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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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1/2/2022

Episode 137: Bryan Caplan discusses open borders

Ep. 137
This month, I talk to Bryan Caplan (George Mason University) about what a world without immigration restrictions could look like. The work discussed in this episode comes out of Bryan’s incredible non-fiction graphic novel, Open Borders, which I highly recommend checking out. Don’t let the comic-book-iness of it fool you; it is 100% accessible and entertaining, but it is also written at the level of detail you’d normally expect to see in a peer-reviewed research paper.One basic fact about the world today is that it’s kind of a pain to move from country to country. You can maybe pull it off if you’ve already landed a fancy job where you want to move and if you’re coming from a first-world country, but even then, there are more complications than you might think: work visas, sponsorships, visa renewal, permanent residency, possible eventual citizenship. Basically just a ton of red tape. And if you’re coming from a third-world country, forget it: you typically either have to be a political refugee or enter a lottery that leaves you with a vanishingly small chance of getting in. So although it is technically possible to immigrate, assuming that planets are aligned, the fact remains that in most situations, there are strong legal pressures locking us into whatever country we live in right now. Bryan Caplan thinks that we should essentially just eliminate the bureaucratic machine that makes it so difficult to live wherever you please. Sure, there can still be customs, and nation states, and basic security checks—but other than that, make it as easy as possible for everyone to move around.Let’s take the US as an example. One obvious benefit of opening up our borders is humanitarian: anyone living in poverty would be able to come here and with no difficulty whatsoever be able to start earning ten times as much money as they could back home. But far beyond that, there is a growing body of research within economics which suggests that having a large influx of formerly poor, newly productive people will lead to a boost in our economy. So everybody wins. And it isn’t just any old boost; it’s a massive boost. If these models are correct, everybody wins big time.Tune in to hear our guest run through some of the empirical evidence for this prediction and find out why, according to him, the supposed dangers of an open boders policy are greatly exaggerated!Further ReadingIf you’re curious to learn more about the arguments discussed in this episode, you can do no better than to turn to the book:Open Borders: The Science and Ethics of Immigration, Bryan Caplan and Zach WeinersmithYou might also enjoy Bryan’s blog post at Econlib running through the many topics the book covers.Finally, our distinguished guest recommends the following paper by Michael Clemens, which was part of the inspiration for his work on open borders:‘Economics and Emigration: Trillion-Dollar Bills on the Sidewalk?', Michael A. ClemensHappy reading!
7/15/2021

Episode 135: Sara Protasi discusses the philosophy of envy

Ep. 135
This month,Charlie Wilandand I sit down withSara Protasito talk about envy. Which she just came out with a whole book about! Awesome.Click here to download episode 135 of Elucidations.You might think that it’s pretty clear what envy is. Isn’t envy just when someone else has something you want, you don’t have it, and that makes you feel annoyed? Well, kind of—but there’s a little more to it. For example, you have to view yourself as similar to the other person in the relevant respect; as in contention for the same resources. If I have no ambition to get promoted into upper-level management, I’m not in a position to get envious when that happens to someone else. Another subtlety is that if you look at how we use the word ‘envy’, we often use it interchangeably with other words like ‘jealousy’ or ‘resentment’. And although the everyday meanings of these terms are probably at least a little bit fluid, there are sharp distinctions between different related emotional reactions that it is useful to draw.In the context of the academic literature in psychology and philosophy, envy is anamoralemotion, which means that it isn’t connected up with feelings of who truly deserves what. It’s just a feeling that you want the envied thing no matter what, and you aren’t really thinking about who deserves it. One test that Sara Protasi proposes for differentiating between envy and resentment is the following. Say you have sort of an angry feeling about your lack of something that another person has, and you want to figure out whether it’s envy or resentment. What you should do is ask yourself: if the roles were reversed, and I had the desired thing while someone who really deserved it didn’t, would I be indignant on that other person’s behalf? Or would I just think: no problem, I’ve got everything I need? If you would be indignant in that scenario, then what you’re feeling is resentment. If you wouldn’t, then what you’re feeling is envy.Sara Protasi also advances the adventurous claim that some forms of envy can actually be good. If I find that a friend has some quality I wish I had, and that realization spurs me to self-improve in some way so that I can bring myself up to their level, then I’m feeling what Protasi callsemulative envy.Join us as we get to the bottom of what kinds of envy are, when they’re good, when they’re bad, and why!
5/29/2021

Episode 134: Claire Kirwin discusses value realism

Ep. 134
This month,Josh Kaufmanand I talk toClaire Kirwinabout whether things are objectively good or bad, or whether it’s all in the eye of the beholder. Professor Kirwin is a fan of peanut butter cup ice cream, and Josh and I are fans of mint chocolate chip. Is there an objective fact of the matter about whether either is good, or whether one is better than the other? Or are we all just expressing our preferences, i.e. doing nothing more than providing information about ourselves? Can goodness be ‘in’ ice cream, or is it just ‘in’ the person eating it? If we think peanut butter cup ice creamcanbe objectively good, is that somehow disrespectful to people who prefer something else? Does everyone have a moral right to have their ice cream preferences respected by others? The example may be somewhat frivolous, but it ties into lots of similar questions that many of us think of as more weighty, like whether classical music can be objectively great/terrible, or whether a given behavior can be morally objectively great/terrible.Value realismis a catch-all expression for the belief that all of these things are objectively in the objects themselves. Peanut butter cup ice cream deliciousness is in the ice cream itself, not in the person experiencing it, and classical music greatness is in the music itself, not in the audience member listening to it at Carnegie Hall. Claire Kirwin espouses value realism across all of these cases, but we focus on ice cream in this episode because, uh, hopefully it’s a little less of a hot button thing than some other topics. We’d like to be able to talk about it without raising an undue amount of ire.Kirwin’s two main ideas are as follows. First, you might wonder how the heck there could even be some sort of objective deliciousness in ice cream itself. Doesn’t everyone disagree about that? Her general line of response is that there can be experts in the flavor of ice cream, and if there can be experts in the flavor of ice cream, then there must be something about ice cream that they’re especially good at picking up. Maybe you’re a master chef, or maybe you’re a food critic, or maybe you’ve just eaten more ice cream than most people. Whatever. There are lots of different ways of being an expert. The point is that if you understand a lot about ice cream it can sensitize you to little details in its flavor that other people haven’t been trained to notice.Her follow-up idea is quite interesting. She argues that when one person prefers mint chocolate chip ice cream and another prefers peanut butter cup ice cream, that doesn’t necessarily mean that the two people disagree. It could very well be that peanut butter cup ice cream is objectively good, and mint chocolate chip ice cream is also objectively good. It’s just that one person only has the expertise required to discern the tastiness of the one flavor, and the other person only has the expertise required to discern the tastiness of the other flavor. So saying that some flavor you have expertise in is objectively good is actually potentially remaining neutral about other flavors—at least the ones you feel like you don’t have a good grip on.Join the three of us as we entertain a peaceful solution to the ice cream wars!Matt Teichman