Acquiring Virtues

Acquiring Virtues

In The Better Angles of Our Nature Steven Pinker writes about the civilizing process that humans have gone through to be less impulsive, less vulgar, and less violent over time. We are less likely to lash out at people who offend us or minorly inconvenience us today than people of 500 years ago. We have created spaces of privacy for personal grooming or using the bathroom and in 2020 we made such an effort to limit the spread of bodily fluids that wearing masks in public has become second nature to many of us. Beyond these niceties, we are also less likely to murder someone who has seriously wronged us or our family and political leaders (despite the feeling we often get in the news) are less likely to send their countries to war. But what was the process that humanity went through in acquiring virtues that Pinker praises us for in his book?
Pinker spends hundreds of pages demonstrating the declines of violence alongside the civilizing process I mentioned before. What Pinker uses a full book to explain, Quassim Cassam sums up in a single line, “How are virtues acquired? By training, habituation, and imitation.”
In the book Vices of the Mind, Cassam generally takes a consequentialist view when thinking about virtues and vices. He specifically examines epistemic vices, which are thoughts, habits, traits, behaviors, and characteristics that systematically obstruct knowledge. They don’t necessarily need to be evil or clearly dangerous on their own, but what is important, and what characterizes them as an epistemic vice, is that they systematically result in the obstruction of knowledge and information. He characterizes vices based on their real world outcomes. To contrast this view, we can look at virtues as thoughts, habits, traits, behaviors, and characteristics that systematically lead to more positive outcomes for individuals and society. Beyond the realm of epistemology, we can see that Pinker’s praise of impulse control, civilizing forces in history, and reductions of violence are praises of specific virtues.
These virtues did not spring up over night, as Pinker demonstrates with graphs stretching back hundreds of years showing declines in all forms of violence. These virtues were built over time through training, habituation, and imitation, the civilizing process that Pinker refers to throughout his book.
This means that the positive trends identified by Pinker on a global scale can be understood at individual levels, and it means that we can become more virtuous people through our own efforts. By increasing our self-awareness and thinking critically about our thoughts, behaviors, and actions, we can direct ourselves toward ways of being that will systematically produce better outcomes for ourselves and humanity as a whole. By training ourselves to avoid things like epistemic vices, we can put ourselves on a path to be better. We can become habituated toward virtues, and other people can imitate our behaviors to expand the civilizing process and the spread of virtues. Our virtues, and presumably our vices, don’t exist in isolation. They have real world consequences that can be studied and examined in context, and our virtues can be strengthened, harnessing the better angles of our nature, if that is what we set our minds to.
Harry Anslinger and the Fragility of Civilization

Harry Anslinger and the Fragility of Civilization

To open his book Chasing The Scream, author Johann Hari tells a story about Harry Anslinger and the fragility of civilization. Anslinger was the first commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, and sparked the war on drugs in the United States. As a young child, Hari explains, Anslinger was at a farm house where he heard a woman screaming in agony as she possibly experienced drug withdrawals. The owner of the house sent him to the pharmacy to return with a package and drugs to ease the woman’s suffering, which Ansligner did, but the memory of the screams would haunt Ansligner forever, pushing him to spend his entire life fighting against any drugs that he believed were dangerous.

 

In World War I Anslinger became a diplomatic agent in Europe, and he saw the destruction of entire cities and the destruction of human life first hand. At  the end of the war, Anslinger learned another lesson that would stick with him for life. Hari writes, “What shook Harry most of all was the effect of the war not on the buildings but on the people. They seemed to have lost all sense of order.” Ansligner was concerned about riots, starving desperate people driven to chaos, and entire institutions crumbling, leading to strife among the people. Hari continues, “Civilization, he was beginning to conclude, was as fragile as the personality of that farmer’s wife back in Altoona. It could break.”

 

Chasing the Scream is a brutally honest look at drug policy and the war on drugs in the United States. Anslinger was key in kickstarting the war on drugs, but his message was carried on after he left office, and to this day after his death. Hari asks tough questions, trying to understand if there is a way to win a war on drugs and whether we should be more concerned about the consequences we have seen from battling drugs in every arena. At the end, Hari concludes that what we need to fight a war on drugs is not a war mentality, but an understanding of the importance of community, and a rebuilding of social solidarity, trust, and a new sense of our responsibility to each other. Anslinger was right, to conclude that civilization was fragile, but he was wrong is his prescribed treatment. A war to end vice only tears apart our social fabric, weakening the communities which build our civilization.

 

Hari believes that what we need are better ways to understand each other, and more supports for everyone in society. Many of the evils that we attribute to drug use, Hari argues, are in fact byproducts of the war we wage against drugs. In an effort to impose social order on people, with the rhetoric of war and a mindset steeped in racism, Ansligner helped to create a system that broke civilization for some of the most vulnerable among us, just as he always feared from the moments he heard the screams of the farmer’s wife in his childhood.

 

We must remember just how close our civilization can be to chaos and disorder. We need to look for leaders who can bring us together rather than leaders who seek to castigate others and toss them out. We need to think about how we build new institutions that help develop greater sense of community, and how we help those who have the least. If we fail to do so, we will increase inequality, and then blame the inequalities on those who faced the greatest adversity as a result of our inequalities. This will segregate our societies and create more chaos, making it harder for us to come together when we need to, exacerbating our drug and violence problems.