Seeking Moral Clarity in a Time of Epistemic Confusion

Really, is there value in reserving judgment in critical times—like ours? The very fact we speak of crises signals the urgency of making up our minds. Over the course of three previous posts, I have described, analyzed, and praised as a virtue the capability of “Still Deciding.” But I make myself impatient. What more am I waiting for—while the meaning of our common life is at stake now?

Mural depicting Hannah Arendt near her birthplace in Hanover (Wikimedia Commons).

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The wisdom of “still deciding”

In my previous posts on “Still Deciding,” I tried to describe this virtue as a kind of intellectual courage to keep oneself from sheer indecision on one hand and shameless dogmatism on another. Still deciding, then, is actually a positive excellence, that helps to integrate and enrich the value of a person’s style of life.

Like moral courage, to which I suppose it is strongly related, still deciding is a form of practice—far more so than either indecision or dogmatism, which are both ways of ceding oneself to circumstance. Thus, still deciding takes practice. If we want its form to in-form the shape of our daily decisions, we must exercise ourselves, cultivate in ourselves a capacity to hold alternatives in contrast, entertain various ways in which we might resolve the alternatives, estimate the relative worths of each resolution, and then decide, attentive to both what we are choosing and what not.

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The virtue of “still deciding”

In a previous post, I defended the “still deciding student” who, despite pressure to participate in a culture of assessment, for which specific, quantifiable outcomes—as simple in some cases, even, as the declaration of a major—purport to measure what it means to be educated, would still hold some measure of themselves back from subjection to the metrics of attainment.

The key to my defense is the notion that still deciding is a virtue. I am thinking about what Aristotle called a hexis (ἕξις). What is a hexis? Not, despite what the dominant tradition of interpretation in Western philosophy has said, a habit. Indeed, the identification of virtues as habits is a most unfortunate error, as the philosopher Joe Sachs has argued. For a virtue is not—cannot be—a mindless habit. Rather, a virtue is an active holding of oneself, already ready to recognize the unpredictable, yet opportune, moment for action. As such, the capacity to be still deciding is crucial to virtuous decision-making.

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On the Merits of Still Deciding

At a campus event a couple years ago, I spoke with prospective students and parents about studying the humanities. I was struck by one father’s question. He understood why we would insist on connecting the liberal arts with career success but, he said, it also worried him. He was thinking of his daughter growing into a young adult, for whom he wanted excellent career preparation but also much more.

His question was: Could I assure him we offer more?

In line with so many other colleges like ours, we at Maryville College have turned to outcomes assessment and, perhaps especially, employment outcomes as a measure of our educational effectiveness. We want to make the decision to come here easy, and so we have Powerpoints and data points and talking points at the ready to answer the questions we hear people asking, like, what jobs can you get with a degree in the liberal arts? Once those questions are settled, we move on—we say to ourselves—to the deeper values that we truly treasure.

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