Sunday, November 3, 2019

Karen Stohr's "Minding the Gap"

Karen Stohr is the Ryan Family Term Associate Professor of Metaphysics and Moral Philosophy at Georgetown University and Senior Research Scholar in Georgetown's Kennedy Institute of Ethics. She works primarily in normative ethical theory, focusing on Aristotelian virtue ethics and Kantian ethics. She also writes on the ethical dimensions of civility, manners, and social interactions. She is author of On Manners (2011).

Stohr applied the “Page 99 Test” to her latest book, Minding the Gap: Moral Ideals and Moral Improvement, and reported the following:
A reader opening to page 99 would find themselves in the fourth chapter of the book, a chapter titled “Moral Aspirations.” As it happens, several concepts that are crucial to the book’s argument appear on that page. In the first paragraph, which carries over from page 98, I am drawing together two ideas – one from the 18th century Prussian philosopher Immanuel Kant and the other from the contemporary American philosopher David Velleman. The idea from Kant is the idea of what he calls a “beautiful illusion of virtue,” which we create when we behave politely to each other in public. Kant thought we had a moral duty to cultivate the social graces on the grounds that they create an illusion of virtuous behavior. On his view, the illusion serves several important roles. It makes virtue appealing, and it also helps us develop habits of genuinely virtuous action. By behaving kindly and respectfully to people, we will turn ourselves into kind and respectful people. Moreover, the rules of polite behavior are mutually binding. In treating you respectfully, I create a social obligation for you to treat me in the same way. In abiding by these social norms, we jointly construct an illusion in which we behave as better versions of our actual selves. And this is where the idea from David Velleman comes in. Velleman coined the term ‘fictive’ to describe something that is part truth, part fiction. I argue that these better versions of ourselves should be understood as fictive moral selves. My fictive moral self is the moral self I am trying to become. Unless I am a moral saint, my actual self does not always resemble my fictive moral self. This is the part that is fiction. But it does express my moral aspirations. This is the part that is truth. In acting as our fictive moral selves, we become more like those selves. I call this inhabiting an aspirational moral identity.

On page 99 I argue that our ability to act as our fictive moral selves, or inhabit our aspirational moral identities, is dependent on the social environment in which we find ourselves. In order to act as my fictive moral self, I need other people to help hold me into the moral identity represented by that self. (I borrowed the idea of holding someone into an identity from another contemporary philosopher, Hilde Lindemann.) We hold people into identities by interacting with them in those terms. On page 99, I illustrate this idea with a literary example that runs throughout the book. The example is Stevens, the main character in Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel, Remains of the Day. Stevens is a butler undergoing a major identity crisis. His crisis has two dimensions, one internal and one external. The internal crisis is that he has come to doubt the value of his all-consuming identity as a butler, an identity that gives his whole life its character and meaning. On page 99, I am discussing the external dimension of his crisis, which is that the social world that supported his identity as a butler is collapsing around him. For the first time in decades, he has left Darlington Hall, the great house where he has spent his entire career, and gone on a road trip into the countryside. The further he gets from Darlington Hall, the less he is able to act as a butler. The people he encounters on his trip have no idea what a butler like him does, much less how that identity might shape his entire worldview. This means that they cannot hold him into that identity in their interactions with him. Since the identity of a butler is the only identity Stevens has, he struggles to interact at all.

I say on page 99 that “what I can be depends in part on what others make possible or impossible for me.” My ability to act as my fictive moral self, or inhabit my aspirational moral identity, depends on my social environment. At the bottom of page 99, I take up the positive side of this. When I struggle to act as my fictive moral self, others can help by holding me into that self. They can make it possible for me to act as I believe I should. Stevens experiences this himself when fellow members of the Darlington Hall staff help him act as a good son during an especially terrible night when his father is dying. More generally (and this is one of the central themes of the book), when other people hold me into my fictive moral self in the face of my own moral weaknesses and frailties, they make it possible for me to live up to my moral ideals.

I’d say that the test works quite well in the case of Minding the Gap. The ideas that appear on page 99 (Kant’s beautiful illusion of virtue, fictive moral selves, the social dimensions of our identities) are central to the book’s main arguments. And Ishiguro’s novel, which I discuss at some length in the book, shows up on page 99 as well. It’s a relatively representative snapshot of the whole book.

Minding the Gap is about how we make ourselves better people. The title is taken from the ubiquitous recording in London Tube stations warning passengers to pay attention to the gap between the platform and the train. In the book, the gap in question is the gap between our moral ideals and our actual moral selves. Most of us, most of the time, fall short of our moral ideals. To make matters worse, we’re not always all that clear on what our moral ideals are. Do we even know what we’re aiming to become? In the book I argue that we work out our moral ideals by cultivating and enacting fictive moral selves. The fictive moral selves represent our moral aspirations. Becoming better is a matter of developing a fictive moral self and trying to act in accordance with it. Crucially (and this is what I am trying to explain on page 99), this process of working out and enacting a fictive moral self is something we do with other people. In order to succeed in making ourselves better, we need a social and physical environment conducive to improving ourselves. I call this environment a moral neighborhood. Good moral neighborhoods are constructed through social practices and conventions that enable us to act as fictive moral selves in particular settings. In a good moral neighborhood, the norms of social interaction support and reinforce moral norms. This is how good moral neighborhoods help us improve—by generating social norms that obligate us to behave as morally better versions of ourselves. In the second half of the book I describe what good moral neighborhoods are like and how we can build them in the very imperfect world we actually inhabit.
Learn more about Minding the Gap at the Oxford University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue