Week 4: Virtue, Heroes & Villains

September 16, 2011by

In this lecture we cover two classical theories of virtue ethics, one from the east and one from the west, and look at two versions of contemporary moral exemplarity theory from the social sciences.

Here is Stephen Covey’s description of the “character ethic” I mentioned in the lecture:

Good, Evil & Heroic Imagination

Psychologist Philip Zimbardo, most famous for his Stanford Prison Experiment of 1971, recently launched the Heroic Imagination Project, a nonprofit organization “designed to inspire heroism in ordinary people and teach them to make wise and effective decisions when heroic opportunities arise.” This project puts into action the theories developed in the final chapter of Zimbardo’s 2007 The Lucifer Effect, where he defines heroism as

“a contempt of danger, not from ignorance or inconsiderate levity, but from a noble devotion to some great cause, and a just confidence of being able to meet danger in the spirit of such a cause.” (p. 467)

The following talk fills in some of the background to Zimbardo’s creating the Heroic Imagination Project. Here he tells the story of his early research on the social dynamics surrounding good and evil human behavior, and then explains his work on the prisoner abuse case at Abu Ghraib. He then addresses the role moral heroism might play in shifting some of the power away from the systemic dimension of good and evil.

Practical Wisdom & Moral Heroism

Barry Schwartz, along with his Swathmore colleague Kenneth Sharpe, has developed a theory of moral heroism around the classical Aristotelian conception of phronesis, practical wisdom. Practicing this kind of wisdom, they claim, encourages people to be “system changers” or “canny outlaws” who fix broken systems represented in our various ineffective policies, procedures, and codes of conduct. What we need: to celebrate our moral heroes, in particular those exemplifying the virtue of practical wisdom.