Extended Prolepsis 3: CAPS to the Rescue

‘CAPS’ stands for ‘cognitive-affective personality system’ – a framework developed by Walter Mischel and Yuichi Shoda (1995) to bring together personists and situationists under an interactionist big tent.  The framework is complicated, and seems to be ill-understood even by some of the philosophers who draw on it.

In this context, the most important thing to bear in mind about CAPS is that it is not a theory of personality.  As Shoda and Mischel (2006) emphasize, it is better understood as a framework or meta-theory from which to build a theory of personality, and is intentionally “content free.”  Despite this, Nancy Snow (2009, p. 13) suggests that it is “plausible to understand virtues as traditionally conceived as a subset of CAPS traits.”  Daniel Russell (2009, p. 269) contends that a virtue as traditionally conceived is particular kind of “pattern of cognitive-affective processes” in the CAPS vein.[1]  Christian Miller (2009) initially seemed warm to CAPS, though in subsequent work (forthcoming b), his enthusiasm has cooled.  Jonathan Webber (2013) argues that CAPS “confirms the possibility of virtue.”  All of the above are philosophers arguing in favor of virtue ethics; however, some defenders of virtue epistemology also draw on the CAPS framework to bolster their arguments (Fairweather & Montemayor unpublished manuscript; Axtell current volume).

CAPS cannot be so easily harnessed.  It is a theory about which kinds of entities belong in the ontology of a first-order psychological theory may.  Those entities include (features of) situations, cognitive-affective units, and behaviors.  Situations themselves are subdivided into intra-psychological situations (e.g., moods), inter-psychological situations (e.g., being threatened or teased), and extra-psychological situations (e.g., being in a loud environment).  Cognitive-affective units are subdivided into encodings (e.g., categories for the self, others, events, and situations), expectancies and beliefs, affects and emotions, goals and values, and plans (Mischel & Shoda 1995).  According to CAPS, situations differentially influence cognitive-affective units, which differentially influence one another, and which together conspire to produce behaviors, which in turn influence situations.  That’s the CAPS framework.  A first-order psychological theory counts as CAPS-theoretic if and only if it refers to the entities in the CAPS ontology and specifies the relations between them as the CAPS framework indicates.  Thus, a CAPS-theoretic virtue psychology – a first-order theory that might substantiate the hypothesis that virtues as traditionally conceived are empirically supportable – would be framed in terms of the ontology furnished by the CAPS framework.  Such a theory, were it to be constructed, could then be tested to the extent possible given constraints of time, budget, experimental design, and research ethics.

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No such theory exists.  Moreover, it’s unclear why anyone thinks that it would be possible to construct one because the CAPS ontology is incommensurable with the ontology of traditional virtue theory.  One example: CAPS countenances powerful, unconscious influences of subtle, seemingly irrelevant intra-personal situations on cognitive-affective units.  I defy anyone to find a traditional virtue theory that does this.  Another example: virtue theories tend to countenance reasons in their ontologies (Russell 2009).  Where are the reasons in CAPS?  They’re not behaviors or cognitive-affective units, so presumably they are features of the situation.  But none of the situational subcategories seems to be a good place to bin them.  Reasons are certainly not moods (intra-psychological situations).  Nor are they things like being in a loud environment (extra-psychological situations).  That leaves only inter-psychological situations, but that someone needs help and that the consensus opinion is wrong are not the sorts of inter-psychological situations that Mischel & Shoda (1995) have in mind.  A third example: virtue epistemologists tend to countenance evidence in their ontologies.  But, just as there appears to be no place for reasons in the CAPS ontology, so there appears to be no place for evidence.[2]  This suggests not only that there is no CAPS-theoretic virtue psychology, but also that there could not be such a psychology.

But suppose that I’m wrong about this and that someone will soon come along and construct a CAPS-theoretic virtue psychology.  The question then would be whether there is any empirical support for that theory.  I have my own hunch about what the answer would be, but that’s not the point.  The point is that one would have to actually do the theoretical and empirical dirty work to establish whether the theory was supported.  There is some support for some first-order CAPS theories (along, of course, with evidence against others and – more commonly – a dearth of evidence either way).  For instance, Shoda, Mischel, & Wright (1994) drew on nearly a decade of empirical research to argue for a CAPS-theoretic psychology of children.  This theory had five situations (peer approach, peer tease, adult praise, adult warn, and adult punish), five behaviors (verbal aggression, physical aggression, whining, compliance, and friendliness), and no specified cognitive-affective units.  Their meticulous work on this relatively modest model revealed consistency coefficients of .19 for friendliness, .28 for whining, .41 for compliance, .32 for physical aggression, and .47 for verbal aggression – higher than is often found (Mischel 1968), but still nothing like what one would need to reliably predict and explain particular behaviors (let alone cognitions and affects).

In context, then, we can see that the task of crafting and confirming a CAPS-theoretic virtue psychology would be monumental indeed.  Thus, even in the best-case scenario, CAPS lends no credibility to traditional virtue theory.  To reiterate, the best-case scenario is that a merely possible theory will be confirmed by undreamt-of experimental data.

[1] Russell also mistakenly claims that CAPS is a situationist, rather than an interactionist, psychological framework.

[2] This should be unsurprising to anyone who sympathizes with the view that reasons are evidence – evidence for what to do in the moral case and what to believe in the epistemic case (Kearns & Star 2009).

Virtue is acquirable? Maybe just for men

[Updated 5 Sept 2013]

In contemporary virtue theory, virtue is almost always thought of as acquirable: no one is born with it, and some manage to achieve it.  The reasoning behind this claim tends to be quick, but the basic idea is that, since we hold people responsible for their character, it had better be something they can do something about.  Moreover, it’s often said, this is how people have always thought about virtue.  But the noble warriors in Homer Illiad don’t acquire their virtue: they’re born with it.  And Josh Knobe and Brian Leiter argue that, for Nietzsche, virtue is similarly heritable.  (I happen disagree, but leave that to one side.)

But Homer wasn’t a philosopher and Nietzsche is usually an outlier.  Perhaps perfect consensus doesn’t exist on the acquirability of virtue, but near consensus does. Jane Austen, insightful as usual, suggests otherwise.


Her answer seems to be: for men, but maybe not for women.  Here’s a quote from Pride and Prejudice:

As for Mary, she was mistress enough of herself to whisper to Elizabeth, with a countenance of grave reflection, soon after they were seated at table:

“This is a most unfortunate affair, and will probably be much talked of. But we must stem the tide of malice, and pour into the wounded bosoms of each other the balm of sisterly consolation.”

Then, perceiving in Elizabeth no inclination of replying, she added, “Unhappy as the event must be for Lydia, we may draw from it this useful lesson: that loss of virtue in a female is irretrievable; that one false step involves her in endless ruin; that her reputation is no less brittle than it is beautiful; and that she cannot be too much guarded in her behaviour towards the undeserving of the other sex.”

Elizabeth lifted up her eyes in amazement, but was too much oppressed to make any reply.

Mary Bennett is expressing what I suspect was an all-too-common conception of female virtue.  Instead of being something that one achieves, i.e., something that one does not start with but can with some effort acquire, female virtue is something that one can only lose, i.e., something that one does start with and can all-too-easily give up.  Not only that, but once one loses it, it is gone forever.

I’ve expressed reservations about the notion that chastity is a virtue elsewhere (fidelity might be, but that’s quite different).  Thinking about it in this light only makes my reservations stronger.


Here’s a nice example of the insane approach to virtue still practiced today.  Mom browses through her sons’ facebook news feeds with them (no problem there; they’re minors).  Sees a selfie of a girl in pajamas, possibly not wearing a bra.  Gasps.  Clutches pearls.  Faints onto the divan.  Blocks girl’s profile forever. (Or at least thinks she does; her sons are probably a little more adept with the interwebs than she is….)  Nietzsche had something to say about this kind of thing:

The church combats the passions by cutting them off in every sense: its technique, its ‘cure’, is castration. It never asks: ‘how can a desire be spiritualized, beautified, deified?’ — it has always laid the weight of its discipline on eradication (of sensuality, of pride, of greed, of the thirst to dominate and exact revenge). But attacking the root of the passions means attacking the root of life: the practices of the church are hostile to life… (The Anti-Christ, “Morality as Anti-Nature”)

Instead of slut-shaming and ostrich-ing, maybe she could have told her sons that, regardless of how a woman dresses and presents herself, they should treat her with respect.

Extended Prolepsis 2: The Big Six

[UPDATE: revised August 30 2013]

The situationist challenge relies on the claim that we lack sufficient evidence to believe that global traits of character as they are understood in virtue theory – whether moral or epistemic – are achievable for a large proportion of people.  This claim is often abbreviated into the much stronger claim that global character traits do not exist, but a careful review of the literature reveals that this is only an abbreviation.  In response to the abbreviated claim, it might be argued that global traits of character do exist, and that, in fact, we have strong empirical evidence that they exist from the enormous literature on the so-called “Big Five” or Five Factor Model (McCrae & John 1996), which posits that the five dominant dimensions of personality differences are openness, conscientiousness, extroversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism.

Doris (2002) and Prinz (2009) were the first to consider this argument in detail, and also the first to reject it.[1]  Several difficulties beset the appeal to the Big Five.  First, the number of factors is arbitrary: the statistician decides a priori how many factors to include.  This means that, depending on one’s arbitrary choice, the number of basic character traits can toggle from five down to four or up to seven.  But as Quine taught us, “No entity without identity” (1969, p. 23): unless we can count something, we should not include it in our ontology.  The traits “revealed” by factor analysis cannot be counted (or, more precisely, can be counted up to whatever n one likes), so at least naturalistically-inclined philosophers should look at them askance.

Second, Big Five traits are best understood as broad generalizations about behavior rather than as character traits as virtue theorists conceive them: they do not license the prediction of particular behaviors, thoughts, deliberative strategies, perceptual sensitivities, or emotional reactions.  Someone who is very high in agreeableness may nevertheless act aggressively.  Someone who is very low in extroversion may nevertheless feel comfortable in a social setting.  Someone who is very high in neuroticism may fail to perceive a vaguely disturbing episode as a threat.  Someone who is very high in openness may nevertheless fail to deliberate responsibly about another person’s suggestion.  Virtues as traditionally conceived are meant to license the prediction and explanation (as well as the evaluation – a point I turn to next) of particular cognitions, affects, and behaviors.  Big Five traits at best license explanations but not predictions.

Third, as Miller (forthcoming) points out in his paper on the Big Five and situationism, these traits appear to be largely heritable (McCrae et al. 2000, p. 174-5), whereas character traits are meant to be acquired during the agent’s lifetime.  One could give up the idea that agents are responsible for their own character, which would in turn allow one to give up the claim that virtues and vices are acquirable, but it’s hard to find virtue theorists who are willing to do this.  Homer might be one: nobility seems to be largely heritable in the Iliad.  Nietzsche might be another.  Knobe & Leiter (2007) argue that he thinks character traits are not just heritable but genetic, though I (forthcoming c) am unconvinced.

Fourth, the Big Five are not normatively loaded in a way that would help in making virtue (or vice) attributions.  For instance, it’s neither a virtue nor a vice to be extroverted.  One might think that some of the factors, or at least some of their sub-factors, would be normatively adequate, but as Miller (forthcoming) has convincingly argued, this does not appear to be the case.  In fact, there is a historical reason for this.  When personality psychology was being developed in the first half of the twentieth century, the same zeitgeist that inspired the logical positivists to reject normative language as non-truth-apt (Ayer 1936) also led prominent personality psychologists such as Allport & Odbert (1936) to eschew evaluative language in their theories of personality.  For instance, evaluative terms (‘stupid’, ‘wicked’, ‘outstanding’), terms that describe enduring sentiments (‘sad’, ‘angry’), and terms that are judged by the theorist to be response-dependent (‘charming’, ‘dangerous’, ‘disgusting’) were not included in the foundations of the Big Five.  It should come as no surprise, then, that the Big Five are normatively incommensurable with virtues or vices as ethicists and epistemologists understand them.

For these reasons, among others, literally no one has invoked the Big Five to defend virtue theory.  However, one might think that judgment was passed too quickly.  As I mentioned above, the number of factors is chosen by the statistician, and it turns out that when a sixth factor is included, it tends to look more promising.  Based on factor analysis of lexical similarities across a variety of languages, Lee & Ashton (2004), for instance, posit that the sixth factor is honesty / humility.  But Lee & Ashton (2004), like Allport & Odbert (1936), intentionally exclud highly evaluative terms from their analysis, so the same problem that plagues the Big Five also infects their Big Six.  Saucier (2009), by contrast, explicitly set out to construct a Big Six taxonomy that included evaluative terms.  The six factors in this model are Conscientiousness, Negative Valence (cruelty, corruption, disgust, wickedness, evil, and insanity), Agreeableness, Emotional Resiliency (lack of depression, cowardice, fear, frustration, gloom, and sadness), Gregariousness (similar to extroversion), and Originality (intelligence, talent, admirability, wisdom).[2]  This research program is only in its infancy, so it’s hard to say how successful Saucier’s version of the Big Six taxonomy will be, but early indications suggest that it is empirically better supported than the Big Five.  More importantly for virtue theory, its intentional inclusion of evaluative, sentimental, and response-dependent terminology makes it a better candidate for identifying virtues and vices – including intellectual virtues as vices such as intellect and originality.

[1] Others include Alfano (2013a), Kamtekar (2004), Kristjánsson (2012), Miller (forthcoming), and Slingerland (2011).

[2] As with the Big Five, the factors in this model are orthogonal to one another.  It may therefore come as a surprise to ethicists familiar with the unity of virtue thesis that there are multiple positive factors, which are uncorrelated with one another) but only one negative factor.  This could be taken to suggest that, at least in folk psychology, the unity of vice is considered more likely than the unity of virtue.


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The Big Six (Saucier 2009) Personality Structure

Unfortunately, all of the other problems with the Big Five remain unabated.  There is as yet no evidence that Big Six personality traits can be acquired.  Nor is there evidence that Big Six traits could license the prediction of particular behaviors, thoughts, deliberative strategies, perceptual sensitivities, or emotional reactions.  The Negative Valence dimension does correlate with having at least once in one’s lifetime engaged in risky behaviors such as drunk driving, bar brawls, shoplifting, vehicle theft, assault, and delinquent gang activity (Simms 2007), but a single action does not constitute a vice, and people who are high in Negative Valence may never engage in or even contemplate any such activities.  I conclude that, as yet, neither the Big Five nor the Big Six personality taxonomies lend any comfort to virtue theory in its struggle against ethical or epistemic situationism.

[1] Others include Alfano (2013a), Doris (2002), Kamtekar (2004), Kristjánsson (2012), Miller (forthcoming), and Slingerland (2011).

Epistemic Situationism: Prolepsis 1

In Character as Moral Fiction, I argue that since virtue responsibilists’ define knowledge in terms of epistemic virtues, lack of epistemic virtue would lead to skepticism.  Linda Zagzebski, for instance, defines knowledge as “a state of true belief arising out of acts of intellectual virtue” (1996, p. 271).  Though Zagzebski is of course not the only responsibilist out there, her work is canonical.  I should therefore have taken into account the fact that, for Zagzebski, an act of intellectual virtue need not be an act of an intellectually virtuous person (someone with the trait in question); instead, such an act need merely be the act that such a person would undertake if they were characteristically motivated (p. 279).  Thus, when I argued from the lack of responsibilist traits to the lack of knowledge, I skipped a step, as Miller (forthcoming) and XXX (forthcoming) point out.

However, this step can be filled in.  Suppose for the sake of argument that it’s true that most people lack responsibilist virtues (if it’s false, then the original argument fails anyway).  The challenge for Zagzebski and her fellow travelers is to fend off skepticism: their preferred outcome is that, even if epistemic situationism is true, responsibilism does not entail skepticism.  Skepticism would straightforwardly follow if knowledge required possession of intellectual virtue.  But it threatens even if knowledge is defined more weakly in terms of acts of intellectual virtue.  After all, if most people lack intellectually virtuous traits, whence come these acts of intellectual virtue that give us knowledge?  Consider open-mindedness, for instance: if most people are not open-minded as such, but only good-mood-open-minded, how is it that they perform open-minded acts when in a neutral or bad mood?  Or consider intellectual courage: if most people are not intellectually courageous, but only intellectually-courageous-in-the-face-of-non-unanimous dissent, how is it that they perform intellectually courageous acts when faced with unanimous dissent?

One option is to insist that people actually possess more global intellectual virtues, but that just takes us back to square one.  A second option is to claim that the localizing conditions for the virtues people tend to possess are actually the default: good-mood-open-mindedness is all we really need to get lots of acts of open-mindedness because, by and large, people tend to be in good moods.  But this is preposterous; we evidently experience the whole gamut of moods.  A third option is to argue that, despite the lack of global intellectual virtues, people routinely commit acts of intellectual virtue; that is, they tend to do what the virtuous person would do for the reason the virtuous person would do it.  This looks awfully like a disguised way of claiming that people do in fact possess global intellectual virtues.  What would explain the fact that, despite their lack of virtue, people tend to be motivated as the virtuous person would be motivated and act as the virtuous person would act?  Epistemic luck?  Factitious virtue?  But if factitious virtues are admitted to the fold, then the distribution of virtue in the population may not be nearly as depressing as I’ve argued.

Even if the above fails, a related problem threatens Zagzebski’s (2010) “exemplarist” semantics for moral terms, which relies on widespread virtue possession because it relies on Kripkean direct reference to exemplars.  The basic idea of this view is that all other moral (and, presumably, epistemic[1]) terms are defined by reference to a good person.  So, for instance, a good person is someone like that (referring ostensively to a moral exemplar), and a right action is what a good person would perform in relevantly similar circumstances.  But if intellectually good people are rare, then there won’t be enough of them to ground the meaning of term ‘good person’.  And if the sole foundational term of Zagzebski’s semantics is ungrounded, so too are all the others.

One might think this is too quick.  After all, by relying on experts, we can refer to uranium despite the fact that it’s an extremely rare element.  Perhaps good people are like uranium: by relying on experts, we can refer to good people despite the fact that they’re rare.  One problem that besets this argument is the problem of expertise: who’s an expert on who’s a good person?  Good people, presumably.  The good people are to be identified by the good people – by themselves.  So instead of pointing and saying ‘that person’, the theory relies on pointing and saying ‘me’ or perhaps ‘us’.  This is troublesome for various reasons.  Since, according to Zagzebski (p. 52), our good person-ostending is guided by the sentiment of admiration, it suggests that good people need to admire themselves, and be admired by others who bother to think about them carefully, which in turn suggests that good people can’t be modest or humble.  Together with the admission that virtue is rare, it suggests that there will be a lot of misinformation about who is a good person.  And it seems to be inconsistent with Zagzebski’s own admission that “given the importance of moral understanding by as many people as possible in a moral community, it is important that the ability to identify exemplars is spread as widely as possible” (p. 51, note 6).

[1] So far, Zagzebski has not developed an exemplarist semantics for epistemic terms, but one can only imagine that this is her plan.

Epistemic Situationism: An Extended Prolepsis

(This is a draft of a section of a paper for Epistemic Situationism, which Abrol Fairweather and I are co-editing for Oxford University Press.)

In 2012, I published a paper questioning the empirical credentials of one brand of virtue epistemology.  Since then, at least ten further publications have addressed this question.[1]  The present volume represents a first attempt by the broader community to grapple with the issues raised by these seminal papers.  Central questions include:

  1. What sorts of epistemic dispositions (i.e., dispositions that lead to the formation, sustaining, modification, integration, and elimination of truth-apt mental states) does today’s best science warrant belief in?[2]
  2. Can the dispositions referred to in the answer to question 1 be considered epistemic virtues or vices?  Are they reliable, unreliable, responsible, irresponsible?
  3. How problematic would it be for various brands of virtue epistemology if epistemic virtues were rare or nonexistent?  By the same token, how problematic would it be for various brands of virtue epistemology if epistemic vices were rife?
  4. In light of the answers to the previous questions, how, if at all, should we reform our ways of attributing (both verbally and mentally) epistemic virtues and vices to ourselves and each other?

Chapters 5, 6, and 7 of Character as Moral Fiction constitute my most comprehensive attempt to answer these questions thus far.  In the book, I argue:

  1. We have little reason to doubt the reliability of our perceptual faculties, so basic “animal knowledge” (Sosa 2011) derived from these sources stands unchallenged by the empirical literature.  Nevertheless, our inferential dispositions seem to consist largely of unreliable heuristics, and our motivating traits to find the truth and avoid error tend to be at best highly “local” (intellectual-courage-in-the-face-of-non-unanimous-dissent and creativity-while-in-a-good-mood, not “global” intellectual courage or creativity without qualification).[3]  Nevertheless, the plausible, public attribution of global traits tends to function as a self-fulfilling prophecy; for instance, people who are called creative tend to behave more creatively, acquiring what I dubbed factitious virtue.
  2. Heuristics, at least as we actually tend to use them, are not virtues: they are too unreliable.  Local epistemic traits may be virtues, but only in an attenuated sense because they tend to be too normatively uninspiring to merit the title.  Just as being loyal-to-one’s-male friends or faithful-in-one’s-fashion are not virtues, so courage-in-the-face-of-non-unanimous-dissent is not a virtue.  Factitious virtues may not be outright virtues, but they are responsible enough to merit commendation.
  3. Virtue reliabilism, which defines knowledge in terms of reliable capacities to form and sustain beliefs, leads to skepticism about inference (not all inference, but huge swaths of it).  Unless it recognizes factitious virtues, virtue responsibilism, which defines knowledge in terms of epistemically well-motivating traits of character, leads to a broader skepticism about most purported knowledge.
  4. We should withdraw many of our knowledge-claims based on supposedly reliable inferences.  We should go on attributing responsibilist virtues (but not vices) in a very generous way to encourage the development of factitious responsibilist virtues.

Unsurprisingly, these conclusions have met with spirited resistance on a number of fronts.  In the book and related papers, I attempted to anticipate the objections that could be leveled against my arguments – with limited success.  For instance, no one has attempted to make the evolutionary argument from survival (humans survived, so they must be reliable and responsible enough to form accurate beliefs and hence must have virtues) against epistemic situationism.  However, a number of unanticipated criticisms have cropped up.

This work is an extended prolepsis in favor of epistemic situationism, responding to objections that have been recently published or suggested to me by audiences at conferences, by reviewers, and by the students in my graduate seminar.[4]  Below are the objections I’ll be responding to.  Links will be added as the responses are developed:

Objection 1: Virtue Not Required for Knowledge

Objection 2: The “Big Six” to the Rescue

Objection 3: CAPS to the Rescue

Objection 4: Gigerenzer to the Rescue (part 1, part 2, part 3)

Objection 5: Abilism and Epistemic Dependence

[1] Alfano (2013 a, forthcoming a, forthcoming b), Battaly (forthcoming), Brogaard (forthcoming), Fairweather & Montemayor (forthcoming), Miller (forthcoming), Olin & Doris (forthcoming), Pritchard (forthcoming), King (forthcoming).

[2] So far, the connection between epistemic situationism and epistemology has focused on knowledge that; know how has not been explored.

[3] Battaly (forthcoming) draws on the same sources to argue for similar conclusions.  She seems to have arrived at her views independently, if a few years later.

[4] I am extraordinarily grateful to all of these philosophers and psychologists for their attention and charity in responding to my arguments.

“Hopefully [Anne Frank] would have been a belieber.”

(Cross-posted at the Intellectual Humility blog)

In April 2013, pop star Justin Bieber visited the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam.  Frank is widely known as the author of a chilling diary composed during the Nazi occupation of WW2.

Her touching faith in humanity is made all the more poignant by the dual facts that her family was protected by non-Jews and that they were eventually betrayed to the Gestapo.

I’m not a believer in the “sacredness” of spaces, but social etiquette applies everywhere. Bieber had the option not to leave a note in the guest book, or to write something anodyne.  His note started off in this direction: “Truly inspiring to be able to come here.”  Fair enough.  He could have left it at that, or stopped after adding a bland statement in praise of Frank: “Anne was a great girl.”  Great?  Not exactly.  Tragic, perhaps.  Hopeful, certainly.  Resilient.  Thoughtful.  But the sentiment is inoffensive.

Bieber, though, couldn’t leave well enough alone.  He followed up the vapid with the vicious: “Hopefully she would have been a belieber.”  A what?  A belieber, of course, a fanatical devotee of the music and personality of Justin Bieber.  

It’s easy to see that one of the more galling things about that last sentence is its abject lack of humility.  In the presence of genocide, his third thought (at least it wasn’t his first!) is about himself.  The point I want to make, though, is a bit more subtle.  I think that this example of misbehavior also provides some evidence for the attentional interpretation of humility, the thesis that being humble is less about the content of one’s thoughts than it is about the direction of one’s attention.  Plausibly, if the main problem with Bieber’s note had been that he was self-aggrandizing, then reversing the content would fix things.  Imagine that Bieber had instead written, “Truly inspiring to be able to come here.  Anne was a great girl.  Hopefully she would not have been a belieber.”  Does that make it any better?  The new version is a little stranger, but I don’t think it evinces any more humility.  His third thought is once again all about himself.  This fits with the attentional interpretation: regardless of Bieber’s verdict on whether Anne Frank would or would not have been a belieber, the fact that that’s what concerned him after an hour in the museum is the real problem.

Some reflections on marriage

I recently officiated my brother’s “Western” wedding ceremony in Koh Samui, Thailand.  Here’s what I had to say about the venerable institution…

Marriage is unique to the human animal – a distinction shared with bureaucracy, suicide, the emotion of disgust, the capacity for language, and not much else.

The act of getting married involves a peculiar use of language.  Perhaps the most common use of language is to make assertions. When we assert, we represent the world as being a certain way, and we implicitly give others permission to ask us how we know it to be that way.  I can safely assert that we are in Koh Samui because, if you asked me how I know, I could point to my recent flight here.  I can safely assert that Ed and Waenyod are standing in front of you because, if you asked me how I know, I could point to them.

A few of us witnessed a quite different use of language recently, when Ed and Waenyod were married in Bangkok.  There, Princess Sirindhorn didn’t assert but declared that they were married.  It would have been silly to ask her, when she said this, “How do you know?”  At best, the correct response would have been, “Because I say so.”  Only a delusional narcissist would assert that we are in Koh Samui because I say so.  But with declarations, saying makes it so.  Declarations thus seem to involve a kind of magic, an exercise of sovereign power.  Marriage is, in this sense, magical.  But the magical structures erected by declarations can be fragile.  What can be made with a word can also be unmade with a word.  What’s more, declarations do not automatically succeed.  Only the right person, in the right context, with the right audience can successfully make a declaration.  I cannot declare Ed and Waenyod married today, both because I am not empowered to do so, and because they are already married.  But what does it mean to be empowered to make a declaration?  Among other things, this power, which seems to reside in the sovereign individual, actually derives from the acceptance of the community.  Sirindhorn was empowered to declare Ed and Waenyod married not because she has divine blood, but because the broader community accepts her declarations.  What might seem to be the mysterious power of the elite is actually grounded in the attitudes and activities of the masses.

Marriage involves another peculiar use of language, one distinct from both assertions and declarations.  Marriage involves, perhaps more than anything else, a commitment.  Commitments share one important feature with declarations: it’s senseless to ask someone making a commitment how he knows.  If I promise to call you at noon tomorrow, it would be bizarre to ask me how I know that I’ll call.  But commitments are importantly different from declarations.  Someone who makes a commitment puts himself on the hook.  If I commit to calling you tomorrow at noon, but then fail to call, you would be within your rights to hold me to account.  Marriage is a commitment in this way: both parties put themselves on the hook – not just to each other, but also to all of us, to everyone who makes their marriage binding by accepting its declaration.

The commitment of marriage thus differs both from everyday assertions and from the magic of declarations.  But marriage is unusual even by the standards of commitments.  If I promise to call you at noon tomorrow, the conditions of my commitment – what will count as living up to it – are clear.  What counts as upholding the commitment is spelled out in advance.  The commitment of marriage is different.  While the platitudes surrounding marriage are well-known – “to have and to hold,” “to be true” to one another, “to cherish” one another – what will count as living up to the thoughts expressed by those platitudes is impossible to spell out in advance.  Every moment of marriage is not only a choice of whether to live up to one’s commitment, but also a discovery of what that commitment entails.  And this continuous discovery, this exploration of the promise one has already made but whose terms are revealed inch by inch, day by day, can only be undertaken with the guidance, reassurance, and acceptance of one’s community.­­­

Ancient pride, Christian humility

(Cross-posted at the Intellectual Humility blog)

It’s not often that you see a revaluation of values, in which a new virtue is introduced (tolerance?), an old virtue dies (chastity?), a vice becomes a virtue (meekness?), or a virtue becomes a vice. This post is about the fourth kind of transformation. In Homeric Greek culture, and also in the Hellenistic culture of Plato and Aristotle, pride was a virtue. This is not to say that vanity or arrogance were virtues — they weren’t — but appropriate or due or fitting pride was a virtue.

In Aristotle this is especially clear, as for him every virtue is a mean between vices. Pride is thus the virtue of esteeming oneself to the extent one deserves; it falls between arrogance and humility. This version of pride is not like modern self-respect, insofar as in contemporary culture we take it for granted that everyone deserves respect simply in virtue of their humanity. It’s also not honor accorded because of one’s blood, rank, or birth. Pride in Aristotle’s ethics is an appropriate positive valuation of one’s one merits and accomplishments. It thus comes on a sliding scale, depending on the degree of one’s merits and accomplishments. Some people have little pride; some have little to be proud of.

Along comes Christianity. Pride becomes a sin, and humility is elevated to a virtue. Pride is an abomination, while self-abnegation is treasured. Jesus, ostensibly a god, washes the feet of his disciples and allows himself to be crucified like a common criminal. Pride’s star falls so low that it is eventually labeled the only unforgivable sin.

christ washes feet

As Nietzsche was fond of pointing out, modern western morality is an incongruous patchwork — a veritable palimpsest — of ancient and christian moralities. For this reason, the modern concept of humility (including modern intellectual humility) is like a burlap sack with a rabid monkey and a hungry cobra sewn inside.

We, who are neither ancient nor christian, have to make something of this chaos. My and my colleagues’ approach in our current work is normatively guided, though we think we can operationalize intellectual humility well enough to test for it empirically. The normativity of our approach has two main aspects. First, we are only willing to call something intellectual humility if it would actually be generally useful in the search for truth. So, for instance, always thinking (or saying, or making as if to say) what others say is not intellectual humility, nor is studiously ignoring what others say. Second, we are willing to call something intellectual humility only if it is admirable. This allows that the person with intellectual humility might not admire or even notice her own intellectual humility, but that at least some of those who do notice it would be right to admire it. Our test of behavioral intellectual humility relies on both of these normative points. More later…