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.