Monday, September 5, 2011

Minus Virtue

Aristotle and the Neuroscientists

The NY Times is running psychologist and linguist Steven Pinker's review of the new book, "Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength," by Roy F. Baumeister and John Tierney. Pinker's review is one of those pieces, of which the Times specializes in, that makes me wince. Not because it is poorly written or even wrong but because it is liable to leave the reader unacquainted with the deeper problems of the issue at hand with a facile, shallow, understanding of the topic while making him think he is at the cutting edge of thought. Unfortunately it is not quite so easy to critique a book review. Whose ideas am I critiquing? Those of the reviewer, those of the author, or those of the author as understood by the reviewer? I will persevere, though, because it is the impression the review leaves which is of interest to me.

Please indulge me, though, with a few minor points. First, Adam and Eve, Odysseus, and Augustine lived at different times. Agreed? Thus saying that "Ever since" and listing those figures is sloppy and, I might add, annoyingly so. Second, Pinker writes, "the very idea of self-­control has acquired a musty Victorian odor." If it rose in the 19th century (the Victorian era) then it was simply Victorian. If it declined starting circa 1920 then when exactly did it, acquire the "musty Victorian odor?" Did it come back after that? Pinker doesn't say. Not to put to fine a point on it, but the opening two paragraphs make a terribly sloppy preface to what Pinker really wants to talk about. Oh, and "a homunculus in the head that physically impinged on a persistent antagonist." Editor on aisle five!

Anyway his hastening to the 20th century is "rather telling," as I am fond of saying. Pinker passes over the time when not having self-control was considered a moral failing. Now it is not. Now it is a utilitarian "virtue" to be used to get ahead and ensure maximum efficiency in getting whatever it is we want. You strengthen it like a muscle and then gloriously resist temptation. This and the authors' advice about building it up is all well and good. It is, predictably, in concert with Pinker's own notions as he set forth in The Blank Slate. So what am I quibbling about? That he treats this shift as a historical and not a philosophical one. We will revisit this point at the end of our discussion.

Meanwhile, Pinker calls "self-control" a virtue. Is this appropriate? (Also, the title of the book is "Willpower." I suppose we should understand self-control and willpower as synonyms.) Let us first consider what he means by "virtue." In Aristotle, "The opposed virtues are virtues only because they encourage and help constitute a full rich life." [1] They are not the oxymoronic "utilitarian virtues" Pinker in effect calls for. Likewise acting virtuously requires 1) knowledge of your self and the situation, i.e. being virtuous and not simply foolhardy, 2) being virtuous for its own sake, 3) being virtuous out of character and not by accident or incidentally. If there is no particular good for man then it seems inappropriate to call these "useful habits" "virtues."

Let us now consider what "self-control" means. Unfortunately in the review the word is not defined, though it seems simply to mean. . . well I'm not so sure. It cannot simply the ability to do something, anything, since the gist of the article is resisting one inclination to pursue something else.  Interestingly, all of Pinker's and the authors' examples involve physical activity. Likewise the faculty is likened to a muscle which can be flexed to resist temptation. This is a most convenient analogy because it implies that self-control 1) is a faculty, 2) exists in one already, albeit undeveloped. In fact it is just as plausible that one is learning to do something he was not inclined to do at all, but that it is still necessary to do. Does one truly have a virtue before one exercises it, the same way an infant has sight before it is developed into acute vision, or in contrast is it acquired through habituation? The analogy disguises a question of great importance.

Self-control, then, seems inherently to be connected with bodily pain and pleasure. In this it seems akin to temperance, though temperance implies a mean and not just resisting. Yet Pinker uses the word "passions" for that which needs controlling. Yet surely we must distinguish between appetites and passions, the former occurring in individuals without any stimuli and the latter only after some conscious appraisal of a situation. There are then both bare appetitive forces and "deliberative decisions" and thus also a role for reason in virtue. Yet deliberation itself consists both in conscious reasoning and desiring a particular end. Pinker, though, derides the "ghost in the machine" and then glosses over the issue with the problematically vague, "mental entity." So your soul with reason and desire toward an end does not guide the passions, but your "mental entity" with your "self-control" does. This is neither a clarification nor an improvement.

Earlier we discussed habituation and we ought to revisit it. For Aristotle habituation not only disposes you to act a certain way but makes you sensitive as to how to act in certain circumstances. Habituation does not strengthen a muscle because there is no one monolithic "passion" or "appetite" but various appetites and emotions. It is possible to be a disciplined academic but not be courageous, or to experience both love and anger. There are "bad habits" to the neuroscientists but there is only one solution, "willpower." In Aristotle, pleasure in doing virtuous acts is a sign that the virtuous disposition has been acquired. It becomes part of your character and thus only then can a man be appropriately called virtuous. "Willpower" to the neuroscientists is strictly utilitarian.

What is a passion, by the way? Were they defined in the review? By passion we must assume he means emotions such as anger, love, envy, et cetera. More importantly, though, the emotions exist in opposing pairs, anger and calm, friendship and enmity, fear and confidence, et cetera. They naturally imply a mean, that is, a good, i.e. a good for man. Such an omission is either a glaring oversight or a deliberate amoralizing.

Choosing the good in Aristotle is intricately bound up with reason, habituation, becoming good, political life, and perhaps most importantly, doing what is good for a man qua man. The reward for doing the good, i.e. what is by nature good and pleasurable, is being good, knowing how to act, and a harmony of the soul. One must not just do but love the good. "Lovers of what is noble find pleasure in the things that are by nature pleasant: and virtuous actions are such, so that these are pleasant for such men as well as in their own nature." The result is happiness and flourishing.

What is the result of the neuroscience course of action? We can "enhance our lives," and be "successful and satisfying." What about happiness? This choice of words seems quite an evasion since I think most people would expect either happiness or goodness to be the reward. In fact to the neuroscientists the reward is neither and these nebulous rewards of "enhancement" and "satisfaction" are not at all persuasive or satisfying.

I don't think Aristotle would have said, "study the good" but rather do the good and observe and emulate good men. Observe someone you believe to be virtuous and emulate him. Pick up a book about George Washington or his famous book of advice. Or pick up Baumeister and Tierney's book. See which makes you a better person.

My intent here was not to expose Pinker or this book as wrong or even wrongheaded, but demonstrate that the review inappropriately gives the appearance of this school of thought as being 1) a leap in understanding, 2) complete qua science, 3) complete qua philosophy. Worst, though, Pinker uses the language of philosophy which suggests he is answering philosophical problems or answering them "philosophically." The lack of any attempt to define anything or to address philosophical problems prevents one from asserting the former and the lack of systematic approach and philosophical framework from the latter. Is he trying to merge or replace philosophy with science? Or has he simply ignored philosophy?

Yes, the overlap with Aristotle is rather promising, but the gaps are substantial and the differences critical. Even taking into account that Pinker is writing with limited space for a non-technical audience the thinking is surprisingly unsystematic. In fact it is when writing for non-technical audiences that one has to be most clear.

Pinker described Baumeister and Tierney's as, ". . . an immensely rewarding book, filled with ingenious research, wise advice and insightful reflections on the human condition." I found his review quite the opposite: sloppy and parochial. It takes on the guise of self-help without engaging in any of the serious and timeless philosophical questions. Is it even possible to act against one's judgment? What of the importance self-knowledge? It does, however, make perfectly clear science's debt to, and our continuing need of philosophy.

Again, we seem to be asking an awful lot of this little article. In fact all we're asking is that it treat these philosophical problems as the challenging, eternal, and serious ones they are. As Aristotle said, our habits do not just make a very great difference, but all the difference.

[1] Lear, Jonathan. Aristotle: The Desire to Understand. Cambridge University Press. New York. 1988.

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