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Objectivity (continued)

Dan Sportiello | Monday, April 18, 2011

It is not, of course, just exhaustion that inhibits reflection: While I am not really comfortable unless it is over ninety degrees outside, my mother cannot function in anything over room temperature. But all of this serves only to emphasize Blackburn’s point that, “While we characterize ourselves and others as courageous, modest, prudent, sympathetic and so on, it turns out that we are much more fragmented and contextually variable than these terms suggest.” With sufficient rest, diet and exercise, I have wisdom, compassion and courage in abundance; without sufficient rest, diet and exercise, I have nothing, and I suspect that many of you, were you to look into your hearts, would say the same of yourselves. “Much work in social psychology,” echoes Blackburn, “suggests that people act more from moods and forces that are themselves set by situations rather than from settled dispositions such as prudence, kindness and the rest.” Morality has everything to do, it seems, with luck — or, at any rate, with sleep and temperature — not with virtue.

Actually, Blackburn argues, it gets worse: One might have hoped that if no one is utterly immune to circumstance and mood, at least some are more resistant to them than others — that is, one might have hoped that some have second-order dispositions to be virtuous at least most of the time. But, in fact, no one seems to be significantly more resistant to circumstance and mood than anyone else. It “turns out that people do not differ very markedly in these dispositions and our common belief that they do is simply an illusion.” He concludes that the truly virtuous person — the sage who, indifferent to fortune and misfortune, walks through life as the only freedman among slaves — is an absurd fantasy. “This god-like nature belongs to nobody, and represents an ideal to which nobody can approximate.”

It is true that I, certainly, do not approximate it. And it is true that I have met few who do. But I would have thought that this was unsurprising: People are not utterly immune to circumstance and mood because virtue is, well, hard, and furthermore, people do not show improvement in their resistance to circumstance and mood because our culture is dedicated to the goods of efficiency, not of excellence, and thus systematically prevents us from living virtuous lives. Polemic aside, however, there is a deeper problem with Blackburn’s skepticism about virtue: Whatever he claims, his account is based upon virtue — although not, perhaps, virtue of a distinctively moral kind.

“Some philosophers,” notes Blackburn, “suggest that we should not even separate input from output. Their idea is that all we should find is the one unified mental act: judging a situation in moral terms, or seeing the situation as demanding in some specific ways. Such philosophers like to think in terms of a unitary, ‘thick’ rule or concept, a single principle of organization that in one movement determines both how we see the situation and, seamlessly included in that, determines our reaction to it.” This is to react as I reacted in medical school, accepting my initial reaction of the mural — as a skeleton, not a skeletal system, and therefore something to be feared. It is, in other words, to live in the world as a child — and, thus, it is to be avoided. “Refusing to ‘split’ begins to sound like a refusal to think, perhaps symptomatic of a complacent belief that the emotional and moral lenses through which we see deserve no critical attention themselves.” To understand the world is to know it as it is, not as it seems — and thus to be its master, not its slave. It is to reflect upon our reactions to the world and thus bring them, through this distinctive sort of introspection, under our control. It is, in other words, to judge an action based not on how we happen to feel about it but rather on what effect it will actually have — that is, consequentially.

Such a process of reflection is possible, of course: It is what has made possible our scientific understanding of the world — what has made possible, one might whisper in a hyperbolic moment, civilization itself. But it is hard, exceedingly hard — so hard, in fact, that they painted testaments to it in my mother’s medical school. The ability to see the world from the third-person perspective, to divide our thick concepts into thin concepts as Blackburn demands, is itself a virtue — one that is, like all virtues, exceedingly fragile, but nonetheless real for that. It takes tremendous discipline, exercised continuously over an entire lifetime, to see the facts as they are, not as they first seem to be. As Ludwig Wittgenstein asserted, “If good or bad willing changes the word, it can only change the limits of the word, not the facts; not the things that can be expressed in language. In brief, the world must thereby become quite another. It must so to speak wax or wane as a whole. The world of the happy is quite another than that of the unhappy.” That unhappiness or exhaustion make this kind of good willing impossible does not make objectivity any less of a virtue — does not, that is, make it any less necessary for our flourishing. Without the virtue of objectivity, Blackburn’s consequentialist project cannot even begin.

This is not to say, of course, that said project fails, for the virtue of objectivity does, in fact, allow us to divide actions from their consequences. And, indeed, it is only because of this consequence — because of our ability to reflectively understand and thus control our world and ourselves — that the virtue of objectivity is justified in the first place. There is in this a circularity — while the virtue of objectivity is justified consequentially, that process of justification can only be carried out by means of that virtue — though it is, I take it, a virtuous circularity. To whatever extent rule-circularity is virtuous, anyway.

One wonders, however, about the future of this virtue: If it is true that, as Blackburn insists, virtue is not to be found in our culture, then our ability to critically reflect upon our reactions to the world must also have collapsed. And, to whatever extent that ability has indeed collapsed, then both our science and our ethics are mere remnants, hollow shells of traditions once rich but now incapable of further insight.

It does not stretch the imagination to think that, in this, Blackburn is right.

Daniel John Sportiello is in his third year in the philosophy Ph.D. program. Listen to his radio show on WVFI at 1 p.m. on Thursdays. He can be reached at [email protected]

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.