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review of Emrys Westcott, "The Virtue of Our Vices"

Intellectual Affairs
Everyday Microethics
January 4, 2012

In search of a rationale to avoid making any New Year’s resolutions, I was glad to see that Princeton University Press has issued a book called The Virtues of Our Vices: A Modest Defense of Gossip, Rudeness, and Other Bad Habits, by Emrys Westacott, a professor of philosophy at Alfred University.

It is not, alas, a handbook on self-improvement through creative rationalization. Two chapters started out as papers appearing in International Journal of Applied Philosophy, and Westacott’s project falls under a specialized heading within the humanistic division of labor: “microethics.”

The term was unfamiliar. A look at The Oxford Companion to Philosophy and similar reference works was to no avail.  Searching the Library of Congress catalog turned up no book or journal titles mentioning microethics, nor was it a keyword in any subject heading. Missing from the LoC’s holdings, but locatable online, is Paul Komesaroff’s Experiments in Love and Death: Medicine, Postmodernism, Microethics and the Body (Melbourne University Press, 2008). Komesaroff, a physician and professor of medicine at Monash University in Australia, contrasts microethical decision-making to the more general level of bioethical argument.

The issues that bioethicists discuss (cloning, euthanasia, animal rights, etc.) are matters of public debate, while microethical questions arise in a clinical setting – often enough while doctor and patient are face-to-face, with a piece of bad news between them. “Microethics,” writes Komesaroff,“is in general not the terrain of arresting cases involving heroic decisions or extraordinary circumstances…. Indeed, this may be one reason for the relative lack of attention it has attracted. Rather, it is the field of day-to-day communication and structured, complex interactions, of subtle gestures and fine nuances of language.”

He gives as an example the obligations of a physician when conveying unwelcome results from a biopsy. Here, the microethical question is not whether to be honest. That is a given. But the moment of truth will reverberate for the patient throughout whatever may be left of his or her life. The duty to render a prognosis is complicated by the possibility of creating false hope or absolute despair. The dilemma is both fine-grained and profoundly consequential.

By contrast, the microethical issues that interest Westacott seem like decidedly smaller beans. The subtitle of The Virtues of Our Vices mentions gossip and rudeness. In addition, there are chapters on snobbery and offensive jokes, as well as an investigation of the balancing act involved in respecting the opinions of others. On the one hand, people have a right to their beliefs. On the other hand, it is an inescapable reality this sometimes those beliefs are uninformed, irrational or downright insane.

None of these issues are a matter of life or death, as such, though I suppose they could be, if you offended the wrong person. But they all fit Komesaroff’s definition of the microethical domain as “the field of day-to-day communication and structured, complex interactions, of subtle gestures and fine nuances of language.” They are problems that flash up in the course of routine social interaction, with ambiguities that can make things even more complicated. Deciding whether a given action or remark was rude or snobbish is not always easy -- even for the person responsible for it.

Questions about right and wrong concerning everyday interaction “take up the bulk of whatever time most of us spend in moral reflection and decision making,” writes Westacott. “[O]ur everyday thinking and conduct regarding commonplace matters are the most important indicators, both to ourselves and to others, of our true moral values and character. Certainly, they count for more than purely hypothetical scenarios in which we imagine how we would handle terrible dilemmas involving lifeboats, terrorists, deathbed promises, or runaway trains.”

Quite true: It’s hard to remember the last time I had to decide if it would be okay to torture a prisoner to extract information about a ticking time bomb. The microethical questions of everyday life tend to be less stark, though not necessarily more simple. The very familiarity of an experience such as rudeness means that we ordinarily do without formal definitions of what counts as rude and what doesn’t. It is the microethicist's task to specify what is otherwise left implicit in such terms. That can take some doing, as shown by Westacott's labor to synthesize a precise definition of snobbery. It takes six efforts. (The final product: "believing without sufficient justification that you are superior to another person in certain respects because you belong to or are associated with some group that you think places you above them in a social hierarchy.")

Plenty of gray areas remain even after the terms have been clarified. It's possible to generate decision trees for judging if a piece of gossip is damaging and unethical, or whether a given violation of social norms will be assessed as rude. And so Westacott does -- seeming to sharpen up the distinctions between good and bad microethical distinctions. But at the same time, the author reckons the possible benefits of various vices, as well as their costs. Gossip, for example, is typically criticized as evidence of "shallow living," writes Westacott, "something we are continually discovering new ways to achieve." But that is one-sided. "Since one of the benefits gossip can bring is a deeper understanding of human nature and social institutions ... it is more plausible to think that a willingness to talk about people -- which at times will involve gossiping -- may be an integral part of 'the examined life.' This is why we find Socrates, in Platonic dialogues like the Meno and the Gorgias, freely discussing the failings of others in the course of his philosophical inquiries."

Not to push the comparison too hard, but in Westacott's microethical analyses, as with Socratic badinage, it's the process of inquiry, as much as the result, that engages the reader's interest. His tree-chart algorithms probably won't be that useful to anyone having to make a decision. But they reveal some of implicit choices that we often make very quickly when dealing with other people. The unexamined life may not be worth living, but it is, after all, where we spend most of our time. The Virtues of Our Vices shines a little light in that direction.

 

 

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