A couple weeks ago, several friends and I held a surprise party for my fiancée’s upcoming birthday. Being one of the principal planners, while living with her in a small apartment, was difficult even though the party itself turned out to be a great time for everyone. I managed to keep it a secret, but it stressed me out during the time – I’m not used to withholding things from those closest to me. Especially not after my previous relationship of several years, with someone who was used to sniffing out the slightest deception.
I know there are other people who could have done such a thing much more easily. What I wonder is: is that a skill worth having? I’m inclined to think that it’s probably just as well not to be very good at keeping things from those close to you – it’s too easy for such a skill to lead you into all the wrong places. I suppose it’s not unlike the reasons to prohibit torture in politics, even in the ticking time bomb scenario – if the ability to do something is there, there’s too much temptation to use it wrongly.
The situation reminds me of a more general problem in a virtue-based ethics. Alasdair MacIntyre, generally following Aristotle, likes to talk about virtues as habits which allow us to succeed at practices; practices, in turn, are socially and culturally grounded crafts which have their own internal standards of excellence. But this raises what Elizabeth Frazer and Nicola Lacey – feminist critics writing in a volume called After MacIntyre – have called “the problem of evil practices.” There are some skills it is good not to acquire, some practices that it might be corrupting to be good at. Torture itself seems an example; MacIntyre makes some remarks about it on pp. 200-1 of After Virtue. The personal example is deception: I probably wouldn’t want to get better at lying and concealing even if it did mean I could throw surprise parties more easily. More generally one might want to ask: what skills, what crafts is it intrinsically bad to acquire? Not just as a matter of spending one’s precious time on those skills as opposed to more valuable ones, but bad even with unlimited time to learn them?