Virtuous Devil of February 2021

Jeffrey Watson

Lecturer of Philosophy, ASU

We’re pleased to award Jeffrey Watson this month’s Virtuous Devil Award! Read what Watson has to say:

“It is an honor to receive this award. Since this award is about Aristotle’s virtue ethics, I’ve been asked to say something about virtue ethics and my teaching. I think I will say something about a specific category of virtue: the intellectual virtues, or habits of better reasoning, and their relationship to my goals in teaching philosophy.

“For Aristotle, intellectual virtue, in the specific form of phronesis or ‘practical wisdom’, was a prerequisite for developing moral virtue. Conversely, moral virtue, in the form of the ability to recognize genuinely good and worthwhile ends, was for Aristotle a necessary condition for obtaining practical wisdom and intellectual virtue. While Aristotle distinguished the intellectual and moral virtues, each was part of the process of obtaining the other. 

“Now, there are some obvious challenges for Aristotle’s view, as we can all imagine people who seem like bad reasoners but good people, or bad people but good reasoners. Still, I do think there is something to the relationship between moral and intellectual virtue that Aristotle identified. That is, I think becoming a more morally virtuous person will tend to make one a clearer thinker, and that becoming a clearer thinker will tend to lead towards morally better choices, which can develop one’s character over time.

“I see my role in teaching philosophy as coaching students as they develop their own intellectual ‘virtuosity’, as they grow into more adept thinkers and communicators of their thoughts. Philosophy can be abstract and complicated, but this is partly what makes it valuable to study: it promotes intellectual growth. We encounter vexing paradoxes in metaphysics, and in the process learn intellectual patience and persistence. We read persuasive arguments for views that oppose our own in the philosophy of mind, and in the process learn to maintain both intellectual humility and intellectual self-respect. Reading the history of philosophy helps with finding a realistic, tempered optimism about the prospects of intellectual progress. Students write papers and develop the intellectual courage to put forward an interesting thesis and the intellectual caution to make the thesis defensible, as well as the balance between excessive simplicity and excessive complexity and the virtues of scholarship. And, of course, interacting with others who disagree with us can help with learning virtues like civility, charitable interpretation, and the balance between open-mindedness and steadfastness towards one’s existing beliefs. 

“These are intellectual virtues, but they correspond closely with moral virtues. Similarly, intellectual vices correspond closely with moral vices. While distinct, one type of habit can easily transfer over to the other, for better or worse.

“Teaching often pushes my own character to develop and grow also. I have to become more patient, for example, whenever it takes a while for an idea in a lecture to finally ‘click’ with the class. I have to develop greater intellectual humility, and honesty, each time a student discovers an error on a lecture slide or a quiz question.  When I look back at my older teaching materials, I sometimes see an enthusiasm for relaying knowledge that turned for past classes into drowning under an unmanageable wave of new ideas. I have been trying to learn that balance, avoiding being overly complicated without becoming too simplistic, but still have trouble with it. This last fall, with COVID-19, I had to revise my plan for my introduction to philosophy course, in order to teach through Zoom. That required trying to find a new midpoint between spontaneity and planning, one that worked for a screen rather than a classroom. The fall also required finding a way to maintain generosity and grace towards students caught up in varying degrees of crisis, while maintaining the predictability of consistent rules in a large-enrollment course. So, these challenges become an opportunity to discover not just new teaching tricks or tactics, but a more resilient state of character.

“In any case, I think that teaching, while it aims most directly at developing intellectual virtues in students, has also been an experience through which I have developed, and hope to continue to develop, different aspects of intellectual and moral virtue.”

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