Posts Tagged ‘Philosophy’

A Few Thoughts on Virtue and Vice

May 17, 2014
Alexander Pope

Alexander Pope

Many vices have corresponding virtues. Consider the following pairs of adjectives.

Confident/Cocky
Trusting/Gullible
Audacious/Impudent
Candid/Indiscreet
Gallant/Foolhardy
Deliberate/Dithering

In each of the above examples, there is a point where excess converts virtue into vice.

Consider the Wooden Paradox from basketball coach John Wooden: Be quick but don’t hurry. In other words, give maximum effort without losing control. Expedience is good; reckless haste is not. Thus we excel by straining a virtue to the edge of the border where it becomes its corresponding vice.

Controlling our appetites is a key to maximizing virtues without rendering them vices. As philosopher Phillipa Foot* notes, “Virtues belong to the will” (13).

For example, there is virtue in Hamlet’s impulse to redress his father’s murder; however, the mindless barbarism of Hamlet’s hunger for retribution obliterates a guiltless family—Ophelia, Polonius, and Laertes. Enraged recklessness is the vice which transforms Hamlet’s valor into senseless carnage.

To his credit, Hamlet is aware of such folly. That’s why he salutes Horatio’s staid and sober equanimity:

Give me that man
That is not passion’s slave, and I will wear him
In my heart’s core, ay, in my heart of heart,
As I do thee

It is not good enough simply to act upon justifiable impulses because, as Foot notes, “almost any desire can lead a man to act unjustly” (9). Like Hamlet’s ill-fated quest for justice, much death, loss, and destruction is perpetrated in the name of love, charity, temperance, and security. Alexander Pope warns us to be wary because

The same ambition can destroy or save,
And makes a patriot as it makes a knave.

It is difficult to discern the corresponding virtues for “moral failings such as pride, vanity, worldliness and avarice” which “harm both their possessor and others” (Foot 3). Pride is a fundamental flaw bred in the bone of humanity. Excessive self-satisfaction puffs us up; it distends the ego and smothers benevolence. But you don’t have to take my word for it:

Before destruction the heart of man is haughty (Proverbs 18:12)

Whether we credit our existence to God or evolution, there is no such thing as a self-made man.

Let’s imagine a man who comes into the world with a massive endowment of skill and will who also happens to be born at that right time and place to garner great fortune and esteem during his lifetime. Shouldn’t this man be immensely grateful for his fortuitous circumstances? Why does pride so often trump modesty in the solipsistic hearts of the fortunate?

Compassion and humility are the best antidotes to our capacious appetites and our rampant self-love.

*All Philippa Foot quotations from Virtues and Vices and Other Essays in Moral Philosophy

by Richard W. Bray

Some Provocative Sentences

January 7, 2012

The most lively thought is still inferior to the dullest sensation.

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By the time I was done with the car it looked worse than any typical Indian car that had been driven all its life on reservation roads, which they always say are like government promises—full of holes.

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I tell you his mind bled almost visibly.

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Why should so much poetry be written about sexual love and so little about eating—which is just as pleasurable and never lets you down—or about family affection, or about the love of mathematics.

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In the morning there was a big wind blowing and the waves were running high up on the beach and he was awake a long time before he remembered that his heart was broken.

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Well, then, says I, what’s the use you learning to do right, when it’s troublesome to do right and ain’t no trouble to do wrong, and the wages is just the same?

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Perhaps, when we remember wars, we should paint ourselves blue and go on all fours all day long and grunt like pigs. That would surely be more appropriate than noble oratory and shows of flags and well-oiled guns.

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“Keep your pores open.”

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“But, by what I have gathered from your own Relation, and the Answers I have with much pain wringed from you; I cannot but conclude the Bulk of your Natives, to be the most pernicious Race of little odious Vermin that Nature ever suffered to crawl upon the Surface of the Earth.”

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“There is special providence in the fall of a sparrow.”

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It is only when our appointed activities seem by a lucky accident to obey the particular earnestness of our temperament that we can taste the comfort of complete self-deception.

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“If you could look deep enough into anyone’s character, even perhaps your own, you would find a sense of machismo.”

Compiled by Richard W. Bray

“But That’s Okay”

August 31, 2009

I had a roommate in college named Skippy (not his real name, but it should have been) who was a Philosophy major. We would proofread each other’s papers. The funny thing about his papers was that he never said anything and he always got a “B”. I mean always, on every paper and in every class. I remember reading the final paper he wrote for his final class as an undergraduate. I forget the actual topic, but basically it said that some guys said this while other guys said that with a noncommittal conclusion. By the time I finished reading the paper, Skippy had already began celebrating the accomplishment by making a healthy dent in a quart of Coors.

I handed him his paper.

“Interesting.” I lied.

Skippy snatched the paper from my hand. With quart in one hand and paper in the other, he romped around the house, barking, “Yes, it’s good. But it needs something extra.”

Skippy ruminated on the paper as he finished his quart. Finally he shouted out, “I’ve got it!”

He took the paper upstairs to his room, reinserted it in his typewriter and added this sentence to the conclusion: “But that’s okay.”

We all laughed and laughed at this, never thinking that he would actually turn in a paper with such an absurd ending, but, being Skippy, he did. I couldn’t wait for Skippy to get the paper back. As a History major, I knew that any one of my professors would have had a fit if I had pulled a stunt like that.

When Skippy finally got the paper back, his professor made no mention of the “But that’s okay.”

Oh yeah, the paper got a “B”.

by Richard W. Bray