Atheist Virtues …

Alain de Botton is an atheist who wants to maintain the more, well, I guess “spiritual” is a decent word for it, attributes of religion and how they build a community in a form that is atheistic and so doesn’t rely on a belief in any god at all. Most of the New Atheists have basically mocked him for this. His most recent move is to define a set of virtues for the modern — and presumably atheist — era. Both Stephanie Zvan and Russell Blackford have commented on them.

What comes out in both posts and annoys me is a worry that these things aren’t virtues because there are cases where you shouldn’t engage in them. Zvan, for example, makes this the heart of her criticism of “Resilience”:

Look, resilience has distinct advantages in a lot of situations. Being broken by the small things isn’t anything anyone looks for. Being stopped by every trifle doesn’t get you very far. But sometimes quitting really is the best solution to a problem. Do you want to keep beating your head against an abusive “friendship” trying to get it to change? Is that a virtue?

There are times when treating resilience as a virtue is dangerous. There are times when it’s too much. Then, calling it a virtue is an active harm.

Blackford also hints at this as an issue, but as you might expect has read Aristotle and so grasps the way around the problem:

In some cases, I think that impatience, of a kind, might be a virtue – if it means, for example, impatience with bullshit. Aristotle would probably say that the trick is actually to be patient at the right time, with the right people, for the right reasons, and so on (and similarly to be impatient at the right time, etc.).

What annoys me is that this is somehow raised as an objection against de Botton, who never actually implies that considering these things as virtues means considering them as virtues even when the reason they are a virtue isn’t in play in a situation. Something like Aristotle’s “moderation” idea should always be in play when considering why a virtue is a virtue, because at the very least virtue should never, ever require you to act like an idiot in order to act virtuously. Two of the original Virtue Theories — Aristotle and the Stoics — both insisted that that wasn’t the case: Aristotle with his idea that the moderate is the virtue, and the Stoics with their idea that virtue was defined by doing what is the rational thing to do. It’s become a throwaway, strawman point to talk about the virtuous having to act on that virtue even when it doesn’t make sense to do so, but Virtue Theories don’t rquire people to become “Lawful Stupid”, following the letter of a definition of a virtue while ignoring the reasons that thing is called a virtue in the first place. Resilience, for example, is defined by de Botton as this:

Keeping going even when things are looking dark; accepting that reversals are normal; remembering that human nature is, in the end, tough. Not frightening others with your fears.

But where does this imply that you keep going even when there is no hope of being successful? Where does this imply that you don’t try to avoid or reverse reversals? Where does this imply that you don’t recognize when things are too tough? Where does this imply that you don’t frighten others when they need to be frightened? Again, there is no reason to assume that de Botton’s virtues imply that you should be an idiot in service to virtue, and so it is indicative that one of the first criticisms against anyone who advances virtues is “Well, in this case you shouldn’t act what you call ‘virtuously’ because it won’t give you what you think the virtue will give you.” The reply to that is “Duh! Virtues are defined in relation to a purpose, and if in a case you wouldn’t fulfill the purpose then, well, acting that way isn’t a virtue.”

Zvan relates Virtue to Sin:

Elevating resilience to the level of a virtue does more than just change it from a tool into a fetish. It also casts lapses in resilience as lapses in virtue–sins. This does what religion all too often does, forces people to choose between what is good for them in any one situation and avoiding sin/maintaining virtue.

Which is precisely why this annoys me, because both Virtue and Sin relate to an overall principle or idea of what is good for people. Thus, neither can indeed actually clash with what is good for a person because if the action would lead to what is considered the overall good for a person, then it is virtuous/not sinful even if a strict definition of the virtues or sins might suggest that, and if it would not lead to that overall good for the person then it is not virtuous/is a sin no matter how closely it might resemble one of those virtues or not be considered a sin by strict definition. So what we see here is precisely the wrong sort of objection to a Virtue or Sin Theory, where she attacks it based on an idea of “good” that isn’t the one being used. In this case, it seems — especially with the link to religious sin — that she’s using the idea of personal pleasure/pain as her good, and saying that in some cases you might end up more miserable if you try to be Resilient, so that forces you away from doing what is really good for you. Now, it is possible that de Botton wants a sort of “happiness” justification for his virtues, but then being Resilient when it won’t bring happiness, even long term, wouldn’t be a virtue for him. For religions and for the Stoics, being “happy” isn’t what is good for people, and so simply clashing with happiness is not in any way making it so that someone is choosing what is not good for them. In short, avoiding sin/maintaining virtue always is what is good for a person in all situations … it’s just what is thought of as “good for a person” varies.

Zvan then moves on to talk about the capacity to be Resilient:

That isn’t merely a situational problem either. Resilience has been a hot topic in psychology for at least a couple of decades. We know that resilience can be a powerful thing, so we’ve studied how people can have more of it. The factors that increase resilience are largely beyond anyone’s control. How you are raised, how much trauma you’ve experienced when you encounter a bad situation, how well others support you–these aren’t choices that people make.

Under those circumstances, raising resilience to the level of a virtue as de Botton does is cruelty. We’ve had enough of religions setting arbitrary standards that people can’t meet just by trying, haven’t we?

And the problem here is that it seems to be based on a notion that if you are to be expected to meet the demands of virtue or religion, you should be able to do so by simply trying really hard at it in specific situations. It should never be the case that some people will just naturally have more ability to do it, and so that while it just comes easy to some people others have to struggle with it, and even work to develop it. There is, of course, the reasonable expectation that if we are going to demand virtue from someone they have to be reasonably able to actually do it, but the cases where that might be an issue are cases like the kleptomaniac, not the cases she cites. All of the cases she described are, in fact, controllable at least with respect to whether or not one faces them with Resilience … even if one needs therapy or training in order to get to that point. While one cannot control how one was raised, one can train out the things they were taught or adopted from their upbringing and train in new behaviours and beliefs. One can try to train out or train down the reaction one has had to trauma. One can either build a supportive network or train themselves to rely less on the support of others. While one can say that these aren’t really choices that people make, how one reacts to them and what one does in response to them are, and that is what people are responsible for. No one ever promised that acting virtuously is or ought to be easy, and to become a virtuous person may indeed require a lot of work, and work outside of merely reacting to the situations that you are put in. You may well have to prepare a lot to be Resilient in situations where others are just naturally Resilient. I don’t see why having to put in that strong effort would be unreasonable; you don’t get anything good without expecting to have to work at it.

Zvan also goes after, surprise, surprise, “Politeness”:

Politeness is a set of behaviors that serve a purpose. de Botton is close on that purpose, though I think he’s going a bit grand with “civilization”. Few rules of politeness are that universal. Still, politeness is that set of behaviors that allow a society to function without constantly haggling about how it should be done. It’s a codified nonverbal and verbal language that tells you where you stand in a transaction.

Sometimes we need to haggle over how things are done in a particular society. Societies contain injustices. They can head in a direction that is doomed to failure or even catastrophe. Sometimes there is simply a better way. Sometimes there is virtue in the haggling.

We can’t do that, however, when politeness–separate from the specifics of its function–becomes a virtue. Then the slowing down, even if we gain insights we wouldn’t moving at full speed, becomes the sin. Agitation becomes the sin. Negotiation on how we are treated becomes the sin.

I disagree with this definition of “Politeness”. I would argue that Politeness is indeed a set of social rules and behaviours that are intended to demonstrate reasonable respect. You thus can and should haggling and negotiate Politely. Politeness doesn’t stop you from getting what you want or need, or talking about injustice or trying to head off disaster, but is instead basically a reminder that in your words and actions you always have to treat the other people not merely as means to your end, but as ends in themselves. Or, basically, as people with their own beliefs and desires, and their own goals. It’s always seemed an odd assertion to me that the “anti-accommodationists” have always seen the calls for Politeness as calls to stop disagreeing, as opposed to as calls to treat their opponents as reasonable people who are expressing the beliefs they actually hold. The insistence on calling “lying” saying something that you think is false that they clearly think is true is clearly, to me, Impolite, as is ignoring what a person says their beliefs are and translating them based on what others believe into something you think fits better, because both stop treating the other person as a person deserving of reasonable respect and intellectual charity and turns them into a punching bag for your own beliefs.

So, my challenge on this one is this: do you not think that you can negotiate or disagree Politely? If you can’t, why not? I’ve seen many people who disagree with me Politely on a number of issues, even really important ones, so why can’t you even achieve a modicum of Politeness?

Zvan continues:

This simple list also doesn’t even begin to address the virtues inherent in the “negative” emotions. There are none without uses. Fear is critical in good decision-making, even if it shouldn’t be allowed to rule us. Anger has accomplished much that is good. Even jealously tells us something about our own needs and desires that we can put to good use. Where do we give these useful negatives their due if we raise one set of traits and tools above the others?

Virtues aren’t mere tools, no matter how much Zvan wants to cast it that way. That emotions can be useful doesn’t make them virtuous because it doesn’t make them inherently good, meaning that they aim at the ultimate good for people. A Virtue Theory can give them their due without elevating them to Virtues by evaluating their use at providing the good, and thus judging them against the Virtues so that their entire value comes from how well they support the Virtues. Can it be reasonably argued that anger is good in and of itself? This is unlikely, since it reacts both to the good and to the bad. All emotions, I argue, are reactions that have to be conditioned to reflect the good, but are never good in and of themselves. One can argue that I could “save” anger and the emotions like I save Resilience and say that anger is not really anger unless it aims at the good … but anger and all emotions are actual reactions in us, and likely largely physical ones. Resilence, therefore, can be tied to behaviour and not to the specific reactions that produce it, but it is difficult to do that for anger. Thus, for the emotions, we must consider the physical reactions as what it means to be them, and then when we look at that we discover that they do not aim at the good and so are not themselves Virtues, although they can be of use in aiming at the good and thus in us becoming and remaining Virtuous. But being useful is not enough to be a Virtue.

I’ll end with Blackford, who ends up listing some that he thinks are missing:

But nor does his list contain distinctly opposed virtues, such as skepticism, anti-authoritarianism, sex-positivity, or enthusiasm for change. Surprisingly, the traditional virtue of courage does not appear on the list.

I thought that his version of “Confidence” could probably have taken the place “Courage” normally occupies, but that’s debatable. What I do want to focus on are the others, and question why they should be considered virtues at all. It seems trivially obvious that all of them can be quite problematic if overdone, but it isn’t clear that you can “moderate” them without making them meaningless. If we interpret “Skepticism” to be something like “Do not trust certain forms of evidence/arguments unless it is reasonable to trust them”, this sounds just like normal, everyday reasoning, the kind that most people engage in. If we interpret “anti-authoritarianism” to mean “Only trust reasonable authority”, then again it’s hard to see what special way of living this picks out. And the same applies to all of the other terms. If you try to interpret them “moderately”, it’s hard to see how they could apply to the debates we commonly have over them today, and if you leave them more specific to those debates it’s clear that they can fail to pick out the good.

You could argue that you can define them relative to the good the way I did for Resilience, but if we take “Increase the happiness of people” as our base good you can clearly see the issue. Would those advocating for Skepticism accept it meaning “Act skeptically unless it doesn’t make people more happy to be skeptical”? Would those advocating for Anti-authoritarianism accept it meaning “Act against authority unless it will make people happy to accept authority”. For Sex-positivity, you can see it being utterly meaningless to interpret it as “Think of sex positively unless it won’t make you happy to think that way”, and for Enthusiasm for Change it is equally meaningless to call it “Embrace change except where that would make people unhappy”.

So, then, these don’t see to be things that can be made into virtues, because defined broadly they are meaningless and defined narrowly we can easily see that they don’t always aim at the good. Only if you think of them as being the “moderate” versions can this argument even get off the ground … and then that ends up simply defining them to be the most reasonable positions instead of arguing for them being such, which is something that a lot of the New Atheist arguments end up being: broaden the definitions so much that there is no possible way that any reasonable position could oppose it and declare victory, ignoring that the opponents weren’t arguing about the broader definition in the first place. I’ve seen it with science, with natural and with skepticism, and I don’t want this overdefinition to get in the way of determining and asssesing virtue.

2 Responses to “Atheist Virtues …”

  1. Crude Says:

    Has anyone ever seriously debated sex positivism in a ‘pro’ and ‘con’ sense? I mean, you know, two people going at it in front of a judge and all that.

    I ask because I’d love the opportunity to see someone on the pro side defend something like this.

    • verbosestoic Says:

      I haven’t seen one, but I’d like to see it, because I’m not really sure what “sex positivism” has to mean. Sure, I can understand that it doesn’t have to mean “anything goes”, but at times it looks an awful lot like “What I like is erotica/sex positive, what you like is porn/out of line”. In a post replying to a post by P.Z. Myers, I questioned how sex positive he was because he seemed to be advocating against simple sexual relationships where the only interest either party has for each other is sexual, and he also repeats that a number of times in talking about feminist issues … but how sex positive are you if you refuse to accept having sex just for the sake of sex and instead say that it has to be about more than that?

      The link to my post is here:

      Note that I CAN say that because I’m at best sex indifferent, but those who are claiming to be sex positive don’t have that out.

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