Virtue and Vulnerability



This post was originally published on my homepage,, on September 3, 2015.

Is Viktor Frankl’s life a story of resilience or vulnerability? It’s both, I think. Frankl survived the Nazi concentration camps and went on to an influential career as a psychiatrist and writer. Yet, he never forgot how his experiences of pain and suffering formed his own social ethic. As he writes in the epilogue entitled “The Case for a Tragic Optimism”, added to the 1984 edition his famous memoir, Man’s Search for Meaning:

“After all, “saying yes to life in spite of everything,” …presupposes that life is potentially meaningful under any conditions, even those which are most miserable.  And this in turn presupposes the human capacity to creatively turn life’s negative aspects into something positive or constructive.  In other words, what matters is to make the best of any given situation.  “The best,” however, is that which in Latin is called optimum—hence the reason I speak of a tragic optimism, that is, an optimism in the face of tragedy and in view of the human potential which at its best always allows for:  (1) turning suffering into a human achievement and accomplishment; (2) deriving from guilt the opportunity to change oneself for the better; and (3) deriving from life’s transitoriness an incentive to take responsible action.”

Similarly, in a paper I’m working on, I explained how I learned that resilience and vulnerability aren’t opposites: they often go together. I’m particularly interested in further developing the important point that resilience and vulnerability aren’t only about personal outcomes, but about how our experiences of suffering form a calling to take responsible action for others–our close kin, neighbors, countrymen and women, and complete strangers. Frankl modeled this ethic in his own life, and taught the same ethic in his psychiatric profession. I admire Frankl because he sought to live a coherent ethic in his professional and personal life, not separating out his theories from how he lived his own life. Many social scientists fall into the trap of using theories of human nature–such as humans are driven by self-interest, status, and power–that they would never apply to their own behaviors.

You can hear more about my thoughts on virtue and vulnerability in this presentation I gave in July at the International Association of Critical Realism Annual Meetings held at the University of Notre Dame.

Click her to hear my talk “Vulnerabilty and Virtue.”

The abstract of my paper is below. If you would like to read a draft of this paper, please email me.

Abstract for Margarita Mooney, “Vulnerability and Virtue”:

This paper is part of a larger book about the lived experiences of 26 young adults who have experienced traumatic life events. This paper uses 4 of the 26 life history interviews to show how critical realism provides a better metatheoretical framework to understand the complex causality behind experiences of mental health disorders and addiction I encountered in my interviews. I draw on virtue ethics and realist hermeneutics to argue that social science approaches to mental health and addiction should not stop at analyzing their causes or treatments, but need to ask about the moral purpose that guides people’s lives. I further argue that overlooking that vulnerability is an enduring part of the human condition has limited the ability of social science to adequately understand the struggles of people with mental illness and addiction.

Because my interviews elicited narratives that connect events and emotions across time, these narratives illustrate the complex, contingent and conjunctural nature of causality that is often overlooked in many approaches to mental health and addiction. As with any method, the knowledge gained from interviews is limited and potentially fallible. But rather than falling into skepticisms about our ability to access reality through interviews, I maintain a realist stance towards lived experiences without necessarily assuming all experiences can be treated as facts. Interviews challenge those of us with a certain kind of authority as researchers to not simply jettison what people say as fallible and explain their lives with our own theories. Taking seriously what people say about their experiences of the world is one important way science advances because people can challenge the frameworks of science we use. For example, my interviews led me to question whether resilience and vulnerability are two opposite ends of a spectrum or can exist alongside one another. Because interviews reveal the complex causal forces in any person’s life, they remind us that scientific explanations should not be reductionistic. The interviews I conducted combined a scientific approach (selecting interviewees based on criteria of theoretical interest, developing a questionnaire based on theoretical expectations) and a humanistic, artistic, and highly interactive, dramatic approach about each person’s unique meanings and interior struggles.

Does Gender Matter in the Classroom?

The New York Times recently reported on a study conducted by researchers at Yale in which they found that when presented with identical resumes of two job candidates–one named John and one named Jennifer–both male and female professors in science and math more favorably evaluated the male candidate over the female candidate. This study indicates that, unfortunately, gender biases still matter in the education, and even more unfortunately, that women under-estimate the skills of other women relative to men.

Linguist Deborah Tannen

What about in the classroom? Do male and female students attribute less authority to female professors than male professors? In my experience, I have found that male students more often directly challenge my authority. In this video interview with Georgetown linguist Deborah Tannen on the Colbert report, Tannen explains why women have a harder time earning authority in the public sphere. Unfortunately, she explains, what people expect from leaders (frankness, decisiveness) often differs from what people expect from women (empathy, compromise).

Recently, I discussed male-female differences in the classroom with a group of students at my university, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and many of the things they said echoed themes from Tannen’s book You Just Don’t Understand: Men and Women in Conversation. Although I knew that men speak up in class more than women, I was stuned when one young man told me he is more likely to speak up when he doesn’t know the answer than when he does know the answer. Talking when he is not sure he’s right is a way of showing status, he explained. Women, by contrast, only speak up in class when they are quite sure they are right. As I’ve written in previous post—virtuous behavior lies in the mean of extremes such as these. Speaking up to show you know something you don’t is not helpful to classroom. Not speaking up if you are even slightly unsure leads many bright students not to make valuable contributions. One way I get around these tendencies is to require students to write reading responses prior to coming to class—this practice reduces opportunities for talking-but-not-knowing-the-answer as well as opens up opportunities for quieter students to develop confidence in their arguments.

Discussing male-female differences in the classroom with male students also led me to revise what I wrote earlier on Black, White and Gray—that female students are more relational. I now think that men and women are both relational, but in different ways. One male student told me that he would be much more likely to admit to a female professor than a male professor when he was struggling.

“I don’t want a male authority figure to see my problems, but I’m less worried about telling a woman my failings,” he explained.

His comment immediately reminded me of a student I had who I will call Joe. He was a lively, smart student in my sociology of religion class a few years ago, but suddenly didn’t show up for two weeks, even missing the midterm. When he returned to class and I asked why he had missed so much class, he explained that his brother had been killed by a drunk driver. He looked devastated and depressed and my heart broke for him.

I explained how he could make up the work he had missed for my class and then asked if he had spoken to his other professors. “I don’t know how to tell people what has happened,” he said. “I have never had to ask for an extension on anything. I don’t know what to do.”

“Joe, you must tell your professors what has happened,” I replied. “They will let you make up missed work, but you have to explain yourself.” I then immediately emailed the Dean of Students office, set up a meeting between an academic advisor and Joe so they could help him get back on track.

How could he be afraid to talk about his brother’s death, I wondered? I would have told the whole world what had happened to me. “Oh no,” one male student told me, “I would have done what he did—hide and bury my head. I wouldn’t know how to talk about something like that.”

Although I have long thought that my female students related to me in a special way because I’m female, I only then realized that my male students may also often relate to me differently because I’m female. Moreover, male students may need my help even more because they are less willing to admit their weaknesses and less willing to ask for help even when they need it.

Although I’m acutely aware that talking about male-female differences can lead to gender bias about academic abilities, I nonetheless think dialogue about male-female personality differences is needed so I can be a better professor. Once again, the virtue lies neither in ignoring male-female differences nor in exaggerating them.

Thanks to Deborah Tannen’s books, and thanks to many of my students and colleagues, I have come to know my strengths—and one of my strengths is related to my femininity: it’s easy for people to relate to me, which then means people will trust me and seek my advice. Once I have someone’s trust, then I trust they will see me with authority as well.

In summary, the equal dignity of men and women need not mean uniformity between the sexes. Building on a fundamental equality before the law and in each profession, men and women much each develop their personalities in their unique fashions. Women do have some things in common with other women that they do not share with men, and vice-versa; each individual person further also has his or her own unique characteristics. Learning about male-female differences has made me more aware of my feminine character strengths. I’ve also become more aware of how others perceive me and relate to me.

As one male colleague recently said, “You know, it took me a long to realize we need to do our work as ourselves, not like someone else would. You are very relational, you are a good networker, and it’s good to know that is your strength and build on it.”

We don’t discover our vocations in isolation but through interactions such as those I’ve described here. Although the expression of my femininity may vary across contexts, it is one part of the reality of any situation I find myself in. I’m more fulfilled as a person since I’ve stopped trying to imitate male leaders around me and embraced my feminine character as one of my strengths.


The “Nothing Box”: One Way Men and Women Are Different

As I was thinking about my most recent blog on male-female differences, I asked the female cashier at Starbucks, “Do you think men and women are really different?” The cashier said, “Yeah, of course, you know like Men are from Mars and Women are from Venus.” The guy behind me in line started cracking up in a way that I knew he was thinking “Oh yes they are—if you give me a minute I can tell you ‘bout my girl; she drives me craaaazy!”

Later in the week, I asked male graduate student, “Do you think women and men are different?” He paused, and then thoughtfully said, “Well, of course they are, but the question is not are they different but why and how they are different.” A third, and important question, is what are we do to about these differences?

Too often, discussions of male-female difference are used to argue for the superiority of men over women, or vice versa. Too often, women who have some more typical masculine personality characteristics feel mis-represented when talking about male-female differences; the same goes for men with more typically feminine female characteristics.

Well, part of the reason I avoided this topic for so long is that discussions of male-female differences can easily turn into facile stereotypes and stories of wars between the sexes. I will now attempt to broach this important topic through moderation—neither exaggerating sex differences nor ignoring them. After all, the essence of virtue is to strike the mean, and if we want to learn about male-female differences the first thing to avoid is extreme stereotypes about those differences or the typical response to those extreme stereotypes—denying that any real differences exist at all.

My answer about whether men and women are really different has several parts. First, we need to understand that a combination of biology, character and society make men and women different; further, women and men differ, on the whole, in specific typical vices and virtues. Finally, being aware of these differences can be an important way to grow in the virtues, because we can learn from the virtuous people around us, both men and women.

Here is one brief example of how men and women differ.  This YouTube video rather dramatically explains male-female differences in the brain to make the point that men are quite content to think about nothing, or perhaps to just to think about one thing at a time. Women, by contrast, tend to think about multiple things at once.

To illustrate this point, this video describes quite amusingly how men’s brains are divided into boxes that never touch each other; and their favorite box is something of a mystery to women–it’s the  “nothing box.” By contrast, women’s brains are full of connectivity, everything is connected to everything, and women can jump topics extremely fast, often bewildering men.

YouTube Preview Image

Last night, I watched this video with 6 women who are part of a group called Inspiring Women. For the past 2 and a half years, I’ve been meeting with a group of graduate students and other women in the Inspiring Women group to read and discuss books and articles on character, virtue and culture, among other things. As we discussed the challenges in balancing work and family, one woman talked about how both she and her husband work hard all day, but whereas she rushes to make dinner as soon as she gets home, he’s quite content to sit on the couch and do nothing. It’s not that he doesn’t want to help, she explained, but he just doesn’t think about making dinner asked to help. That’s one example of the “nothing box,” I think.

I explained that one day when I was feeling overwhelmed, I asked a male colleague how he deals with working on so many things at once, and he replied, “Well, I just think about the one thing I’m working on at the moment.” My jaw almost hit the floor. How can anyone possibly only think about one thing at time, I wondered? Hearing about how men can work in just one box at a time helped me understand what my colleague was saying.

So what do we do about these differences? One group member explained that she tries really, really hard while at work not to worry about the cooking at housework she has to do when she gets home. That attitude is the essence of virtue–most women may find the “nothing box” (or perhaps the “nothing else but what’s in front of me box”) very, very hard to climb into, but we need to try. Similarly, men can try to think ahead, plan, and make connections across boxes in their brains. Virtue is in the meaning–something in between the “nothing box” and the “everything all at once box.”

I have only scratched the surface here of this important topic. My point in discussing these differences is simply to have an open, honest dialogue through which we can all learn. I do not think that overall either sex is more virtuous, but I do think  that the two sexes in general excel in different virtues, and I think we can all learn from observing others who excel in virtues in which we don’t excel. In the end, if we aim for the best virtues generally seen in men and women, then sex differences wouldn’t matter nearly as much.

Peace in Your Hearts, Peace in Your Actions

As I read today about Pope Benedict XVI’s trip to Lebanon in which, not surprisingly, he called for peace, I reflected on how his words point out a common theme in Christian thought which draws on Aristotle’s concept of the virtues. Human goods are not only interior dispositions, nor are they only exterior actions. Human goods must be the alignment of interior dispositions and exterior actions.

Is peace a state of mind or the heart? Or is peace a state of social relations? It is both. It must be both. Although it is clear that there is no peace if two parties are warring against each other, there also is no peace if one person hates another, even if he or she does not act on that hate.

So how does one build peace in a context that lacks peace? Not only by cultivating good feelings, but also by enacting peace. That was the main message of Pope Benedict’s homily in Beirut yesterday:

“In today’s second reading, Saint James tells us to what extent our walking in the footsteps of Jesus, if it is to be authentic, demands concrete actions. “I, by my works, will show you my faith” (Jas 2:18). It is an imperative task of the Church to serve and of Christians to be true servants in the image of Jesus. Service is a foundational element of the identity of Christ’s followers (cf. Jn 13:15-17). The vocation of the Church and of each Christian is to serve others, as the Lord himself did, freely and impartially. Consequently, in a world where violence constantly leaves behind its grim trail of death and destruction, to serve justice and peace is urgently necessary for building a fraternal society, for building fellowship! Dear brothers and sisters, I pray in particular that the Lord will grant to this region of the Middle East servants of peace and reconciliation, so that all people can live in peace and with dignity. This is an essential testimony which Christians must render here, in cooperation with all people of good will. I appeal to all of you to be peacemakers, wherever you find yourselves” (Pope Benedict XVI, Beirut, Lebannon, September 16th, 2012).

Just as the letter of St. James makes clear that followers of Jesus are required to show their faith through works, so peace will only come if people are peacemakers. The debate among some Christians about faith vs. works sets up a false opposition: there is no faith without works, and if works are not done with faith, they are not Christian action. Similarly, Benedict told all people of good will that there is is no peace without peacemakers; and peacemakers won’t make peace if people don’t have peace in their hearts.

As reported in the Wall Street Journal, Pope Benedict XVI ended the Mass with these words:

“May God grant to your country, to Syria and to the Middle East the gift of peaceful hearts, the silencing of weapons and the cessation of all violence.”

This quote once again illustrates that peace, like any virtue, is in the heart and in the actions we undertake. May the words of the Pope inspire hope in a region of the world so much in need of peace in people’s hearts and in people’s actions.