Ted Slingerland to visit UO October 10th

Abstract: Many early Chinese thinkers had as their spiritual ideal the state of wu-wei, or effortless action. By advocating spontaneity as an explicit moral and religious goal, they inevitably involved themselves in the paradox of wu-wei—the problem of how one can try not to try—which later became one of the central tensions in East Asian religious thought. In this talk, I will look at the paradox from both an early Chinese and a contemporary perspective, drawing upon work in social psychology, cognitive neuroscience, and evolutionary theory to argue that this paradox is a real one, and is moreover intimately tied up with problems surrounding cooperation in large-scale societies and concerns about moral hypocrisy.

Slingerland Poster

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


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]



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.






(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.






(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.






(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.






(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.






(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.






(F) The Fidelity Family

(f1) Chastity is high-fidelity.

(f2) Honesty is high-fidelity.

(f3) Creativity is low-fidelity.






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.

Draft chapters of moral psychology textbook

I’m writing a textbook on moral psychology for Polity.  Some of the material was piloted in an undergraduate honors seminar I taught this winter.  Much of it is new material (though related to my other work and drawing as carefully as I can on others’).  I’m going to be putting draft chapters up on this blog.  I’d be extremely grateful for comments, suggestions, questions, and criticisms.

Here’s a tentative table of contents:


1. Preferences

2. Agency

3. Emotion

4. Virtue

5. Intuition

6. Moral disagreement

7. Altruism

8. Development

Coda: The future of moral psychology

This post is a draft of the intro.

1 Setting the stage


Moral psychology is the systematic inquiry into how morality works (when it does work) and breaks down (when it doesn’t work).  The field therefore incorporates questions, insights, models, and methods from various parts of psychology (personality psychology, social psychology, cognitive psychology, developmental psychology, evolutionary psychology), sociology, anthropology, criminology, and of course philosophy (applied ethics, normative ethics, metaethics).  These fields are – or at least can be – mutually informative.  Indeed, one guiding theme of this book is that moral philosophy without psychological content is empty, whereas psychological investigation without philosophical insight is blind.  Given their characteristically synoptic perspective, philosophers are ideally situated to organize and moderate a productive conversation among these sciences.  Nevertheless, there is always the risk that investigators with different training and expertise may misinterpret, misconstrue, or misunderstand one another.  In this book, I attempt to put the relevant disciplines in dialogue.  They sometimes speak with different accents, jargons, vocabularies, even grammars.  My aim is to make their conversation intelligible to the reader, even if they cannot all be brought to speak exactly the same language in the same way.

Systematic inquiry depends on systematic questions.  Science is not just a collection of facts.  It’s not even a collection of facts about the same thing or class of things.  Imagine how stupid it would be to conduct moral psychology by assembling all and only the motives that every person has ever had while responding to a moral problem (assuming this to be possible in the first place).  This would be an utterly disorganized, uninformative, overwhelming mess.  In the annals of the illustrious British Royal Society, you find descriptions of “experiments” like this: “A circle was made with powder of unicorne’s horn, and a spider set in the middle of it, but it immediately ran out severall times repeated.  The spider once made some stay upon the powder” (Weld 1848, p. 113).  This would be a caricature of bad science if it hadn’t happened.  We might call this empiricism run amok.  Science doesn’t just ask what happens, as if this were a question that, when completely answered, would satisfy human inquirers.  Science asks questions systematically.  It asks, for instance, what the effect of X on Y is.  It asks whether that effect is mediated by M.  It asks whether the effect is moderated by Z.[1]  It attempts to determine which small set of variables, organized in what configuration, accounts for the variability observed and experimentally induced in the field of inquiry.

In this endeavor, science is guided by insightful identification of relevant variables, careful distinction between similar phenomena, creative elaboration of alternative models, and skeptically imaginative construction of potential counterexamples.  As the economist Paul Krugman put it recently on his blog, you can’t just let “the data speak for itself — because it never does. You use data to inform your analysis, you let it tell you that your pet hypothesis is wrong, but data are never a substitute for hard thinking.  If you think the data are speaking for themselves, what you’re really doing is implicit theorizing, which is a really bad idea (because you can’t test your assumptions if you don’t even know what you’re assuming).”[2]  One way to help make theorizing explicit rather than implicit is asking systematic questions.

Unfortunately, in universities and in the contemporary education system more broadly (especially, to my chagrin, in the United States) we typically spend far too much time answering (and learning to answer) questions and far too little asking (and learning to ask) questions.  So, in this introduction, I’ll try to show how questions are asked, how they become more nuanced and complicated, and how conditions of adequacy for answers are (tentatively) established.

Here’s a moral question I’ve asked myself:

What should I do to him for her?

Picture this: I’m headed to work on a downtown subway car at 8:30 AM.  Two seats to my right, a 20-something woman is intently reading a magazine, obviously somewhat tense because a man is standing over her, leaning in a bit too close, leering slightly, and alternating between asking her name and telling her to smile.  She’s presumably on her way to work and obviously uninterested in his conversation.  She rolls her eyes and sighs.  He seems obnoxious but mostly harmless.  She casts about from time to time.  Is she looking for help? for someone to share a moment of derisive eye contact with? for reassurance that, if her unwelcome interlocutor escalates to insulting or assaulting her, fellow passengers will not remain apathetic bystanders?


2 Patiency


What should I do to him for her?  This question presupposes an immense amount.

First, it presupposes patiency[3] – that is, the fact that things happen to people.  My fellow commuter can be made uncomfortable.  She can feel threatened.  She can be threatened.  She can be assaulted.  Things – some of them good and some of them quite bad – can happen to her.  Some of them might be done by that jerk who keeps insinuating himself on her attention.  The fact that good and bad things can happen to her – that she is, in technical terms, a patient – is presupposed by my question.

Things can also happen to him.  He can be ignored and accommodated.  He can be egged on.  He can, alternatively, be confronted and challenged.  He can be distracted or redirected.  The fact that good, bad, and neutral things can happen to him – that he too is a patient – is also presupposed by my question.

Finally, things can happen to me.  One reason I might do nothing is that I’m afraid of what might happen to me if I confront or even merely accost him.  Probably nothing – but I’m useless in a fight, and strangers can be unpredictable.  She might express gratitude to me for intervening.  Alternatively, she might be annoyed that a second stranger has made her business his business.  I aim to be helpful, which among other things includes stymieing creeps, but I also aim to avoid trampling through strangers’ lives uninvited.  As I decide what to do, her patiency, his patiency, and my patiency are all quite salient.

Things happen to people.  When they do, we have an example of patiency.  In other words, when something happens to someone, she is the patient of (is passive with respect to) that event or action.  Moral psychology asks what it is about us that makes us patients, and how our patiency figures in our own and other people’s moral perception, behavior, decision-making, emotions, characters, and institutions.  Several chapters of this book are directly related to patiency.  For instance, in chapter 1 on preferences, we will see that some philosophers argue that your life goes well to the extent that your preferences are satisfied.  In other words, your life is better when you get what you want than when you don’t get it.  If you, like most people, want to be healthy, but you end up contracting influenza, your life goes worse.  Something happens to you that contravenes your preferences.  On the flipside, if you, like most people, prefer temperate weather to frigid cold, and the weather where you are is temperate, then your life goes better.  Something happens to you that satisfies your preferences.  In chapter 4, on virtue, we will see that benevolence is typically considered a virtue.  What makes someone benevolent?  Wishing others well, and at least sometimes acting successfully on those wishes.  If a benevolent person helps you in some way, you are the patient of her action.  An extreme version of benevolence – altruism – will be discussed in chapter 7.  An altruist doesn’t just wish others well and do things for their sake; she does so at significant cost to herself.  Finally, in chapter 8, we will consider moral development.  None of us grows up in a social vacuum.  We are all raised by someone, such as a parent, grandparent, aunt, or uncle.  We are all patients of the myriad interventions our caretakers make in our lives, which lead us to cultivate good (or bad, or mixed) character.

Thus, patiency is a crucial concept in moral psychology.  When I ask what I should do to him for her, I’m asking what follows from her patiency, his patiency, and my own patiency.  This is an example of how questions are asked: we start with something seemingly simple and comprehensible (“What should I do to him for her?”) and parse out some of the deeper questions and concepts it presupposes.


3 Agency


What should I do to him for her?

This question presupposes agency.  Things don’t just happen to people: sometimes people do things.

Return to the example of the woman on the train.  She might do something.  She might stand up and walk to the next train car.  She might lean back and hold her magazine up in front of her face, blocking the stranger’s attempt to make eye contact and muffling his voice.  She might tell him off.  She might scream.  She might kick him in the shin.

Likewise, he might do something.  He might continue to bug her until she escapes the train car.  He might sit down next to her.  He might call her a bitch.  He might throw his hands in the air and walk away.  He might switch to bothering someone else.  He might grow bored and start playing with his smartphone.

I, too, might do something.  (There’d be little point in asking myself what I should do if I couldn’t!)  If my usual wariness of strangers holds up, I might cautiously eye the situation and hope impotently that nothing too bad happens.  I might instead stride over and command him to stop bothering her.  More helpfully, I might stroll over and ask her a nonchalant question that lets her redirect her attention without seeming to be too rude to him.

People do things.  When they do, we have an example of agency.  In other words, some person is the agent of (is active with respect to) some event or action.  Moral psychology asks what it is about us that makes us agents, and how our agency figures in our own and other people’s moral perception, behavior, decision-making, emotions, character, and institutions.

Several chapters of this book are directly related to agency.  Chapter 1 discusses how our preferences affect our choices, and hence our actions.  It’s tempting to assume that our preferences are fairly stable, at least once we reach adulthood.  Empirical research suggests otherwise.  It’s even more tempting to assume that our preferences are transitive: if I prefer chocolate ice cream to vanilla and prefer vanilla to strawberry, then I’d better prefer chocolate to strawberry.  Again, empirical research suggests that, at least in some cases, transitivity breaks down.  To what extent can we be the authors of our own actions if our preferences are unstable and inconsistent?  Chapter 2 is about the relation between deliberative agency on the one hand and implicit biases on the other hand.  The vast majority of people in the developed world would, if asked, reject racist and sexist beliefs.  But social psychologists have demonstrated that most of us nevertheless implicitly accept and even act on racist and sexist associations.  When we do, are we really expressing our own agency?  If we aren’t, what’s going on?  Chapter 3 asks whether we are more or less agentic when we are motivated by emotions.  Particularly intense emotions seem to come over us like a hurricane, swamping our planning, deliberation, and even our agency.  But deficits in emotion have been shown to correlate with demonstrably bad decision-making.  Perhaps the truth lies somewhere between the Kantian rejection of emotions on the one hand and the Humean embrace of them on the other.  Chapter 4 connects agency with virtue, which for many theorists is a matter of acting in accordance with practical reason.  Psychological research over the last several decades has demonstrated that the human capacity for slow, careful, deliberative reasoning is much more limited than most philosophers have presupposed.  The vast majority of our decision-making relies on quick, unconscious, vaguely emotional mental shortcuts.  Does this undermine our agency (as many suppose), or does it instead enable us to expand our agentic engagement with the world and each other?

If people were incapable of agency, if they were entirely passive beings, the contours of whose lives were completely determined by outside forces, there wouldn’t be much for moral psychologists to think about.  We could construct theories about what it meant for one person to have a better life than another, what it meant for one person to have as good a life as possible for such an impoverished creature, what it meant for such a life to improve or deteriorate.  But that would be about it.  The introduction of agency greatly complicates moral psychology.  Now, things don’t just happen to us; we do things.  Some of those things turn out as we want or intend them to.  Others don’t.  This imposes some constraints on what it means to act well, to be a successful agent.  Sometimes we do what we want, but then we are disappointed by the result.  This suggests that we need a better understanding of our own preferences, a topic of chapter 1.  Sometimes we accomplish one goal but in so doing thwart our striving for a second goal.  This suggests that we need to understand agency holistically, so that it involves progress towards a complete set of goals without too much self-undermining.

Thus, agency, like patiency, is a crucial concept in moral psychology, and it’s a concept that complicates the inquiry.  When I ask what I should do to him for her, I’m asking what follows from her agency, his agency, and my own agency.  This is a further example of how questions are asked: we start with something seemingly simple and comprehensible (“What should I do to him for her?”) and parse out some of the deeper questions and concepts it presupposes.


4 Sociality


What should I do to him for her?

This question presupposes sociality.  Things happen to people: they get sick, they enjoy pleasant weather, they endure the many small indignities of youth and the even more numerous small indignities of aging.  People do things: they stand up and walk away, they shrink into their seats, they write books.  In many interesting cases, though, one person does something to someone else.  Indeed, some of the examples I gave above had this flavor.  The only reason I asked myself what I should do to him for her was that he was doing something to her in the first place: he was harassing her.  As I deliberated about what to do, I considered the fact that there were things she might do to him, such as pointedly ignoring him, additional things he might do to her, such as insulting her, and various things I might do to him on her behalf, such as confronting him for harassing her.  Moral psychology asks what it is about us that makes us social, and how our sociality figures in our own and other people’s moral perception, behavior, decision-making, emotions, character, and institutions.


Y is a patient. Y is not a patient.
X is an agent. X harasses Y.X kicks Y in the shin.X confronts Y. X stands up.X shrinks into his seat.X writes a book.
X is not an agent. Y gets sick.Y enjoys pleasant weather.Y grows old.

Table 1: agency x patiency examples

As table 1 illustrates, people can be simple patients, to whom things just happen; they can be simple agents, who just do things; but they can also be complex agents and patients: they can do things to each other.  In such cases, agency and patiency are inextricably intertwined.  One person’s agency is the cause or even a constitutive part of another person’s patiency.  One person’s patiency is the effect of another person’s agency.  When asked, “What happened to you?” my fellow commuter would be giving an incomplete answer if she responded, “I was harassed.”  Being harassed is not like enjoying pleasant weather; it’s not something that can happen to someone all on their own.  A more complete answer would be, “I was harassed by a stranger.”  Likewise, if someone later asked the creep, “What did you do on the train?” he would be giving an incomplete response if he answered, “I harassed.”  Harassing isn’t like standing up; it’s not something someone can do all on their own.

We can represent these relations with the following schematic diagram.[4]

 agent-patient 1x

Figure 1: agent-patient relation


In this diagram (and others of its sort that I’ll use below), a dot represents a person.  An arrow proceeding away from a dot represents that person exercising agency.  An arrow pointing at a dot represents that person enduring patiency (good, bad, or neutral).  I’ll put a box around each such relation.

Figure 1 represents the simplest sort of sociality: one agent does something to another agent.  A more complex form of sociality occurs when two people are agents and patients with respect to each other at the same time: you do something to me while I do something to you.  For instance, we dance together, each making suggestions to the other through subtle bodily movement, gestures, glances, and words. Call this interactivity.  Figure 2 represents interactive sociality of this sort.


agent-patient 1x interactive


Figure 2: agent-patient relation


Things happen to people; people do things; sometimes, these are the same event.  But sociality is often more complicated than that.  Interactivity is one source of complexity, but a minor one.  Another source of complexity is the possibility – indeed, the prevalence – of recursively embedded agent-patient relations.  This might sound frighteningly technical, but don’t worry.  Recursion is all over the place, and I’m certain that you’re already familiar with it, if only informally.  Recursion is a process in which objects of a given type are generated by or defined in terms of other objects of the same type.  For instance, think of your ancestors.  What makes someone an ancestor of yours?  The answer to this question relies on recursion: the parents of X are ancestors of X (that’s the non-recursive step) and ancestors of ancestors of X are ancestors of X (that’s the recursive step).  Your grandparents are your ancestors because they’re the parents of your parents.  Your great-grandparents are your ancestors because they’re the parents of the parents of your parents.  Your great-great-grandparents are your ancestors because they’re the parents of the parents of the parents of your parents.  The great-great-grandparents of your great-great-grandparents are your ancestors because they’re the ancestors of your ancestors.  And so on.

Social agent-patient relations can also be recursively embedded.  The majority – probably the vast majority – of the complexity of moral psychology derives from such embedding.  In fact, the example I started off with has a recursive structure.  When I asked myself what I should do to him for her, I was thinking of myself as an agent who acts on a preexisting agent-patient relationship.  After all, I would have had no reason to intervene if he hadn’t been harassing her in the first place.

 agent-patient 2x

Figure 3: recursively embedded agent-patient relations


Figure 3 illustrates the situation in which one person acts on a second person acting on a third person.  Since this relation is recursive, it can be expanded yet another step (and another, and another…), as illustrated in figure 4.

agent-patient 3x

Figure 4: doubly recursively embedded agent-patient relations


Although figure 4 might seem complicated, I think we can pretty easily conjure up a situation that it characterizes.  For instance, imagine that I decide to stride over to the creep and tell him to cut it out.  As I move towards him, my friend, who realizes what a foolhardy thing I’m about to do, grabs me by the wrist and whispers “no no NO!”  My friend acts on me acting on him acting on her.  This sort of thing happens, I suggest, all the time.  And, as you can see, the more recursion there is, the most complicated the situation becomes.

Moral psychology asks what it is about us that makes us social, and how our sociality figures in our own and other people’s moral perception, behavior, decision-making, emotions, characters, and institutions.  Sociality is what makes moral psychology so complicated but also so interesting.  In a way, it’s the underlying theme of every chapter of this book but it features most prominently in chapters 3, 4, 6, 7, and 8.  In chapter 3 on emotion, we will see that emotions often function as signaling devices.  When I display anger, I signal to you that I am prepared and committed to reacting aggressively to offenses.  When you display disgust, you signal to me that the object of your disgust is contaminated and to-be-avoided.  Emotional signaling fits well into the recursive embedding structure discussed here.  When I display anger towards you, I also often signal to other people that they should be indignant over the offense you’ve caused me (a relationship like the one in figure 3).  When you display contempt towards my behavior, you also often signal to other people that they should feel superior to me.  Chapter 4 on virtue focuses primarily on the interlocking virtues of trustingness and trustworthiness.  Chapter 6 on moral disagreement investigates the ways in which sociality influences agreement on moral values, norms, heuristics, and decisions.  Chapter 7 on altruism is especially concerned with the potential tension between evolutionary theory and altruistic norms.  Chapter 8 explores the ways in which interlocking, recursively-structured agent-patient relations influence moral development.

Thus, sociality, like patiency and agency, is a crucial concept in moral psychology, and it’s a concept that greatly complicates the inquiry.  When I ask what I should do to him for her, I’m asking what follows from our sociality, that is, from the fact that I can act on him acting on her.  This is another example of how questions are asked: we start with something seemingly simple and comprehensible (“What should I do to him for her?”) and parse out some of the deeper questions and concepts it presupposes.


5 Reflexivity and temporality


What should I do to him for her?

This question presupposes reflexivity.  People do things; things happen to people; people do things to people.  In some cases, the agent and the patient are the same person.  In other words, people can do things to themselves.  This is easiest to see if we also introduce the last main conceptual presupposition of my question: temporality.  As I decide what to do to him for her, here are some considerations that might cross my mind:

If I don’t intercede somehow, I’ll feel guilty all day.

If I manage to distract him without starting a fight, I’ll be proud.

If I act like a coward now, I’ll be cultivating bad habits.

All of these considerations involve thinking of my future self as the patient of my current self as agent.  Another way of putting the same point is that I’m taking a social perspective on myself: on the one hand, me-now is the agent who does something to a patient; on the other hand, me-in-the-future is the patient to whom something is done by that agent.  These concepts also interact with sociality and the recursive embedding of agent-patient relations.  For instance, suppose I make a bad decision on Monday (agent) that leads me to make an even worse decision on Tuesday (patient-to-Monday-me) that leads me to suffer immensely on Wednesday (patient-to-Tuesday-me).  This is the sort of structure represented in figure 3, except that all three nodes represent me – just at different stages of my life.

Whenever we engage in long-term projects – especially long-term projects that are meant to have some effects on our future selves – patiency, agency, sociality, reflexivity, and temporality are all involved.  Moral psychology asks what it is about us that makes us reflexive and temporal, and how our reflexivity and temporality figure in our own and other people’s moral perception, behavior, decision-making, emotions, characters, and institutions.

Several chapters of this book are directly related to reflexivity and temporality.  The instability of preferences discussed in chapter 1 is a temporal instability, and it threatens agency because human agency as we normally conceive of it is meant to be temporally extended.  I don’t just do things now.  I do things now so that I can do and experience things later.  If my preferences change in the meantime, then setting myself up to do or experience something later seems pointless: what if I no longer want to do or experience that?  What if I’ve just wasted my effort?  The interaction between deliberative agency and implicit biases discussed in chapter 2 concerns, among other things, whether I’m able to reflectively endorse my own choices.  Emotions, discussed in chapter 3, can function as social signals; they can also function as commitment devices.  If I have a particular emotion, I’m committing myself (if only unconsciously and tentatively) to a plan of action in the future.  If I act wrongly, one of the things that may happen to my future self is the suffering of remorse.  Virtue, discussed in chapter 4, is acquired (according to Aristotle and many who follow in his footsteps) through long-term, goal-directed cultivation; I have a plan for my own life over time, which I proceed to carry out, making me both the agent and the patient of myself over the course of months, years, and even decades.  Intuitions, discussed in chapter 5, are arguably the automatic deliverances of capacities that have been built up over time through exposure to various theories, considerations, and arguments.

Reflexivity and temporality complicate moral psychology in various ways.  This is easiest to see if we imagine creatures that are just like humans in other ways but who have no long-term memory, no sense of self, and no capability to plan, to feel proud of their accomplishments, or to experience remorse.  Although such creatures would be patients (things would happen to them) and agents (they would do things) who were in some ways social (they would do things to each other), they would be very unlike us insofar as they could not intentionally do things to and for themselves, could not be grateful to or disappointed with their past selves, could not engage in long-term projects, and could not enjoy long-term friendships.  Clearly, these are crucial aspects of human moral psychology.

Thus far, we have explored five crucial concepts in moral psychology: patiency, agency, sociality, reflexivity, and temporality.  I don’t want to suggest that these are the only concepts moral psychologists find worth studying, but I do think they are among the most central.  Other important concepts will crop up throughout this book.  Some, such as emotion and intuition, will be treated at greater length.  Others, such as imagination and mindfulness, will receive less attention.  I encourage you to follow up on any and all of the concepts that capture your interest, and will provide lists of secondary sources at the end of each chapter to help direct and slake your curiosity.  In the remainder of this introduction, I will characterize some of the major normative theories that you might already be aware of in terms of their emphases on patiency, agency, sociality, reflexivity, and temporality.  After that, I’ll conclude by considering objections to moral psychology that might be raised because of the ever-fraught relationships among contingency, necessity, and normativity.  In particular, I’ll focus the truism that one can never deduce an ought from an is.


6 Comparing emphases of major moral theories


In the history of Western philosophy, four major moral theories have emerged: utilitarianism, Kantian ethics, virtue ethics, and care ethics.  Since it’s likely that you’ve encountered at least some of these views before reading this book, in this section, I compare how they relate to the five main concepts in moral psychology


6.1 Utilitarianism


Utilitarianism is the best-known variety of a family of views known as consequentialism.  According to consequentialism, the goodness of an act is determined solely by the goodness of the consequent state of affairs.  This view is typically combined with positions on what makes a state of affairs good and a theory of right action.  For instance, hedonist act utilitarianism says that the only thing that contributes to the goodness of a state of affairs is pleasure, that the only thing that detracts from the goodness of a state of affairs is pain, and that an action is right just in case it maximizes the amount of goodness in the consequent state of affairs.

Pleasure and pain are mental states that humans and other animals enjoy and suffer.  Thus, utilitarians and other consequentialists place their primary emphasis on patiency.  Jeremy Bentham, one of the foremost utilitarian thinkers in philosophical history, put the point well while asking what determines whether a creature has moral worth and bears moral consideration:


Is it the faculty of reason, or, perhaps, the faculty of discourse?  But a full-grown horse or dog is beyond comparison a more rational, as well as a more conversable animal, than an infant of a day, or a week, or even a month, old.  But suppose the case were otherwise, what would it avail?  the question is not, Can they reason? nor, Can they talk? but, Can they suffer? (1823, chapter 17, footnote)


For someone like Bentham, it doesn’t matter whether you can engage in reasoning (including the practical reasoning required for agency and the reflexivity required for long-term planning).  It doesn’t matter whether you can talk.  The main moral question for him is whether you can suffer, whether things can happen to you – in particular, bad and painful things.

Utilitarianism thus gives pride of place to patiency and de-emphasizes agency and reflexivity.  Bentham’s lack of concern for talking might lead one to think that he and other utilitarians have no regard for sociality.  In one sense, that’s correct.  However, utilitarians and other consequentialists also tend to think that every being capable of suffering matters equally.  And they recognize that people are capable of both inflicting suffering on one another and alleviating one another’s suffering.  For this reason, utilitarians put a great deal of emphasis on sociality, though deriving that emphasis from its relation to patiency and suffering.

Lastly, utilitarians tend to put great emphasis on temporality.  What I have in mind here is the fact that the consequences of an action are typically construed not just as what happens immediately afterwards but as everything that flows from the action.  Everything, for all time?  At the very least, everything that could be foreseen by a very intelligent and dedicated investigator.  Utilitarians care so much about such long-term consequences that they have debates about population ethics, asking questions such as “How many people should there be?” (Blackorby, Bossert, & Donaldson 1995)


6.2 Kantian ethics


Kantian ethics, also sometimes called ‘deontological ethics’, puts most emphasis on the two concepts that utilitarianism deemphasizes (agency and reflexivity) while according less weight to the concepts utilitarianism emphasizes (patiency, sociality, and temporality).  Kant thought that an account of moral obligation could be derived from the structure of agency itself.  He called this the categorical imperative because it applies to every agent in every action they undertake regardless of their desires, preferences, and values.  The best-known formulation of the categorical imperative states that you must “act only in accordance with that maxim through which you can at the same time will that it become a universal law” (4:421).  This book is not an introduction to major moral theories, let alone the history of philosophy, so I will not go into much detail interpreting the categorical imperative.  Kant’s idea, though, is that simply in virtue of being an agent you are constrained to act from some motives rather than others.  Clearly, then, agency figures importantly in Kantian ethics.

The other core concept that receives primary emphasis in Kantian ethics is reflexivity.  This is already somewhat evident from the first formulation of the categorical imperative, which requires you to reflect on and extrapolate from your own motives, but it comes into focus if we consider the third formulation: act as if you were through your maxim always a legislating member in the universal kingdom of ends (4:439).  On this view, a moral act is one that can be self-legislated, i.e., an act that is in accordance with a law one could give not only to others but also to oneself.

Agency and reflexivity have pride of place in Kantian ethics, but the other three concepts receive some attention.  Patiency and sociality get their due in the second formulation of the categorical imperative: treat humanity – whether your own or someone else’s – never merely as the means to some end but always as an end in its own right.  In this formulation, we can see that Kant cares not only about agency but also about what’s done to people.  He thinks it’s always wrong to treat someone as a mere means to your own end.  However, patiency matters for Kant only derivatively because he thinks that what’s wrong about treating someone as a mere means is that, in so doing, you don’t respect their agency.  Thus, the importance of what happens to us and what we do to each other depends on the antecedent importance of agency.

Finally, Kantian ethics doesn’t totally discount temporality (Kant argues that we have an imperfect duty to develop our own talents, for instance), but it also doesn’t place primary emphasis on it.


6.3 Virtue ethics


Virtue ethics is a family of views that focuses less on what it’s right to do and more on what sort of person it’s good to be.  A good person is someone with many virtues (compassion, courage, honesty, trustworthiness) and few vices (selfishness, laziness, unfairness, rashness).  Ancient Greek philosophers were basically all virtue ethicists of one kind or another.  Plato emphasized the virtues of courage, temperance, wisdom, and justice.  Aristotle famously thought that every virtue was a middle state between a pair of vices.  For instance, courage is the disposition to fear neither too many things nor too few things, to fear them neither too intensely nor not intensely enough, to fear them neither for too long nor for too short a period, and so on.

Utilitarian ethics focuses primarily on patiency, sociality, and temporality; Kantian ethics focuses primarily on agency and reflexivity.  Virtue ethics has a more balanced approach (this isn’t necessarily a good or a bad thing – it’s just a matter of emphasis), putting moderate emphasis on all five central concepts.  A virtuous person is characteristically active, doing things for reasons.  A virtuous person is also quite social.  Aristotle, for instance, devotes two whole chapters (out of ten) of the Nicomachean Ethics to friendship and another to justice.  Additionally, because virtue ethicists are concerned with the shape of a person’s whole life and the slow acquisition of virtuous traits, they pay more attention to temporality and moral development than utilitarians and Kantians.  They place slightly less emphasis on patiency and reflexivity, though these too figure in the account.


6.4 Care ethics


The other three views surveyed in this section are venerable, traditional approaches to morality.  The ethics of care is much more recent.  The dawn of care ethics can be dated with some precision to the publication, in 1982, of Carol Gilligan’s In a Different Voice: Psychological Theory and Women’s Development.  In her book, Gilligan explored the ways in which women (at least the women she interviewed) tend to talk in terms of care, emphasizing personal relationships and attachments (motherhood, siblinghood, friendship, etc.) and the special responsibilities that flow from these.  She accused existing moral theories, such as Lawrence Kohlberg’s (1971) Kantian approach to moral psychology, with ignoring and even sometimes denigrating such caring relationships in favor of a completely impartial, legalistic notion of rights and justice.  Although this criticism is somewhat overstated (as I mentioned above, Aristotle devotes twice as much attention to friendship as he does to justice), popular versions of both utilitarian and Kantian ethics clearly deserve Gilligan’s rebuke.  Since 1971, various philosophers, including Kittay, Noddings, and Slote, have formulated moral theories in the wake of Gilligan’s critique.

Like the other theories canvassed here, care ethics is actually a family of views.  What unites them is their emphasis on personal, face-to-face relationships and attachments, as well as their recognition that we all come into this world as completely helpless, dependent, screaming, fragile lumps of flesh.  Care ethicists therefore focus primarily on human sociality and patiency, with derivative interest in agency (someone has to do the caring, in addition to being cared for, after all) and temporality.  Reflexivity receives little attention in the care tradition.

major moral theories

Figure 5: Emphases of the four major moral theories


These differences in emphasis are illustrated graphically in figure 5.


7 Is and ought


To some people, the idea of combining scientific psychology with philosophical ethics to investigate moral psychology will seem only natural.  Philosophy helps to set the terms of the investigation (in this case, patiency, agency, sociality, reflexivity, and temporality), proposes questions and models, dreams up potential counterexamples; psychology empirically determines whether the terms refer to anything in the world, answers the questions, tests the models, and determines whether the potential counterexamples can be realized.  Psychology as an academic discipline split off from philosophy less than two centuries ago; it’s unsurprising that the two fields would sometimes collaborate.  To other people, though, this project might seem to be doomed from the start.  Science studies how things are, whereas philosophy studies how things ought to be and how they must be.  Science can never, even in principle, help to answer philosophical questions.

As you’ve probably guessed, I disagree, and for several reasons.  First, science can investigate modal reality (how things not only are but can and can’t be).  To the extent that we accept the truism that people can’t be morally required to do things or be ways that are impossible, scientific investigation of moral psychology constraints moral theory.  Second, scientific psychology can also investigate not just whether various kinds of behavior, character, and attachments are possible but also how demanding it would be for people to act, be, and relate in those ways.  The harder it is to live up to a moral theory’s requirements, the more suspicious we should be of that theory.  This is not to say that morality can’t make legitimate demands on us, just that the more extravagant those demands grow, the more suspicious we should be of the theory that generated them.  Third, even if we decide to hold onto very demanding norms, psychological science can help us to see how to live up to those norms.  In the same way, even if we hold onto extremely idealized norms of physical health, biological science can help us to see how to approximate those norms in our own lives.

Finally, morality is an important part of human behavior and cognition; as such, it’s something psychologists want to study, even if their investigations never end up suggesting revisions to moral norms.  The idea that this aspect of psychology is simply off-limits, as if philosophers could somehow call “dibs” on it, is preposterous.  As Levitin put it, those who think that science cannot study values typically commit a fallacy: “they seem to have confused making value judgments, which is incompatible with scientific objectivity, with studying objectively how other people make them – a phenomenon as amenable to psychology study, in principle, as other forms of human learning and choice” (1973, p. 491).  Moral psychology doesn’t aim to replace utilitarianism, Kantian ethics, virtue ethics, or the ethics of care.  In the case of care, this should be especially obvious: the entire edifice of care ethics was inspired by empirical research on moral psychology!  Instead of taking their ball and going home, philosophers need to learn to share their insights, theories, and models with their scientist neighbors.

It’s not all good news for traditional normative ethics, though.  Moral theories have empirical presuppositions.  Moral psychology can investigate those presuppositions.  Sometimes, to the moral theorist’s delight, they turn out to be well-supported.  Sometimes their foundations look pretty shaky.  The relation between philosophy and psychology doesn’t need to involve confrontation or scorn, though.  A better attitude for both sides to take, I contend is one of curiosity and intellectual humility.  A curious investigator is tentatively committed to her views, but she’s also delighted to find out that she’s wrong because that spurs her to construct a better model, a stronger theory, a more nuanced hypothesis.  There’s no part of reality that’s specially marked off for philosophers and only philosophers to investigate.  By the same token, there’s no part of reality that’s specially marked off for psychologists and only psychologists to investigate.  If you don’t believe me now, perhaps you will when you finish this book.

[1] For more on mediation and moderation see Baron & Kenny (1986).

[2] Paul Krugman, March 17, 2014, on his blog, “The Conscience of a Liberal,” in a post titled “Sergeant Friday was not a Fox”

[3] When a term appears for the first time in boldface, it is a technical term that is defined in the glossary at the end of the book.

[4] I am here indebted to James Wilk.

Philosophical Reflections on Steve Kardynal’s Chatroulette Videos

Steve Kardynal is a comedian and YouTube sensation.  Among his many schticks, the most famous are his chatroulette videos.  Chatroulette is a video chat site that connects strangers to one another.  Soon after it was launched, it became a favorite for exhibitionists and voyeurs.  In an early video, Kardynal — who has a shapely, shaved body and a full beard — danced in a bikini with his face out of frame, waiting for his partners to react.  I don’t know how many partners he cut to make this short video, but the ones he chose were all men who were pretty clearly looking for likeminded women.  Just as his partners are getting into the sexy dance, Kardynal leans towards the camera, revealing his gender.  Here’s one typical reaction:

15 disgust


As Dan Kelly would tell you, that face expresses disgust.  Disgust is a nasty emotion.  It seems to have evolved to detect both poisons (thus the feeling of oral incorporation and the near-retching expression) and diseases/parasites (thus the sense of contamination, the urge to purify, and the taboo-like way in which disgustingness is transmitted by touch).  Some things are almost universally disgusting: bugs, vermin, feces, incest.  Some things are disgusting only in certain cultures (various foods, various moral violations, various forms of — for want of a better word — perverse sexual practices).  Our disgust reactions are on a hair trigger and, once set in motion, nearly incorrigible.  They’re expressed by a characteristic facial expression across cultures: the “gape face.”  This expression is extremely hard to repress and extremely easy to detect.  Moreover, when it’s detected, it tends to trigger a kind of emotional empathic contagion: if I see you make the gape face and recognize it as an expression of disgust (even unconsciously), I’ll typically make the gape face myself and feel a tinge of disgust — perhaps even at the same object.

When we view something as disgusting, we tend to think of it as corrupt, degraded, and dehumanized.  Of course, if you’re staring at a pile of shit and feeling disgust, being incapable of seeing the shit as humanized in some way is fine.  But if you feel disgust towards another person, this can be morally problematic.  Kelly and Morar (following Nussbaum) argue that disgust should never be encouraged as a moral emotion because it is so easily triggered, incorrigible, and dehumanizing.  Lynne Tirrell points out that the the road to the Rwandan genocide was paved with dehumanizing metaphors for Tutsis.  They were over and over again referred to as cockroaches and snakes — both universal objects of disgust.  Likewise, the Nazis referred to Jews as vermin.  In Uganda just recently, the president called homosexuals disgusting while defending a new anti-gay law.  Indeed, I would be surprised if genocide or systematic dehumanizing persecution has ever occurred without the enablement of disgust.

What does this have to do with Steve Kardynal?  Kardynal’s genius, I contend, is to crowd out people’s disgust reactions to homosexuality with another emotion: joy.  In his later chatroulette videos, he flamboyantly dances in costume to pop hits (Katy Perry’s “Peacock,” Carly Rae Jepsen’s “Call Me Maybe,” Miley Cyrus’s “Wrecking Ball,” and — most recently — Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas is You“).  If you haven’t seen them yet, take a few minutes to watch at least one of them before reading on.

What does it mean to crowd out an emotion with another emotion?  I suggest that some basic emotions (contempt, anger, disgust, fear, surprise, sadness, joy) can be experienced by a given person at the same time, whereas others — perhaps for neurological reasons, perhaps for other reasons having to do with embodiment — simply cannot.  When emotions combine, they produce a hybrid emotion that has characteristics of both.  For instance, horror is a combination of disgust and fear.  Fright is a combination of surprise and fear.  A eureka moment is a combination of surprise and joy.  Schadenfreude seems to be a hybrid of contempt and joy.

Some emotions, though, seem impossible or at least extremely difficult to combine.  Can sadness and joy be combined?  Perhaps: there’s a certain kind of relief that comes with the death of a loved one who has been suffering tremendously, but it’s unstable.  In my experience, the two seem to oscillate over time, rather than being fully present together at the same time.  Assuming a catalogue of seven basic emotions (there are controversies about the exact number, which some claim is as low as four and some claim is as high as eight), there are 21 pairwise comparisons:

hybrid emotionsPerhaps not all of these are physiologically or psychologically possible. Our lacking a word for some of them is defeasible evidence.  Neurological studies of emotions that indicate different brain activation patterns for different emotions would be another.  Disgust is processed in the insula, unlike the majority of other emotions.  Perhaps joy dampens that activation. (I literally don’t know, and lack sufficient acquaintance with the neuro literature to say whether there’s any evidence one way or the other.  If a reader knows the answer and has some citations, I’d be most grateful.)  A third source of incompatibility could be in more peripheral parts of the body.  For instance, disgust is an avoid emotion, whereas joy is an approach emotion.  Disgust is low-arousal, whereas joy is high arousal.  Even if the brain regions that mediate these emotions don’t dampen one another’s activity, it could be that they are endocrinologically or dispositionally incompatible.

At the very least, it seems that full-fledged disgust and full-fledged joy are uneasy bedfellows.  Kardynal’s hilarity sometimes triggers such an overwhelming feeling of joy that his chatroulette partners can’t help but lose their disgust — often in just a few seconds.  His videos demonstrate this.  My favorite is this trio of surprise, followed just one second later by disgust, followed just three seconds later by joy:

2 surprise2 disgust2 joySome of Kardynal’s partners evince only one emotion, some two.  It might be that there’s a little fear mixed in here and there (though of course he’s completely incapable of threatening them).  Here’s a catalogue of some of the best expressions; some faces crop up more than once:


1 surprise


5 surprise


6 surprise


9 surprise



3 disgust


6 disgust


7 surprise


8 disgust


10 disgust


11 disgust


12 surprise & disgust


13 disgust



5 joy


7 joy


9 joy


13 joy


14 joy


Incidentally, lots of people look surprised when they first connect with Kardynal.  Lots of people end up filled with joy.  So far as I can tell, none of the women express disgust.



Google Ngram and the Genealogy of Values

In his funeral oration, Pericles described Athenians as valorous, democratic, just, cultured, open, refined, knowledgeable, deliberative, daring, generous, liberal, versatile, adventurous, noble, dutiful, honorable, free, and patriotic.  In his parody of Pericles, the Menexenus, Plato has Socrates (quoting Aspasia) describe them as just, pious, aristocratic / democratic / meritocratic, equal, free, compassionate (described as vice!), and pure Hellene.  Speaking more in his own voice, in the Republic, Plato calls temperance, wisdom, courage, and justice the primary human virtues.  Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics contains a large catalogue of virtues: courage, temperance, generosity, magnificence, magnanimity, pride, good-temper, honesty, wit, justice, and friendship.  Hume has an even more capacious list, which includes at least 70 distinct virtues.

In some recent work, I’ve been examining the geographical diversity of values by mapping out the value-laden terms used in the obituaries of various local newspapers.  Another way to explore values, though, is temporally.  In particular, I’m interested in how values rise and fall relative to one another.  One obvious example is the pride/humility pair.  For the ancients, pride was a virtue and humility a vice.  Christianity reversed that.  What other reversals — in emphasis if not in valence — have occurred?

To help explore this question, I’ve begun using google’s ngram lab, which tracks the usage of terms in google’s massive database over the decades and even centuries.  Here are some (very) preliminary results.

First, it looks like humility and pride have done another dosey doe:

pride vs humility


The x-axis represents the year of publication.  The y-axis represents the percentage of total words published that year.  Thus, we can see that ‘humble’ was used more often than ‘proud’ until the late 19th century, during which it took a nosedive.  Of course, this ngram doesn’t tell us whether people were saying “you should be humble/proud” or “you shouldn’t be humble/proud,” but the collapse of ‘humble’ is striking.

Second, consider the three most common terms in the deontic square of opposition: ‘obligatory’, ‘permissible’ (not obligatory not to do), and ‘forbidden’ (obligatory not to do).  (I leave out omissible, since it’s a philosophers’ term.)

Screen Shot 2014-03-17 at 2.26.18 PM


Two things are worth noting about this.  First, the forbidden gets more play than the obligatory throughout the writings of the last 400 years.  This should be unsurprising to anyone who’s aware of the Knobe effect and various other demonstrations that norm violations get a lot more attention than norm-conformity.  Second, starting in the late 19th century, permissibility crossed over obligation.  What does that mean?  I suggest that a plausible interpretation is that — as social strictures loosened — the zone of the merely permissible was opened up.  James Fishkin calls this “the zone of indifference or permissibly free personal choice” (1982, p. 23), and argues that any adequate moral theory should recognize it.  But notice that, from a historical point of view, his claim looks like an innovation.  This is not to say that he’s wrong, of course, but it does suggest that he might be drawing on a rather narrow, culturally-bound set of intuitions.

Third, take a look at the ngram comparing ‘autonomy’ with ‘obedience':

autonomy vs obedience


The period between 1850 and 1950 seems to have been a time of great change!  Obedience, another Christian virtue, plumets while autonomy experiences a study rise.

Fourth, consider the basic emotions (fear, sadness, surprise, contempt, anger, and disgust).  Every language has words for them.  Every culture uses the same basic facial expression to signal them.  They are keyed to different important features of our environments and social worlds.  How have the words that refer to them been used historically?

basic emotionsFear — the emotion that tracks threats — is the clear winner.  But there are some interesting changes as well.  Contempt — the emotion that tracks and enforces socialhierarchy — surged in the late 18th century then experienced a slow but steady decline.  Meanwhile, anger and surprise have seen a slight rise in recent decades.  Does this suggest anything?  Well, social hierarchy is still here, but its pervasiveness and hegemony have declined somewhat.  I’m not sure how to interpret the results for ‘anger’ and ‘surprise’.

One last ngram — and one that would have made Nietzsche happy: ‘bad’ versus ‘evil:

bad evil

Nietzsche famously argues in the first essay of the Genealogy of Morals that Christianity instigated a slave revolt in morals, during which the good/bad distinction was inverted into the evil/good distinction. (What was good in the aristocratic culture became evil in Christian culture, while what was bad in aristocratic culture became good in Christian culture.) This ngram suggests thatm to the extent that ‘evil’ is on the decline and ‘bad’ is on the rise, this inversion has been partially undone.

Thoughts on methodology?  Suggestions for other comparisons?  Questions?


Basic emotions & Aristotle’s doctrine of the golden mean

Aristotle famously argued that every virtue is a mean — in respect of emotion and action — between vices.  Two vices?  Well, the paradigmatic examples involve exactly two: courage is a mean between rashness and cowardice; good-temper is a mean between irascibility and un-irascibility; etc.  Robert Roberts has argued for a multi-dimensional understanding of the golden mean thesis, drawing in particular on virtues like humility.  Humility is opposed not just to arrogance and diffidence, but also to vanity.  Thus, it’s centrally located among several vices, not a mean between a pair.  One might think that courage could be complicated in the same way.  After all, Aristotle says that it’s a mean with respect not only to fear but also to confidence.  Is it possible for someone to be deficient with respect to fear but not excessive with respect to confidence?  Is it possible for someone to be excessive with respect to fear but not deficient with respect to confidence?  If the answer to either of these questions is affirmative, then courage will be opposed by more than two vices.

This approach to the virtues — enumerating them and then elucidating them by explaining which emotions and behaviors relate to them — can be useful.  Presumably, if we have a word for a trait, that trait has had some importance in human history, even if, like ‘sinister / dexter’ that importance has largely abated outside of baseball.  Another approach to the virtues, however, is to start from the emotions or behaviors with respect to which they would be means, and then figure out or baptize them.  Which emotions?  There are so many.  A good place to start is the so-called “basic emotions,” which, according to the psychologist Paul Ekman, are discrete, measurable, physiologically distinct, an culturally universal.  What are these basic emotions?  Researchers disagree about their cardinality (4? 6? 7?), but for my purposes it’s good enough to start with the original six: disgust, contempt, anger, fear, surprise, and sadness.


















I assumed that someone must have done this already, but…. The theory of basic emotions has only been around for decades, not centuries.  We’ll catch up eventually, if I have anything to do with it.

One of these basic emotions is already familiar: Aristotle claimed that the virtue with respect to fear is courage.  In other words, courage involves, among other things, the disposition to fear the right thing at the right time for the right reason in the right way with the right intensity and so on.  The vice of excess is cowardice (fearing too intensely, too many things, for too many reasons, etc.).  The vice of deficiency is rashness (fearing not intensely enough, too few things, for too few reasons, etc.).  Fear tracks, when it functions well, threats.

What about the other five?

Aristotle claims that the virtue with respect to anger is good-temper, and that the vices are irascibility (excess) and unirascibility (deficiency).  I disagree.  I contend that the virtue with respect to anger is justice, and that anger tracks harms.  Someone who gets angry at the right things for the right reasons at the right time to the right degree and so on is someone whose sense of injustice is well-tuned.  By contrast, someone who witnesses injustice and feels not a tinge of anger seems to me to be morally suspect.  On the flipside, someone who’s prepared to be outraged at the most minor (perceived) infraction is vicious in the other direction.  (I realize that Martha Nussbaum disagrees.)

Consider next disgust.  What would it mean to be well-attuned to feeling disgust — to be disgusted by the right things, at the right time, for the right reason, to the right degree, and so on?  Presumably, disgust tracks impurity.  To be well-attuned to disgust, then, would involve an appropriate sense of purity and impurity.  Dan Kelly and Nicolae Morar argue that disgust towards other people is never morally appropriate because disgust dehumanizes its object.  The Rwandan genocide was fueled to some extent by the labeling of Tutsis as ‘cockroaches’ (Lynn Tirrell walks through this in her forthcoming “Genocidal Language Games”); anti-semitism and other forms of ethnic, racial, and gender animus often invoke disgust against the target outgroup.  That doesn’t mean, however, that it’s inappropriate to be disgusted by rotting meat, which presumably isn’t human to begin with.  I suggest that the virtue with respect to disgust is a sense of purity or cleanliness, and that the attending vices are squeamishness/prudishness (excess) and corruption (deficiency).

Contempt?  Could there possibly be a virtue with respect to contempt?  Nietzsche certainly thought so; he celebrated “the great contempt.”  Macalester Bell also thinks so, though she only celebrates the mild contempt.  Contempt is a downward-looking emotion.  Anger seems to be more horizontal, whereas resentment is upward-looking.  Is it ever OK to look down one’s nose at someone, at some action, or at some disposition of character?  I think so.  Some things (and people, let’s admit) are better than others, at least on certain very important dimensions.  When that order gets leveled or inverted, contempt may be called for.  If this is on the right track, the virtue of being well-attuned with respect to contempt is something like good taste.  The vices would be bad taste (deficiency) and snobbishness (excess). (Incidentally, we’ve now covered the CAD triad.)

The two remaining emotions are surprise and sadness.  At first blush, it might sound odd to think that there could be a virtue (or vice) with respect to surprise, but it seems to me fairly clear that someone who isn’t surprised by anything is either a god or in some way (intellectually) vicious.  I suggest that the virtue with respect to surprise is curiosity (or maybe wonder), and that the vices are jadedness/cynicism (deficiency) and naivete (excess).  Finally, sadness tracks losses.  If you’re not attached to anyone or anything, there’s not much that can sadden you.  So I suggest that the virtue with respect to sadness is an appropriate level of attachment, hence care.  The attendant vices would then involve caring too little (and hence not being saddened by enough things or to the right extent) — apathy — and caring too much (and hence experiencing as losses things that a well-attuned agent would shrug off) — something like fragility or neuroticism or depression.

One thing to notice about this taxonomy is that many of the virtues and vices it turns up don’t fit easily into traditional taxonomies.  Curiosity/wonder is an intellectual virtue.  Good taste is social and even aesthetic.  Care has only recently come into its own through the philosophical work that followed in the wake of Carol Gilligan’s In a Different Voice.  This could be taken to mean that my approach is on the wrong track.  I think otherwise.  Perhaps, instead, the problem is that virtues have been catalogued willy-nilly, and that something like the theory of the basic emotions could bring some order to them.