The Virtues of Our Vices: A Modest Defense of Gossip, Rudeness, and Other Bad Habits

October 6, 2011

What do you get if you cross a philosophical look at jokes with a liberal thinker in favour of toleration? Answer: Emrys Westacott! Laugh? I almost did. That is until I got to the bit about posh professorships and cushy sabbaticals. This made me furious. Not to say jealous. Because - everyone knows - Westacott is a pompous fart who doesn't know the first thing about ethics.

Now, some will say that this is not a very suitable approach for a review of a thorough and creditably scholarly study of the moral minutiae of everyday life. But I hope they will not claim that it is logically inconsistent (the factor offered as the key to morality) because Westacott himself says "rudeness can be an effective educational strategy" and he has, after all, promised to defend "gossip, rudeness, and other bad habits".

Full power to him, then, for this stimulating and even radical way to approach ethics, and the strategy certainly should make the book more attractive to students otherwise bored rigid with sanctimonious accounts of the problems of the Third World and nasty things done to animals. For too long, moral philosophers have been (if we are to believe their books) a saintly bunch, their whole lives spent trying to increase the amount of happiness in the world. Kant's categorical imperative and Bentham's utilitarian calculus are forever offered in their books as a way of equipping their (admittedly rather few) readers with the tools to join them in their virtuous quest.

Westacott has no time for such grand concerns, pointing out that rudeness is very common, whereas acts such as murder or kidnapping are very rare, let alone "terrible dilemmas involving lifeboats, terrorists, deathbed promises, or runaway trains". He condemns the placing of abstract moral principles over "the grainy complexity of real-life decision-making" and instead, wants to apply philosophy to "everyday life" and make the subject "perform its Hegelian function of grasping its own time in thought".

Er...what? Or should I say "pardon"? I thought this was going to be a jokey look at daily concerns, not a windy summary of some dead philosopher's theory of knowledge. But in fact this is a book that contains both. The most entertaining and, I would say, original section is the chapter on jokes, entitled "That's not funny - that's sick!"; yet if alongside it are practical issues such as rudeness and prejudice, so too (alas) are lectures on "epistemic" issues in belief.

The book makes lengthy and, at times, enlightening efforts to define terms, which will provide some sort of guidance in method for those starting philosophy. On the other hand, the examples used are themselves rather dubious. Racist, sexist and homophobic attitudes are counted as types of "snobbery", which makes this over-long chapter particularly unfocused. Westacott supposes it rude to not shake hands with a war criminal or someone who has "callously destroyed the life of someone you love". How can the action be both rude and right, he asks? But I'm not sure why it counts as rude at all, so the logical challenge falls short. Better stick to runaway trolleys! He allows that his everyday examples may be messy, but says that this is a virtue of his approach - it "highlights rather than hides this situational relativity".

Perhaps the least successful feature of the book is the attempt to apply logic to ethical issues. "Reasonableness, in ethics as in science, is primarily a matter of coherence," he says. Someone should have warned him that logic does not have any trump cards to play here. Instead, by attempting to solve his modest conundrums through the appliance of Aristotle, he simply produces circular arguments. Yes, "telling malicious lies about people is wrong"; holding "derogatory" views about people is unkind, and doubtless "your view of x is elitist" if "your view conforms to the perspective associated with an elite" too. On the other hand, Westacott is exploring new ground when he says that most professional chefs think that vegetable curry with rice is "a better entree than a deep-fried Mars bar".

Inside this book is an interesting sociological study struggling to get out. Children, as he says, are equally outraged "whether you beat them at cards or steal their ice-cream"; gossip facilitates the function of social institutions, and yes, we rarely laugh alone but among company laughter is contagious. Alone or in groups, people will chuckle a few times over this book.

The Virtues of Our Vices: A Modest Defense of Gossip, Rudeness, and Other Bad Habits

By Emrys Westacott. Princeton University Press. 304pp, £18.95. ISBN 9780691141992. Published 21 October 2011

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