It has taken me longer than expected to get to reviewing Seth Zuihō Segall’s thoughtful and engaging The House We Live In: Virtue, Wisdom and Pluralism. Most of the reasons for that are personal, but some have to do with the book itself: the book is short (less than 200 pages) and in admirably simple prose, but I spent a long time reading it because of the number of times it made me stop and provoked my thinking. It’s provoked me enough that my review and response to it will stretch over four different posts; the other thing that took a long time was organizing all the many things I had to say about the book. (I had even more to say than those four posts, but decided to restrain myself to the most important.)
The book is an ambitious attempt to set out Seth’s own constructive philosophy. (I went back and forth on first vs. last name – although when reviewing a book it’s conventional to use a last name, since Segall is an active contributor to Love of All Wisdom’s comments on a first-name basis, I prefer that friendlier usage.) I’m broadly sympathetic with this attempt, since like my own philosophy it is broadly eudaimonistic (and naturalistic). We agree on an ethical account that focuses on human virtue and flourishing.
Specifically, the book is Seth’s philosophical account of two things: the good modern human life, in an ethical and psychological sense, and a political direction for modern societies, especially the USA. (It does not attempt to probe other philosophical areas, such as metaphysics – possibly to its detriment, as we’ll see later.) The ethical account of the good life is relatively strong; the political account, somewhat less so. At its best it provides an admirable political vision to aspire to. The biggest problem with the book is its papering over of the major differences among traditions. I am going to spend more time on the criticism of that latter point than the praise of the former, just because I think there’s typically more to be learned in disagreement than in agreement. (And indeed, the importance of difference and disagreement will be at the heart of my critique.) I want to be clear that I think the book is well worth the read, at least its middle ethical chapters, and that’s a big reason I am engaging with it at length. For a long time, virtue ethics of any kind was so underrepresented in philosophy that we virtue ethicists all had to stick together against our Kantian and utilitarian foes. I think it’s a sign of major progress that books like Seth’s are now out there – in a way that allows us to turn our attention to our differences.Continue reading