The Virtues of Our Vices:
A Modest Defense of Gossip,
Rudeness, and Other Bad Habits
by Emrys Westacott
Princeton, 304 pages, $26.95
In The Virtues of Our Vices, Emrys Westacott eschews academic theorizing about hypothetical life-and-death moral dilemmas (such as the “trolley problem”) in favor of testing conventional wisdom about ordinary ethical matters. In treating everyday life in all of its subtle moral complexity, Westacott aims to point out the dissonance between our blanket condemnations of, say, rudeness and the frequent occasions when we violate them without any moral qualms.
“My purpose,” he writes, “is not to rethink our morality from the ground up. It is, rather, to look at places where some of our moral conclusions do not sit well with each other or with other values we uphold, and to suggest ways in which loosening our moral corsets might enable us to breathe more freely.”
Through most of the book, Westacott, a professor of philosophy at Alfred University, defends practices generally thought bad, such as gossip, snobbery, and offensive jokes, which he argues can in many cases be harmless or even beneficial. At the end, he argues that many practices that are thought good, such as tolerance and respect for others’ opinions, are in fact bad.
Westacott generally evaluates moral practices according to their social utility but occasionally complicates his assessments by paying deference to Kantian-inspired values like egalitarianism, certain human rights, and universal respect for human beings as such. The moral criteria he uses at any given moment—while all distinctively modern—are an unpredictably eclectic mix, based as much on intuitions about particular situations as on any consistent theoretical commitment. To be fair, perfect consistency is a pretty high bar for any of us to reach in moral reasoning, and he has cheerfully forfeited it in the name of making our moral lives better “tailored to flesh-and-blood human beings trying to get by in a complex world.”
Hence his defense of “sick” and offensive humor as an unavoidable side effect of having a culture that values other things, such as the freedom of speech, creativity of all stripes, and the opportunity to challenge authority. Transgressive desires are, like lust, part of our evolutionary programming, and we’d all be better off without blanket condemnations of the sort that orthodox Christianity is liable to make. His conclusion: Embrace your Nietzschean side a little more freely, lest you become a boring saint or a humor-hating descendant of John Calvin.
He offers perceptive cultural commentary on trends toward informality in relationships, what makes stereotyping pernicious or not, and social expectations about privacy in the internet age. But the most interesting part of his analysis has to do with the question of exception-making: Why are some actions that clearly meet the definition for unacceptability, like rudeness in emergencies and over-the-line jokes in the company of friends, excused? When does context mitigate blame, and why? When can an act of deliberate effrontery be justified in the name of integrity or making a statement about our values?
Whether or not one agrees with Westacott’s conclusions, his analysis does reveal the ways in which widely accepted prohibitions do not adequately capture the nuanced judgments of situation-sensitive practical wisdom required for the everyday discriminations he thinks we justifiably make. He shows that (pejorative) moral concepts and their use in conventional moral prescriptions are too crude to capture genuine moral complexity. In this way, he endorses Aristotelian phronesis as a necessary virtue for the moral life.
Westacott makes a good-faith attempt to be fair, even when he is undermining conventional moral wisdom. He admits from the start that he is working in the disputed territory between what is universally approved and universally condemned. Quite often, the question boils down to whether one wants to soften one’s theory and its behavioral standards or to discipline one’s behavior to fit those standards better. (Whether and when lying is justified is another familiar case in this ethical genre.) Westacott mostly advocates the former strategy and justifies his exceptions as he goes.
Sometimes the book’s breezy style masks important distinctions. Given the “virtues” and “vices” of the book’s title, I was disappointed not to see more evaluation based on character in the book.
Even if a single act of rudeness and gossip were defensible, if one regularly takes voyeuristic pleasure in talking about others freely against their wishes (unbeknownst to them, so they suffer no “direct” harm) simply on the grounds that it’s interesting and pleasurable, what sort of person does one become? What sort of respect for others and disposition to value their reputations does such a habit cultivate? Questions about the moral importance of maintaining personal integrity seem unavoidable, even if Westacott chooses to dodge them here in order to defend the social benefits of tale-bearing.
Sometimes Westacott has the record wrong. At one point, he states that there is not much analysis of gossip in ethics. Actually, Thomas Aquinas undertook such analysis in the Summa Theologica’s treatise on justice, to give one obvious counterexample. Unlike Westacott, Aquinas considers a person’s reputation to be an important personal good that is worth respecting as a way of respecting the person himself and therefore not so easily trumped by the pleasures of voyeurism or “being in the know” as Westacott thinks.
His treatments of the golden rule, Jesus’ command to “judge not, lest you be judged,” and “sainthood” are vastly oversimplified, and unapologetically so. Here the informal tone of the book helps him get away with making light of objections that deserve serious consideration, not caricature. If it had not been for the book’s last chapter, these lapses might have been forgivable.
In the final chapter, Westacott shows how, as a general rule, toleration or respect for others’ “stupid” opinions can be both intellectually backward and morally bad for us. His main point: We sometimes show more deference than is really warranted for people’s religious beliefs, simply because mainstream religions have greater social standing than, say, kooky beliefs about extraterrestrials.
But, he insists, if we are good, honest, rational, enlightened humanists who recognize the power of the naturalistic scientific paradigm, we will realize that the distinction between rational and irrational beliefs in supernatural phenomena simply breaks down when it comes to epistemic warrant. Religion, in other words, is unquestionably an intellectually irresponsible position. So while we are psychologically inclined to show respect in the public sphere for such beliefs and those who hold them, we really shouldn’t.
Despite Westacott’s congenial tone and general attempt to be reasonable and fair, these examples show how uncritical people of his mind can be. Contempt gets a bad rap in the book, until it is delivered with a chuckle against approved targets. When the subject is religion, rather than pushing his readers to nuance their broad-brush pejorative labels and judgments, he simply offers up the overly simple and dismissive judgments he works so hard against in the rest of the book.
I’ll confess that I expected this book to be one more “enlightened” utilitarian work cheerfully undercutting tiresome and rigid traditional moral norms. Westacott happily disappointed me on those grounds, offering a reasonable case for complicating our moral judgments in a witty and entertaining (if not entirely persuasive) way. I suppose if I could ever get away with being rude or snobbish in a review, it would be here, and with Westacott’s blessing. Suffice it to say that while I appreciated many of the challenges in the first chapters, I cannot respect the stupid opinions in the last.
Rebecca Konyndyk DeYoung is a professor of philosophy at Calvin College.