of men and women in business indicates that Ledbetter’s case fits a general pattern. Although no gender differences were found early-career, by mid-career, women reported lower salaries, less career satisfaction, and less feelings of being appreciated by their bosses (Schneer & Reitman 1994). Over the long term, many small, subtle, but systematic biases often snowball into an unfair and dissatisfying career experience.

Why consider these cases together? What – other than their repugnance – unites them? The exact motives of the people involved are opaque to us, but we can speculate and consider what we should think about the responsibility of those involved, given plausible interpretations of their behavior and motives. This lets us evaluate related cases and think systematically about responsibility, regardless of how we judge the historical examples used as models. In particular, in this chapter I’ll consider the question whether and to what extent someone who acts out of bias is responsible for their behavior. The police seem to have been in some way biased against Diallo and Bell; Ledbetter’s supervisors seem to have been in some way biased against her. To explore the extent to which they were morally responsible for acting from these biases, I’ll first discuss philosophical approaches to the question of responsibility. Next, I’ll explain some of the relevant psychological research on bias. I’ll then consider how this research should inform our understanding of the moral psychology of responsibility. Finally, I’ll point to opportunities for further philosophical and psychological research.

Continue reading

Bragging

Here’s a short conceptual analysis of bragging….

 

The fact that Wikipedia lists me as a notable alumnus of my college speaks ill of the reliability of crowd sourced information.

~ Tweet by @johnmoe

1. Aim to impress

 

The speech act of bragging has never been subjected to conceptual analysis.  This paper fills that lacuna.[1]  The most-studied speech act is assertion.  Less attention has been paid to other speech acts, such as requests, promises, declarations, and apologies.  We argue that bragging is a special form of asserting.[2]  Specifically, a speaker brags just in case she aims to impress her addressee with something about herself by asserting something about herself.

Many speech acts characteristically aim at generating a particular type of mental state in the addressee.  Assertion aims to generate belief.  Promising aims to generate trust or reliance.  Commands aim to generate intentions.  We contend that bragging aims to generate the state of being impressed.  It suffices for present purposes to characterize being impressed as a distinctive mental state, which we think is best construed as an emotion akin to awe, wonder, and admiration. Our first claim, then, is that someone doesn’t count as bragging if she isn’t trying to impress her addressee.

Consider a case: your interlocutor tells you, “I used to play fly-half for the Oxford rugby team.”  Let’s contextualize this conversational gambit.  If you, like the speaker, are a rugby aficionado and realize that the fly-half position is arguably the most important on the team, then you are likely to be impressed.  Intuitively, if the speaker makes this assertion to another sports fan, he is bragging.  However, if you’ve just told him that you feel nothing but contempt for sports and sportsmen, then unless he’s simply clueless it would hardly seem that he’s bragging.  After all, he can’t intend to do what he takes to be impossible, and it’s likely that he thinks it’s not possible to impress you with his sporting prowess.  Perhaps he’s telling you something about himself to test whether you can be friends.  Perhaps he’s purposefully outing himself to end the conversation.  Perhaps he’s engaged in special pleading on the part of his favorite sport.  But one thing he’s clearly not doing is bragging.  In each case, he’s asserting that he’s accomplished something.  In the original case but not the variants, he’s also bragging.  We think the best explanation of this difference is that bragging aims to impress.

Does he need to be impressed with himself?  We think not.  Suppose, for instance, that he thinks the competitive level of university rugby is embarrassingly poor, such that nothing one does in that context could be impressive.  Still, if he thinks you don’t know that, he would be bragging.

Does he need to think that a fully-informed, disinterested observer would be impressed?  Once again, no.  A fully-informed, disinterested observer would also realize that the competitive level of university rugby is embarrassingly poor.  Nevertheless, if he thinks that you have some investment in rugby or sports more generally, he could boast by asserting that he used to play fly-half.

Does he need to think that the thing that will impress his address is or will be seen as good (morally, prudentially, or in some other way)?  A third time, no. Consider Cool Hand Luke’s claim that he can eat fifty eggs.  Is it morally, prudentially, epistemically, or aesthetically good to have this capacity?  Nevertheless, it is a feat.  His claim to be able to eat fifty eggs is a boast.  One can even brag about something that is or is likely to be perceived as negative (morally, prudentially, or in some other way).  Imagine a university professor who preens about the fact that she’s never, in her career, given an undergraduate paper a grade of A, let alone A+, because she is only willing to award such grades to papers that are publishable without revisions.  She knows that her colleagues find this standard appalling but impressive.  She is boasting.  This provides an opportunity to distinguish between bragging and self-praise.  They overlap extensively, but they doubly dissociate.  You can engage in self-praise that isn’t bragging if you don’t intend your audience to be impressed with you.  You can brag without engaging in self-praise if you don’t intend your addressee to attribute responsibility to you.  As Aristotle points out in the Nicomachean Ethics (3.5), praiseworthiness presupposes responsibility.

These considerations suggest that in bragging a speaker aims to produce in the addressee (and not necessarily in anyone else) the state of being impressed.

 

2. Impress by asserting

 

An obvious objection is that if bragging is aimed at producing the emotion of being impressed, then we are wrong to classify it as a kind of assertion.  This objection fails because, on our account, bragging aims at producing both a belief and the state of being impressed.  Specifically, we think that a speaker brags iff she intends by making an utterance:

(1)  to produce in the addressee the belief that p,

(2)  that the addressee should recognize the speaker’s intention (1),

(3)  that the addressee should base her belief that p on her recognition of (1), and

(4)  that the addressee’s belief that p lead her to be impressed with the speaker.

The first three conditions will be familiar from Grice (1957).  The fourth distinguishes bragging as a special kind of assertion.  One might wonder why we don’t include a fifth condition to the effect that A recognizes (4) and a sixth condition to the effect that A should base her being impressed with S on her recognition of (4).  We take up this issue below.  In this section, we defend the assertion conditions (1-3).

Does boasting really have to piggy-back on assertion?  Can one boast by asking a question, by issuing a directive, by apologizing, and so on?  Consider this case: an audience-member at an academic talk asks a devastating question then smiles smugly to herself.  Let’s stipulate that she aimed to impress the rest of the audience.  Does her question count as a boast?  We think the answer depends on how exactly she aims to impress the rest of the audience.  Presumably, she intends to get them to think that she’s very clever.  On our account, if she also intends them to recognize this intention and to base their belief on it, then she is indirectly bragging because she’s indirectly asserting that she is clever (in much the same way that someone can indirectly command you to get off his foot by asserting that you’re standing on it).  If she doesn’t have these further intentions, then our account says she isn’t bragging.  This seems right, or at least not clearly wrong.

One might think, though, that only condition (4) is truly necessary: as long as the addressee ends up being impressed with the speaker, the precise pathway is irrelevant.  We think that cases one might be inclined to describe as non-assertive brags fall into just two categories: indirect assertions (and hence indirect brags susceptible to the same analysis as the question case above) and non-brags.

For example: “I want to compete for another Iron Chef trophy, but my chances this time are terrible.”  Instead of asserting that she’s already won one Iron Chef trophy, the speaker presupposes it.  Is she bragging?  If by presupposing she indirectly asserts that she’s won and intends to impress, our account says that she indirectly brags.  If she doesn’t indirectly assert (perhaps she thinks her addressee already knows that she’s won once), she isn’t. If expressing the desire to compete, regardless of whether she’s won already, seems like bragging (who would want to compete if they didn’t think they were very good indeed?), we give the same analysis.  Either there’s an indirect assertion involved, or it isn’t a brag at all.

One might demur, claiming that in some cases the speaker intends to impress her addressee directly, without any mediating belief or other mental state.  How, we ask, is it possible to end up in a state of being impressed with X without taking some predicate to be true of X?  You might not be able to articulate what you’re impressed by.  You might get it wrong.  But it seems to us preposterous that you can be in such an emotional state without some belief-like attitude implicitly grounding it.  “I don’t know what it is about X, but I find X impressive.”  That sounds fine.  “Nothing about X is impressive, but X is impressive.”  This strikes us as absurd.

 

3. If you’ve got it, flaunt it

 

We have now argued for two necessary conditions on bragging.  First, the bragger must aim to produce in her addressee the emotional state of being impressed.  Second, she must aim to produce this emotional state via the belief produced by asserting.  We now argue that both the belief and the emotion must involve being impressed with something about the speaker.  This is a natural extension of our previous argument that one is never simply impressed with X; one is always impressed with something about X.

Consider two cases of bragging and non-bragging that both aim to produce the emotion of being impressed by way of belief.  In the first, an Oxbridge philosopher by the name of Petro Ungero claims to be smarter than almost all of his own colleagues, as well as the Nobel Laureate psychologist Daniel Kahneman.  In the second, Pyotr Ungerovich claims that David Lewis was the smartest philosopher of the twentieth century.  What distinguishes Ungero from Ungerovich?  It seems clear that the former is bragging while the latter is not.  Both are trying to impress their addressees by getting them to believe something.  The crucial difference is that Ungero is trying to get his addressee to believe something about Ungero which will in turn lead the addressee to be impressed with Ungero.  By contrast, Ungerovich is trying to get his addressee to believe something about Ungerovich, which will in turn lead the addressee to be impressed with Lewis.  More precisely, the structure of bragging is to make an assertion aimed at getting the addressee to believe that the speaker has property P, and thereby to be impressed by the speaker’s having P.

So far, we have rested content with an intuitive notion of what counts as being about the speaker.  We are not in a position to give a full account of this concept, but we can say that we understand it capaciously.  You can clearly brag about your traits and skills.  “I’m courageous,” would traditionally count as a boast, as would, “I’m a chess grandmaster.”  You can also brag about your achievements.  “I’ve summated Annapurna,” is a boast.  It’s also clear that people can and do brag about their group identities.  “I’m a Rothschild,” can be a boast, as can “Canada is the world’s greatest hockey power,” when spoken by a Canadian.  This might seem odd, since it’s no achievement to be born into a particular family or nation, but people clearly do brag about these things.  An analysis of bragging fails if it doesn’t recognize this fact.

You can brag about your traits, skills, and group identities; it’s clear that you can also brag about your possessions.  “I own a Bugatti,” is a boast, as is, “I’m all about conspicuous consumption.”  Again, it might be distasteful, bourgeois, philistine, or immoral to boast in this way, but the question whether it’s permissible to boast is distinct from the question whether it’s possible.

It might seem at this point that, on our account, there’s nothing you can’t in principle brag about.  In fact, we are sympathetic to this idea.  We want to suggest that it doesn’t matter whether the thing bragged about is in any fundamental way associated with the speaker.  Instead, what matters is that the speaker takes the addressee to associate the bragged-about thing with the speaker (and potentially be impressed by it).  If I think that you think that the identity of my great-great-grandfather is sufficiently associated with me, I can brag about my ancestry.  If I think that you think my astrological sign is sufficiently associated with me, I can brag about my zodiac.  If I think that you think the accomplishments of my acquaintances are sufficiently associated with me, I can brag by name-dropping about whom I’ve met.  What matters is the speaker’s construal of what the addressee associates with the speaker.  Given sociological facts about what people tend to associate with each other, traits, skills, achievements, group identities, and possessions can all conventionally be bragged about.  Were these sociological facts to change, the opportunities to brag would also change.

 

4. I don’t mean to brag, but…

 

Thus far, we’ve argued that a speaker brags when and only when she makes an assertion about herself in order to produce in her addressee a belief that will in turn lead the addressee to be impressed with something about the speaker.  Something needn’t be in any way good to be impressive to the addressee, nor need it be impressive to anyone else.  Its connection with the speaker can be tenuous, provided that the speaker takes the addressee to associate it with her.  In the remainder of this paper, we discuss the conditions under which it’s possible to cancel a brag while still making the related assertion, which leads us to conclude with a few remarks on the recent neologism ‘humblebrag’.

It’s of course possible to make a non-bragging assertion that would, in some contexts, constitute a brag. “I used to play fly-half for Oxford,” is an example we’ve already seen.  What makes the difference, on our account, is condition (4): whether the speaker also intends her addressee to be impressed with something about her because they come to believe something about her.  The speaker’s communicative intentions are determinative.  If this is right, it’s not possible to brag by accident, since – even if you end up impressing your addressee unintentionally – you wouldn’t meet the necessary conditions for bragging.  Nevertheless, simply denying that you meant to brag after engaging in egregious self-aggrandizement seems suspect – the braggart’s version of Moore’s paradox.  Compare the more familiar example of an indirect speech act (Searle 1975) in which the speaker performs one speech act by performing another: I can request a beer by asking whether you have any beer.  But I can cancel the implied request by prefacing my question with, “I don’t want a beer, but….”  Canceling the brag while making the assertion doesn’t seem to work so well.  “I’m not trying to impress you by saying this, but I am a genius.”  Yeah right.

Why is it especially hard to cancel a boast?  This question can be answered by distinguishing between two distinct but interlocking aspects of communication: meaning, which is determined by the speaker who must nevertheless take into account how the addressee is likely to interpret her utterance, and interpretation, which is determined by the addressee who must nevertheless take into account what the speaker is likely to have meant by her utterance (Neale 2004).  An utterance succeeds to the extent that what the speaker means is identical to what the addressee interprets.  What’s odoriferous about at least some attempts to assert-without-bragging is that, even if the speaker really doesn’t aim to impress, she makes bizarre if not quite inconsistent demands on the addressee’s interpretation of her utterance.  On the one hand, the addressee is meant to believe something impressive about the speaker.  On the other hand, the addressee is not meant to be impressed – indeed, is meant not to be impressed.  On top of that, the speaker draws attention to the fact that the content of her assertion could be considered impressive.

Why is it especially difficult to cancel brags?  To answer this question, we revert to the familiar point that you can’t intend what you take to be impossible.  The question, then, is whether it’s possible to intend your audience to believe that you’re a genius because you say so, to pay attention to the fact that this would ordinarily be impressive, and yet not to be impressed.  There are bizarre cases in which this is possible, but the vast majority of the time it’s not.  With something less conventionally impressive than genius, the cancellation is more likely to work.  What the speaker needs is an “out.”  She needs to be able to point to some aim other than impressing her addressee that she thinks the addressee will consider plausible.  For instance, the speaker is on an airliner with the addressee, and the pilots have been incapacitated.  She say, “Trust me.  I’m a retired fighter pilot.”  She’s trying to get her addressee to believe that she’s competent to fly the airliner, but she doesn’t care whether the addressee is impressed with her credentials and experience.  She cares whether he trusts her.

Thus, one way to cancel the brag that would otherwise piggy-back on an assertion is to cancel the attempt to impress the addressee by providing an alternative purpose to the utterance (“Trust me; don’t be impressed by me.”)  Another way to cancel the brag is to sever the connection between the impressive thing and the speaker.  For instance, “I’m a multi-millionaire, but all of my wealth is inherited.”  Or, “I’m a descendant of Charlemagne, not that that means anything about me.”  In many cases, canceling the emotional component and canceling the connection to self are patently impossible, so any attempt to do either is doomed.

If the speaker knows that the addressee won’t accept the disclaimer, then she can’t cancel the brag.  Consider the tweet we used as an epigraph, “The fact that Wikipedia lists me as a notable alumnus of my college speaks ill of the reliability of crowd sourced information.”  This is a paradigmatic humblebrag.  What distinguishes it from straightforward bragging?  The humblebragger, in addition to saying something about themselves with the aim of getting their addressee to be impressed with them, tries to do so in such a way that the addressee doesn’t realize that the speaker is trying to impress.  This is usually done by saying something self-deprecating while bragging.  For instance, “I’m not notable,” is paired with, “I’m described as notable on Wikipedia.”

Here’s another example, this one a tweet by American stage actor Steve Kazee responding to the Daily News comparing his appearance to that of Ricky Martin: “Who wore it better?  I mean it’s @ricky_martin for gods sake.  Of course he wears it better!  I can’t compete with that.”  Kazee is bragging: he’s drawing attention to the facts that he is starring in a Broadway show, that his appearance was remarked on positively in a major newspaper, and that he was compared to the heartthrob Ricky Martin.  But he’s trying to brag in such a way that his addressees don’t realize that he aims to impress.

Humblebrags always do this.  They’re especially annoying because they implicitly challenge the addressee’s competence.  For a humblebrag to succeed, the addressee can’t recognize that the speaker aims to impress.  Thus, humblebragging always suggests or presupposes that the addressee isn’t intelligent, sensitive, or savvy enough to see through the self-deprecation to the intention to impress.

We’re finally in a position to return to our decision not to include in our analysis of bragging conditions requiring (5) the speaker to intend that the addressee recognize (4) and (6) be impressed with the speaker based on her recognition of (4).  Condition (6) is a non-starter.  Unless the speaker is embroiled in a boasting contest, she presumably wants her addressees to be impressed not because she means to impress them but because the content of her boast is impressive.  “Don’t be impressed with me because I say so,” she’d say, “Be impressed because I’m impressive!”[3]

What about condition (5)?  If this reflexive intention were necessary for bragging, then humblebragging as we’ve analyzed would be impossible, since the humblebragger would intend both that her addressee recognize that she intends to impress and that her addressee fail to recognize that she intends to impress.  But maybe our account is wrong.  Perhaps instead humblebragging isn’t really bragging.  Alternatively, perhaps humblebragging doesn’t involve hiding one’s intent to impress; perhaps the humblebragger intends to impress but also intends the addressee to make a character-level judgment that she isn’t a bragger.

Neither of these suggestions strikes us as more plausible than our original theory.  We suggest instead a three-way taxonomy of brags: (a) brazen brags, where the speaker intends the addressee to recognize that she’s trying to impress, (b) humblebrags, where the speaker intends the addressee to fail to recognize that she’s trying to impress, and (c) indifferent brags, where the speaker doesn’t intend one way or the other.

We leave for future research the paradox apparently generated by saying, “I’m so humble.”[4]

 

References

Grice, H. P. (1957). Meaning. Philosophical Review, 66:3, 377-88.

Neale, S. (2004). This, that, and the other.  In M. Reimer & A. Bezuidenhout (eds.), Descriptions and Beyond, pp. 68-182. Oxford University Press.

Searle, J. (1975). Indirect speech acts. In Cole & Morgan (eds.), Syntax and Semantics, 3: Speech Acts, pp. 59-82. New York: Academic Press.

Searle, J. (1976). A classification of illocutionary acts. Language in Society, 5:1, 1-23.

 

 

 

[1] We will use ‘brag’ and ‘boast’ synonymously.

[2] This claim is consistent with Searle’s (1976) taxonomy, which counts boasting as a kind of representative speech act.

[3] This argument is connected to our earlier point that one is never simply impressed with X; one is always impressed with the fact that X has some property or other.

[4] We are indebted to the following people for helpful discussion of this paper: Carl Sachs, Daniel Harris, David Pereplyotchik, J. Adam Carter, Adam Morton, Julia Staffel, Luke Maring, and John Greco.

Ramsifying virtue theory

Draft of a paper to be published in Current Controversies in Virtue Theory.  My controversy is over the question “Can people be virtuous?”  My respondent is James Montmarquet.  Other contributors to the volume include Heather Battaly, Liezl van Zyl, Jason Baehr, Ernie Sosa, Dan Russell, Christian Miller, Bob Roberts, and Nancy Snow.

Ramsifying virtue theory 

Can people be virtuous? This is a hard question, both because of its form and because of its content.

In terms of content, the proposition in question is at once normative and descriptive. Virtue-terms have empirical content. Attributions of virtues figure in the description, prediction, explanation, and control of behavior. If you know that someone is temperate, you can predict with some confidence that he won’t go on a bender this weekend. Someone’s investigating a mysterious phenomenon can be partly explained by (correctly) attributing curiosity to her. Character witnesses are called in trials to help determine how severely a convicted defendant will be punished. Virtue-terms also have normative content. Attributions of virtues are a manifestation of high regard and admiration; they are intrinsically rewarding to their targets; they’re a form of praise. The semantics of purely normative terms is hard enough on its own; the semantics of “thick” terms that have both normative and descriptive content is especially difficult.

Formally, the proposition in question (“people are virtuous”) is a generic, which adds a further wrinkle to its evaluation. It is notoriously difficult to give truth conditions for generics (Leslie 2008). A generic entails its existentially quantified counterpart, but is not entailed by it. For instance, tigers are four-legged, so some tigers are four-legged; but even though some deformed tigers are three-legged, it doesn’t follow that tigers are three-legged. A generic typically is entailed by its universally quantified counterpart, but does not entail it. Furthermore, a generic neither entails nor is entailed by its counterpart “most” statement. Tigers give live birth, but most tigers do not give live birth; after all, only about half of all tigers are female, and not all of them give birth. Most mosquitoes do not carry West Nile virus, but mosquitoes carry West Nile virus. Given the trickiness of generics, it’s helpful to clarify them to the extent possible with more precise non-generic statements.

Moreover, the proposition in question is modally qualified, which redoubles the difficulty of confirming or disconfirming it. What’s being asked is not simply whether people are virtuous, but whether they can be virtuous. It could turn out that even though no one is virtuous, it’s possible for people to become virtuous. This would, however, be extremely surprising. Unlike other unrealized possibilities, virtue is almost universally sought after, so if it isn’t widely actualized despite all that seeking, we have fairly strong evidence that it’s not there to be had.

In this paper, I propose a method for adjudicating the question whether people can be virtuous. This method, if sound, would help to resolve what’s come to be known as the situationist challenge to virtue theory, which over the last few decades has threatened both virtue ethics (Alfano 2013a, Doris 2002, Harman 1999) and virtue epistemology (Alfano 2011, 2013a, Olin & Doris 2014). The method is an application of David Lewis’s (1966, 1970, 1972) development of Frank Ramsey’s (1931) approach to the implicit definition of theoretical terms. The method needs to be tweaked in various ways to handle the difficulties canvassed above, but, when it is, an interesting answer to our question emerges: we face a theoretical tradeoff between, on the one hand, insisting that virtue is a robust property of an individual agent that’s rarely attained and perhaps even unattainable and, on the other hand, allowing that one person’s virtue might inhere partly in other people, making virtue at once more easily attained and more fragile.

The basic principle underlying the Ramsey-Lewis approach to implicit definition (often referred to as ‘Ramsification’) can be illustrated with a well-known story:

And the Lord sent Nathan unto David. And he came unto him, and said unto him, “There were two men in one city; the one rich, and the other poor. The rich man had exceeding many flocks and herds: But the poor man had nothing, save one little ewe lamb, which he had bought and nourished up: and it grew up together with him, and with his children; it did eat of his own meat, and drank of his own cup, and lay in his bosom, and was unto him as a daughter. And there came a traveler unto the rich man, and he spared to take of his own flock and of his own herd, to dress for the wayfaring man that was come unto him; but took the poor man’s lamb, and dressed it for the man that was come to him.” And David’s anger was greatly kindled against the man; and he said to Nathan, “As the Lord liveth, the man that hath done this thing shall surely die: And he shall restore the lamb fourfold, because he did this thing, and because he had no pity.” And Nathan said to David, “Thou art the man.”

Nathan uses Ramsification to drive home a point. He tells a story about an ordered triple of objects (two people and an animal) that are interrelated in various ways. Some of the first object’s properties (e.g., wealth) are monadic; some of the second object’s properties (e.g., poverty) are monadic; some of the first object’s properties are relational (e.g., he steals the third object from the second object); some of the second object’s properties are relational (e.g., the third object is stolen from him by the first object); and so on. Even though the first object is not explicitly defined as the X such that …, it is nevertheless implicitly defined as the first element of the ordered triple such that …. The big reveal happens when Nathan announces that the first element of the ordered triple, about whom his interlocutor has already made some pretty serious pronouncements, is the very person he’s addressing (the other two, for those unfamiliar with the 2nd Samuel 12, are Uriah and Bathsheba[1]).

The story is Biblical, but the method is modern. To implicitly define a set of theoretical terms (henceforth ‘T-terms’), one formulates a theory T in those terms and any other terms (henceforth ‘O-terms’) one already understands or has an independent theory of. Next, one writes T as a single sentence, such as a long conjunction, in which the T-terms t1…, tn occur (henceforth ‘T[t1…, tn]’ or ‘the postulate of T’). The T-terms are replaced by unbound variables x1…, xn, and then existentially quantified over to generate the Ramsey sentence of T, which states that T is realized, i.e., that there are objects x1…, xn that satisfy the Ramsey sentence. An ordered n-tuple that satisfies the Ramsey sentence is then said to be a realizer of the theory.

Lewis (1966) famously applied this method to folk psychology to argue for the mind-brain identity theory. Somewhat roughly, he argued that folk psychology can be treated as a theory in which mental-state terms are the T-terms. The postulate of folk psychology is identified as the conjunction of all folk-psychological platitudes (commonsense psychological truths that everyone knows, and everyone knows that everyone knows, and everyone knows that everyone knows that everyone knows, and so on). The Ramsey sentence of folk psychology is formed in the usual way, by replacing all mental-state terms (e.g., ‘belief’, ‘desire’, ‘pain’, etc.) with variables and existentially quantifying over those variables. Finally, one goes on to determine what, in the actual world, satisfies the Ramsey sentence; that is, one investigates what, if anything, is a realizer of the Ramsey sentence. If there is a realizer, then that’s what the T-terms refer to; if there is no realizer, then the T-terms do not refer. Lewis claims that brain states are such realizers, and hence that mental states are identical with brain states.

Lewis’s Ramsification method is attractive for a number of reasons.[2] First, it ensures that we don’t simply change the topic when we try to give a philosophical account of some phenomenon. If your account of the mind is wildly inconsistent with the postulate of folk psychology, then – though you may be giving an account of something interesting – you’re not doing what you think you’re doing. Second, enables us to distinguish between the meaning of the T-terms and whether they refer. The T-terms mean what they would refer to, if there were such a thing. Whether they in fact refer is a distinct question. Third, and perhaps most importantly, Ramsification is holistic. The first half of the twentieth century bore witness to the fact that it’s impossible to give an independent account of almost any psychological phenomenon (belief, desire, emotion, perception) because what it means to have one belief is essentially bound up with what it means to have a whole host of other beliefs, as well as (at least potentially) a whole host of desires, emotions, and perceptions. Ramsification gets around this problem by giving an account of all of the relevant phenomena at once, rather than trying to chip away at them piecemeal.

Virtue theory stands to benefit from the application of Ramsification for all of these reasons. We want an account of virtue, not an account of some other interesting phenomenon (though we might want that too). We want an account that recognizes that talk of virtue is meaningful, even if there aren’t virtues. Most importantly, we want an account of virtue that recognizes the complexity of virtue and character – the fact that virtues are interrelated in a whole host of ways with occurrent and dispositional mental states, with other virtues, with character more broadly, and so on.

Whether Lewis is right about brains is irrelevant to our question, but his methodology is crucial. What I want to do now is to show how the same method, suitably modified, can be used to implicitly define virtue-terms, which in turn will help us to answer the question whether people can be virtuous. For reasons that will become clear as we proceed, the T-terms of virtue theory as I construe it here are ‘person’, ‘virtue’, ‘vice’, the names of the various virtues (e.g., ‘courage’, ‘generosity’, ‘curiosity’), the names of their congruent affects (e.g., ‘feeling courageous’, ‘feeling generous’, ‘feeling curious’), the names of the various vices (e.g., ‘cowardice’, ‘greed, ‘intellectual laziness’), and the names of their congruent affects, (e.g., ‘feeling cowardly’, ‘feeling greedy’, ‘feeling intellectually lazy’). The O-terms are all other terms, importantly including terms that refer to attitudes (e.g., ‘belief’, ‘desire’, ‘anger’, ‘resentment’, ‘disgust’, ‘contempt’, ‘respect’), mental processes (e.g., ‘deliberation’), perceptions and perceptual sensitivities, behaviors, reasons, situational features (e.g., ‘being alone’, ‘being in a crowd’, ‘being monitored’), and evaluations (e.g., ‘praise’ and ‘blame’).

Elsewhere (Alfano 2013), I have argued for an intuitive distinction between high-fidelity and low-fidelity virtues. High-fidelity virtues, such as honesty, chastity, and loyalty, require near-perfect manifestation in undisrupted conditions. Someone only counts as chaste if he never cheats on his partner when cheating is a temptation. Low-fidelity virtues, such as generosity, tact, and tenacity, are not so demanding. Someone might count as generous if she were more disposed to give than not to give when there was sufficient reason to do so; someone might count as tenacious if she were more disposed to persist than not to persist in the face of adversity. If this is on the right track, the postulate of virtue theory will recognize the distinction. For instance, it seems to me at least that almost everyone would say that helpfulness is a low-fidelity virtue whereas loyalty is a high-fidelity virtue. Here, then, are some families of platitudes about character that are candidates for the postulate of virtue theory:

 

(A) The Virtue / Affect Family

(a1) If a person has courage, then she will typically feel courageous when there is sufficient reason to do so.

(a2) If a person has generosity, then she will typically feel generous when there is sufficient reason to do so.

(a3) If a person has curiosity, then she will typically feel curious when there is sufficient reason to do so.

.

.

.

(an) ….

 

(C) The Virtue / Cognition Family

(c1) If a person has courage, then she will typically want to overcome threats.

(c2) If a person has courage, then she will typically deliberate well about how to overcome threats and reliably form beliefs about how to do so.

.

.

.

(cn) ….

 

(S) The Virtue / Situation Family

(s1) If a person has courage, then she will typically be unaffected by situational factors that are neither reasons for nor reasons against overcoming a threat.

(s2) If a person has generosity, then she will typically be unaffected by situational factors that are neither reasons for nor reasons against giving resources to someone.

(s3) If a person has curiosity, then she will typically be unaffected by situational factors that are neither reasons for nor reasons against investigating a problem.

.

.

.

(sn)

 

(E) The Virtue / Evaluation Family

(e1) If a person has courage, then she will typically react to threats in ways that merit praise.

(e2) If a person has generosity, then she will typically react to others’ needs and wants in ways that merit praise.

(e3) If a person has curiosity, then she will typically react to intellectual problems in ways that merit praise.

.

.

.

(en)

 

(B) The Virtue / Behavior Family

(b1) If a person has courage, then she will typically act so as to overcome threats when there is sufficient reason to do so.

(b2) If a person has generosity, then she will typically act so as to benefit another person when there is sufficient reason to do so.

(b3) If a person has curiosity, then she will typically act so as to solve intellectual problems when there is sufficient reason to do so.

.

.

.

(bn)

 

(P) The Virtue Prevalence Family

(p1) Many people commit acts of courage.

(p2) Many people commit acts of generosity.

(p3) Many people commit acts of curiosity.

(p4) Many people are courageous.

(p5) Many people are generous.

(p6) Many people are curious.

.

.

.

(pn)

 

(I) The Cardinality / Integration Family

(i1) Typically, a person who has modesty also has humility.

(i2) Typically, a person who has magnanimity also has generosity.

(i3) Typically, a person who has curiosity also has open-mindedness.

.

.

.

(in)

 

(D) The Desire / Virtue Family

(d1) Typically, a person desires to have courage.

(d2) Typically, a person desires to have generosity.

(d3) Typically, a person desires to have curiosity.

.

.

.

(dn)

 

(F) The Fidelity Family

(f1) Chastity is high-fidelity.

(f2) Honesty is high-fidelity.

(f3) Creativity is low-fidelity.

.

.

.

(dn)

 

Each platitude in each family is meant to be merely illustrative. Presumably they could all be improved somewhat, and there are many more such platitudes. Moreover, each family is itself just an example. There are many further families describing the relations among vice, affect, cognition, situation, evaluation, and behavior, as well as families that make three-way rather than two-way connections (e.g., “If a person is courageous, then she will typically act so as to overcome threats when there is sufficient reason to do so and because she feels courageous.”). For the sake of simplicity, though, let’s assume that the families identified above contain all and only the platitudes relevant to the implicit definition of virtues. Ramsification can now be performed in the usual way. First, create a big conjunction (henceforth, simply the ‘postulate of virtue theory’). Next, replace each of the T-terms in the postulate of virtue theory with an unbound variable, then existentially quantifies over those variables to generate the Ramsey sentence of virtue theory. Finally, check whether the Ramsey sentence of virtue theory is true and – if it is – what its realizers are.

After this preliminary work has been done, we’re in a position to see more clearly the problem raised by the situationist challenge to virtue theory. Situationists argue that there is no realizer of the Ramsey sentence of virtue theory. Moreover, this is not for lack of effort. Indeed, one family of platitudes in the Ramsey sentence specifically states that, typically, people desire to be virtuous; it’s not as if no one has yet tried to be or become courageous, generous, or curious.[3] In this paper, I don’t have space to canvass the relevant empirical evidence; interested readers should see my (2013a and 2013b). Nevertheless, the crucial claim – that the Ramsey sentence of virtue theory is not realized – is not an object of serious dispute in the philosophical literature.

One very common response to the situationist challenge from defenders of virtue theory (and virtue ethics in particular) is to claim that virtues are actually quite rare, directly contradicting the statements in the virtue prevalence family. I do not think this is the best response to the problem, as I explain below, but the point remains that all serious disputants agree that the Ramsey sentence is not realized.

As described above, Ramsification looks like a simple, formal exercise. Collect the platitudes, put them into a big conjunction, perform the appropriate substitutions, existentially quantify, and check the truth-value of the resulting Ramsey sentence (and the referents of its bound variables, if any). But there are several opportunities for a critic to object as the exercise unfolds.

One difficulty that arises for some families, such as the desire / virtue family, is that they involve T-terms within the scope of intentional attitude verbs.[4] Since existential quantification into such contexts is blocked by opacity, such families cannot be relied on to define the T-terms, though they can be used to double-check the validity of the implicit definition once the T-terms are defined.[5]

Another difficulty is that this methodology presupposes that we have an adequate understanding of the O-terms, which in this case include terms that refer to attitudes, mental processes, perceptions and perceptual sensitivities, behaviors, reasons, situational features, and evaluations. One might be dubious about this presupposition. I certainly am. However, the fact that philosophy of mind and metaethics are works-in-progress should not be interpreted as a problem specifically for my approach to virtue theory. Any normative theory that relies on other branches of philosophy to figure out what mental states and processes are, and what reasons are, can be criticized in the same way.

A third worry is that the list of platitudes contains gaps (e.g., a virtue acquisition family about how various traits are acquired). Conversely, one might think that it has gluts (e.g., unmotivated commitment to virtue prevalence). To overcome this pair of worries, we need a way of determining what the platitudes are. Perhaps surprisingly, there is no precedent for this in the philosophy of mind, despite the fact that Ramsification is often invoked as a framework there.[6] This may be because it’s supposed to be obvious what the platitudes are. Here’s Frank Jackson’s flippant response to the worry: “I am sometimes asked—in a tone that suggests that the question is a major objection—why, if conceptual analysis is concerned to elucidate what governs our classificatory practice, don’t I advocate doing serious opinion polls on people’s responses to various cases? My answer is that I do—when it is necessary. Everyone who presents the Gettier cases to a class of students is doing their own bit of fieldwork, and we all know the answer they get in the vast majority of cases” (1998, 36–37). After all, according to Lewis, everyone knows the platitudes, and everyone knows that everyone knows them, and everyone knows that everyone knows that everyone knows them, and so on. Sometimes, however, the most obvious things are the hardest to spot. It thus behooves us to at least sketch a method for carrying out the first step of Ramsification: identifying the platitudes. Call this pre-Ramsification.

Here’s an attempt at spelling out how pre-Ramsification should work: start by listing off a large number of candidate platitudes. These can be all of the statements one would, in a less-responsible, Jacksonian mood, have merely asserted were platitudes. It can also include statements that seem highly likely but perhaps not quite platitudes. Add to the pool of statements some that seem, intuitively, to be controversial, as well as some that seem obviously false; these serve as anchors in the ensuing investigation. Next, collect people’s responses to these statements. Several sorts of responses would be useful, including subjective agreement, social agreement, and reaction time. For instance, prompt people with the statement, “Many people are honest,” and ask to what extent they agree and to what extent they think others would agree. Measure their reaction times as they answer both questions. High subjective and social agreement, paired with fast reaction times, is strong but defeasible evidence that a statement is a platitude. This is a bit vague, since I haven’t specified what counts as “high” agreement or “fast” reaction times, but there are precedents in psychology for setting these thresholds. Moreover, this kind of pre-Ramsification wouldn’t establish dispositively what the platitudes are, but then, dispositive proof only happens in mathematics.

It’s far beyond the scope of this short paper to show that pre-Ramsification works in the way I suggest, or that it verifies all and only the families identified above. For now, let’s suppose that it does, i.e., that all of the families proposed above were validated by pre-Ramsification. Let’s also suppose that we have strong evidence that the Ramsey sentence of virtue theory is not realized (a point that, as I mentioned above, is not seriously contested). How should we then proceed?

Lewis foresaw that, in some cases, the Ramsey sentence for a given field would be unrealized, so he built in a way of fudging things: instead of generating the postulate by taking the conjunction of all of the platitudes, one can generate a weaker postulate by taking the disjunction of each of the conjunctions of most of the platitudes. For example, if there were only five platitudes, p, q, r, s, and t, then instead of the postulate’s being , it would be (p&q&r&s)v(p&q&r&t)&…&(q&r&s&t). In the case of virtue theory, we could take the disjunction of each of the conjunctions of all but one of the families of platitudes. Alternatively, we could exclude a few of the platitudes from within each family.

Fudging in this way makes it easier for the Ramsey sentence to be realized, since the disjunction of conjunctions of most of the platitudes is logically weaker than the straightforward conjunction of all of them. Fudging may end up making it too easy, though, such that there are multiple realizers of the Ramsey sentence. When this happens, it’s up to the theorist to figure out how to strengthen things back up in such a way that there is a unique realizer.

The various responses to the situationist challenge can be seen as different ways of doing this. Everyone recognizes that the un-fudged Ramsey sentence of virtue theory is unrealized. But a sufficiently fudged Ramsey sentence is bound to be multiply realized. It’s a theoretical choice exactly how to play things at this point. More traditional virtue theorists such as Joel Kupperman (2009) favor a fudged version of the Ramsey sentence wherein the virtue prevalence family has been dropped. John Doris (2002) favors a fudged version wherein the virtue/situation and virtue/integration families have been dropped. I (2013) favor a fudged version wherein the virtue / situation family has been dropped and a virtue /social construction family has been added in its place. The statements in the latter family have to do with the ways in which (signals of) social expectations implicitly and explicitly influence behavior. The main idea is that having a virtue is more like having a title or social role (e.g., you’re curious because people signal to you their expectations of curiosity) than like having a basic physical or biological property (e.g., being over six feet tall). Christian Miller (2013, 2014) drops the virtue prevalence family and adds a mixed-trait prevalence family in its place, which states that many people possess traits that are neither virtues nor vices, such as the disposition to help others in order to improve one’s mood or avoid sliding into a bad mood.

In this short paper, I don’t have the space to argue against all alternatives to my own proposal. Instead, I want to make two main claims. First, the “virtue is rare” dodge advocated by Kupperman and others who drop the virtue prevalence family has costs associated with it. Second, those costs may be steeper than the costs associated with my own way of responding to the situationist challenge.

Researchers in personality and social psychology have documented for decades the tendency of just about everybody to make spontaneous trait inferences, attributing robust character traits on the basis of scant evidence (Ross 1977; Uleman et al. 1996). This indicates that people think that character traits (virtues, vices, and neutral traits, such as extroversion) are prevalent. Furthermore, in a forthcoming paper (Alfano, Higgins, & Levernier forthcoming), I show that the vast majority of obituaries attribute multiple virtues to the deceased. Not everyone is eulogized in an obituary, of course, but most are (about 55% of Americans, by my calculations). Not all obituaries are sincere, but presumably many are. Absent reason to think that people about whom obituaries differ greatly from people about whom they are not written, we can treat this as evidence that most people think that the people they know have multiple virtues. But of course, if most relations of most people are virtuous, it follows that most people are virtuous. In other words, the virtue-prevalence family is deeply ingrained in folk psychology and folk morality.

Social psychologists think that people are quick to attribute virtues. My own work on obituaries suggests the same. What do philosophers say? Though there are some (Russell 2009) who claim that virtue is rare or even non-existent with a shrug, this is not the predominant opinion. Alasdair MacIntyre (1984, p. 199) claims that “without allusion to the place that justice and injustice, courage and cowardice play in human life very little will be genuinely explicable.” Philippa Foot (2001), following Peter Geach (1977), argues that certain generic statements characterize the human form of life, and that from these generic statements we can infer what humans need and hence will typically have. For the sake of comparison, consider what she says about a different life form, the deer. Foot first points out that the deer’s form of defense is flight. Next, she claims that a certain normative statement follows, namely, that deer are naturally or by nature swift. This is not to say that every deer is swift; some are slow. Instead, it’s a generic statement that characterizes the nature of the deer. Finally, she says that any deer that fails to be swift – that fails to live up to its nature – is “so far forth defective” (p. 34). The same line of reasoning that she here applies to non-human animals is meant to apply to human animals as well. As she puts it, “Men and women need to be industrious and tenacious of purpose not only so as to be able to house, clothe, and feed themselves, but also to pursue human ends having to do with love and friendship. They need the ability to form family ties, friendships, and special relations with neighbors. They also need codes of conduct. And how could they have all these things without virtues such as loyalty, fairness, kindness, and in certain circumstances obedience?” (pp. 44-5, emphasis mine).

In light of these sorts of claims, let’s consider again the defense offered by some virtue ethicists that virtue is rare, or even impossible to achieve. If virtues are what humans need, but the vast majority of people don’t have them, one would have thought that our species would have died out long ago. Consider the analogous claim for deer: although deer need to be swift, the vast majority of deer are galumphers. Were that the case, presumably they’d be hunted down and devoured like a bunch of tasty venison treats. Or consider another example of Foot’s: she agrees with Geach (1977) that people need virtues like honeybees need stingers. Does it make sense for someone with this attitude to say that most people lack virtues? That would be like saying that, even though bees need stingers, most lack stingers. It’s certainly odd to claim that the majority – even the vast majority of a species fails to fulfill its own nature. That’s not a contradiction, but it is a cost to be borne by anyone who responds to the situationist challenge by dropping the virtue prevalence family.

One might respond on Foot’s behalf that human animals are special: unlike the other species, we have natures that are typically unfulfilled. That would be an interesting claim to make, but I am not aware of anyone who has defended it in print.[7] I conclude, then, that dropping the virtue prevalence family is a significant cost to revising the postulate.

But is it a more significant cost than the one imposed on me by replacing the virtue / situation family with a virtue / social construction family? I think it is. This comparative claim is of course hard to adjudicate, so I will rest content merely to emphasize the strength of the virtue / prevalence family.

What would it look like to fudge things in the way I recommend? Essentially, one would end up committed to a version of the hypothesis of extended cognition, a variety of active externalism in the family of the extended mind hypothesis. Clark & Chalmers (1998) argued that the vehicles (not just the contents) of some mental states and processes extend beyond the nervous system and even the skin of the agent whose states they are.[8] If my arguments are on the right track, virtues and vices sometimes extend in the same way: the bearers of someone’s moral and intellectual virtues sometimes include asocial aspects of the environment and (more frequently) other people’s normative and descriptive expectations. What it takes (among other things) for you to be, for instance, open-minded, on this view is that others think of you as open-minded and signal those thoughts to you. When they do, they prompt you to revise your self-concept, to want to live up to their expectations, to expect them to reward open-mindedness and punish closed-mindedness, to reciprocate displays of open-mindedness, and so on. These are all inducements to conduct yourself in an open-minded way, which they will typically notice. When they do, their initial attribution will be corroborated, leading them to strengthen their commitment to it and perhaps to signal that strengthening to you, which in turn is likely to further induce you to conduct yourself in open-minded ways, which will again corroborate their judgment of you, and so on. Such feedback loops are, on my view, partly constitutive of what it means to have a virtue.[9] The realizer of the fudged Ramsey sentence isn’t just what’s inside the person who has the virtue but also further things outside that person.

So, can people be virtuous? I hope it isn’t too disappointing to answer with, “It depends on what you mean by ‘can’, ‘people’, and ‘virtuous’.” If we’re concerned only with abstract possibility, perhaps the answer is affirmative. If we are concerned more with the proximal possibility that figures in people’s current deliberations, plans, and hopes, we have reason to worry. If we only care whether more than zero people can be virtuous, the existing, statistical, empirical evidence is pretty much useless.   If we instead treat ‘people’ as a generic referring to human animals (perhaps a majority of them, but at least a substantial plurality), such evidence becomes both important and (again) worrisome. If we insist that being virtuous is something that must inhere entirely within the agent who has the virtue, then evidence from social psychology is damning. If instead we allow for the possibility of external character, there is room for hope.[10]

 

[1] Nathan is also using an extended metaphor. My point is clear nevertheless.

[2] An alternative is the “psycho-functionalist” method, which disregards common sense in favor of (solely) highly corroborated scientific claims. See Kim (2011) for an overview. For my purposes, psycho-functionalism is less appropriate, since (among other things) it is more in danger of changing the topic.

[3] I seem to be in disagreement on this point with Christian Miller (this volume), who worries that people may not be motivated to be or become virtuous. In general, I’m even more skeptical than Miller about the prospects of virtue theory, but in this case I find myself playing the part of the optimist.

[4] I am here indebted to Gideon Rosen.

[5] It might also be possible to circumvent this difficulty, which anyway troubles Lewis’s application of Ramsification to the mind-brain identity theory, by using only de re formulations of the relevant statements. See Fitting & Mendelsohn (1999) for a discussion of how to do so.

[6] Experimental philosophers have started to fill this gap, but not in any systematic or consensus-based way.

[7] Micah Lott (personal communication) has told me that he endorses this claim, though he has a related worry. In short, his concern is to explain how, given the alleged rarity of virtue, most people manage to live decent enough lives.

[8] For an overview of the varieties of externalism, see Carter et al. (forthcoming).

[9] I spell out this view in more detail in Alfano & Skorburg (forthcoming). For a treatment of the feedback-loops model in the context of the extended mind rather than the character debate, see Palermos (forthcoming).

[10] I am grateful to J. Adam Carter, Orestis Palermos, and Micah Lott for comments on a draft of this paper.

The semantic neighborhood of intellectual humility

Here’s a draft of a paper (co-authored with Markus Christen and Brian Robinson) on the semantic neighborhood of intellectual humility.  We are replicating in German and Mandarin, so those who are familiar with Wilfrid Sellars should think of this as the first step in a seriously scientific dot-quotation research programme.

1. Introduction

The study of personality and conceptions of personality has been pursued by psychologists and other researchers in various ways, including among others observations in laboratory settings and field experiments, correlational studies of survey responses, and psycholexical analyses. The present research embodies the latter methodology, and is informed by both philosophical theory and mathematical modeling tools developed in physical science.

Psycholexical analysis dates back to Francis Galton’s Measurement of Character (1884). The basic idea is that, all else being equal, a natural language is more likely to include a predicate for a property to the extent that the property is important to those who speak the language. This is not to say that every phrase or term refers. There are no unicorns despite the existence of the term ‘unicorn’. Nor is it to say that everything worth talking about is already represented by a phrase or singular term. Words are sometimes coined because new phenomena come into existence or become important; words are also sometimes coined because extant phenomena could not otherwise be parsimoniously described and explained. Sometimes a speaker coins words to describe or explain phenomena for which a word already exists, but of which the coiner is ignorant. So words that are synonyms (or nearly so) emerge, further emphasizing the importance of the phenomena referred to. Regardless, the rough generalization that there is a strong positive correlation between the importance of phenomena in the lives of the speakers of a language and the probability of the existence of a term in the language that refers to those phenomena is hard to deny. If this is on the right track, studying psychological language is an indirect way of studying the psychological properties people care about.

Psychologists in the psycholexical tradition don’t stop there, though. They also typically argue that the semantic structure of a language reflects to some extent the perceived structure of the phenomena described by the language. In personality psychology, this insight was famously used by Allport & Odbert (1936) to create a semantic taxonomy of thousands of personality-relevant terms, which they argued represents how people conceive of personality. Of course, the step from language to people’s conception of personality is not identical to the step from their conception of personality to actual personality, but it’s natural to think that there will be at least a positive correlation – if only a weak one – between how we think about personality and how personality actually is. This two-step connection (from language about personality to conceptions of personality, from conceptions of personality to actual personality) has been empirically validated by personality models such as the Big Five (Peabody & Goldberg 1989) and Big Six (Ashton et al. 2004; Saucier 1997).

The Big Six includes an H factor that represents facets of personality related to honesty and humility. Intellectual humility seems to involve a consciousness of the limits of one’s knowledge, including sensitivity to circumstances in which one’s native egocentrism is likely to function self-deceptively (Roberts & Woods 2007), though others regard it as more of a “second-order” open-mindedness (Spiegel 2012). In our age of information, intellectualhumility has grown all the more relevant. However, little conceptual or empirical work has explored this trait. We think that the psycholexical approach is especially promising in the investigation of intellectual humility because questionnaires are likely to be especially unreliable as measures of this construct. Someone who is genuinely humble is unlikely to report being humble, and someone who reports being humble is unlikely to be humble. Humility – whether intellectual, moral, or otherwise – seems to involve a paradox of self-reference.

Additionally, our investigation is motivated by Aristotle’s insight, reiterated in contemporary philosophy by Roberts & Wood (2007), that a virtue (i.e., a positive value-laden personality disposition or dimension of individual difference) is often best understood in the context of related virtues and the vices they oppose. Put a different way, by contextualizing a term for a virtue in the constellation of its near-synonyms and its near-antonyms, we can create a perspicuous representation of the meaning of the term.

For these reasons, we propose to investigate the trait of intellectual humility psycholexically by comparing ‘intellectual humility’ with both its antonyms and synonyms.

2. Method

Our analysis is based on the assumption that the practice of language is precipitated in dictionaries, lexicons, and other wordbooks. Of particular interest is the thesaurus – a language reference book or database organized to help its users find words related to a concept but having slightly different shades of meaning or connotation. Thesauruses reflect what people in their daily use of language – in particular when writing text – consider semantically similar to a given term. In other words, a thesaurus lists synonyms in a broad sense. Modern thesauruses also list antonyms, which are then again related to a set of their own synonyms.

The present research explores the semantic space of intellectual humility by first identifying the most common synonyms and antonyms of ‘intellectual humility’. Next, by referring to the thesaurus.com database (the largest online thesaurus for American English), we associate each identified term with a word-bag, which is the set of synonyms listed for that term. The semantic constellation of a term t is thus an ordered pair (t, {tsyn1, tsyn2, tsyn3, …, tsynn}), whose first element is t itself and whose second element is t’s word-bag, i.e., the set of synonyms of t (including t itself). By comparing semantic constellations, we then create a similarity metric by calculating the relative overlap of each pair of word-bags. The similarities calculated in this way are then used in a novel clustering and visualization tool that generates a semantic map of the terms involved.

More specifically:

1)    We identified potential synonyms and antonyms for ‘intellectual humility’ in three ways:

  1. We searched philosophy and psychology journals for articles that discuss intellectual humility; we found 24 papers or related texts (such as calls for proposals, abstracts, and papers).
  2. We performed an Internet search for entries on ‘intellectual humility’ and found 20 entries that dealt in a significant way with the concept.
  3. We identified scales that are used in psychology for constructs that have some similarity to intellectual humility (e.g., the H factor of the Big Six personality inventory).

In all these texts, we identified terms that are used to represent the meaning of ‘intellectual humility’ or its relevant vices.

2)    Four raters that have experience with the philosophical topic of intellectual humility assessed all terms collected in step 1 to determine whether they could be used to express the concept of intellectual humility or a related vice. A term was kept on the list if three out of four raters agreed to do so. In this way, we identified 52 synonyms and 69 antonyms for ‘intellectual humility’. Each term was represented at least in noun form and usually in adjective form also: for example, {tolerance, tolerant}.

3)    We identified all entries for each term generated in step 2 in the thesaurus.com database to generate word-bags for each synonym and antonym. For example, the word-bag for ‘tolerance’ included all entries on thesaurus.com for the term set {tolerance, tolerant}.

4)    Next, we calculated the similarity in overlap between every pairwise combination of word-bags. For example, the word-bag of ’tolerance’ contains 55 terms and the word-bag of ’broadmindedness’ contains 40 terms. 12 terms are contained in both word-bags. Hence, the similarity between ‘tolerance’ and ‘broadmindedness’ is 12/40 = 0.3. In this way, the similarity measures are always between 0 (no similarity) and 1 (one word-bag is completely contained in the other word-bag).

5)    We checked for highly similar terms (overlaps > 0.5).[1] We collapsed the word-bags of these terms into a single word-bag to reduce the number of synonyms/antonyms. Conceptually, it’s unclear whether terms that share more than half of their semantic constellations represent genuinely distinct constructs. In this way, we reduced the number of synonyms from 52 to 39 and the number of antonyms from 69 to 46. When two terms were collapsed, our raters kept the term that in their estimation was better known. A new word-bag was created combining those of the two collapsed terms. In cases where the word-bag of term X overlapped with two or more terms by > 0.5 whose mutual overlap was, however, below the cutoff-value, the raters determined collapsing based on the highest mutual overlaps. This occurred 2 times for the synonyms and 8 times for of the antonyms. For all condensed word-bags, the similarities were re-calculated. Step 5 was not iterated.

6)    The similarity measures obtained in this way were then used as inputs in a visualization algorithm called superparamagnetic agent mapping, which employs self-organizing agents governed by the dynamics of a clustering algorithm inspired by spin physics to generate denoised low-dimensional representations. To conceptualize this mapping, imagine each term as a particle that naturally repels all other particles. However, as overlap between two terms increases, they become more attracted to each other. Thus, superparamagnetic agent mapping typically produces clumping, where several particles clump together (connoting similarity) while collectively repelling a different cluster (connoting collective difference between the two clusters). It has been shown (Ott et al. 2014) that this method is superior to standard methods such as factor analysis, principal components analysis, and multidimensional scaling in preserving the topology of the data space with clustered data. Since such a map will never precisely display the real topology of the original, high-dimensional space, we calculated for each point on the map the sum of the differences between the point and all its neighbors both in the map and in the original space (normalized to the longest distance in either case). The lower this sum, the better the map displays the real distance distribution of a point from its neighbors in the original space, so this number is a proxy for the quality of the map. To increase the heuristic value of the maps, we rescaled the sizes of the points themselves so that larger points indicate greater topological certainty.

7)    Finally, using the same clustering paradigm in an adapted version from (Ott et al. 2005), we identified clusters on the map generated in step 6.

Step 7 generates the maps below that are then used to inform our reasoning about intellectual humility.

3. Results

We produced three maps to convey our results. Figure 1 is the synonym map, showing the degree of overlap among intellectual humility’s 39 synonyms. The terms predominantly cluster into three groups. The first group (displayed in green) we have labeled the Sensible Self and is exemplified by terms such as ‘comprehension,’ ‘responsiveness’, and ‘mindfulness’. We take this cluster to be representative of the notion that an intellectually humble person will be open and responsive to new ideas and information. The second (pink) cluster we call the Inquisitive Self; it is illustrated by terms such as ‘curiosity’, ‘exploration’, and ‘learning’. The difference between the Sensible Self and the Inquisitive Self indicates that there is some difference between seeking new information or ideas and being open to them when they are presented. Third, we have named the blue cluster the Discreet Self, which is typified by ‘humility’, ‘decency’, and ‘unpretentiousness’. Finally, some terms (shown in black) have intermediate positions among these groups (e.g., ‘flexibility’ and ‘tolerance’) and do not fit neatly within any cluster.

fig1_IH_semanticAnalysis

Figure 1: IH Synonym map.

Figure 2 shows the results of the antonym map, displaying the degree of overlap between intellectual humility’s 46 antonyms. The first result to notice is that almost all the terms are aligned along one dimension and cluster at each endpoint. We take this to represent the distinction between underrating and overrating. The larger, red cluster can be thought of as the Overrated Self, and includes terms such as ‘vanity, ‘pride’, and ‘arrogance’. This cluster suggests that one way not to be intellectually humble is to be overly focused on one’s own high status. Overrating oneself is not, however, the only way to fail to be intellectually humble. The opposite endpoint has two closely related clusters that indicate two other ways. There is the Underrated Other in purple (typified by terms such as ‘bias’, ‘prejudice’, and ‘unfairness’) and the Underrated Self cluster in orange, which is similar in that it involves underrating, but the object of underrating is oneself. This cluster is characterized by terms such as ‘diffidence’, ‘timidity’, and ‘acquiescence’. This cluster suggests that there is such a thing as being too humble, such that one’s lack of pride ceases to have any positive value. It is worth noting how close the two (orange and purple) underrated clusters are relative to the (red) overrated cluster. This indicates that there is a higher degree of similarity based on the nature of the rating (over or under) than on who is being evaluated (self or other). Finally, we again see several terms (such as ‘hubris’, ‘chutzpah’, and ‘aloofness’) in white circles in the middle of the line, indicating that these terms do not fit within any cluster. This result should not be surprising since one can be aloof by either overrating oneself or underrating others (or both).

fig2_IH_semanticAnalysis

Figure 2: IH Antonym map.

Finally, we mapped all synonyms and antonyms together. We have preserved the colors from the two previous maps. The resulting map preserves many of the structural features of the previous maps, but with a few significant changes. First, it reveals that for the antonyms the linear structure along the poles of the Overrated Self and the Underrated Other is mainly preserved, whereas the terms on the Underrated Self (orange) are in the same region as the terms for the Discreet Self (blue) from the synonym set. Additionally, the distinction between the terms for the Sensible Self (green) and Inquisitive Self (pink) is no longer discernible. This second merger merely indicates that the difference between the Inquisitive Self and the Sensible Self is large enough to be significant when compared to the Discreet Self, but small enough not to be significant when compared to intellectual humility’s antonyms.

fig3_IH_semanticAnalysis

Figure 3: Unified synonyms and antonyms map.

4. Discussion & Conclusion

From these results, there are three points we wish to draw out for discussion. First, there is the matter of what the clusters represent. In the antonyms map, we take each cluster to represent a distinct vice, i.e., a different way one can fail to be intellectually humble. For the synonyms, however, two possibilities exist. It might be that each cluster represents a distinct trait, all three of which go by the same name of ‘intellectual humility’. Opposing this semantic diversity thesis is the alternate interpretation that sees each cluster representing a different facet of the single trait of intellectual humility.

Second, consider the merging of the synonym-based Discreet Self and antonym-based Underrated Self in the combined map. We see two possible interpretations. It might be that the discreet aspect of intellectual humility is essentially akin to underrating oneself. Snow (1995) and Taylor (1985) both argue that humility essentially involves recognizing one’s low status or personal faults. If this is right, then either the discreet aspect of humility is more of a vice than a virtue, or the underrated aspect of humility’s antonyms is more of a virtue than a vice. Either way, the valence of one or both of these semantic clusters may need to change. Alternatively, there might be two different traits picked out by these clusters – one a virtue and the other a vice – that are behaviorally similar enough that they are easily conflated. Someone who underrates herself will behave very similarly to a discreet person. They will both not regularly speak up about controversial topics, in praise of themselves, or for their own rights and entitlements, making it difficult to differentiate them behaviorally. There could, however, be an underlying psychological difference that typically goes unobserved. The discreet person may not often attend to evaluating herself, but when she does so, she does it accurately. One who underrates herself, however, may pay significant attention to her own merits, but regularly devalue them. Further research on the behavioral and psychological aspects of intellectual humility and its contraries may help to answer this question.

The final point relates back to the Big Six personality inventory (Ashton et al. 2004; Saucier 1997). As mentioned earlier, the H factor is meant to represent facets of personality related to honesty and humility. The 100-item revised version measures the participant’s humility (specifically her modesty) by having her indicate (dis)agreement with statements such as “I am an ordinary person who is no better than others.” We worry that the Big Six therefore includes in its H dimension items that are better understood as contrary to humility, not allied with or constitutive of it.

 

References

Allport, G. & Odbert, H. (1936). Trait-names: A Psycho-lexical Study.

Aristotle. Nicomachean Ethics.

Ashton, M., Lee, K., Perugini, M., Szarota, P., de Vries, R., Di Blas, L., Boies, K., De Raad, B. (2004). A six-factor structure of personality-descriptive adjectives: Solutions from psycholexical studies in seven languages. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 86:2, 356-366.

Galton, F. (1884). Measurement of Character.

Ott, T., Eggel, T., Christen, M. (2014). Generating Low-Dimensional Denoised Embeddings of Nonlinear Data with Superparamagentic Agents. Proceedings of the 2014 International Symposium on Nonlinear Theory and its Applications (NOLTA), Lucerne, Switzerland, September 14-18.

Ott, T., Kern, A., Steeb, W.-H., Stoop, R. (2005). Sequential Clustering: Tracking Down the Most Natural Clusters. Journal of Statistical Mechanics: theory and experiment: P11014.

Peabody, D, & Goldberg, L. (1989). Some determinants of factor structures from personality-trait descriptors. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 57:3, 552-567.

Roberts, R. & Wood, J. (2007). Intellectual Virtues: An Essay in Regulative Epistemology. Oxford University Press.

Saucier, G. (1997). Effects of variable selection on the factor structure of person descriptors. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 73:6, 1298-1312.

Spiegel, J.G. (2012). Open-mindedness and intellectual humility. Theory and Research in Education. 10:27-38

 

[1]This cut-off value was chosen based on a logarithmic count of the long-tailed distance distribution such that the tail was cut off before the beginning of the main mode of the distribution (i.e., the largest mode in a multi-modal distribution).

the recognition heuristic and epistemic injustice

Now for the poet, he nothing affirmeth, and therefore never lieth.

The Defense of Poesy, by Sir Philip Sidney

It’s easy, especially for a white man like me, to take for granted my capability to assert.  If I want to say something — in person, on a blog, to a reporter, to an administrator at my university — all I have to do is open my mouth or start typing.  What could be simpler?

But any particular act of asserting, like any speech act at all, is possible only because it originates in a complex linguistic, social, and cultural matrix.  Some elements of this matrix are obvious and uncontroversial when pointed out.  I can’t say something to you if we don’t speak the same language and have no a way of translating from my language to yours.  Likewise, I can’t make an assertion if I’ve established a reputation, like the boy who cried ‘wolf!’, as unreliable: in that case, any intelligent interlocutor would treat the probability of p given that I said ‘p’ as equivalent to the prior probability of p:

P(p | Mark says ‘p) = P(p)

P(wolf | boy cries ‘wolf!’) = P(wolf)

My word would carry no weight one way or the other.  It’s unclear whether I’ve even made an assertion when my word has no weight — especially if I know in advance that I’m so distrusted.

What if I’ve established no reputation one way or another?  You might think that, in such a scenario, the default should be to trust me, to give my word some, though of course not dispositive, weight.  Call this default assertoric empowerment: an epistemic agent S is default-empowered to assert that p for a range R of propositions just in case S’s saying that p (when p is in R) typically carries some evidentiary weight even with strangers. (I’m drawing here on Searle’s idea of empowerment in The Construction of Social Reality.)

For other kinds of speech acts, it’s obvious that constraints are placed on empowerment.  Not just anyone can issue me directives.  “Eat your vegetables” carries some force when my wife says it to me, but not when the bus boy at a restaurant says it to me.  “Class dismissed” will end my class when I say it, but it won’t end my class when you say it or your class when I say it.  I can’t promise to give you the Grand Canyon for your birthday because I don’t own, and have no way of acquiring, the Grand Canyon.  One needs to be suitably empowered to give people orders, to declare X to be Y, or to promise to Z.

For “pushy” speech acts such as directives and declaratives, default empowerment is highly circumscribed.  There are very few things that any given person is assumed by default to be able to command others to do.  “Stop harming me” is probably one, though that presupposes that the speaker is in fact being harmed.  “Don’t harm me” might work a little better.  Likewise, there are very few things that any given person is assumed to be able to declare.  I can’t declare myself President, declare myself tenured, or name your baby.  Most default declarative empowerments seem to have to do with voluntary affiliations.  I can declare myself a Christian, or an atheist, or a socialist, or gay.  Historically, though, even these kinds of affiliations couldn’t be declared by default.  After the Peace of Westphalia, a German peasant couldn’t declare his own religious affiliation: it was declared for him by his prince.  Until very recently, it was impossible to self-identify as homosexual because there was no concept or word for the category.  Even after the words and concepts were forged, self-declaring as gay was not default-empowered: someone who tried might, instead of being acknowledged, face electroshock therapy.  In 2013, Bangladesh recognized a third gender category of hijras, who are neither men nor women.

Not so, one might think, with assertions.  Unless one is explicitly disempowered because one is severely mentally ill, a very young child, or a notorious liar, one is default-empowered to assert that p for a very wide range R.  I want to challenge this assumption.  Just for starters, consider the fact that in ancient Greece the testimony of a slave was admissible as evidence in a trial only if it was acquired under torture.  This shows that belonging to a certain social category has been enough, historically, to disempower someone from making an assertion unless very special steps were taken.  Surely, though, things have improved in the ensuing centuries.  But how much?  Even in progressive Sweden, a woman’s “no” still means “yes.”  In the USA, a black man’s saying “I’m not resisting arrest” can still lead to charges of… resisting arrest.  Sad to say, default assertoric empowerment does not characterize the epistemic lives of many, many people: whether you’re empowered to say that p depends on which social category you belong to.  In this post, I’ll just assume that it’s clear that the examples of assertoric disempowerment I’ve mentioned are repugnant.  Those who share my sensibilities will agree that women should be default-empowered to say (and mean) no, that black people should default-empowered to say (and mean) that they’re not resisting arrest, and that it should never be a condition on someone’s assertoric empowerment that s/he first be tortured.

It’s useful, then, to distinguish normative assertoric empowerment from descriptive assertoric empowerment.  On the one hand, default assertoric empowerment shouldn’t depend on the social category the speaker belongs to.  On the other hand, it often does.  What seems to happen all too often can be captured by a relativized version of the empowerment schema:

An epistemic agent S of socio-cultural category C is default-empowered to assert that p for a range R of propositions just in case S/C’s saying that p (when p is in R) typically carries some evidentiary weight.

When descriptive default assertoric empowerment diverges from normative default assertoric empowerment because of the role of the C-variable, we have an instance of social-categoriy-based-epistemic injustice.  In other words, if your belonging to a social category that should be irrelevant to whether you are empowered to say that p disempowers you from saying that p, you have been wronged.  (On the other side of the coin, if you are unfairly privileged to say that p only because you belong to a particular social category, a different sort of epistemic injustice has been committed.)  I won’t even attempt to lay out a general account of when people of a given category should or should not be default-empowered to assert that p.  For one thing, I don’t have the space here.  For another, I have no idea how to do so.  What I do want to try in the balance of this post is to convince you that a particularly pernicious form social-category-based epistemic injustice, in which people’s capacity to make assertions is undermined, is rife in the news — in particular, in the coverage of violent ongoing conflicts.

People don’t have time to travel the world in search of everything worth knowing.  We rely on reporters and newspapers to tell us what’s worth knowing.  We expect that, if we’ve chosen an epistemically responsible paper to read, then if it systematically ignores something, that thing isn’t worth knowing about.  One way in which epistemic injustice can crop up, then, is that people who have important assertions to make are systematically ignored because of where they’re from.  If you won’t be heard — and you know that you won’t be heard — then you cannot speak.  If you cannot speak even though you have something important to say, and your silence is determined by the social group you belong to, then epistemic injustice has occurred.

In decades of research, Gerd Gigerenzer and his collaborators have shown that the degree to which something is covered in the news is highly predictive of whether people in other countries recognize that thing.  Moreover, people seem to use the fact that they recognize something to decide whether it is large on some important dimension.  This “recognition heuristic” can be a powerful epistemic tool when the importance of something correlates with how much it gets covered in the news, and hence how many people recognize it and think it’s important.  For instance, Americans are surprisingly good (and better than Germans) at saying which of two German cities is bigger because they tend to recognize only some of them, and almost always say that the one they recognize is bigger.  Likewise, Germans are surprisingly good (and better than Americans) at saying which of two American cities is bigger because they tend to recognize only some of them, and almost always say that the one they recognize is bigger.

Population is an important dimension of a city, so it reflects well on major newspapers that their coverage (and hence our recognition and decision-making) tracks city population pretty well.  Indeed, correlations between population, news coverage, and proportion of people recognizing a city tend to be at least .60 and as high as .86.  On the plausible assumption that people from different cities have roughly as much of note to say as one another, high correlations like this indicate that epistemic justice is being served.  In other research, however, I’ve started to document problems with this model when cities outside of the US and Europe are thrown into the mix (see this post and follow-ups on my blog).  Although the correlation between population and coverage is .83 for the New York Times‘s coverage of German cities and .77 for Argentine cities, it’s a measly .41 for Turkish cities and drops to .19 when cities from Germany, Argentina, Turkey, Thailand, and Nigeria are considered together.  Ignoring for the sake of brevity a lot of important caveats, the reason for the international discrepancy is that cities outside of Europe are covered much, much less than those in Europe.  Here’s a graph that represents the correlations between ordinal population ranking and ordinal NYT coverage ranking for Germany and the rest of the world:

Screen Shot 2014-02-15 at 3.49.56 PM

 

Note the many cities, some of which are quite large, tied for last place with 0 mentions in the NYT.  If you lived in one of those cities between 2000 and 2010 (the dates covered by my analysis), you could not speak to the world — at least, not through the NYT.  Geography determines communicative destiny.

One might think that I’m overstating the case.  After all, maybe nothing important is going on in cities outside of Europe.  Maybe entire cities have lost their default assertoric empowerment because they have nothing worth saying.  Surely, though, you’d admit that whether people are meeting violent deaths in a given area would make that area remarkable.  If a newspaper fails to cover large-scale violence, then it is committing epistemic injustice against the survivors and victims, who presumably want to say something worth hearing about their plight.  The number of people killed in armed conflict is an important dimension of the such a horrific event.  One would hope, then, that the amount of news coverage would correlate well with the severity of the horror.  Sadly, this is not so.  To show this, I correlated the number of violent deaths in 2013 in a given area with the number of articles in the NYT that mentioned killing in the area in question.  There were 17 conflicts in which at least 100 people were killed (an arbitrary cutoff I imposed before looking at any correlations).  The correlation between the number of deaths in 2013 and the number of articles mentioning those deaths in 2013 was a paltry .28.  Here’s a scatterplot:

Screen Shot 2014-02-15 at 4.23.57 PM

 

The blue line is a regression line for the data.  It’s got a shadow around it indicating the 95% confidence interval.  Basically, what this means is that we can be 95% certain that the true regression line lies somewhere in the shaded area.  Notably, this means that, although the point-estimate of the correlation is .28, the real correlation could be positive, negative, or zero.  In other words, for all we know from this data, there is no correlation between the number of people killed in a violent conflict and the number of times that conflict is mentioned in the NYT.