Minding the Gap: Moral Ideals and Moral Improvement. Oxford University Press, 2019
Abstract: The book is a philosophical exploration of the gap between our moral ideals and the imperfect moral reality in which we live, and the implications of that gap for the practical project of moral improvement. We are limited in our ability to recognize and be guided by moral ideals, due to a variety of moral and epistemic shortcomings. In light of that, how can the practical project of moral improvement get off the ground? A plausible account of moral improvement must begin from psychologically plausible starting points, and it must also rely on ideals that are both normatively authoritative and regulatively efficacious for the agent taking up the project. The book argues that moral improvement should be understood as the project of articulating and inhabiting an aspirational moral identity. That identity is cultivated through existing practical identities and standpoints, which are fundamentally social and which generate practical conflicts about how to live. The success of moral improvement depends on it taking place within what the book describes as good moral neighborhoods. Moral neighborhoods are collaborative normative spaces, constructed from networks of social practices and conventions, in which we can act as better versions of ourselves. The book draws on theatrical metaphors to describe how moral neighborhoods are created and maintained through moral stagecraft and mutual pretense. It concludes with a discussion of three social practices that contribute to good moral neighborhoods and so to moral improvement.
See publication information for the book here: Minding the Gap
On Manners. Routledge, 2012
Download a podcast interview about the book with Robert Talisse, produced by the New Books Network.
Published and Forthcoming Articles
"Self-Knowledge: The Value of Reflection"
Forthcoming in Philosophy for Girls, eds. Kim Garcher and Melissa Shew (Oxford University Press)
This paper is a discussion of value of self-knowledge and the role that reflection plays in its acquisition. It employs the title character in Jane Austen’s Emma as an illustration of the importance of reflection in understanding ourselves and developing self-trust. I argues that appropriate self-trust is a virtue in Aristotle’s sense. The person with the virtue of self-trust employs self-doubt effectively, avoiding both insufficient and excessive confidence in her own judgment. I show how Emma uses reflection as a way of correcting her own tendency toward overconfidence, enabling her to have greater self-trust and improved self-knowledge.
"Pretending Not to Notice: Respect, Attention, and Disability"
In Disability in Practice: Attitudes, Policies and Relationships, ed. Adam Cureton and Thomas Hill (Oxford University Press, 2018)
This paper is about a category of social conventions that, I will argue, have significant moral implications. The category consists in our conventions about what we notice and choose not to notice about persons, features of persons, and their circumstances. We normally do not think much about what we notice about others, and what they notice about us, but I will argue that we should. Noticing people is a way of engaging with them in social contexts. We can engage in social noticing more or less respectfully, more or less benevolently. Moreover, our standard conventions about noticing often have disparate effects on different groups of people. To be noticed appropriately is to have one's moral and social standing affirmed; conversely, to be denied notice or to be noticed inappropriately is very often to be denigrated or objectified. My aim in this paper is to unpack these moral dimensions of conventions of noticing and discuss their implications for how people engage with each other in certain kinds of social exchanges involving persons with disabilities. In Part I, I explain what I mean by the conventions of noticing and how they operate in social interactions. I show that although we do not always attend to them, these conventions are thoroughly embedded in our everyday social life. In Part II, I argue that these conventions have important moral dimensions and as such, should be governed by moral principles and values. I employ a Kantian framework of duties of love and respect in order to show how moral concerns should shape the way we use conventions of noticing and respond to their use by others. In Part III, I draw out the implications of this picture for social interactions among strangers when one or more of the parties involved has an immediately visible disability.
"The Etiquette of Eating"
In The Oxford Handbook of Food Ethics, ed. Anne Barnhill, Tyler Doggett, and Andy Egan (Oxford University Press, 2018)
This article explores and defends the idea that the etiquette conventions governing dinner parties, whether formal or informal, have moral significance. Their significance derives from the way that they foster and facilitate shared moral aims. I draw on literary and philosophical sources to make this claim, beginning with Isak Dineson's short story, Babette's Feast. I employ the concept of ritual from Confucius and Xunzi, as well as Immanuel Kant's detailed discussion of dinner parties in the Anthropology. Kant's account in particular helps illuminate how properly conducted dinners can enhance our understanding and promote moral community among the people who attend. I conclude that dinner parties play an important role in the moral life, and that the etiquette conventions governing them derive their binding force from their contribution to that role.
In The Oxford Handbook of Virtue, ed. Nancy Snow. (Oxford University Press, 2018)
In this paper I describe and defend an account of virtuous motivation that differs from what we might call ordinary moral motivation. It is possible to be morally motivated without being virtuously motivated. In the first half of the essay, I explore different senses of moral motivation and the philosophical puzzles and problems it poses. In the second half, I give an account of virtuous motivation that, unlike ordinary moral motivation, requires the motivational structure characteristic of a fully virtuous person. I draw on Aristotle's account of virtuous action to argue that a fully virtuous agent's judgment reflects a robust form of moral knowledge about what features of an action render it virtuous and hence, choiceworthy. Virtuously motivated actions are chosen in light of those features and are accompanied by the affective state appropriate to the overall moral landscape in which the judgment is made.
"Aristotelian Friendship and Ignatian Companionship"
In Spirituality and the Good Life: Philosophical Approaches, ed. David McPherson (Cambridge University Press, 2017)
This essay aims to construct a relationship between Aristotle's account of friendship in the Nicomachean Ethics and the ideal of companionship articulated and lived out by St. Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Jesuit order. Although on the surface, it may seem as though Aristotelian friendship and Ignatian companionship have little in common, given that the accounts were developed in such different contexts, I argue that there are similarities worth exploring. Taken together, the accounts can help illuminate the good of friendship as we experience it in the current age. The essay has three parts.In Part I, I set out Aristotle's account of friendship, focusing especially on his claims about shared activity in friendship and the role that friends play in times of suffering and bad fortune. In Part II, I turn to the Ignatian idea of companionship, both as he wrote about it and as he lived it. Ignatian spirituality takes it as a given that human life often follows a very rocky and difficult path. The spiritual practices of the Ignatian tradition are designed to help us cultivate the dispositions and habits necessary to sustain us through those experiences of grief, agony, and isolation. Those same dispositions and habits, I will suggest, also enable us to sustain our friends and be good companions during times of both joy and despair. In Part III, I will draw these two accounts together and consider what friendship on this Aristotelian-Ignatian model might look like today. Here I will focus on the ways in which friends are companions to each other during the despair and isolation occasioned by serious illness, trauma, and death. Both Aristotle and Ignatius have important insights into the value and function of friendship in these moments, insights that can help us think through the contemporary version of the same problem.
"Viewing Manners through a Wider Lens"
Dao: A Journal of Comparative Philosophy 15, no. 2 (June 2016): 273-90
I take up reflections on my book, On Manners, by Professors Van Norden, Cline, and Olberding. In response to Professor Van Norden, I further explain and defend my employment of Kant, arguing that Kantianism offers distinctive and valuable resources for thinking about manners. I suggest similarities between Kant and Xunzi. In response to Professor Cline, I take up the question of the developmental function of manners and explore in further detail the ways in which our social roles both give us standing to perform certain ritual actions and also make demands on us about whether and how we perform them. In response to Professor Olberding, I revisit one of the themes from the book, virtuous hospitality. I argue that we may have moral reason to adapt ourselves and our practices to certain aesthetic standards for domestic activities, rather than adjust the standards to suit our individual tastes.
"Feminist Virtue Ethics"
In The Routledge Companion to Virtue Ethics, eds. Lorraine Besser-Jones and Michael Slote (Routledge, 2015)
I evaluate the ways in which feminist philosophy intersects with the major strands of contemporary virtue ethics, especially neo-Aristotelian and sentimentalist versions of virtue ethics. I note the common strands of thought present in both feminist philosophy and virtue ethics, and I show how two important elements of feminist thought might fit within various virtue ethics frameworks. I consider whether virtue ethics can account for the full range of women's lived experiences and also whether virtue ethics is capable of giving an account of justice adequate to explain the wrongness of oppression. I conclude with some speculations about the future of feminist virtue ethics.
"Keeping the Shutters Closed: The Moral Value of Reserve"
Philosophers' Imprint, 14, no. 23 (2014): 1-25
In this paper I defend a little noted claim of Kant's -- that we should 'keep the shutters closed' on our flaws and failings. Kant's own arguments for this claim are not fully satisfactory, and they rest primarily on pragmatic considerations. My aim in this paper is to provide a more robust Kantian-inspired argument for the moral value of reserve. I argue that collaborating with others to keep the shutters closed on our individual and collective flaws aids in the difficult task of building and maintaining moral community among morally frail and flawed human beings.
"Kantian Beneficence and the Problem of Obligatory Aid"
Journal of Moral Philosophy 8, no. 1 (Jan 2011): 45-67
Common sense tells us that in certain circumstances, helping someone is morally obligatory. That intuition appears incompatible with Kant's account of beneficence as a wide imperfect duty, and its implication that agents may exercise latitude over which beneficent actions to perform. In this paper, I offer a resolution to the problem from which it follows that some opportunities to help admit of latitude and others do not. I argue that beneficence has two components: the familiar wide duty to help others achieve their ends and a narrow duty to avoid indifference to others as positive ends. Although we are not always required to help, we are always required not to be indifferent. When helping someone is the only way not to be indifferent to her, helping her is obligatory. My account avoids certain difficulties with other proposed solutions and can also meet an important concern about proximity.
"Honors, Awards, and the Catholic Moral Tradition"
Journal of Catholic Legal Studies 49, no. 2 (2010): 277-292
In this paper, I explore the moral issues relevant to the awarding of honorary degrees at Catholic colleges and universities, with a focus on politicians who are not Catholic and who hold pro-choice views. I argue that in most such cases, concerns about both scandal and cooperation with evil are either misplaced or overstated. I conclude that Catholic institutions have a duty of charity to assume that those who disagree with church teachings are people of good will and to engage with them accordingly.
"Minding Others’ Business"
Pacific Philosophical Quarterly, 90, no. 1 (2009): 116-139
What do we do when a loved one is seriously messing up her life? While Kantianism describes the predicament nicely as a tension between love and respect, it is not well-suited to resolving it. Kantian respect prevents minding another's business in cases where love demands it. Virtue ethics can readily explain the predicament as a tension between the virtues of sympathy and humility. Moreover, by changing the focus away from the other as a setter of ends and toward the would-be-benefactor's own degree of practical wisdom, virtue ethics permits a more nuanced set of loving responses to self-destructive people.
"Manners, Morals, and Practical Wisdom"
In Values and Virtues: Aristotelianism in Contemporary Ethics, ed. by Timothy Chappell (Oxford University Press, 2006)
In this paper I argue that the capacity to behave appropriately in social settings is properly understood as a virtue. Genuinely good manners contribute to, and are expressive of, morally important ends, the ends to which someone with full Aristotelian virtue is committed. They thus form an essential component of virtuous conduct.
"Practical Wisdom and Moral Imagination in Sense and Sensibility"
Philosophy and Literature 30, no. 2 (2006): 378-394
Practical wisdom is an essential Aristotelian virtue, but its application to ordinary moral behavior is often overlooked. The ability to say or do the right thing in complex social circumstances is a key function of the virtue. In this paper, I use three characters from Jane Austen's Sense and Sensibility to explore how practical wisdom functions in such contexts, and defend the claim that its exercise depends on moral imagination. In contrast with Elinor Dashwood, neither Marianne Dashwood nor Mrs. Jennings can consistently behave in practically wise ways. Unlike Elinor, they lack imaginative capacities necessary for acting well.
"Contemporary Virtue Ethics"
Philosophy Compass 1, no. 1 (January 2006): 22-7
Companion piece: “Teaching and Learning Guide” Philosophy Compass 5, no. 1 (January 2010): 102-107.
"Moral Cacophony: When Continence is a Virtue."
Journal of Ethics 7, no. 4 (2003): 339-63
Contemporary virtue ethicists widely accept the thesis that a virtuous agent's feelings should be in harmony with her judgments about what she should do and that she should find virtuous action easy and pleasant. Conflict between an agent's feelings and her actions, by contrast, is thought to indicate mere continence–a moral deficiency. This ‘harmony thesis’ is generally taken to be a fundamental element of Aristotelian virtue ethics. I argue that the harmony thesis, understood this way, is mistaken, because there are occasions where a virtuous agent will find right action painful and difficult. What this means is that the generally accepted distinction between continence and virtue is unsupportable. This conclusion affects several well-known accounts of virtuous action, including those of Philippa Foot and John McDowell. A closer look at Aristotle, however, provides another way of distinguishing between continence and virtue, based in his categorization of goods as noble or base. I will argue that virtue is exhibited when an agent's feelings harmonize with his correct judgments of value, while discrepancies between feelings and correct judgments of value indicate continence. This understanding of continence and virtue enables us to accommodate the problem cases I raised.
"Virtue Ethics and Kant’s Cold-Hearted Benefactor"
Journal of Value Inquiry 36, no. 2-3 (2002): 187-204
Virtue ethicists have often criticized Kant's position on the sympathetic philanthropist. I argue that it is actually the cold-hearted benefactor who poses the more serious problem for Kant. Kantians have tried hard to rescue Kant's picture of emotions, with considerable success. Nevertheless, they cannot avoid the unappealing conclusion that, despite his lack of sympathy, the cold-hearted benefactor is morally impeccable by Kantian standards. Virtue ethics, by contrast, can explain the cold-hearted benefactor's moral deficiency with comparative ease. Considering this case makes clear some of the deep differences between Kantianism and virtue ethics, which have been downplayed in recent literature.
"Recent Work in Virtue Ethics" (with Christopher H. Wellman)
American Philosophical Quarterly 39, no. 1 (2002): 49-72
Given the continued popularity of virtue ethics, it is appropriate to evaluate its impact on normative theory and its ability to fulfill its promise as a new approach to ethics. In this paper, we review three new books by prominent virtue ethicists: Morals from Motives by Michael Slote, On Virtue Ethics by Rosalind Hursthouse, and Natural Goodness by Philippa Foot. We also assess the ability of virtue ethics to respond to three standard objections to the theory. Our conclusion is that although more work needs to be done, virtue ethics has considerable promise as a competitor to other normative theories.