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On Hypocrisy and Intellectual Vice: An Interview with Linda Zagzebski

Linda Zagzebski


George Lynn Cross Research Professor / Kingfisher College Chair of the Philosophy of Religion and Ethics, University of Oklahoma
July 10, 2019

“Hypocrite” is our society’s new dirty word. As the lives of our leaders and other public figures come increasingly under a digital microscope, charges of hypocrisy are more and more common. But are they valid? Philosopher Linda Zagzebski has dedicated her career to answering this question. Since receiving her PhD from the University of California, Los Angeles, Dr. Zagzebski has served as the president of the American Catholic Philosophical Association and the Society of Christian Philosophers. She is currently George Lynn Cross Research Professor and Kingfisher College Chair of the Philosophy of Religion and Ethics at the University of Oklahoma. CCT’s Evan Rosa sat down with her to discuss intellectual virtue, vice, and the role of hypocrisy in contemporary discourse.

Evan Rosa (ER):  Why don’t we begin with your work as a philosopher. Why did you start out studying intellectual virtues?”

Linda Zagzebski (LZ):   Way back when I was writing “Virtues of the Mind,” which was in the early ’90s, I didn’t do epistemology at all. But I would go to a lot of meetings of the Society of Christian Philosophers and papers on religious epistemology dominated the conferences. I had to learn epistemology just to follow these papers.

I thought epistemology at that time was a little bit boring, because there was so much wrangling about the nature of justification, arguments about skepticism, and arguments about the nature of knowledge. Sometimes, I thought people were talking past each other. I thought, “Why? Why are they doing all this? What is this all about?”

There must be something valuable that we’re trying to get when we get knowledge. That would explain why it’s worth all these arguments. That led me to think about the place of knowledge in a good life. That means, I think, that knowledge is connected with the qualities that give us a good life. Those would be moral virtues, but there are also intellectual virtues. It makes sense that intellectual virtues would be very closely connected with processes and intellectual inquiry, forming beliefs, and getting knowledge. I thought it might be really important for epistemology to think about and write about intellectual virtues. But the problem was people didn’t write about intellectual virtues.

Epistemologists didn’t write about intellectual virtues. Maybe they thought it was the business of virtue ethicists to do it, but moral philosophers didn’t write about it either. They’d write about moral virtues but they didn’t write about intellectual virtues, so I decided that I would work on a theory of virtue that was broad enough to include the intellectual virtues in the same theory as the moral virtues. That’s what I did in “Virtues of the Mind.”

The intellectual virtues that I discussed include lots of qualities that people haven’t really been talking about like, open mindedness, intellectual perseverance, intellectual honesty, intellectual fairness, intellectual courage, intellectual autonomy. They’re virtues in the sense of excellences, they are excellences of the intellect.

I thought that if we invest in these, we will have a much better idea of what is valuable in the intellectual life and in the kinds of intellectual inquiry everybody does. That was the motive.

ER: Why does knowledge matter, and what does intellectual virtue have to do with it?

LZ:  Plato thought knowledge was probably the most valuable thing we can have. Accounts of why it’s the most valuable thing we can have varies from one philosopher to another, but I think we’ve inherited the idea that knowledge is, if not the most valuable, certainly one of the most valuable things we can have.

It’s an intrinsic component of a good life. It might be really important, not only in itself, but because we need knowledge for many other goods that we want in life. If we want to flourish as human beings, have friends, have interesting pursuits, have good social relationships, have health, have a long life–even those things that everybody wants require knowledge in order to obtain these goods.

I thought that we should work on the connection between the good of knowledge and other goods. I also thought that there are other epistemic goods besides knowledge that people hadn’t been writing about.  Those would be quite obviously connected with virtues like understanding and wisdom.

Wisdom itself is supposed to be a virtue, but wisdom is very elusive. It’s very hard to pinpoint it. It’s hard to explain what it is. Even though I still think it’s hard to pinpoint and then explain what it is, I think it’s a very valuable thing and it’s worth pursuing an investigation of it. 

ER: When you say wisdom, are you thinking of phronesis?

LZ:  Well, practical wisdom is phronesis, and I do think that it’s extremely important. There’s this history in Greek philosophy of thinking that there’s more than one kind of wisdom. There’s theoretical wisdom, as well as practical wisdom.

This is another issue that deserves a lot of attention: how the two are connected, whether there are two kinds of wisdom. To tell you the truth I’m not sure how to answer that. I’ve written about practical wisdom but not theoretical wisdom.

ER: I don’t think you’re alone in saying the difference between theoretical wisdom and practical wisdom is vague. There are wise people though, aren’t there?

LZ:  I think there are wise people, and I actually am talking a little bit about wise people in my new book project,”Exemplarist Virtue Theory.” In this theory exemplars, or the most admirable persons, are the foundation for the theory. They’re people we pick out through the emotion of admiration.

When you think about the people you admire the most (and they could be historical figures, they could be fictional characters, they could be people you know personally),  they’re not all the same; there’s different categories of admirable persons. The Christian saint is what probably first comes to mind when you think about an admirable person in the Christian tradition.

If you think of an admirable person in the Confucian tradition or in ancient Greek philosophy, the sage comes to mind. A wise person is a type of exemplar, a kind of admirable person. Unfortunately, sages, even though they were extremely important in many other cultures, are pretty much ignored today. I mean, we don’t talk about sages. They probably exist, but we don’t refer to other persons as sages. We might say someone is wise or “that’s a wise thing to do.” We don’t categorize people as sages.

A sage is not just your personal mentor, but a wise person that’s recognized as such in the whole community, and there aren’t too many of those. Although presumably they exist, there’s probably a lot of cultural forces that make us suspicious of calling people wise, of calling people sages. I think there’s a strong suspicion in general of highly virtuous persons.

It might be that people don’t want other people to be too good, too much better than they are themselves. Then they will respond with glee if it turns out Mother Teresa had a defect that becomes widely published. People like it when someone who’s supposed to be virtuous turns out to have a dark side or they’re a hypocrite. People love to find highly admirable persons unmasked as hypocrites.

I think that aside from the fact that it’s hard to find sages just because maybe we lack the vocabulary and we lack some of the cultural conditions for doing that, I think we don’t want there to be sages. We don’t want in general for there to be exemplars. We don’t want there to be saints either.

Heroes are a third category of exemplars. Heroes are a little different. Heroes we like. My conjecture about this is that heroes are OK because even though they’re highly admirable, they might not be highly admirable in every respect. They’re highly admirable for some act or series of acts that they do that usually exemplifies supreme courage.

If it turns out that Oskar Schindler also has defects which are well known, people actually like it better. I’m not sure why, but maybe my other conjecture was right. They don’t like it if the person is too good. They like to think that the people are more like themselves.

ER: Can we talk say a little bit more about why you think that people no longer appreciate sages and saints? What are the dominant forces that are creating that general cultural perspective?

LZ:  It might be a kind of egalitarianism where we prefer to think “everybody’s equal,” not just in human dignity (which we are) but they would like to think that everyone is equal morally. They don’t want people to be superior to others morally.

There’s got to be a larger story about how that happened. You might think that there aren’t people who are too much better than you are yourself, well then you don’t have to feel so bad about not being good, because other people are just as bad as you are. If the bar is not that high, well then you don’t have to strive too hard because it turns out there aren’t that many people who are supremely admirable.

ER: You brought up hypocrisy, the willingness to charge others for vices, and make ourselves seem virtuous. Can you say more about hypocrisy in our culture?

LZ:  Well, it is interesting that in our culture I think you can get away with almost anything. Hypocrisy is the one vice that is roundly condemned. It’s the one thing you can’t get away with. People can get away with murder literally and people will look the other way, but not hypocrisy. It’s the supreme vice in our culture. I find it curious that they’ll have any other conjectures about them, but hypocrisy is somehow elevated to this status of the supreme vice. I think that people often call things hypocritical that are not. For example, if a person doesn’t act according to their own moral beliefs, that is often called hypocritical. To me that may just be weakness of will.

The person does believe that adultery is wrong, but they do it anyway. I don’t see that as hypocritical. It just means they aren’t strong enough to live up to their moral beliefs. I don’t think the fact that someone doesn’t act in a way that coincides with what they believe in and claim is hypocrisy.

Hypocrisy involves a certain pretense, a pretense to be better than you are. It’s actually rarer than people think it is. A lot of what goes by the name of hypocrisy isn’t hypocrisy. 

Hypocrisy is the supreme vice in our culture. 

ER: Say more about the recent neglect of intellectual virtue. Why do you think it’s been so neglected? Is there a historical perspective on that?

LZ: The neglect of intellectual virtues partly is connected with the neglect of virtues themselves. If you think about early modern philosophy, that was the period in which virtue ethics went into a decline. Why is that? Well, there is a number of reasons.

One would be that the scientific revolution undermined the Aristotelian view of nature and then people thought, “Okay, the Aristotelian view of nature is undermined, that undermines the Aristotelian view of human nature and the Aristotelian view of what human flourishing is,” and then the virtues collapse along with that because the virtues are connected with human nature and human flourishing.

There had to be some other kinds of theories that would replace virtue ethics. We all know that the dominant theories in the modern period were Kantianism and Utilitarianism. I think there are actually some practical reasons why virtue ethics went into a decline.

That had to do with the fact that the early modern period was a period in which there was extensive travel, much more interaction among different sorts of people who didn’t agree on very much.

If you’re going to interact with people who are very different from yourself, you have a commercial or legal relationship of some sort, but other than that there really isn’t any relationship. What are you going to do? Well, you have to have rules that basically give the minimal conditions for civilized behavior.

You have to have rules that determine what’s intolerable and so what happened is that people began to think of ethics as dividing acts into the intolerable acts and what you can get away with.

Your behavior is in the category of what you can get away with, what was good enough for many kinds of interactions with strangers that you are never going to see again. Of course, it’s not good enough to really live a good life and to help your community to flourish.

It does explain why there would be a decline in work that focuses on the virtues. I think a decline of scholarly work in the virtues is filtered  down to ordinary people and ordinary discourse and people began to simply think in terms of rights and duties.

“What you have to do” and “what you can get away with” rather than virtues led to virtue talk just gradually disappearing. When people speak of virtues today, it sounds old fashioned to many people. I think to most people it sounds old fashioned even if they like virtue talk.  Either it sounds like a Jane Austen novel, or people associate it with a religious right because religious people, Christians in particular, were among the last to give up virtue talk, because the theological virtues of faith, hope and charity are so important in Christian theology.

You can see how virtue vocabulary disappeared partly for political reasons that have to do with interactions among people that aren’t very similar to each other, but was still fairly robust among Christians and other traditionalists.  That unfortunately puts it in a very special kind of category. It does make virtue talk seem old fashioned. It’s been superseded by other kinds of moral discourse that focus on drawing people who are very different from each other together.

There’s discourses that focus on overcoming racism and sexism and other sorts of discrimination. Those kinds of discourses tend to dominate current discourse. That’s why we don’t talk about virtue at all. Then intellectual virtue is at an even worse situation, because it’s virtues but it’s also virtues that didn’t even have a very robust scholarly work behind them until recent decades.

It isn’t as if they were able to permeate discourse of people who weren’t philosophers. Biographers and normalists and that sort of thing, you really don’t have a discourse that uses intellectual virtue terms like open mindedness. There are some terms that people will say that’s close minded. 

ER: It seems that if there is conversation that circulates around intellectual virtue,it’s a thin conversation. It’s not very deeply informed.

LZ: Maybe there is something about the way the political system has evolved where rather than Americans thinking of us as a community of truth seekers where we are cooperating with each other to try and find out the truth,it’s polarizing to us versus them and then you just fight it out.

It reduces to a war of words but not the right words. Not words that would enable people to come together and cooperate in order to find out the truth.

ER: How much of our rampant and almost obviously uncivil discourse is a result of the neglect of intellectual virtue in particular?

LZ:  I was saying a while ag that our moral discourse as a society has tended to categorize everything into what is intolerable on the one hand and what you can get away with on the other hand. That is the problem.

Think about well known cases of hate speech or people using derogatory terms or anti Semitic terms and being criticized for it. People think that this is a free speech issue, where you have the right to say almost anything you want. That’s what supposedly free speech is.

Now, that actually might be true, maybe you do have the right to say almost anything you want, but that doesn’t make it right to say anything you want. There’s a difference between what you have a right to do, (meaning you can get away with it) and what you should do.

Civility only makes sense in the context of a moral system that focuses on what qualities you want to use to get along with people, not just what you have to do as a minimum. I really do think that your point about incivility being the result of a collapse of any conception of what a good life is in a community is right.

You can get away with most moral and intellectual vices. The only reason some moral vices get attention is because sometimes they have consequences that other people don’t like. Intellectual vice doesn’t have immediate and obvious consequences on the lives of other people. It actually does have consequences but it might not be so immediate and obvious. 

There is a difference between what you have a right to do and what you should do. 

ER: Can we talk about some examples of vices that people do get away with, and maybe some of those things that might not appear to have consequences but really do?

LZ:  I think that if you look at what W.K Clifford said in his famous essay “The ethics of belief,” there is something really right about it. There is something he claims, and I think rightly: he says it’s wrong always everywhere for anyone to believe anything on insufficient evidence. If you cut out the hyperbole, I think he’s right that it’s actually morally wrong to form your beliefs in a way that is not sufficiently intellectually virtuous. Why?

Well, because you’re going to end up with a lot of false beliefs or unjustified beliefs that are then spread around to everybody you talk to. They are then going to act on your beliefs to their detriment and the detriment of maybe many other people. 

It’s important for all of us to pay attention to what we assert. You’re more likely to get the truth if you are thinking in a way that’s intellectually open, fair, honest, and so on. It’s about truth-seeking.

ER:  You mentioned earlier that your exemplar theory could and should include fictional exemplars. Can you make the connection between the need for narratives and your exemplarist theory?”

LZ:  There’s two really different but important reasons why I think narratives are really essential in moral discourse. One is that we form concepts, in the moral domain, from our experience of persons, and that the concepts of the excellences, the admirable traits, are concepts that we form through exposure to stories about persons. The persons don’t have to be real. They can be fictional.

We learn what courage is, what honesty is, what compassion is, what justice is, what open mindedness is by watching it in operation in a story. A story is extended observation of a person. It’s not just a quick snapshot of a single act, but it’s an extended observation that reveals deeper qualities of that person than you would see just in a snap.

I think that, conceptually, our ideas about what the virtues are, and the intellectual virtues included in that, depend upon narratives. I also think that we need exemplars as motivators, so exemplars can be very uplifting. They make us feel drawn to them, and we feel a desire to imitate them, to be like that, to have that kind of quality ourselves.

We think of them as an ideal self, and so exemplars are really important, both to give us the concepts of virtues and to actually motivate us to desire to be like that ourselves.

ER: How much do you think the ability to subjectively identify with another, to put yourself in their shoes, is necessary?

LZ:  I think that is a large part of it, but everybody’s different. You read or see on the screen, a story about somebody that’s very uplifting but the person may seem to be quite different from me. It might be motivating in some vague sense, but it doesn’t really tell me specifically what to do.

I do think that that’s one of the reasons why we need lots and lots of exemplars because we can identify with some of them, and we can identify with all of them, a little bit, but maybe not as much as we can with certain ones. We want to have exemplars that are much like ourselves as possible. It’s easier to become a better person if you see someone who’s not too different from yourself but better.

ER: How do you see your exemplar theory functioning for specifically Christian formation?

LZ: I’m a Catholic and it’s really important in the Catholic tradition that there’d be a lot of saints. The reason there just has to be a lot of saints is that each person identifies with a different saint. The saints are all so different from each other that hopefully you’ll to be able to find one that’s similar enough to yourself that you can emulate them.

The idea is, you emulate the saint; the saint is emulating Christ. The saint is more of like an in between, like somebody who’s a little closer to you, so you have a little more of a concrete exemplar that’s more realistic for emulation.

ER: How does your work connect intellectual virtues with moral virtues?

LZ:  I think that the intellectual virtues are not just virtues that operate in one small part of our lives when we’re sitting around thinking, but they’re actually virtues that are necessary conditions for most other virtues, including the standard moral virtues.

You can’t be courageous if you don’t know what’s worth dying for, and you’re not going to know that if you don’t have intellectual virtues governing the formation of your beliefs. The same goes with just about any virtue. The intellectual virtues really are conditions for having just about any moral virtue.

Continue the conversation with this article on intellectual virtue from Elizabeth Krumrei-Mancuso. 

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