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

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Overview

Are there times when it's right to be rude? Can we distinguish between good and bad gossip? Am I a snob if I think that NPR listeners are likely to be better informed than devotees of Fox News? Does sick humor do anyone any good? Can I think your beliefs are absurd but still respect you?

In The Virtues of Our Vices, philosopher Emrys Westacott takes a fresh look at important everyday ethical questions—and comes up with surprising answers. He makes a compelling argument that some of our most common vices—rudeness, gossip, snobbery, tasteless humor, and disrespect for others' beliefs—often have hidden virtues or serve unappreciated but valuable purposes. For instance, there are times when rudeness may be necessary to help someone with a problem or to convey an important message. Gossip can foster intimacy between friends and curb abuses of power. And dubious humor can alleviate existential anxieties.

Engaging, funny, and philosophically sophisticated, The Virtues of Our Vices challenges us to rethink conventional wisdom when it comes to everyday moral behavior.

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Editorial Reviews

Boston Globe
Westacott asks tough questions about the nature and meaning of these 'bad habits.' Arguing that conventional wisdom masks the benefits of practices often viewed as moral failings, he challenges us to engage 'with a world in which categories, terminologies, expectations, and norms are in constant flux.' His book is accessible, rigorous, and droll.
— Glenn Altschuler
Inside Higher Ed

In Westacott's microethical analyses, as with Socratic badinage, it's the process of inquiry, as much as the result, that engages the reader's interest. His tree-chart algorithms probably won't be that useful to anyone having to make a decision. But they reveal some of implicit choices that we often make very quickly when dealing with other people. The unexamined life may not be worth living, but it is, after all, where we spend most of our time. The Virtues of Our Vices shines a little light in that direction.
— Scott McLemee

The Guardian
'The problem is not that people today are trampling underfoot the time-honoured rules of polite behaviour; the problem is that these rules are in flux,' Westacott writes. Rudeness is the price we pay for 'living in a dynamic culture'. That may not make it good, exactly, but it makes it an inevitable by-product of something many of us think of as good. Maybe that explains why critics of PC also bemoan the rise of rudeness: both complaints are reactions against change. A world with no rudeness, and no material for stories about 'PC gone mad', would be one that had come to a standstill.
— Oliver Burkeman
Rain Taxi
After reading this volume, one might quibble with some of the author's observations, although next week one might feel differently. This is what Westacott recognizes as a 'fluid' situation, an essential aspect of the topic at hand. In sum, The Virtues of Our Vices presents a highly stimulating argument for our individual and collective self-evaluations.
— James Naiden
Inside Higher Ed.
In Westacott's microethical analyses, as with Socratic badinage, it's the process of inquiry, as much as the result, that engages the reader's interest. His tree-chart algorithms probably won't be that useful to anyone having to make a decision. But they reveal some of implicit choices that we often make very quickly when dealing with other people. The unexamined life may not be worth living, but it is, after all, where we spend most of our time. The Virtues of Our Vices shines a little light in that direction.
— Scott McLemee
Inside Higher Ed...
In Westacott's microethical analyses, as with Socratic badinage, it's the process of inquiry, as much as the result, that engages the reader's interest. His tree-chart algorithms probably won't be that useful to anyone having to make a decision. But they reveal some of implicit choices that we often make very quickly when dealing with other people. The unexamined life may not be worth living, but it is, after all, where we spend most of our time. The Virtues of Our Vices shines a little light in that direction.
— Scott McLemee
Boston Globe - Glenn Altschuler
Westacott asks tough questions about the nature and meaning of these 'bad habits.' Arguing that conventional wisdom masks the benefits of practices often viewed as moral failings, he challenges us to engage 'with a world in which categories, terminologies, expectations, and norms are in constant flux.' His book is accessible, rigorous, and droll.
Inside Higher Ed - Scott McLemee
In Westacott's microethical analyses, as with Socratic badinage, it's the process of inquiry, as much as the result, that engages the reader's interest. His tree-chart algorithms probably won't be that useful to anyone having to make a decision. But they reveal some of implicit choices that we often make very quickly when dealing with other people. The unexamined life may not be worth living, but it is, after all, where we spend most of our time. The Virtues of Our Vices shines a little light in that direction.
The Guardian - Oliver Burkeman
'The problem is not that people today are trampling underfoot the time-honoured rules of polite behaviour; the problem is that these rules are in flux,' Westacott writes. Rudeness is the price we pay for 'living in a dynamic culture'. That may not make it good, exactly, but it makes it an inevitable by-product of something many of us think of as good. Maybe that explains why critics of PC also bemoan the rise of rudeness: both complaints are reactions against change. A world with no rudeness, and no material for stories about 'PC gone mad', would be one that had come to a standstill.
Rain Taxi - James Naiden
After reading this volume, one might quibble with some of the author's observations, although next week one might feel differently. This is what Westacott recognizes as a 'fluid' situation, an essential aspect of the topic at hand. In sum, The Virtues of Our Vices presents a highly stimulating argument for our individual and collective self-evaluations.
The Guardian
'The problem is not that people today are trampling underfoot the time-honoured rules of polite behaviour; the problem is that these rules are in flux,' Westacott writes. Rudeness is the price we pay for 'living in a dynamic culture'. That may not make it good, exactly, but it makes it an inevitable by-product of something many of us think of as good. Maybe that explains why critics of PC also bemoan the rise of rudeness: both complaints are reactions against change. A world with no rudeness, and no material for stories about 'PC gone mad', would be one that had come to a standstill.
— Oliver Burkeman
Inside Higher Ed
In Westacott's microethical analyses, as with Socratic badinage, it's the process of inquiry, as much as the result, that engages the reader's interest. His tree-chart algorithms probably won't be that useful to anyone having to make a decision. But they reveal some of implicit choices that we often make very quickly when dealing with other people. The unexamined life may not be worth living, but it is, after all, where we spend most of our time. The Virtues of Our Vices shines a little light in that direction.
— Scott McLemee
Library Journal
Westacott (philosophy, Alfred Univ.; coauthor, Thinking Through Philosophy: An Introduction) analyzes four practices usually taken to be bad: rudeness, gossip, snobbery, and telling sick jokes. In addition to these, he discusses one practice usually regarded as good: respecting the opinions of others. For each of his practices, Westacott claims that we are too apt to invoke fixed rules that either forbid outright the practices we take to be bad or require the behavior we deem good. Writing from a broadly utilitarian standpoint rather than for specialists, Westacott thinks that consideration of particular examples will result in a more nuanced approach. Sometimes, e.g., rudeness is morally acceptable, as when it is an appropriate way to make a moral statement about a deplored convention. Gossip may often serve useful functions such as satisfying curiosity and counteracting secrecy. Respect is not always required, either: some opinions deserve our contempt. Westacott by no means wishes to claim that there are no good reasons for the standard verdicts on the practices he considers. Rather, he aims to show that particular situations often resist fixed rules. VERDICT General readers interested in how philosophy can be applied to daily life will gain much from this well-written book.—David Gordon, Bowling Green State Univ., OH
From the Publisher

"General readers interested in how philosophy can be applied to daily life will gain much from this well-written book."--Library Journal

"Westacott asks tough questions about the nature and meaning of these 'bad habits.' Arguing that conventional wisdom masks the benefits of practices often viewed as moral failings, he challenges us to engage 'with a world in which categories, terminologies, expectations, and norms are in constant flux.' His book is accessible, rigorous, and droll."--Glenn Altschuler, Boston Globe

"In Westacott's microethical analyses, as with Socratic badinage, it's the process of inquiry, as much as the result, that engages the reader's interest. His tree-chart algorithms probably won't be that useful to anyone having to make a decision. But they reveal some of implicit choices that we often make very quickly when dealing with other people. The unexamined life may not be worth living, but it is, after all, where we spend most of our time. The Virtues of Our Vices shines a little light in that direction."--Scott McLemee, Inside Higher Ed

"'The problem is not that people today are trampling underfoot the time-honoured rules of polite behaviour; the problem is that these rules are in flux,' Westacott writes. Rudeness is the price we pay for 'living in a dynamic culture'. That may not make it good, exactly, but it makes it an inevitable by-product of something many of us think of as good. Maybe that explains why critics of PC also bemoan the rise of rudeness: both complaints are reactions against change. A world with no rudeness, and no material for stories about 'PC gone mad', would be one that had come to a standstill."--Oliver Burkeman, The Guardian

"After reading this volume, one might quibble with some of the author's observations, although next week one might feel differently. This is what Westacott recognizes as a 'fluid' situation, an essential aspect of the topic at hand. In sum, The Virtues of Our Vices presents a highly stimulating argument for our individual and collective self-evaluations."--James Naiden, Rain Taxi

"Engaging, funny, and philosophically sophisticated, The Virtues of Our Vices challenges us to rethink conventional wisdom when it comes to everyday moral behavior."--World Book Industry

"Westacott's work is relevant to the practice of philosophical counseling. It proves to be a collection of what we might call conceptual case studies insofar as it takes up mundane, morally loaded issues, and evaluates them philosophically. . . . Works such as Westacott's can help counselors pinpoint and process some of these mundane interactions and judgments, to better enhance the client's critical thinking and quality of life. For the more examined life may after all be more worth the living. This work can also be helpful for philosophical practitioners in a corporate setting."--Graham Steers, Philosophical Practice

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780691141992
  • Publisher: Princeton University Press
  • Publication date: 10/21/2011
  • Pages: 304
  • Product dimensions: 5.72 (w) x 8.66 (h) x 1.03 (d)

Meet the Author


Emrys Westacott is professor of philosophy at Alfred University in Alfred, New York. His work has been featured in the New York Times and has appeared in the "Philosopher's Magazine", "Philosophy Now", the "Humanist", the "Philosophical Forum", and many other publications. He is also the coauthor of "Thinking through Philosophy: An Introduction".
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Table of Contents

Introduction 1

Chapter 1: The Rights and Wrongs of Rudeness 13

Chapter 2: The Ethics of Gossiping 53

Chapter 3: O n Snobbery: Is It Sinful to Feel Superior? 100

Chapter 4: "That's not funny—that's sick!" 162

Chapter 5: Why Should I Respect Your Stupid Opinion? 215

Acknowledgments 261

Notes 265

Index 289

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Sort by: Showing 1 Customer Reviews
  • Posted January 17, 2012

    Loving your vices

    This book is as entertaining as it is informative. It covers topics that range from Gossip to rudeness to snobbery to black humor to tolerating (or not tolerating) stupid opinions. It is so rich with commonplace examples of our vices that a review that does justice to this book would require more patience than I have right now. Still, I want to emphasize there things:
    1) ¬The Virtue of Our Vices is as accessible as any philosophy book that I’ve ever read. The author takes his audience seriously. He challenges the reader, but he does so in a manner that is crystal clear and gently provocative.
    2) The author is a serious moral philosopher. The many, many ethnical issues he raises (Is it wrong to stereotype others? Is it possible not to stereotype? Is it wrong to gossip about others if the gossip conveys true information? Is it rude to convey uncomfortable information about others if the truth of that information promotes justice and equality? etc etc etc) are treated with an analytical rigor that even someone like Joseph Epstein (who has written on similar topics) would view with admiration.
    3) The book is written with a wry humor that occasionally left me laughing out loud. In fact, Westacott actually addresses laughter in a chapter about black humor that, among other things, treats laughter as a social convention. As I read the book on a recent flight, I twice apologized to my neighboring passengers for disturbing them with my laughter. They were tolerant; both wanted to know what I was reading.

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