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The Virtues of Our Vices: A Modest Defense of Gossip, Rudeness, and Other Bad Habits Hardcover – October 23, 2011

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Editorial Reviews


They are not deadly sins. Nonetheless, many of us scorn rudeness, gossip, and snobbery. And we withhold respect from people who tell sick jokes or advance groundless opinions. Westacott asks tough questions about the nature and meaning of these "bad habits.'' . . . His book is accessible, rigorous, and droll.  - The Boston Globe

Westacott (philosophy, Alfred Univ.; coauthor, Thinking Through Philosophy: An Introduction) analyzes four practices usually taken to be bad: rudeness, gossip, snobbery, and telling sick jokes. In addition to these, he discusses one practice usually regarded as good: respecting the opinions of others. For each of his practices, Westacott claims that we are too apt to invoke fixed rules that either forbid outright the practices we take to be bad or require the behavior we deem good. Writing from a broadly utilitarian standpoint rather than for specialists, Westacott thinks that consideration of particular examples will result in a more nuanced approach. Sometimes, e.g., rudeness is morally acceptable, as when it is an appropriate way to make a moral statement about a deplored convention. Gossip may often serve useful functions such as satisfying curiosity and counteracting secrecy. Respect is not always required, either: some opinions deserve our contempt. Westacott by no means wishes to claim that there are no good reasons for the standard verdicts on the practices he considers. Rather, he aims to show that particular situations often resist fixed rules. VERDICT General readers interested in how philosophy can be applied to daily life will gain much from this well-written book.
—David Gordon, Bowling Green State Univ., OH Library Journal

"You will enjoy reading 'Virtues' whether your interest is academic or practical, business or politics, persuasion or argument, interpersonal or group communication."  New York Journal of Books

"an intriguing, courageous and timely book"  (3:AM Magazine)

From the Back Cover

"Works on ethics often float above the flux and confusion of everyday life. Not this engaging book! Brimming with lively examples, Westacott's meditation reveals the bright side of some of our darker practices, such as gossip, sick humor, and rude behavior. While the writing is breezy, the analysis is both rigorous and lucid. By the turn of the last page, the delighted reader is sure to have developed a more nuanced and perhaps forgiving grasp of some of our most common transgressions."--Gordon Marino, editor of Ethics: The Essential Writings

"Philosophy should encompass not only the summits of life-and-death issues but the lowlands and occasional quicksand of everyday manners. Emrys Westacott is an ideal guide to this terrain, especially to the ethics of guilty verbal pleasures. The Virtues of Our Vices is a provocative exploration of the big issues underlying small talk."--Edward Tenner, author of Why Things Bite Back: Technology and the Revenge of Unintended Consequences

"With insight and rigor, Emrys Westacott shows that what is small is not necessarily trivial, that analytic precision is compatible with fully accepting the messiness of real life, and that what matters is often lost in the cracks of the obvious, big moral debates of the day. This is a refreshingly original work which promises to bring quotidian ethics the wider attention it deserves."--Julian Baggini, cofounder and editor-in-chief of the Philosopher's Magazine

"If you have ever been accused of being rude when you were merely stating the truth, or called a gossip because you like to dwell on other people's actions, Westacott is for you. His linked studies of everyday vices offer elegant analysis of the goods that lurk in behavior that is usually condemned. This wise book is practical philosophy in the best sense."--Mark Kingwell, --Mark Kingwell, author of In Pursuit of Happiness: Better Living from Plato to Prozac

"Emrys Westacott writes in an accessible way, and often with humor, about topics that are of wide interest. He is right that the ethical questions that confront ordinary people in everyday life are important, even if philosophy has tended to ignore them."--David Benatar, editor of Ethics for Everyday

"In this enjoyable book, Westacott shows that the question of whether rudeness, snobbery, and other vices are wrong is more nuanced and delicate than it might appear."--Caspar Hare, author of On Myself, and Other, Less Important Subjects


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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 304 pages
  • Publisher: Princeton University Press (October 23, 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0691141991
  • ISBN-13: 978-0691141992
  • Product Dimensions: 8.6 x 5.9 x 1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (4 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,550,716 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Emrys Westacott was born in Nottingham, and grew up in Chesterfield (UK). He studied philosophy at the University of Sheffield, McGill University, and the University of Texas at Austin. Since 1996 he has taught philosophy at Alfred University in Western New York. His work has appeared in various publications including Philosophy Now, The Humanist,The Philosophical Forum, International Studies in Philosophy, the International Journal of Applied Philosophy, The Chronicle of Higher Education, Think, and The Philosopher's Magazine. Further information, including links to his writings and to his class web pages can be found at his website:

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

5 of 6 people found the following review helpful By Marlene Storie on December 28, 2011
Format: Hardcover
Although I am not normally a reader of philosophy books, I couldn't resist one that opened with a chapter on "The Rights and Wrongs of Rudeness", and ended with "Why Should I Respect Your Stupid Opinion?"and "That's Not Funny -- That's Sick!" With sly humor and an easy style, Westacott takes a serious look at our bad behavior and guides us expertly through the dizzying nuances of our social norms.
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Format: Hardcover
Common sense tells us that rudeness, gossiping, snobbery, and sick humor are vices to be tempered and avoided. But, could these so called dark-practices also have occasional merit?

This is the topic of discussion explored in Emrys Westacott's _The Virtues of Our Vices_. In his own words:
"The analyses I offer are primarily philosophical. Their chief goal is to clarify the nature and meaning of key concepts, to articulate arguments, evaluate ethical standpoints, and support specific conclusions. They are not intended to be value-free or value-neutral. They are normative in the sense that they can be used to appraise what people think, say, and do. But they are intended to take us beyond the rather crude assumptions underlying everyday moral discourse and make room for the possibility that what are commonly deemed moral failings may sometimes be acceptable or even praiseworthy." (p. 6)

No surprise, but, moral philosophy can get kind of messy. Determining what's right and what's wrong, acceptable and not acceptable, is anything but a science:
"Moral philosophy would be easier if everything could be divided into good and bad, right and wrong, guilty and innocent, with clear-cut boundaries between the categories. It is rarely so, of course." (p 125). And complicating the confusion of the normative appraisal of our behavior is "the fact that contemporary cultures lack homogeneity, along with the fact that we live in such fast-changing times." (pp. 200-201).

Although vice vs.
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Format: Hardcover
I found this book satisfying in that the author demonstrates how philosophers can approach questions by unpacking them and breaking them down. The approach can be used for any number of issues. However, at some point I started wondering if all that analysis was really necessary for some of these subjects, rudeness and gossip in particular. It is for these types of in-depth analysis of somewhat mundane issues that cause people to accuse philosophers of navel gazing. For gossip specifically, it seems to me that Westacott arrived at no more an insightful conclusion than gossip can be bad but it depends. The reasons that it depends on are I believe general knowledge.

Where I had a problem with the book, and I'm sure other reviewers will jump all over me, is Westacott's clear disdain for religion. I think his explanations for why he can respect religious believers but not their beliefs is just a condescension masked as intellectual rigor. If his claims of detached analysis were true, he would not offer the examples of irrational religious beliefs in the way he does. Perhaps I am being too sensitive but I don't think so. He proceeds from the assumption that virtually everyone today agrees that religion is a form of irrational thinking, which is ironic and misguided since many in his own profession (Keith Ward, Alvin Plantinga and others)disagree with him. He also exposes his general ignorance of religious concepts as he describes saints as isolated misfits. I would suggest he read Saint Watching (Saint Watching Ppr). There is also some hypocrisy since he praises the evolution of tolerance as a human advancement, yet this tolerance seems to not include religious beliefs.

Having said all that, I think the book is a valuable read as he does offer some insightful views on the nature and purpose of some of the other vices included, like sick humor, for example.
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1 of 2 people found the following review helpful By Oliver on July 4, 2012
Format: Hardcover
I love books about our habits, behaviors, and irrationalities, so I was excited when I got this book. After 30 pages, I felt like I was still waiting for the book to start. Each chapter starts with one vice, and considers under what conditions the vice is good or bad. But the analysis reads like a mediocre high school essay and the conclusions are all trivial. "If you are rude to another person but it ultimately helps that other person, then that is a good thing."* Well, duh! Do I really need to read multiple situations where rudeness can be beneficial? If you think about it for a few minutes, I'm sure you can come up with enough examples. After 75 pages, I was bored and learning nothing new, so I moved on.

*Not actual quote, though it wouldn't look out of place in this book.
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