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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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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 Inside Flap
"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 ofWhy 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 thePhilosopher'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 ofIn 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 ofOn Myself, and Other, Less Important Subjects
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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. virtue lines are often blurred, the ultimate goal does seem quite clear:
"Our ultimate goal should be a world in which unnecessary suffering is minimized and where most people live interesting, fulfilling lives, enjoying the security of basic rights, opportunities for pursuing their chosen goals, plenty of leisure, diverse pleasures, and the well-being that comes from participating in a vibrant culture and belonging to a supportive community. For anyone who shares something like this ideal, moral issues generally boil down to the question of whether pursuing a course of action, adopting a public policy, being a certain kind of person, cultivating certain attitudes, and so on, will help or hinder its realization." (p. 9)
The author proposes that an ethics system that can help us achieve this ultimate goal must revolve around egalitarianism, an associated commitment to universal rights, and be "tailored to flesh-and-blood human beings trying to get by in a complex world, not to saints." (p. 211). He also cautions that our approach for differentiating virtue from vice need be a dynamic and flexible one:
"We should not leap onto our high moral horse too quickly. Nor should we be too hard on ourselves for what we find amusing. The lines of acceptability with regard to humor, as with social etiquette, are constantly in motion. So those who earnestly peer at everything through moral spectacles, who are instantly suspicious of anything that might cross some line of political correctness or moral probity, the message is simple--lighten up!" (p. 214)
If you're a hardcore philosopher who gets fired up with an eloquently designed, detailed intellectual analysis, you'll most likely devour this book. But, if philosophical debate is not your thing, well, then this book might not be either.
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.
*Not actual quote, though it wouldn't look out of place in this book.