Friday, August 29, 2014

"Intellectual Virtues"

We understand what it means to have good character as a soldier. We have something of an idea of what it means to have good character as a business professional.

But, what does it mean to have good character when you are in the business of thinking. That is, when you are a writer.

David Brooks asked the question in his column yesterday. He answered it clearly and cogently.

In his words:

We all know what makes for good character in soldiers. We’ve seen the movies about heroes who display courage, loyalty and coolness under fire. But what about somebody who sits in front of a keyboard all day? Is it possible to display and cultivate character if you are just an information age office jockey, alone with a memo or your computer?

Of course it is. Even if you are alone in your office, you are thinking. Thinking well under a barrage of information may be a different sort of moral challenge than fighting well under a hail of bullets, but it’s a character challenge nonetheless.

Brooks is summarizing what appears to be an excellent book. Called Intellectual Virtues it was written by two professors, Robert Roberts and W. Jay Wood. By all appearances the book’s authors and Brooks are following Aristotle’s definitions of virtue. They could not have done better.

First among the intellectual virtues is a love of learning and a thirst for knowledge. Someone who thinks for a living must be curious and open-minded. He must want to learn and he must pursue knowledge avidly.

The more virtuous he is the more he is motivated by his love of knowledge, not his love of fame, money and celebrity.

Evidently, he is humble. Such an individual does not believe that he knows everything and he is willing to allow his beliefs and opinion to be questioned.

Second, he possesses courage. Brooks is correct to say that there is more to courage than holding unpopular opinions. Some opinions are unpopular because they are silly or absurd.

He defines intellectual courage differently:

But the subtler form is knowing how much risk to take in jumping to conclusions. The reckless thinker takes a few pieces of information and leaps to some faraway conspiracy theory. The perfectionist, on the other hand, is unwilling to put anything out there except under ideal conditions for fear that she could be wrong. Intellectual courage is self-regulation, Roberts and Wood argue, knowing when to be daring and when to be cautious. 

Note well that Brooks, following Roberts and Wood, uses an Aristotelian definition of virtue as a mean between two extremes.

Intellectual virtue exists somewhere between jumping to conclusions and failing to conclude anything. To find the correct middle ground between those extremes, an intellectually virtuous individual must possess self-control and self-discipline. 

He should be  able to formulate a conclusion, but he should wait until he has considered all the facts and all sides of the argument.

Next, there is the virtue of firmness.

Brooks defines it as the mean between being too yielding and being too rigid:

You don’t want to be a person who surrenders his beliefs at the slightest whiff of opposition. On the other hand, you don’t want to hold dogmatically to a belief against all evidence. The median point between flaccidity and rigidity is the virtue of firmness.

Another virtue is autonomy. For my part I would call it judiciousness. It means that you should not believe everything you are told and should not reject everything you are told. You should not take someone else’s word as gospel and should not systematically reject the views of others.

Intellectual honesty requires that you not become a cult follower. It also requires that you not make a fetish out of making your own mistakes.

Brooks writes:

You don’t want to be a person who slavishly adopts whatever opinion your teacher or some author gives you. On the other hand, you don’t want to reject all guidance from people who know what they are talking about. Autonomy is the median of knowing when to bow to authority and when not to, when to follow a role model and when not to, when to adhere to tradition and when not to.

Brooks concludes, in a statement with which I concur:

Good thinking isn’t just adopting the right technique. It’s a moral enterprise and requires good character, the ability to go against our lesser impulses for the sake of our higher ones.


Sam L. said...

The civility of a man can be measured by the crease of his pants
June 13, 2013 10:40 pm - Author: Eric Scheie

"Via Glenn Reynolds‘ link to a link well worth rescuing, I learned that David Brooks — a man who claims to be a great arbiter of civil society if not civilization itself — is upset by what he calls “unmediated” people. I read what Brooks said twice and I don’t think he meant “unmedicated” but missed the c. Clearly, the man thinks it is bad to support the dowdy and rumpled Ron Paul, but civilized to support Barack Obama.

The reason?

Well, ranking high among them is that Barack Obama had perfectly creased pants:..."

I cannot take Brooks seriously on academic virtue.

JKB said...

This sounds a lot like F.M. McMurry listed as the factors of studying back in 1909. Only his book, 'How to Study and Teaching How to Study' argued that the factors were endemic in children, could be refined but that most "education" worked against them.

The factors of studying:
1. Provision for Specific Purposes
2. The Supplementing of Thought
3. The Organization of Ideas
4. Judging the Soundness and General Worth of Statements
5. Memorizing
6. The Using of Ideas
7. Provision for a Tentative rather than a Fixed Attitude toward Knowledge
8. Provision for Individuality (form your own opinion before considering those of others)

Anonymous said...

I was a US military Speechwriter for 20 years. During the last 10, PC & celebrations of "Diversity" grew ever more onerous.

Failure to comply would have ruined my career & life. I retired just before my self respect & honor couldn't take it anymore.

I like & respect Brooks, but I suspect he writes under similar diktats to some degree. -- Rich Lara

Stuart Schneiderman said...

Of course, Brooks is communicating the ideas contained in a book... they are not necessarily his ideas.

Still, I find his analysis cogent and germane.

One could do worse.

Socially Extinct said...

We live in an age of quants and burgeoning reliance on algorithms and formulas at the expense of critical thought.

We all probably excel at some of these virtues and are deficient in others. But I’m struck by how much of the mainstream literature on decision-making treats the mind as some disembodied organ that can be programed like a computer.

New generations retaliate angrily against the "lazy" moniker slung by older generations. Perhaps lazy is not the right word, but "dependent" surely fits.

Ignatius Acton Chesterton OCD said...

Let us hope virtue-based education replaces the vapid appeals to the mind, as today so many justify pragmatic, utilitarian standards of social contribution. Some will rationalize that amassing great wealth is a form of social contribution, a way to keep score about the "value" he has created. For whom? Just because one can do something does not mean he should do it. What does a successful businessman do with his wealth? Whatever he wants? Is that a social standard? Not being able to see beyond the end of your nose is not a sign of character, nor a necessary ingredient for success. Success is based on the choices one makes, the spirit that animates those choices, and the impact those choices have on others. No man is an island. We are not solitary predators. Virtue teaches us this.

DrTorch said...

Jay Wood was my Phil 101 professor. And a fine one at that.

Anonymous said...

Mr. Brooks gets courage and autonomy wrong. In both cases he defines them as good judgement.