So I’ve been reading a ton of books on virtue ethics as research for the book I’m working on.
Six months ago, Matt Zwolinski, Aaron Ross Powell, and Drew Summitt recommended a big list of books and authors with the idea that any one or two of them would be a good place to get started with virtue ethics. I assembled the list, looked at it, and thought to myself “I’ll bet I can read these by the end of the year.” Setting that challenge for myself was one of the first steps to deciding I wanted to write a book myself.
It’s gone faster than I thought it would. I just finished Philippa Foot’s Natural Goodness, which was the last book from the original list. I’m not done with the virtue ethics part of my research yet—I’ve been adding books and papers as I went along, so that I now have at least seven more that I want to include in this leg of my research. I’ve also taken a couple of detours along the way—most notably Deirdre McCloskey’s Knowledge and Persuasion in Economics and Michael Oakeshott’s On Human Conduct. Both well worth the time taken.
What I have found interesting about my tour of virtue ethics so far is the diversity of perspectives. McCloskey’s framework in Bourgeois Virtues was so cohesive, and she drew on other sources so liberally, I hadn’t expected her own perspective to be so distinct in some ways. For instance, her treatment of prudence as being equivalent to phronesis is at odds with, at minimum, how Julia Annas understands those concepts. And Annas’ emphasis on virtue as skill, while not at odds with McCloskey, is something different, surprising, not what I expected to find when I set out. But in a good way—it made virtue concrete for me, something I could really understand.
Moreover, there are some wildly different metaphysics going on. Alasdair MacIntyre is more like me; he sees morality as synonymous with a moral tradition. Meanwhile, Martha Nussbaum bluntly states that she is not like that at all; she believes herself operating firmly within the Enlightenment framework and simply scavenging the ancients for wisdom that can be used within that framework. Most objective moral metaphysics within this community are similar to, or directly inspired by, Foot’s (developed at length in Natural Goodness). Foot (inspired by Aristotle) speaks of the good as being relevant to the telos of a species; we can speak of “a good specimen of X” based on some very specific ideas of what it means for X species to flourish. I find it interesting, but think it works better within a McCloskeyan pragmatist framework than as a theory of truly objective morality.
In a way the metaphysics is something of a distraction. A business book audience is not going to care one bit for metaphysics; if I try pulling that on them I’m certain to lose their attention or any chance that a publisher would take me on. Still, I’m not going to write a book about a moral framework unless I believe in it and its underpinnings. And books like Bernard Williams’ Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy can be very clarifying about what the role of a philosophy of ethics should be. Oakeshott helps a great deal as well—as Oakeshott might put it, I’m going to be writing a book for an audience that already subscribes to the same moral language that I do. All I’ll be doing is attempting to expand their vocabulary, so to speak.
Another surprise for me was how central the role of luck was to the multi-century debate in ancient ethics. Annas covers this as part of her (masterful) tour of ancient ethics overall, and Nussbaum focuses specifically on this, and contrasts the philosophical positions with the perspective to be found in Greek tragedy. The debate between the Stoics and the intellectual descendants of Aristotle was just about whether or not living well or happiness (eudaimonia) was vulnerable to changing circumstances, or if the virtuous person was truly happy no matter their circumstances. This seems a bizarre question for us moderns, but Annas and Nussbaum put it in context masterfully.
The best modern response I’ve read to this question is Daniel Russell’s in Happiness for Humans. He argues that the Stoics were correct that virtue is all that is needed for living well, but that the details of what this means do, still, leave us vulnerable to luck. Virtue is the skill of living well, and he argues that the activity involved in the exercise of that skill is “embodied”. He does not just mean that it is a physical thing that occurs (and thus physically vulnerable), though that is part of it. His point is more interesting than that.
Russell draws on the bereavement literature to discuss how the typical person copes with tragic circumstances. He discusses C. S. Lewis, who wrote that when his wife died he felt like he had lost a piece of himself. He then points to studies on people who have lost physical limbs that show that they often speak of feeling as though they have lost a loved one. This equivalence is striking, from each side; and Russell shows that Lewis’ case is not uncommon; indeed feeling like one has lost a limb is a typical response to losing someone very close to you.
This is what Russell means by “embodied”—the virtuous person takes the major, meaningful activities of their life, and the people who are dearest for them, and makes them a significant part of who they are. I am not just a man who happens to be married to a woman. An important part of who I am is the husband to my wife. If I were to lose her, I would not just be losing another person, but a vital part of myself. Russell argues that the stability that the Stoics sought can be approximated only by a separate skill, the skill of resilience, of reshaping your life meaningfully after a tragic loss.
All of the books I went through have been enriching to read. If I had to pick only two to take with me to a desert island, I would take Julia Annas’ Intelligent Virtue and Russell’s Happiness for Humans. If I could take three, I’d add Annas’ The Morality of Happiness. If I could add a fourth, it would be Nussbaum’s The Fragility of Goodness.
As I said, I intend to read yet more virtue ethics books. I’ve got three books by Alasdair MacIntyre alone that I intend to read, including his most famous, After Virtue (though to be honest I’m much more excited to read Whose Justice? Which Rationality?). But I will now increasingly be reading other categories of books—McCloskey recommended this one, for instance, and of course I’ve got business books and self-help books to get to.
The exciting but frustrating thing about diving deep into a subject is that the further you go, the bigger the corpus of relevant works seems to grow. Actually getting to the writing of this book is going to take self-control on my part, in terms of creating a definitive stopping point where I say enough is enough where research is concerned. I intend to reach that point by the end of next year.
I began research for this earlier this year, and I’m tempted to just wait until I’ve actually got a draft (a while from now) but I’ve decided to take a page from Austin Kleon’s book and show my work.
Two or three years ago I tried to read Deirdre McCloskey’s Bourgeois Virtues. I expected, based on what I’d heard and on this EconTalk interview, to find an extended argument about how commerce has made us more moral and more expressive. What I did not expect was a big treatise on virtue ethics in general as well as applied to middle class and commercial life. I pushed my way through it, but frankly I didn’t absorb much of the book at the time. Her second book in the series was much more accessible to me, but didn’t touch much on ethics.
Last year, on Nassim Taleb’s recommendation, I picked up Seneca’s Letters from a Stoic. Seneca and the Stoics in general are an odd lot, in many ways too cold and too rationalist—one of the letters involves Seneca chastising a friend for crying too much after the death of his child. But I was reading the book during a difficult time, and I found it helped in a number of ways—if I viewed the book as a source of wisdom rather than a potential ideology that I needed to take as a whole. Seneca’s advise to simply assume that the worst was going to happen, rather than allowing the possibility of it to be a source of stress, was of great help to me in a particular situation.
I knew that Seneca and the Stoics in general were part of the larger conversation about virtue in the ancient world, and I was anxious to learn more. Though it had not stuck with me in the first read through, I could tell that McCloskey’s Bourgeois Virtues was a highly researched, broad exploration which included not only the ancients but the Christian contribution (Aquinas in particular). So in February, I gave it a reread. And this time, its message resonated, and resonated strongly.
I’m not going to do a book review here but suffice to say that I think McCloskey’s project of demonstrating that healthy commercial culture includes the exercise of virtue is both worthy and, to me at least, persuasive.
The end of the book includes a call to action, which goes as follows:
We need to revive a serious ethical conversation about middle-class life, the life of towns, the forum and agora. We need to get beyond the project of damning a man of business because he is neither an exalted aristocrat nor an unassuming peasant-proletarian. The conservative program of handing things over to a class of pseudoaristocrats trained at Andover and Yale or the radical program of handing things over to a proletariat-friendly party of bourgeois-born young men has not worked out very well. We need an ethical bourgeoisie.
When I read these words I knew I wanted to participate in this revival. To that end, some friends and I have launched Sweet Talk as a hub for conversation. But I also want to make a contribution in the form of at least one book.
Finding the Right Implied Author
There are two books I have in my head, with two very different implied authors.
One book is a long treatise on virtue ethics in the market, written by an implied author who is capable of addressing the main critiques that would come out of the philosophical community. This implied author is very well read in the conversations of philosophy in and out of ethics, and is well equipped to engage in that conversation. The problem is that Deirdre McCloskey has basically written this book already, and even though my version of virtue ethics may differ slightly from hers, I don’t think that this is the best contribution I could make right now, nor am I well equipped to make it. It would take me several more years of research before I could comfortably write as this implied author.
The second book has an implied audience of the people who buy books in the business section of a book store (or Amazon). Unpretentious, practical minded people who nevertheless view consulting books as both enjoyable and useful. The implied author is well read and confident in the subject he is writing about, but not an expert or a specialist in philosophy or economics. He works for a living and thus experiences the world of business forty hours a week or more, and has so for his whole career—but not as an executive or entrepreneur or anything more exciting than a salaried employee. His value proposition for his implied audience is that his life is similar to theirs, and he can offer a framework for looking at that life that is very clarifying, but also satisfying. Useful, but also enjoyable to engage with critically or from the inside.
I believe that that is an implied author I am capable of becoming within a reasonable timeframe, and that is more or less the book that I want to write.
Respecting a Pre-existing Conversation
One thing that I have learned from McCloskey, both explicitly from her works on rhetoric, and by example, is that there is no worse scholarly vice than taking shortcuts. Any subject that you think you have a novel idea or framing for has been discussed to death by countless numbers of people much more intelligent and well read than you are, and over a course of generations rather than years or even decades. There’s nothing new under the sun, philosophy is a footnote to Plato (who was himself a footnote to the traditions that came before him), etc, etc.
The point isn’t to downplay originality or novel contributions, the point is to respect what’s already been done, and to avoid as much as possible reinventing the wheel. The amount of work you need to do to familiarize yourself with those conversations, and the specific conversations you need to focus on, depends on the implied author that you want to project. If you want to project an implied author who is simply an enthusiastic amateur, then you will need to do much less reading than you would for either of the implied authors described above. The point is to be persuasive but also to be honest; choose the story you’re going to tell based on what you’ve actually credibly developed the knowledge base to defend.
Don’t pretend to be more knowledgeable than you are—the greatest sinners in McCloskey’s work on rhetoric are inexperienced youth who think they can take the shortcut to Authority by acquiring some Popperian or positivist demarcation that allows them to write off huge swaths of the conversation as not worthy of being read. It does not work that way—if you’re going to critically engage with an area you have to actually engage; that is, make a real effort to understand what it is that you are criticizing.
There are a few overlapping conversations that I need to get myself up to speed on before I feel comfortable writing this book. Here’s the basic sketch:
- Philosophy. You know, that set of conversations that has been going on for thousands of years? For this book I’m focusing primarily on the community of virtue ethicists, but also a few others that I think will tie in well, like Oakeshott. I’ve been reading books in the virtue ethics strain for a few months now; two books that have stood out are The Morality of Happiness and The Fragility of Goodness.
- Business Ethics. This is less cohesive, as it seems there are several strands. There are philosophers that write about business ethics, and then there’s what’s taught in ethics courses in business schools, with apparently very little overlap. I’ll be looking into both. I’ll also be reading From Higher Aims to Hired Hands, on McCloskey’s recommendation.
- General Business Books. I’ve read a few of these in my day but I feel I should really familiarize myself with the big hits in this genre if I’m going to engage it as well as sell to its audience.
- Self Help Books. I cringe even writing it. This is the part of the research project that I am least looking forward to. But the ancient schools which inspired modern virtue ethics tied ethics together with the project of living well. Today, ethics and self help are essentially segregated; different sorts of authors, different audiences, minimal crossover. I would place the book I’m going to write in the business books section, but it’s going to be in some ways muscling into the turf of self-help. As I said above, I don’t believe in writing off an entire sphere of conversation just because I want to. So I’m going to try and look at the five top selling self help books of all time, then of the last ten years, and then of the last three to five years.
Again, the goal is not to become a specialist in any of these, at least not for this book. The goal is to respectfully engage with what has come before, and to be informed enough to become the implied author I want this book to have.
I have a full time job and I’m writing in a couple of venues these days. Also I’m married and I have a life. Part of the joy of doing a project like this out of love is that I don’t have a hard deadline. But I also don’t want to let the process linger and stagnate. In short, I’m going to straddle the line between taking as much time as I need and actually getting this thing done in a reasonable timeframe.
The tentative timeframe I have in mind is 2-3 years (starting from near the beginning of 2014) for researching and writing it. The research is at this point going much faster than I thought—I gave myself a list of virtue ethics books (suggested by Matt Zwolinski, Aaron Ross Powell, and Drew Summitt) to read by the end of the year but I’m almost done with it already. But I’m still saying 2-3 years because I want to do this right and I don’t want to rush myself. And if it takes longer, it takes longer.
I also want to shop the book around to traditional publishers after it’s done, rather than going the self-publishing ebook route. If self-publishing is the only way it’ll get out into the world at all, I will naturally do that. But I live in New York City, the publishing capital of this country—I figure I might as well give it a shot.
Show Your Work
I mentioned Austin Kleon at the beginning of this post, so before finishing I’ll explain what I was referencing. Austin’s latest book is Show Your Work, and as the title implies it’s all about putting your creative process out in public while you’re in the middle of it. Austin argues that it’s better to let go of the pretense of a creative work as this pristine thing that springs fully formed from someone’s brain. People will find it more approachable if you show them the messy, flawed, human process that goes into making anything. And you’ll open up the possibility of getting useful feedback along the way, rather than after it’s too late to do anything with it for the specific work.
Between The Umlaut, Sweet Talk, and R Street, I haven’t had much to say on this blog other than personal stuff or philosophical dialogues. But this is the right place to talk about what I’m working on. So moving forward, the tag “book bleg” is going to have all the posts talking about the process of working on this book. I’ll try to update fairly regularly, and with much shorter posts than this one, which is working through a lot of stuff that’s been in my head and I have only talked about with a handful of people. Future updates should be more targeted and less verbose—at least, I hope so.
That’s all I have for now. I’m excited to have a project like this to work on; it’s fun and I enjoy having a target to be aiming towards. Any feedback you have would be highly appreciated, as becoming the implied author I want to be is still very much a work in progress, and I could use all the help I can get.