Tuesday, August 15, 2017

The Mundanity of Virtue

I went to the “Post-Bourdieusian Theory” session at the American Sociological Association annual meeting yesterday.  Mustafa Emirbayer was the respondent.  In talking about a paper unpacking the idea of talent, he cited Dan Chambliss’ article about swimmers.  I know Dan as a Yale Ph.D. and fellow small-college professor, but I had never read this article.  I mistakenly thought it was about swimming.  But Emirbayer praised it as one of the ten best sociology articles ever written. So I downloaded it and read it just now.

His title is “The Mundanity of Excellence.”  He says, in conclusion:

“But of course there is no secret; there is only the doing of all those little things, each one done correctly, time and again, until excellence in every detail becomes a firmly ingrained habit, an ordinary part of one’s everyday life.”

It struck me that this is what critical realists should say about the virtues.  They are habits of action.  They are mundane in themselves.  The excellence of virtue comes from their being habitual in a person, and in a social institution. Just about anyone could learn to be virtuous.  Why relatively few do is an important empirical question.  But is it not because we lack a talent for virtue.

I think there is an important way forward here.

2 comments:

Dennis Evans said...

The closest, earliest thing I can remember about learning virtue in school was good sportsmanship and good citizenship.

Dennis Evans said...

And I'm not sure I seem much of either one on the public stage.