Current Reading

This blog is primarily for me to blog my responses to books that I'm reading. Sometimes I blog about other stuff too, though.

I'm currently reading Edward Teller's Memoirs.

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Saturday, January 23, 2016

The "selfishness" of virtue

In Chapter 8 of Part 2 of Volume 2, de Tocqueville notes that Americans of that time were quite adamant that ethical behavior was in their self-interest.  To a large extent that is obviously true.  A reputation for honesty, for instance, can serve one well in the long-term.  However, when we go beyond mere honesty to benevolence, I'm not convinced that virtuous behavior will always overlap self interest.  To be fair, de Tocqueville doesn't make such an assertion, he merely remarks that Americans were public and vocal in their insistence that virtue served self-interest rather than being a thing that is good in its own right despite the cost.

I think of this in debates over what academic merit and accomplishment really mean.  We know that measures of academic accomplishment track with measures of advantage in life, and to the extent that academic accomplishment is the path to many opportunities for advancement this is a self-sharpening effect of advantage or disadvantage.  One remedy embraced by some is to question how much academic accomplishment, by whatever measure, really matters.  If the question is whether a particular measure is flawed or inadequate, I'm inclined to say that the answer may often be "yes."  If the question is whether academic accomplishment is of huge importance in non-academic pursuits, I think the answer is obviously "Often not."  But if the question is whether a track record of academic accomplishment is of any relevance for success in further academic endeavors, well, would you hire a sales manager who's never sold anything?  One needn't think that academic accomplishment is the only thing that matters in academic endeavors in order to agree that it is at least a significant thing.

However, if we were to say that academic accomplishment does matter but we are nonetheless extending people an opportunity because they accomplished less but they accomplished it under trying circumstances, we would be saying that we are acting out of benevolence rather than self-interest.  There is certainly a way in which openly proclaimed benevolence can be obnoxious, but one could make a simple statement of values and leave it at that, and be honest without blowing trumpets over their benevolence.  However, many academics don't want to do that.  They don't want to admit that they compromised for benevolence, so they instead claim that their stance is both self-interested and enlightened, and then proceed to pat themselves on the back for it.

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