Apr 162015

Here’s an interesting philosophical question, raised indirectly by philosopher Iskra Fileva on Facebook:

If a person refrains from doing a wrong act due to some wrong motive, does that person count as self-controlled (in Aristotle’s sense) or not?

For example, a married man wants to have an affair with a co-worker but he refrains — not because he’s pledged his fidelity to his wife, but due to fear of social disapproval if the affair is revealed because she’s black/Jewish/older/Catholic/wiccan/whatever.

I don’t think that this counts as self-control (a.k.a. continence) because the person is ignorant of and/or blind to the relevant moral considerations. On Aristotle’s descending moral scale from virtuous to self-controlled to un-self-controlled to vicious (explained briefly here), he’s in the vicious category, even though he happens not to have done the immoral act of cheating on his wife.

This is why — as I argue in my book on moral luck — we need to distinguish between judgments of actions, outcomes, and character. These judgments identify different facts and serve different purposes. A person can still be of vicious character, yet not perform any immoral acts. (At least, that can happen in the short term. Long-term, bad acts are pretty darn likely.) That’s only a puzzle if we’re not clear about the various purposes and bases of our various kinds of moral judgments.

Acting Badly Does Not Equal Being Bad Person

 Posted by on 21 January 2014 at 10:00 am  Character, Ethics, Justice
Jan 212014

Too often, when I say something like, “Mr. X acted unjustly toward Ms. Y” or “Mr. X, I think that you were not honest with Ms. Y,” the reaction of Mr. X (and defenders of Mr. X) is something like , “SO YOU THINK THAT MR. X IS AN UNJUST PERSON!” or “HOW DARE YOU CALL ME A LIAR!” (Yes, they’re often angry and yelling.)

Alas, such inferences are wholly unwarranted. The simple fact is that a person might act wrongly — even perhaps violating the basic demands of a virtue — without being a terrible or corrupt or vicious person. Perhaps the person acted in haste, without sufficient forethought. Perhaps the person acted on a mistaken principle. Perhaps the person didn’t see the full effects or implications of his actions. Perhaps the person misunderstands the proper application of the principle. Perhaps the person was ignorant of certain facts about the situation. Perhaps the person thought the principle didn’t apply in that case. And so on.

Basically, a person can act wrongly — meaning, in a way harmful to self or others — without intending to do so. A person might act contrary to a virtue, yet do so honestly.

That’s part of why moral judgments of persons for their actions need to be distinguished from moral judgments of persons for their characters. These are two different kinds of judgments, and they serve two distinct purposes. (That’s a critical point for my case against moral luck.) Of course, these two kinds of judgments are related: judgments of actions are the basis for judgments of character. Nonetheless, a single bad action does not a bad character make — just as a single good action does not a good character make.

Aristotle makes a similar point in Book 5, Chapter 8 of the The Nicomachean Ethics. (Note that to act by “choice” means that the person deliberates beforehand about his best course of action.)

When [a man] acts with knowledge but not after deliberation, it is an act of injustice — e.g. the acts due to anger or to other passions necessary or natural to man; for when men do such harmful and mistaken acts they act unjustly, and the acts are acts of injustice, but this does not imply that the doers are unjust or wicked; for the injury is not due to vice. But when a man acts from choice, he is an unjust man and a vicious man.

Now, I make more allowances than Aristotle does here. Deliberation can go awry for many reasons, even in good people. Still, I agree with Aristotle that a person’s chosen actions reveal his character more clearly than do his hasty, impulsive, or rote actions. Often, when a person deliberates, he ought to know better, and he ought to have acted differently.

As for the people who assume that any moral criticism means an accusation of vice… well, that kind of defensiveness suggests that they damn well intended to do what they did — or, in any case, they’re sure as heck not going to admit that they were wrong. I’d consider that a major red flag in a person.

Coming Out Stories

 Posted by on 8 January 2014 at 10:00 am  Character, Firearms, GLBT
Jan 082014

I loved some of these stories about coming out in 2013, but I particularly enjoyed the comments of these two men:

First, “Chris Cheng, the Season 4 Champion of the History Channel’s Top Shot, came out of the closet in mid-December in an interview with gun magazine Recoil.” He said:

I was pleasantly surprised when other competitors found out I was gay. They were either indifferent or accepting. The most common response I received was “Chris, we don’t really care that you’re gay, we care about how well you can shoot…the better we all shoot, the more exciting the competition will be…” I suppose this affected the house dynamics in that I never heard any gay pejoratives during my six weeks there.

The shooting community was honestly one of the last places I expected gay acceptance on any level. That really caught me off guard, in a good way. It’s how life should be, where no one cares if you’re gay, straight, or somewhere in between. We should be evaluated and judged based on our skills and accomplishments. While I was hoping to break some stereotypes, some of my own stereotypes regarding the shooting community were also broken. It was an enlightening experience.

That’s awesome, and not surprising to me, based on my experience with fellow gun enthusiasts. Here’s another tidbit from him:

While it’s something my friends and family have known for years, I believe now that I have become a television personality and public figure, it is important to be honest and upfront about who Chris Cheng is. Thankfully, tolerance and acceptance are contagious. Being gay is no longer something to hide…One reason why I chose to come out publicly is that I’m a gay guy in a gun world. Hunters, sport shooting enthusiasts, and collectors are too often stereotyped as part of efforts to politicize guns as we witnessed last week on the anniversary of the horrific Newtown tragedy. Take it from someone who in a single package is not only gay, but Chinese, Japanese, California-born, a college graduate, a tech geek who worked on cool Google projects, a gun enthusiast and a passionate 2nd Amendment advocate. Our community is as diverse as anyone’s.

Second, “Irish actor Andrew Scott, who plays Moriarty in the BBC1 series Sherlock alongside Benedict Cumberbatch, spoke publicly about his sexuality for the first time in November when asked about Legacy, a BBC2 drama about spying between the UK and USSR during the Cold War years.” He said:

There isn’t a huge amount of footage of Russians speaking English as a second language, so I started looking at Vladimir Putin videos on YouTube. But then Putin introduced anti-gay legislation this summer – so, being a gay person, I switched to Rudolf Nureyev videos instead. It was another Nureyev defection of sorts! … Mercifully, these days people don’t see being gay as a character flaw. But nor is it a virtue, like kindness. Or a talent, like playing the banjo. It’s just a fact. Of course, it’s part of my make-up, but I don’t want to trade on it. I am a private person; I think that’s important if you’re an actor. But there’s a difference between privacy and secrecy, and I’m not a secretive person. Really I just want to get on with my job, which is to pretend to be lots of different people. Simple as that.

Hear, hear!

Choose Your Associates Wisely

 Posted by on 13 August 2013 at 10:00 am  Character, Ethics, Justice, Relationships
Aug 132013

Last night when watching the excellent television show Major Crimes, I was struck by these words of wisdom from Sharon Raydor: “If you hang out with criminals, you eventually will become a witness, a suspect, or a victim.” Or, I would add, an accomplice.

Too many people think that they can immunize themselves from friends and associates of dubious character… somehow. It’s just not true. If you choose to maintain ties with destructive, crazy, malicious, negligent, irrational, or otherwise sordid people, they will splash their crazy on you, again and again. As a matter of self-protection, you need distance.

I said much more on this topic in the 4 August 2013 episode of Philosophy in Action Radio, in answering the question on red flags in relationships. It’s a long discussion, but I was quite proud of it. It’s particularly helpful, I think, to good people apt to get “taken in” by not-so-good people.

If you’ve not yet heard the episode, you can listen to or download the relevant segment of the podcast here:

For more details, check out the question’s archive page.

Why Weiner’s Wiener Matters

 Posted by on 3 July 2013 at 10:00 am  Character, Evil, Love/Sex, Politics, Sexism
Jul 032013

On June 16th’s Philosophy in Action Radio, I answered a question on whether people should care about the sex lives (and sex scandals) of politicians. My basic view was that sexual misconduct reveals a politician’s moral character, as well as poses security risks.

As for the first claim about moral character, if you’re unconvinced, just read this NY Times article and weep: For Women in Weiner Scandal, Indignity Lingers. The basic story is this:

Anthony D. Weiner’s improbable campaign for mayor of New York City is a wager that voters have made peace with his lewd online behavior, a subject he has largely left behind as he roils the race with his aggressive debating style and his attention-getting policy proposals.

But for the women who were on the other end of Mr. Weiner’s sexually explicit conversations and photographs, his candidacy is an unwanted reminder of a scandal that has upended their lives in ways big and small, cutting short careers, disrupting educations and damaging reputations.

The article then details the ongoing ordeals suffered by these women due to their sexual conversations with Anthony Weiner. Undoubtedly, these women exercised poor judgment. They deserve to suffer the ordinary consequences of that — such as broken or damaged romantic relationships. They do not deserve years of media intrusion, nor endless malevolent jokes.

In contrast, Anthony Weiner is taking the whole matter in stride:

On the campaign trail, though, he mixes contrition with wittiness. Not long ago he cracked a joke about his use of social media. “You know how much I trust Twitter,” he said at a candidate forum.

Ah yes, levity. That’s just perfect. (NOT!) Here’s more, including a good bit of moral insight from a porn star:

A number of the women remain angry with Mr. Weiner — arguing that, after taking advantage of his political devotees, he is now drawing them back into the spotlight.

Ginger Lee, a former star of adult films who communicated with Mr. Weiner online, has pleaded with him not to run for mayor. “Every new headline and news story about him reminds reporters and bloggers that we exist, and the cycle starts all over,” she said in a statement released by her lawyer. “There will be a new flare-up of jokes, inaccurate statements and hurtful remarks.”

Everything about this ongoing episode reveals important facts about Anthony Weiner’s character, most notably that he doesn’t give a damn who he hurts in his quest for political power. His contempt for women is glaringly obvious. He’s not a man fit for political office, whatever his political principles. No decent person should want anything to do with him.

Alas, too many people are willing to overlook all that because he’s on “their team.” *sigh*

P.S. If you’ve not heard that 16 June 2013 episode of Philosophy in Action Radio in which I talked about the sex scandals of politicians, you can listen to or download the relevant segment of the podcast here:

For more details, check out the question’s archive page. The full episode – where I answered questions on the meaning of life as the standard of value, broken relationships, the morality of an armed society, the sex scandals of politicians, and more – is available as a podcast too.

May 132013

As I mentioned in this post, I’ll be speaking on the concept of “Moral Amplifiers” at ATLOSCon in less than two weeks. (Yes, you can still register… and you should too!) Here, again, is the abstract of my talk:

Objectivism upholds seven major virtues as indispensable to our lives. Yet what of other qualities of character — such as ambition, courage, spontaneity, liveliness, discretion, patience, empathy, and friendliness? Are these virtues, personality traits, or something else? Diana Hsieh will argue that such qualities are best understood as “moral amplifiers,” because their moral worth wholly depends how they’re used. She will explain why people should cultivate such qualities and why they must be put into practice selectively.

When I introduce people to the concept of “moral amplifiers,” people often want examples thereof. (Yay!) My standard go-to examples are persistence and ambition. Everyone sees that these qualities are often beneficial, but they’re not always so. Plus, I love to use Lance Armstrong as an example of ambition gone wrong.

Interestingly, the list of moral amplifiers is really quite long — because most of the qualities that people think of as virtues are, in fact, moral amplifiers rather than virtues. Here’s the list of moral amplifiers that I created — based on lists of virtues such as this one — when preparing my proposal for ATLOSCon:

  • Ambition
  • Agreeability
  • Assertivenesss
  • Calmness
  • Charity
  • Charisma
  • Cautiousness
  • Charitablity
  • Choosiness
  • Compassion
  • Conscientiousness
  • Cooperativeness
  • Courage
  • Courteousness
  • Creativity
  • Curiosity
  • Decisiveness
  • Dependability
  • Determination
  • Diligence
  • Directness
  • Discernment
  • Discrimination
  • Discretion
  • Discipline
  • Easygoingness
  • Eloquence
  • Empathy
  • Endurance
  • Enthusiasm
  • Equanimity
  • Exactingness
  • Fairness
  • Fidelity
  • Flexibility
  • Forbearance
  • Fortitude
  • Friendliness
  • Frugality
  • Generosity
  • Gentleness
  • Helpfulness
  • Humorousness
  • Idealism
  • Inventiveness
  • Joviality
  • Kindness
  • Liberality
  • Lightheartedness
  • Liveliness
  • Loyalty
  • Magnaminity
  • Mindfulness
  • Neatness
  • Openness
  • Optimism
  • Orderliness
  • Passionateness
  • Patience
  • Perseverence
  • Persistence
  • Persuasiveness
  • Pessimism
  • Predictability
  • Prudence
  • Punctuality
  • Reliability
  • Resiliance
  • Respectfulness
  • Resourcefulness
  • Self-Confidence
  • Self-Control
  • Self-Directing
  • Sensitivity
  • Simplicity
  • Sincerity
  • Spontaneity
  • Steadiness
  • Tact
  • Temperance
  • Thrift
  • Thoughtfulness
  • Tolerance
  • Toughness
  • Trustworthiness
  • Zealousness

Clearly, I’m not going to run out of material in my talk! I plan to pick just a few of these to discuss, as I have some theory related to Aristotle’s and Ayn Rand’s differing conceptions of virtue that I wish to cover too. I’ll explain how Ayn Rand’s conception of virtue is really something quite distinct from traditional conceptions of virtue — and how those differences represent a major advance in thinking about ethics.


In Face of Tragedy

 Posted by on 14 December 2012 at 6:00 pm  Character, Justice
Dec 142012

Oh, how I love this — and how we need it today.

Don’t judge humanity by the actions of a lone moral monster. Instead, focus on the many, many people who abhor this vicious injustice and offer help to the innocent victims. Better yet, be one of those good people when and where you can.

Update: Here’s the original image with some potentially helpful links.

Dec 122012

Family meetings are an excellent way for people to smooth the rough edges of life together. And I love Rachel Miner’s suggestion of each person talking about a mistake they made and what they learned from it too:

We start our family meetings with compliments. Each person gives each of the other family members a compliment. Not only does this help us focus on the positive, it also helps us recall times during the week when we admired each other. About six months ago, I was thinking about the growth vs. fixed mentality* and decided to add one more thing to this intro, a mistake. So, each person also shares a mistake that they’ve made during the week and what they’ve learned from that experience. The goal here is to make mistakes OK and recognize them as part of the learning process. I want my kiddo especially to see how common it is for grown ups to make mistakes and how the important thing is how we respond to those opportunities.

It’s crucial for kids to learn that people of all ages make mistakes routinely — and that the sensible response is to recognize and correct those errors. Absent explicit training in that process, kids learn to “manage” their mistakes by dishonesty — meaning, by denying their mistakes, concealing their mistakes, ignoring their mistakes, and rationalizing their mistakes. That’s disastrous, not just for a person’s life but also for his character.

If you’re interested in more, I published a paper on this very topic in the Journal of Value Inquiry back in 2004: False Excuses: Honesty, Wrongdoing, and Moral Growth.

Spanking Teaches Obedience

 Posted by on 6 December 2012 at 12:00 pm  Character, Children, Ethics, Parenting
Dec 062012

In my June 24th episode of Philosophy in Action Radio, I answered a question on whether the corporal punishment of children is ever justified. Two weeks later, I was stunned and thrilled and blown away and elated to receive this email from a total stranger who found Philosophy in Action via the Stitcher App. Here, see for yourself (with his permission).

Dr. Hsieh -

I recently discovered your podcasts when I subscribed to Stitcher and the app suggested it as something I might like. The app was correct.

The first podcast I heard was the one in which you discussed corporal punishment of children.

I was raised by parents who scolded, yelled, punished and frequently spanked me repeatedly with a belt. Until now, I had prided myself that when I spanked either of my twins I did so only once with my open hand and only when they were “out of control” – but if truth be told I have also noticed that I only spanked them when I was frustrated and angry at their behavior as well.

You really made me think when you asked the question, “What are you teaching your kids when you hit them?’ But you made my jaw drop when you matter-of-factly stated, “Obedience is not a virtue.”

It was a simple yet grand statement that I instantly realized was TRUE. It was grand because I had never thought of it before.

I have, in fact, been trying to teach my children to be obedient. Obedient to me to be sure, but obedient nonetheless. Since hearing it, your statement has been ringing in my head like a bell and I’ve realized that obedient may be that last thing I want my children to be – and that includes being obedient to me.

I want them to be strong, intelligent, confident and self-directed. I want them to question everything and take no statement for granted. I want them to internalized a father who loves them and values and respects them as rational beings.

So, a day or so after I heard your podcast I sat down with my 4 years old son and daughter after giving them breakfast and I told them that I had decided that spanking them was wrong and that I would not do it anymore. Their eyes lit up at hearing this and something changed in our relationship at that moment. I also hit upon, quite by accident, the principal argument and rationale that I have since used over and over again to convince them to cooperate with me. I asked them to help me.

Children generally love to help their parents and I now regularly ask them to help me get them ready for school, or ready for bed. I ask them to help us get things done so we can do other things. There are still times when they are willful and uncooperative and I get frustrated and angry, but I’ve kept my promise to not spank them and instead I tell them honestly how I feel and I usually refuse to help them with some trivial request that they’ve made pointing out that they didn’t help me when I asked them to.

Now, I find their willful episodes becoming less and less of a problem – much less than when I would spank them for it. Instead, they seem to be learning that kindness and cooperation beget kindness and cooperation.

I thought that you might like to know that all this has come from you saying to me, “Obedience is not a virtue.”

I thank you for that truth.

- Christopher J. Wieczorek, PE

Wow, just wow. My hearty admiration and congratulations to Christopher. He’s quite a man — and quite a father.

If you missed that episode on spanking children, have a listen:

Also, if you’re interested in taking your parenting to the next level, I interviewed Jenn Casey and Kelly Elmore on “Parenting without Punishment” on the next Wednesday. That’s here:

Oct 102012

Ah, my poor horse Elsie. If you put her under the slightest bit of pressure, she just falls apart in a panic. The good news is that she’s willing to try and learn. So by exerting just slightly increasing pressure over time, waiting for her to adjust to it at each stage, she makes good — but very slow — progress.

For example, last Monday morning, I locked her in the barn — via a chain across each door and with Lila in the stall next door — for about an hour with her food. For any other horse, that’s a lovely opportunity to eat and snooze. Not for Elsie!

Mind you, locking her in a stall used to be completely impossible: she’d burst through the chains in less than a minute. She’s gotten much better over the last few weeks of consistent work, such that she’s used to being locked in her stall for 15 or 30 minutes at a stretch. I’ve been working on this behavior in particular because winter is coming, and I need to be able to lock Elsie and Lila in the barn with the doors closed overnight during snowstorms.

On Monday, she was in the stall for longer than ever before. Alas, she felt the difference. She was clearly in a bit of a panic when I went back down to the barn after that hour. (But hooray, she’d not burst out of the stall!)

I didn’t release her right away: I wanted her to calm down a bit, then reward her by releasing her. So I told her to settle down, I got a few treats from the tack room, and then I let Lila out of her stall. At that point, Elsie was agitated, but not wild. So dropped the chain, then I did our usual routine of a few steps forward and then a few steps back coming out of the door.

I’ve been doing that because she has a habit of running out the stall door. The moment that she realizes that she’s free, her brain screams “GEMME OUTTA HERE”! She bursts through the stall door, sometimes banging into posts or people. Then, the moment that she’s free, she returns to being her calm self. Obviously, that’s not just rude but dangerous for everyone. So I’ve been working on that via this back-and-forth movement out of the stall: she’s required to be consistently under control, and she’s rewarded for that. It’s made a big difference.

In this case, she did that “two steps forward, two steps back, three steps forward, two steps back, and so on” pretty well, given her state of agitation. Then she was released, and she relaxed immediately.

So… good girl, Elsie. You try hard, and your progress has been remarkable. But wow, these are such 1st grade skills for a horse. Okay, maybe 2nd grade now, but still.

Happily, I’ve learned a whole lot by training Elsie — and not just about training methods. She’s a horse that requires the utmost in patience, calmness, and self-discipline. I must be firm with her, but any expression of frustration is hugely counter-productive, and perhaps even dangerous. That means that I’m training my own character as I’m training her character.

For me, that need for psychological self-awareness and self-improvement — as well as the bond of trust with this half-ton beast that could kill me with ease, if so inclined — is what I love so much about training horses. The challenge is mostly psychological and intellectual, not physical.

Suffusion theme by Sayontan Sinha