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How Much?Why Some Things Should Not Be for SaleWisdom, Intuition and EthicsWithout ConscienceWomen and Borderline Personality DisorderWomen and MadnessWondergenesWould You Kill the Fat Man?Wrestling with Behavioral GeneticsWriting About PatientsYou Must Be DreamingYour Genetic DestinyYour Inner FishYouth Offending and Youth Justice Yuck!
There are books a-plenty out there on the virtues, for scholars and general readers, for teachers and for researchers. Richard White adds to this wealth competent summaries of the main thinkers, theories, and themes in Western thought about the virtues and two foci of contemporary moral thinking. First, he adds perspectives from religions and cultures of the East, Hinduism, Confucianism, and Buddhism. Second, he addresses the relevance of the virtues to a number of problems in practical ethics: human attitudes toward the non-human environment get addressed in the chapter on temperance, Gandhian non-violence enters the chapter on courage, treatment of animals comes up in the discussion of compassion, disputes over culturally specific practices that harm women are found in the chapter on wisdom. Finally, White incorporates a subversive perspective on domination and 'hardness,' which have been promoted by militaristic and racist regimes as virtues. White argues more directly than many writers that callousness is a vice and sensitivity to suffering is a virtue. I recommend readers attend to White's analysis of the association of hardness and domination with the dehumanizing processes that accompany acculturation to racist regimes and scientific research programs that promote thoughtless cruelty to animals, both human and non-human.
White clearly states that his book is intended for "philosophers and other students of life," explaining his non-technical style and language accessible to the readers outside academic circles (p. ix). He does not take sides on whether virtue theory supplements or replaces theories of moral rightness, though he acknowledges skepticism about claims that theories of moral rightness are central to moral philosophy and that virtue theory "supplements, at least," theories of moral rightness (p. 3). Starting with the basic thought that "the virtues, including justice, courage, and compassion, are the ways in which we typically grasp the nature of goodness" (p. 1) White argues that attending to the virtues captures something about our pre-theoretical concept of the moral life absent if we focus exclusively on moral rightness. White's response to the objection that virtues are culturally relative and a tool of cultural domination is first, to state his intention of identifying "transcultural" similarities, and second, to adduce actual cross-cultural similarities that are insightful in his discussion of the virtues.
White is attentive to claims about masculine exclusiveness in his discussion of distinct virtues. He argues that an ideal of "manliness" as self-assertion is central to military courage that promotes continued violence despite recognition of a common humanity in World War I. He offers a re-working of courage in terms of Gandhi's notion of the strength to suffer a female courage found in everyday life outside the political and military realms valorized in Western philosophy. White's presentation of pacifist courage that combines action on behalf of justice and human rights with willingness to suffer is impressive. White does not fully address what I call the internalization of domination that is present in non-military forms of courage, moral courage, intellectual courage, and pacifist courage. The internalization of domination refers to the necessity of some desire ordinarily found in human psychology be denied the power to move the agent. Any reader of Gandhi's works will find the prominence of self-denial and White acknowledges the "a quiet self-overcoming for the sake of what is good" to be part of courage (p. 41). Such self-overcoming might be virtuous but it is no escape from the dominative aspects of courage. White and other friends of nonviolence owe us fuller justification of this dominative aspect of courage, especially if they assert that violence occurs whenever fundamental rights or possibilities of well-being are denied (p. 38).It is not clear to me what justifies the self-denial of the non-violent practitioner that could not justify the denial of the other. It may be there is no theoretical answer in the sense of a set of conditions that we could identify in all cases of justified self-denial. The close association of non-violence with religious experience suggests to me that this is the case.
White's discussion of compassion, mentioned above, is illuminating in some regards and inconclusive in one. He relates compassion to its contrary, 'hardness' or callousness, and Jonathan Glover's examination of the acculturation to hardness found in racist and dominative regimes. The promotion of callousness serves the purpose of squelching compassionate responses to victims of violence, making killers more effective since they are less ambivalent about killing when they have learned to deny the power of their sympathetic impulses. His analysis of callousness and discussion of compassion make clear what is at stake in contemporary campaigns to reduce or eliminate violence, whether in urban settings or international relations. His appeal to compassion as a motive for recognizing the moral status of non-human animals is also illuminating.
I found the appeal to compassion inconclusive on the topic of female genital mutilation. White recommends that we examine the practice of female genital mutilation against its patriarchal cultural background, religious beliefs, the desires of young women for clitoridectomy and the support for clitoridectomy by female elders in cultures where it is practiced. He argues that this compassionate feeling our way into the issues surround our judgment of the practice would make our response to the practice less harsh, since it will be informed by the experiences and values of members of other cultures. White does not think our judgment of the moral wrongness of female genital mutilation will change as the result of compassionately feeling our way into the issues. He does not state his recommendation in these terms but I suggest this: he asks to consider the difference between judging that the practice of female genital mutilation is morally wrong and judging the properties of our response to the practice. What is inconclusive about White's position is that some practices are so bad they merit moral condemnation and the emotionally harsh expression of condemnation is sometimes the best response. There is a strong case that female genital mutilation is such a practice, and that compassionately feeling our way into the surrounding issues is less that we should do.
I recommend White's book for philosophers, for teachers and students of professional and practical ethics, and for ministers and other moral leaders. It could profitably be assigned to upper level undergraduates in courses in moral theory or social and political philosophy. It is useful to have a work in virtue ethics address social and political concerns explicitly and provocatively.
© 2009 Robert L. Muhlnickel
Robert L. Muhlnickel, MSW, has been a clinician and teacher in the University of Rochester Department of Psychiatry and is completing his Ph.D. dissertation in Philosophy at the University of Rochester. He also works on a grant training clinicians in evidence-based family practices for people with serious and persistent mental illness, co-sponsored by the NYS Office of Mental Health and University of Rochester Medical Center.
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