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Episode 136: Christian Miller discusses virtue and character

Ep. 136

This month, Yuezhen Li and I sit down with Christian Miller (Wake Forest University) to talk about how to be virtuous. Also known as how to be good.


‘Virtue’ is sort of an old-timey word. But the concept is still alive and well today, even though we tend to use different words for it. The idea behind a virtue is: there’s such a thing as being a good person and doing good things, and that there are different ways of being a good person and doing good things. For example, you can be good in the sense that you’re honest, or you can be good in the sense that you’re brave, and you can definitely be one of those things without being the other. In philosophy, the name we give to character traits like being honest or brave is ‘virtues’.


We talk a big game about being great people. Maybe I love to tell my friends about how I donated money to a charitable cause, or how I forgive people who did bad things when they apologize, or how I like to help people when they’re in trouble, or whatever. Blah blah blah. Christian Miller wants to cut through the all the talk and find out how virtuous we actually are, as a whole. What does the empirical evidence from psychology suggest? In his book, The Character Gap, Christian Miller finds that we are, on the whole, a mixed bag. On average, we aren’t particularly good people, which is maybe a bit of a bummer. But on the plus side, we also aren’t particularly bad people. We’re all sorta meh, in the middle. And there is a full range of variation in the population, with small numbers of extraordinarily good people and small numbers extraordinarily bad people at each of the tails.


What should we do about all this? I guess all you ever can do is follow your bliss. But the fact is that most of us want to think of ourselves as good, regardless of how good we actually are, so why not try to be our best selves? Join us for this episode, as Christian Miller discusses some strategies we can employ to nudge ourselves in the direction of being a bit more honest, or a bit more brave, or a bit more whatever we want to be.


Matt Teichman

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4/10/2022

Episode 140: Meghan Sullivan and Paul Blaschko discuss the good life

Ep. 140
Intro philosophy classes often get stuck in a rut. Some philosophy classes go through a list of old dead people and try to understand excerpts from some of their most influential writings, over the course of a semester. Could be something like: Plato, Aristotle, Descartes, Hume, Kant, Mill, and Nietzsche. Other types of intro classes go through a list of topics that contemporary philosophers feel are canonical and have students read papers on those topics. Could be something like: the problem of evil, the mind-body problem, arguments for the existence (or non-existence) of God, the is/ought distinction, and external world skepticism. It’s not that there’s anything wrong with that type of classper se—I’d bet a lot of listeners tune intoElucidationsprecisely because of a kickass class they took on those lines. But sometimes, an instructor will quickly throw a syllabus like that together just out of a general feeling that that’s what you’re supposed to do. Not because the syllabus consists of material thattheypersonally feel excited about. When that happens, what we often end up with is a room full of people who kinda don’t know what they’re doing there, including both the teacher and the students.This month’s Elucidations guests have a different approach. Their first-year students come from all different backgrounds and majors, and when they walk in, Sullivan and Blaschko immediately ask them: what are you planning to do with your life? Why? What do you hope to get out of it? What is it that makes this plan superior to others? This format still gives the usual suspects like Aristotle, Mill, etc. a seat at the table, but now they’re brought in specifically to help students figure out what they’re going to do when they graduate. Part of what makes this work is that Sullivan and Blaschko are completely open about sharing their own life stories, including big decisions from their past and the reasoning that went into them.With these background conditions in place, the class turns into a vibrant debate about how to make a future for yourself, thus bringing philosophy back into contact with its original mission from 2500 years ago in ancient Athens. Namely: to give everyone the skills they need to live a good life, to understand what makes the life they’re living good, and to define what a good life is going to look like for them personally, as opposed to for other people.Their course at The University of Notre Dame,God and the Good Life, has taken the higher education world by storm, and in order to bring some of what they’re up to to a bigger audience, they have adapted it into a new book from Penguin Press, calledThe Good Life Method. Tune into this month’s episode to learn all about how to live your best life!Further ReadingIf you’re interested in getting a glimpse of the book, you can look at excerpts from it here:The Good Life Method, Meghan Sullivan and Paul BlashckoYou can also take a look at the authors' personal website, which contain links to many of their writings on this and other topics:Meghan SullivanPaul BlaschkoHappy reading!Matt Teichman
2/13/2022

Episode 139: Jessica Tizzard discusses the philosophy of pregnancy

Ep. 139
This month,Jessica Tizzard(University of Tuebingen) makes hersecond appearanceon Elucidations to talk to Matt about pregnancy.Human pregnancy is weird. Try talking to a reproductive endochrinologist about it, and you’ll soon find that there’s a lot we don’t really understand about it even at the scientific level. But even when it comes to thinking about pregnancy at the commonsense reasoning level, puzzles begin popping up the second you start trying to think about it systematically. Like, consider the commonsense idea that a fetus is ‘inside’ the person who is pregant with it. They clearly are, in the sense that they aren’t out and about in the world the way a marsupial fetus is. But if you think abouthow containment and interiority are defined mathematically, there’s also a sense in which the fetuscan’tliterally be inside the womb, because in order for one thing to be inside another they have to be physically disconnected.In this episode, Jessica Tizzard argues that our commonsense thinking about pregnancy is dominated by ‘container’ metaphors: i.e. we think about a fetus inside a womb the way we think about a cookie inside a jar. However, she thinks that ‘parthood’ analogies are often an equally good fit for how a fetus relates to the person pregnant with it. That is, there are also biological analogies you could draw between a fetus and a body part: a body part is seamlessly physically connected to the body it’s a part of, and a body part is subject the same organism-level system of homeostatic regulation that the rest of the body is.The next step is to start thinking about how these observations ramify morally. Can acknowledging that the ‘parthood’ way of thinking is at least as biologically accurate as the ‘container’ way of thinking help shed light on what kinds of duties a pregnant person has to their as-yet unborn fetus? Join Matt and Jessica as they dive right into these thorny but important questions!Further ReadingOur distinguished guest recommends the following literature on pregnancy, which she draws on heavily in her own work:‘Lady Parts’, Elselijn Kingma‘Were You a Part of Your Mother?’, Elselijn Kingma‘9 Months’, Elselijn Kingma‘Neonatal Incubator or Artifical Womb?’, Elselijn Kingma and Suki Finn‘Abortion, Intimacy, and the Duty to Gestate’, Margaret Olivia LittleHappy reading!Matt Teichman
1/23/2022

Episode 138: Toby Buckle discusses Mill's liberty principle

Ep. 138
This month, Toby Buckle, host of the Political Philosophy Podcast, returns to talk about John Stuart Mill’s liberty principle! (Also sometimes called the ‘harm principle’.) The occasion for the episode is the recent release of Toby’s cool new book, What is Freedom?, which is out now from Oxford University Press. Get it while it’s hot!John Stuart Mill is probably one of the most influential intellectuals of the 19th century, having penned treatises on markets, logic, feminism, utilitarianism, and freedom of speech that people continue to pick up and read today. In this episode, we talk about how he had one foot in the free market-oriented tradition of liberalism and another in the more social justice-oriented type of liberalism, how he was raised under the world’s most ambitious parenting/education regime, and how he had a lifelong collaboration with Harriet Taylor. We also introduce what gets called his ‘liberty princple’.The idea behind the liberty principle is that we want as much freedom for each person as possible: they should have the ability to set their own agenda and carry it out. But we also need to limit it somewhat, because if everyone was completely unconstrained in how they set their agenda and carried it out, they’d interfere with each other. We’d have one person’s freedom detracting from other people’s freedom. So in order to achieve the perfect equilibrium we want, the thing to do is aim for sort of a greatest lower bound: every person should be allowed to do whatever they want for whatever reason they want, only stopping shy once they reach the point where doing whatever they want would harm another person. It might seem like an obvious principle to us now, but arguably that’s because we’re all living in the shadow of Mill!Part of the background context for this principle is a worry about paternalism. There’s a natural tendency for Person A to prevent Person B from doing what they want because Person A thinks it’s obvious that what Person B wants to do right now is harmful to them. The liberty principle tells us that that’s not a good reason to have laws prohibiting some course of action. We should only have a law prohibiting some course of action if allowing that course of action would interfere with other people’s freedom. That way, Mill argued, we keep the decision about whether to pass a law prohibiting something grounded in empirical facts about what would actually happen if it were passed. He also wanted to emphasize that each person has the right to be their own arbiter of what kinds of risk they will assume.I hope you enjoy our discussion! It was a fun one.Further ReadingIf you’d like to hear more along the lines of what Toby and I discuss in this episode, you can do no better than to take a look at Mill’s exquisiteOn Liberty, which you can get for free here:https://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/34901And if you missed the link up at the top, definitely check out Toby’s edited volume, which gathers together a number of the interviews from his own podcast. The overarching theme is what freedom is and what it can be.What is Freedom?: Conversations with Historians, Philosophers, and Activists, Toby BuckleHappy reading!Matt Teichman