Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Books of 2015

I'm pretty proud of the reading I managed in 2015. I started the year finishing up my self-led course on virtue ethics (more on that in this post). I also honored my new year's resolution to read more substantive fiction this year (a resolution inspired in part by my interest in virtue ethics, incidentally). In addition to those below, I've got less than 100 pages to go in War and Peace, and I'll finish it by year's end barring hell, high water, and such.

Biggest surprise of the year: Structure of Scientific Revolutions was awesome, and made me realize I am apparently quite partial to postmodernism, at least as I currently understand it, and in what is probably one of its milder forms.

Socialism after Hayek was another delightful discovery. "Hayekian socialism" as a topic was just bound to be interesting, but I had no idea Burczak also appealed to the capabilities approach. This was fortuitous to find right after that little thing I wrote earlier this year.

Biggest disappointment was probably Burdened Virtues, which I expected to love based on my commitment to both feminism and virtue ethics. That said it was still interesting, and I don't regret reading it. Okay I take that back. The biggest disappointment of the year was Michel Foucault, which was so disappointing that I actually blocked it from my mind. I think I gave it one star on Goodreads.

Peace, Love, & Liberty, (Tom Palmer (ed.))
The Morality of Happiness (Julia Annas)
The State of the Art (Iain M Banks)
The Left Hand of Darkness (Ursula K Le Guin)
Bourgeois Dignity (Deirdre McCloskey)
Burdened Virtues (Lisa Tessman)
Pride & Prejudice (Jane Austen)
Practical Intelligence and the Virtues (Daniel C Russell)
Socialism After Hayek (Theodore Burczak)
Cordelia's Honor (Lois McMaster Bujold)
feminist theory: from margin to center (bell hooks)
On Liberty (John Stuart Mill)
The Subjection of Women (John Stuart Mill)
The History of Sexuality, Part 1 (Michel Foucault)
The Cambridge Companion to Virtue Ethics (Daniel C Russell (ed.))
The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (Thomas Kuhn)
War and Peace (Leo Tolstoy, tentative)

Great list, right? Well, one thing that bites is I basically sacrificed all my reading of the Economist. I regret this and I'm resolving not to let that happen again next year. I'll probably read many fewer books next year because I want to get back in the Economist's good graces. Consider that a resolution.

Another resolution: read more sci-fi/fantasy! A few months ago I took one of those online quizzes that ask you what sci-fi/fantasy books you've read. Almost all my friends blew me out of the water. I consider speculative fiction to be part of my identity, so this made me feel like a bit of an impostor. I want to read at least five books next year. Probably going to start with Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, then read some more Bujold.

Otherwise, I plan to read a bit of feminism and a bit of libertarianism. Susan Moller Okin, Elizabeth Anderson, and Seyla Benhabib are all on the list. And it seems like a few of the libertarian public intellectuals I stalk have books coming out in 2016 (although maybe I'm being optimistic here). And there are some classics like Nozick I feel I should get to at some point.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Continuing self-education update

I'm pretty proud of myself. I'm about 15 pages out from finishing my year-or-so-long self-led course on virtue ethics. This, along with a few scattered papers here and there (okay mostly Nussbaum) was my syllabus:
  • The Bourgeois Virtues, by Deirdre McCloskey
    • The impetus for the whole project
  • After Virtue, by Alasdair MacIntyre
    • Offers the side benefit of being part of the conservative intellectual canon
    • Basically I think he fails in his effort to smash modern ethics and begs a big question in my mind
  • Virtues and Vices, by Philippa Foot
    • Morality as a System of Hypothetical Imperatives was a pretty interesting essay.
  • Natural Goodness, by Philippa Foot
  • On Virtue Ethics, by Rosalind Hursthouse
    • The best book length introduction to VE I've read
  • The Morality of Happiness, by Julia Annas
    • Walkthrough of the debates about ethics in the ancient world, and a very good source for understanding eudaimonistic virtue ethics
    • Damn, the ancient Greeks were really smart!
  • Burdened Virtues, by Lisa Tessman
    • Pretty interesting discussion about how conditions of oppression can stifle virtue, but I thought the book really needed a discussion of phronesis and the unity of virtue.
  • Practical Intelligence and the Virtues, by Daniel Russell
    • Probably my favorite of the set, but also the hardest. I'm glad I read it last.
Clearly, I'm missing a lot of books. I haven't even read Annas's Intelligent Virtue. And I want to read more MacIntyre ... but I have to stop somewhere and start reading other things again. I have a blog post half written about why I like virtue ethics so much, but I've been too lazy to finish it. Basically, it's an organic theory that is flexible enough to describe our extremely complex and open-ended moral world. Eudaimonistic theories of VE at least have the advantage of remembering that morality has a purpose beyond just facilitating social cooperation: it should describe a robust, broadly construed conception of human happiness (or, even better, flourishing). It's holistic, taking as its concern the whole character, rather than limiting its scope to actions-in-the-vacuum, and only those actions that affect other people. And I think VE is just descriptively closer to how actual people deal with actual ethical life. We do learn our morals from stories read to us at our mother's knee that describe admirable character traits and good reasons for acting; we learn from moral instruction by role models; and we learn from long years in the school of hard knocks. Maybe some day I'll elaborate with a proper blog post.

Anyway, now that I'm temporarily done with virtue ethics, I have to decide what to read next. The very first thing I'm gonna read is Socialism After Hayek, by Theodore Burczak. I've long been really curious to learn more about Marxism/socialism, but I'd like to do so from a source that isn't obviously insane (I know, not very charitable). From what I understand, this book is written by a proper socialist, but one who explicitly acknowledges that, yeah, the socialists just flat out lost the socialist calculation debate. Maybe afterward if I feel like it I can delve deeper. I hear Gramsci was good?

After that, what? I'm interested in learning more about Kant, but I don't want to read Kant himself, because it's common knowledge Kant is hard as hell to read and fuck that, this isn't my day job. Any Kantians or Kant-knowledgeable folks out there have a good suggestions?

To be honest I'm also interested in going back to my libertarian roots. I've never gotten around to reading some of the classics, like Nozick's Anarchy, State, and Utopia or JS Mill's On Liberty. Never read Herbert Spencer either, and it seems like he's mentioned everywhere. Then there's also a whole bunch of libertarian works on the near horizon I'm pretty excited about. Kuznicki has a book coming out about the nature of government. Zwolinski and Tomasi have their intellectual history of libertarianism coming out (which will doubtlessly expand my reading list). Brennan and van der Vossen have a book on global justice coming, something of especial interest to me given my interest in cosmopolitanism and open borders. And of course, Deirdre McCloskey's thrilling conclusion to her Bourgeois trilogy is coming out next year ...

I feel like I'm a shoddy libertarian because I haven't read some classics, but I haven't read any classics of feminist thought, apart from like, the first third of Wollstonecraft's Vindication of the Rights of Woman and a couple essays by Voltairine de Cleyre. Feminism has become increasingly important to me in recent years, so I should probably do something about this. Second Sex is staring at me from my shelf.

Then there are the odds and ends. I'm sort of interested in Charles Murray's Coming Apart, Nassim Taleb's Antifragile, and the Singular Universe and the Reality of Time, by Roberto Unger and Lee Smolin.

Monday, April 20, 2015

Burdened Virtues

In Burdened Virtues: Virtue Ethics for Liberatory Struggles, Lisa Tessman's basic thesis is that conditions of oppression obstruct the development of certain virtues on the one hand and, on the other hand, require cultivation of "burdened virtues" that act counter to the agent's own flourishing. Consider, for example, anger at injustice. Anger at an unjust act is appropriate and obviously necessary if we want to advance justice. But for, say, an oppressed minority, injustice occurs not in discrete actions from time to time but rather in a pervasive pattern of social life. Constant rage to match the patterns of injustice cripples an individual's chance at flourishing. Anger in a state of powerlessness further increases the possibility that that anger will find outlets at inappropriate targets, like one's comrades or loved ones.

Another example is loyalty, a characteristic especially important to cultivate in political resistance movements. But loyalty can pull in multiple directions, and often does in cases of individuals belonging to more than one disfavored group. Tessman gives the example of black feminists facing charges of treason when they turn their feminist critiques onto black culture. Racial deconstructionists, who seek to abandon the concept of race altogether as invalid and harmful, are likewise condemned for abandoning their racial communities (and further charged with doing so for selfish reasons).

One of the more fascinating discussions within the book is of the impact conditions of oppression have on privileged persons, those individuals who would seem to benefit from the system. To the casual observer, of course, members of dominant classes benefit from a system where the cards are stacked in their favor to varying degrees and in varying ways. They can use their advantages to go on to lead flourishing lives. But of course, knowingly benefiting from unfair privilege and doing nothing to correct this state of affairs is clearly vicious. Moreover, ignorance is not bliss. It's incumbent upon every moral actor to try to understand the injustices around them. The outward appearance (and indeed, inward feeling) of virtue and flourishing among privileged persons may be illusory when their understanding of who falls within their spheres of ethical concern is blinkered.

The book is valuable, especially for students and activists of feminist and racial politics, providing a useful alternative framework for understanding character under oppression. And the concept of burdened virtues is a fruitful contribution to virtue ethics under adverse conditions, extending Rosalind Hursthouse's ideas of moral remainders and moral damage. 

I do have one big complaint. The burdening of the virtues that Tessman discusses are examples of virtues in conflict, pulling against one another. She mentions from time to time toward the end the need for balancing between virtues. But the whole project cries out for a detailed discussion of the unity of the virtues, a central concept within many theories of virtue. Conditions of oppression surely exacerbate conflicts between virtues, but even in everyday moral affairs among individuals of equal social advantage there will inevitably be situations where different virtues demand different responses. It's an advantage of virtue ethics that virtues can pull against one another without breaking the whole enterprise. Understanding how to respond (how to act as well as how to feel) with virtues in tension is often presented as a kind of skill of moral living, learned by attentive practice and moral reflection and honed over decades of moral life. This practice and reflection is our old friend phronesis, the virtue of practical moral wisdom that unites the rest of the virtues into some kind of organic whole. But there's no mention of either phronesis or the unity of the virtues in the index.