Friday, November 1, 2013

Videos from The Character Project

Under the Videos link above, I've just posted my presentation on the virtue of humility from last summer's Character Project Conference. There are many excellent presentations available, dealing with the Psychology, Philosophy, and Theology of Character:
http://www.thecharacterproject.com/videos.php?y=2013 

You can also see my presentation here:


Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Virtues in Action: New Essays in Applied Virtue Ethics

My latest book, Virtues in Action: New Essays in Applied Virtue Ethics (Palgrave Macmillan) is now available. Click here for the Amazon page, and here for the publisher's page which includes a description of the volume.

Friday, September 20, 2013

A Definition of Philosophy from Ambrose Bierce

PHILOSOPHY, n. A route of many roads leading from nowhere to nothing.

- From The Devil's Dictionary, Ambrose Bierce

Friday, July 26, 2013

Ethics and Soccer at "The Boot Room": http://tbrfootball.com/

I am a passionate soccer fan. I love to play, ref, coach, and watch the sport. I also am passionate about my job - being a philosopher. One of the great blessings of my life is to be able to combine these two things. And I think that at least some of us who are academics and benefit from the public trust invested in us should try to bridge the gap between our scholarship and public life.

To that end, I will begin regularly contributing to a new but quickly growing site devoted to soccer, The Boot Room, at http://tbrfootball.com/. My focus will be on ethical issues that arise in the game. My first piece explains why I, as an Arsenal fan, don't want the club to sign Luis Suarez: http://tbrfootball.com/no-to-suarez-at-arsenal/

Enjoy, and if you are so inclined comment at CLSoccer. I'd love to get an ethics discussion going over there!

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Does humility make sense in a world without God?


Does humility make sense in a world without God? 

Consider Erik Wielenberg’s naturalized version of humility, as described in his Value and Virtue in a Godless Universe.[1] Wielenberg explores the implications for ethical character in a universe without God when humans know that the universe is naturalistic in this sense. That is, he constructs an account of humility grounded in the assumption that we know that naturalism is true.

On a Christian analysis, according to Wielenberg, the humble person neither underestimates nor overestimates her own value or abilities, but instead recognizes that these are gifts from God. She also acknowledges her dependence on God, and knows that much of what contributes to her flourishing is not within her control, but God’s. Hence, the humble theist is grateful for her flourishing in light of this dependence, and gives credit to God. On naturalism, however, Wielenberg claims that there is also room for an acknowledgment of dependence on something outside of ourselves, because so much of what contributes to our success—psychological constitution, physical health, family background, where and when we are born, and economic factors—is outside of our control. On naturalism, these factors are not under God’s control; they are under no one’s control. Given this, no one gets the credit. Sheer chance and good fortune should receive the majority of the credit. As Wielenberg puts it, “It is the dependence of human beings and their actions on factors beyond their control—dependence that is present whether God exists or not—that makes humility in some form an appropriate attitude to have.”[2]  In either kind of universe, naturalistic or theistic, “...taking the balance of credit for one’s accomplishments is foolish.”[3] Like the humble theist, the humble naturalist can and should acknowledge her dependence on something outside of herself, substituting good fortune for God.


Wielenberg may be right that there is space within a naturalistic view of the universe for an attitude of humility. Perhaps we should generally expect that there will be somewhat plausible naturalistic versions of many particular virtues if Christianity is true. This is because according to Christianity, the structure of reality reflects aspects of God’s nature. Given this, even if one seeks to remove God from the picture, as it were, there will still be latent theistic features of reality which can make sense of the virtues. However, if Christianity is true then a Christian account of the virtues will be superior to any account available to naturalists, and the virtues themselves will ultimately possess better metaphysical fit with our understanding of the rest of reality, both of which we should expect if Christian theism is true.


For example, and as a way to compare naturalistic humility with theistic humility, consider the relationship between humility and gratitude. Of course the Christian can be humbly grateful to God and other people, for what he and they have done on her behalf. But the naturalist, given that dumb luck and blind chance are the ultimate causes of most of the factors contributing to his success—psychological constitution, physical health, family background, where and when he was born, and economic factors—has no good reason to be grateful for these things because there is no one to be grateful towards. Even the other human beings who have benefited our fortunate naturalist only do so primarily (or solely?) because of dumb luck and blind chance. On naturalism, no person, human (or, of course, divine), is ultimately responsible for anything, and so it becomes very difficult to see what reasons exist for gratitude towards persons, at least. Moreover, what it means for one to be grateful towards dumb luck or blind chance is at best quite mysterious, and at worst incoherent.


As a second way to critically compare naturalistic humility with theistic humility, consider the following thought experiment. Imagine you have suffered from a serious illness for many years. The treatments are quite expensive, and your insurance company will no longer cover the treatments because the policy’s coverage has been exhausted. Consider two distinct scenarios:


Scenario 1:  You are desperate to come up with the money to pay for continued treatment, and by sheer luck you find a large diamond buried in your back yard, worth enough to pay for your treatment indefinitely. 

Scenario 2:  A wealthy benefactor gives you the money you need to pay for your treatments indefinitely. You know this benefactor because you cheated her in a business deal many years ago.  


Which scenario is more conducive to humility?  


In the first scenario you are very happy and feel very fortunate at such a stroke of luck. And of course you would have no reason to be proud of what occurred, because you would deserve none of the credit for finding the diamond or for being able to pay your medical bills. Perhaps the whole situation engenders some humility, because you realize you are receiving a great benefit that you did nothing to earn. On scenario 2 you again have no reason to be proud of being able to pay for your treatment, nor do you deserve the credit for being able to pay your bills. On this scenario, however, there are reasons to be more—and more deeply—humbled. First, not only is it the case that you did nothing to deserve the money given to you, but you actually deserve not to receive the money, given the fact that you wronged your benefactor in the past and owe her money because of your own wrongdoing. Second, the action of your benefactor is magnanimous, and simply witnessing and benefiting from the act should foster humility. Third, there is the presence of gratitude in scenario 2, but not in scenario 1. In scenario 1, there is no one to feel gratitude towards, because no one gets the credit for your newfound wealth. However, in the second scenario you should feel deep gratitude towards your benefactor, because of what she has done for you in spite of the debt you owe her. Gratitude seems to both deepen the humility you have and provides more reason to be humble.


It will be helpful to make explicit the lessons from the above thought experiment. On theism, humans rely on a personal being who provides constant and intentional support in all aspects of our existence. In contrast to this, on naturalism we rely on mere chance and the laws of nature (or perhaps just the latter). Many of the contributing factors to individual success that are outside of our control are present because of mere good fortune. It might seem that this fact should engender humility, because we realize that we are mere recipients of good luck, so to speak. Granting this to the naturalist, the theist still has reason for a deeper appreciation of her dependence and so for a deeper humility, given her belief that we do not deserve the assistance that God gives to us. This makes the humility deeper and more profound, because while both the naturalist and the theist can accept that there are many factors that contribute to our success in life that lie outside of our control, only the theist can say that she is undeserving of this aid and deserves not to receive it because of her rebellion against God. The upshot is that while the naturalist may be able to give an account of humility, the theistic account is superior because everything that we accomplish is done with God’s active assistance. This assistance is not only undeserved, but is given even though we deserve something quite different. This in turn gives the theist a reason to be more deeply humble, even if the need and justification for this humility too often go unrecognized.


It is not clear that there is an analog here for the naturalist, as it is very difficult to make sense of rebelling against the universe’s blind forces of luck and chance. The naturalist can give an account of humility, but the Christian conception takes into account two phenomenological features of humbling experiences which the naturalist has difficulty accounting for, namely, gratitude and lack of desert. And I would also suggest that in a universe where the majority of the credit for any human accomplishment goes to “blind chance,”[4] it becomes more difficult to give a sound and comprehensive analysis of any virtue and its connections to human accomplishments. Moreover, it is not clear to me that any sense can be made of attributing credit to chance in this way.[5] What does it actually mean to ascribe credit to blind chance? The theistic account of humility I have articulated frees this virtue from the restrictions imposed upon it by such a naturalistic vise.


Of course, if the Christian God does not exist, then something like Wielenberg’s account of humility may be the best that is available. After all, if the Christian God does not exist, then no Christian module of humility exists either, insofar as its divine intentional object would not exist. And while the question of God’s existence primarily belongs to other realms of philosophical theology, if the best account of the virtue of humility requires the existence of such a being, then perhaps that account can be made to serve as limited evidence in support of Christian theistic belief.




[1] Erik Wielenberg, Value and Virtue in a Godless Universe (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005), pp. 102-116.
[2] Wielenberg, p. 112.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Wielenberg, p. 110.
[5] I owe this point to Doug Geivett.

Monday, July 1, 2013

Virtues in Action

 
 My latest book is an edited collection of new work in applied virtue ethics. I am very pleased with the hard work and excellent contributions from the contributors. The following is a blurb from the publisher's description:

"In recent decades, many philosophers have considered the strengths and weaknesses of a virtue-centered approach to moral theory. Much less attention has been given to how such an approach bears on issues in applied ethics. The essays in this volume apply a virtue-centered perspective to a variety of contemporary moral issues, and in so doing offer a fresh and illuminating perspective. Some of the essays focus on a particular virtue and its application to one or more realms of applied ethics, such as temperance and sex or humility and environmental ethics. Other chapters focus on an issue in applied ethics and bring several virtues into a discussion of that issue or realm of life, such as sport, education, and business. Finally, several of the chapters engage relevant psychological research as well as current neuroscience, which enhances the strength of the philosophical arguments."

The table of contents:
Introduction
PART I: PROFESSIONAL VIRTUE
1. Virtue-Centered Approaches to Education: Prospects and Pitfalls; Gregory Bassham
2. The Virtues of Honorable Business Executives; Dan Demetriou
3. Sport as a Moral Practice: An Aristotelian Approach; Michael W. Austin
PART II: SOCIAL VIRTUE
4. Sex, Temperance, and Virtue; Stan van Hooft
5. Extend Your Benevolence: Kindness and Generosity in the Family and Beyond; Heidi Giebel
6. A Virtue Ethical Case for Pacifism; Franco V. Trivigno
7. Some Critical Reflections on Abortion and Virtue Theory; Matthew Flannagan
PART III: ENVIRONMENTAL VIRTUE
8. Environmental Degradation, Environmental Justice, and the Compassionate Agent; Chris Frakes
9. Humility and Environmental Virtue Ethics; Matthew Pianalto
PART IV: INTELLECTUAL VIRTUE
10. Hope as an Intellectual Virtue; Nancy E. Snow
11. Virtue Ethics and Moral Failure: Lessons from Neuroscientific Moral Psychology; Lisa Tessman
12. Getting Our Minds Out of the Gutter: Fallacies that Foul Our Discourse (and Virtues that Clean it Up); Robert K. Garcia and Nathan L. King
 If you are interested in finding out more, see the Amazon.com page.




Friday, June 7, 2013

Biola University, Abortion, and Disagreement Between Christians


 




Just yesterday I became aware of a recent controversy at Biola University, where I received my M.A. in Philosophy back in 2000. The 3 years spent at Biola were formative for me and my family in so many deep and positive ways. The influence of professors, other students, and the university itself continues in my life and work today, and I’m sure this will be true for the rest of my life. I would recommend Biola to others, and send my own children there, in a heartbeat.

Without being present, and knowing all of the relevant details, I will say up front that it seems to me that in general the university handled things in an appropriate manner. That being said, I was very disappointed, but not surprised, by the nature and substance of the discussion of the issues at this website. As followers of Christ, we are human and therefore not perfect. However, there are several things we can improve on as a community that are illustrated in this incident and the ensuing discussion. We need to be able to make and apply careful distinctions, avoid attacking the faith and character of others whom we know little about, engage in rational dialogue rather than emotional and in some cases irrational reactions, and think through the implications of what we say and believe.

First, we need to distinguish between a position that we hold, and the methods that are appropriate for advocating for that position. It is crystal clear that Biola as an institution is solidly pro-life. But it does not follow from this that every form of informing others about or advocating for the pro-life cause is appropriate, or appropriate on Biola’s campus. While pictures may be more effective, as the student claims, it does not mean that we ought to put them on display at Biola, or that this in and of itself justifies their use. It is easy to persuade people using images, but we don't just want to persuade people, we want to persuade them in an ethical manner. 

I think there is a time and a place where the visual reality of abortion is appropriately shown and discussed. However, there are inappropriate times and places for this as well. I favor the use of language rather than images, for several reasons. Ideas are the issue here, and photographs tend to sensationalize the issue. Better to have an informed theological and philosophical view about the personhood of the fetus than to rely on images which are emotionally powerful but not intellectually substantive. If you are interested in a sustained argument concerning fetal personhood, see the book by Biola professors Scott Rae and J. P. Moreland, Body and Soul: Human Nature and the Crisis in Ethics.

Second, consider the emotional, irrational, and immoral character attacks in the comments at the online article referenced above:

  • Biola is a place where “fake hypocrites who spout ‘Speak your mind and convictions’ and then threaten a student for doing exactly that.”
  • “Biola is messing with the Lord God Almighty”
  • “Biola - you are killing your prophet!”
  • “Well, I guess Biola would think the actual crucifiction of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ would be too graphic for the visiting middle schoolers.”
  • “Christian Biola University is now NOTHING but only just a name. Its Un-Christian examples and practices on these particular set of events prove so! I would now not want to recommend Biola to parents whose children may wish to study there.”
  • And from the author of the post, in reference to a Biola nursing professor, “Nurse Ratcheds exist in more than movies.”

These could all be incorporated as examples of logical fallacies in any introductory logic textbook. What is more troubling is the un-Christian nature of these statements. We must learn to disagree without disparaging the character and faith of our brothers and sisters.

Third, by parity of reasoning, should we show visual images on Biola’s campus of other practices that are wrong? I don’t think we need to publicly display photographs of acts of prostitution, adultery, torture, murder, and so on to take a strong and intellectually persuasive stand against these practices.

In conclusion, we must learn how to disagree well, with passion, but also with charity, humility, and love. I admire this student’s passion for the pro-life cause. Abortion is heartbreaking in many ways. However, while we are to speak the truth, we are to do so in love. We are not to sink into name-calling or dismissing the Christian convictions of individual people or an entire institution like Biola University. We can do better, and we need to do so. Abortion is a moral, political, and religious issue. So is the way in which we discuss it.

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

My Facebook Page

While I don't use Facebook in other ways, it seems like a good way to connect people with my work, so I've set up an author page. I'll post updates having to do with my blog posts here and over at Ethics for Everyone, as well as my scholarly work. So, if you are interested in philosophy, religion, questions about human fulfillment, and other issues related to ethics, happiness, and everyday life, like the page and updates will show up in your timeline. Thanks!

Here's the link:
https://www.facebook.com/pages/Michael-W-Austin/452243244861866 

Monday, April 8, 2013

More on Modules of the Virtue of Humility

In a previous post, I offered the following as one of the cognitive modules of humility:

  • (C1) The humble person intentionally sees others as being more important than himself.

In the meantime, I've revised it to this:

  • (C1) The humble person believes that he ought to have a prima facie preference for the satisfaction of the interests of others over the satisfaction of his own interests.


The process of discussing, presenting ideas at conferences, and revising usually leads to more complex statements of one's initial views. That is the case here. Given this change, the heart of my account of humility is captured not only by the above revised cognitive module of humility, but also the following emotive module:

  • (E1) The humble person has a prima facie preference for the satisfaction of the interests of others over his own.
The humble person knows that objectively speaking, from a God's-eye perspective, the interests of all have equal weight. However, she intentionally has a willful appearance state, where she takes it to be the case that for her it is preferable that the interests of others be satisfied relative to her own. (E1) is not an absolute obligation, given the prima facie condition. The practical wisdom of the agent as well as other virtues will help to determine whether (E1) should obtain in particular circumstances as an all-things-considered preference leading to action.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Character and the Good Life

Readers of this blog will probably have noticed that not much has been happening here lately. I've gone back and forth, several times, about the aims and scope (and name!) of this blog over the years. I think the best use of this online space is to focus in on the topics I am currently researching and writing about, which are usually related to virtue, vice, character, and human flourishing. So "Character and the Good Life" seems like an appropriate title.

I will post some of my own work here as I think through whatever projects I'm working on at the moment, with the hope that readers will give their thoughts and feedback in the comments or via email. I will also occasionally comment on the work of other philosophers. This blog will focus on scholarship, then, but my hope is that it will also be accessible to the interested reader who is not a professional philosopher. Of course, since it is just a blog, after all, I may post about other items as well, including The Arsenal, Sporting KC, politics and the news, academia, and whatever else I get motivated to write. For those interested in work online that is written for a wider audience, see my blog at the Psychology Today website, Ethics for Everyone.

I will soon offer a series of posts related to character and the virtue of humility, as I am still at work on a book-length treatment of this character trait. I look forward to your feedback!