Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Limbaugh's Indecency and Aristotle's Virtue Ethics

By this time most people have surely heard of Rush Limbaugh’s very public targeting of a Georgetown Law School student, Sandra Fluke. I've been debating whether to say anything about it here on my blog--and I've decided to do so only because I think I have some things to add, as a moral philosopher and a fan of Aristotle, that haven't already been said by others.

For those who haven’t heard about it, the basic details are this: After Sandra Fluke sought to speak at a congressional hearing—one focused on the intersection between religious freedom and the controversial contraception mandate for health insurance plans—Limbaugh labeled her a slut and a prostitute on the air. In the wake of initial calls to apologize, he responded by labeling those who were offended “feminazis” (which I guess makes me a feminazi). He then redoubled his personal assault on Fluke by arguing that it was only right to require her to post videos of her sex life online for everyone to enjoy.

He finally posted some kind of apology (about his "choice of words"); but the fact is that he has been consistently targeting women for personal sexist attacks for years--and the "feminazi" label flies from his mouth any time he's taken to task for it. Back in the 1990's, he targeted a then-colleague of mine on his short-lived TV show, mocking her by name. I won't mention her by name here, since she may want to forget the whole incident. But I suppose it's worth sketching out what happened.

The mockery was sparked by a student newspaper article that was sent to Limbaugh--an article reporting on a public lecture my colleague gave while visiting a nearby university. My colleague talked about Carol Adam's arguments in The Sexual Politics of Meat, arguments linking the patriarchal oppression of women with meat-eating. Now my colleague was actually a bit skeptical of a number of Adams' claims, but she also thought there were some important insights (observations about the ways in which women are objectified by being likened to meat, connections between the patterns of thinking that help us to ignore the suffering of factory farmed animals and the patterns of thinking that have historically marginalized women). But the newspaper article didn't distinguish my colleague's arguments from Adams', and in any event the article got Adams' arguments wrong--caricaturing them into unrecognizable laughability.

But Limbaugh didn't do any fact-checking. He just laid into my colleague, by name, for all he was worth. He called her a "feminazi" and other things. Then he had a steak wheeled out to him by a woman...and he proceeded to cut into it and then launch into a misogynistic verbal belittling of the woman who'd wheeled it out. He was taking obvious delight in doing so--and then presented this display of sexist objectification of a woman on TV as a decisive refutation of my colleague's arguments.

In all of this, Limbaugh showed not the slightest interest in accurately understanding what he was mocking. What he cared about was having the opportunity to caricature and ridicule feminism while personally attacking a thoughtful, accomplished woman by name on the air, a woman he knew nothing about...and then, in order to "refute" her supposed claim that eating meat makes you a foul-mouthed sexist pig (not her view at all), he ate some meat and indulged very publicly in being a foul-mouthed sexist pig to a woman who worked for him. As if taking obvious delight in such a display made a mockery of anything other than his own protestations against the charge of being a sexist pig.

Given his long history of this sort of thing, it's hard to take his supposed apology now very seriously. Apologies, to be sincere, have to be attended by a certain level of remorse. Let me stress that apologies can be sincere even if a person does the same sort of thing again. Many of us have settled values that tell us not to do this or that, but also have bad habits that we haven't figured out how to overcome. We're short-tempered and say things we regret whenever we lose our tempers. Or we have a hard time resisting certain kinds of temptation. When the bad character trait leads us astray, we feel sincerely bad, and so we apologize. Even though we keep doing the same thing over and over, the apology is still an honest one.

But Limbaugh's public abuse of women doesn't seem to fit this model. It's not just that I have no reason to believe he'll stop using his "feminazi" label from this point on. It's not just that I expect him to continue disrespecting the dignity of women (although perhaps a bit less blatantly for awhile, out of fear of driving off advertisers). Rather, it's that I don't think he's genuinely sorry about offending Fluke and women generally. He is sorry about something--but what he's sorry about is that he may have crossed an invisible line that will inspire advertisers to leave his radio show in droves. The apology smells like damage control rather than remorse.

In saying all of this, I'm suggesting something about the nature of Limbaugh's indecency when it comes to women. And what I have in mind can, I think, be helpfully elucidated in terms of Aristotle's distinction between akrasia (or "incontinence") and genuine vice. Both represent failures to be virtuous, but in very different ways. Vice is much more serious--and a look at the evidence suggests that at least when it comes to misogynistic indecency, Limbaugh is not merely akratic but positively vicious.

For Aristotle, you are morally virtuous when your desires are fully in harmony with the dictates "practical wisdom"--a kind of intellectual or rational discernment that can be cultivated, and when cultivated can distinguish between fitting and unfitting desires, can identify when an emotional response is excessive and when it is deficient, etc. For every emotion and desire and appetite, Aristotle thinks there's a fitting expression of it (found in a "mean" between excess and deficiency)--and he thinks a person with practical wisdom can discern what is fitting. You become virtuous when, by developing consistently good habits, you train your emotions and desires and appetites into harmonious alignment with the dictates of practical wisdom. You end up being the kind of person who takes pleasure in what it is fitting to take pleasure in, and who is pained by what it is fitting to be pained by.

Those who are "akratic" are not yet virtuous, but they're not totally cut off from virtue either. When they fail to do what virtue requires, it's because their appetites or desires or emotional impulses get the better of them. To put it simply, what they spontaneously want to do is often at odds with their judgment about what's best. They don't exactly have the "practical wisdom" of a virtuous person--at best their capacity to make sound judgments about what is fitting is underdeveloped. But, to put it in contemporary terms, at least they can discern the rough outlines of right and wrong. The problem is they don't have the will power to resist temptation (or restrain their temper, etc.). And so they do what they know they shouldn't do...and feel bad about it afterwards.

The vicious don't feel bad about it. In fact, they don't judge what they've done to be unfitting at all, because they've completely rejected the whole idea that their inclinations could be unfitting. They don't acknowledge the authority of some rule of practical wisdom by which their impulses and appetites can and should be judged. Instead, they have made their intellects bow before desires that know no master but themselves.

To adapt an analogy used by Aristotle's predecessor, Plato, imagine that a person is like a chariot being pulled by two horses--and the horses are trying to go in different directions. This is the condition of the akratic person. But the akratic person at least recognizes that the "passion horse" should follow the "wisdom horse." And so the akratic person strives to overcome the conflict by training the former to follow the latter. The aim is not to cut the passion horse loose or get it to stop tugging, but to train it so that it lends it strength and power to the cause of wisdom. For Aristotle, we should be passionate people who live our lives passionately--but our passions need to be schooled, and their teacher has to be the cultivated intellect, the intellect that has achieved practical wisdom. If this effort succeeds--so that the two "horses" pull together in a unified and harmonious way--the person is said to be virtuous.

The vicious person, by contrast, has also overcome the battle between the two competing horses--but rather than overcoming the conflict by trying to habituate their passions to reflect what is rationally fitting, the vicious make their reason into the cowering servant of rampant appetites, unconstrained emotions, and disordered desires. Their intellects are left with the job of providing rationalizations for whatever (based on their affective impulses) they happen to want to do.

In short, their intellectual powers have been co-opted and corrupted. While they might exhibit great cleverness, they have lost the wisdom to discern what is good and decent. They take delight in their indecency both during and after the fact, and never bring their intellects to bear on the question of whether what they do really is indecent or not. Rather, their intellects are wholly twisted to the task of justifying whatever aims or practices their affective impulses inspire.

Take, as an example, the telling of racist jokes. I'll assume here without argument that it's unfitting to find amusement in the dehumanization of others based on race. If so, then those who have acquired virtue in this area will not merely disapprove of such jokes on an intellectual level but will find them unfunny. They simply won't be amused by them. If they have an emotional response, it will be something more like indignation. The "akratic," by contrast, may know this isn't something to laugh at--but may have failed to successfully train their emotions accordingly. They'll crack up...and then feel bad about it.

The vicious in this area will be the ones who tell the racist jokes with relish...and then, if challenged, bring all their clever put-downs to bear on the "uptight slaves to political correctness who don't know how to take a joke" (and then quietly turn to the akratic person who spontaneously cracked up and whisper, "Who let in the n*****-lover?"). Even asking the question that's the focus of practical wisdom--"What affective response is the fitting one?"--is perceived by the vicious as a threat to be silenced. For the vicious have made their rampant inclinations the master to which reason must bow--and so cannot stand the idea that there is such a thing as a rationally fitting inclination that a properly cultivated intellect (an intellect that expresses practical wisdom) can discern.

As such, the very existence of the virtuous is a kind of threat. The virtuous are the enemy...while the akratic are identified as potential allies who need to be won over from the enemy. The vicious, like all humans, are social animals. They don't want friends in the full sense that Aristotle develops, but they do want to be viewed with approval. They want a cheering section. My guess is that even the most vicious have not succeeded in wholly silencing the voice of conscience. There is a part of their intellect that still senses hints of the moral truth, and this tiny voice is a threat to their self-definition. The bigger the crowd of admirers and yes men, the more validation they receive for their daring, the easier it is to ignore or fully silence that nagging voice.

And the akratic--being far more numerous than the truly vicious, are the obvious source of such validation. The cleverness of the vicious is often bent above all to the task of winning them over, especially through the use of mockery and derision. If the virtuous can be made to look like fools, that may break the tenuous hold that virtue has on the akratic. The akratic may waver between the quiet voice of conscience and the let's-have-fun wink of the vicious. They may fall under the spell of a vicious person, drawn in by the seductive image of one who indulges rather than resists the unfitting impulse.

When I listen to Rush Limbaugh's verbal assaults on women--vividly characterized in his recent on-air attacks on Fluke--I detect relish. He is indulging in and delighting in the act of sexually objectifying his target. More significantly, he invites his audience to indulge with him without remorse. He ridicules the voice of conscience that questions the fittingness of his impulses. He targets a young woman who has made the courageous act of stepping into the public arena to share her perspective on a controversial political topic. He responds to that courage by calling her a slut and a prostitute on the air--and he sounds practically gleeful as he does it. And when there are those who dare to question the fittingness of indulging these abusive impulses, he calls them "feminazis" and then redoubles his attack on his original target.

This doesn't look like the weak-willed lapse of someone who's akratic. This looks like full-blown misogynistic indecency. It looks like viciousness in the Aristotelian sense. And his apology looks like what the vicious do when they are afraid that they've broken their spell-like hold on the akratic.

I say that Limbaugh sensed he'd crossed a line with his verbal attacks on Fluke, but I don't think the line he noticed himself crossing has anything to do with the level of indecency of his personal verbal attacks. He's been this indecent before. This time, however, the extreme character of his misogyny got out to a wider audience than usual, with the result of jeopardizing his power to keep his akratic followers under his spell.

Think about that foul-mouthed drunk whose obscenities are usually heard mainly by his buddies--akratic friends who can't go as far as he does since they still have a nagging conscience, but who vicariously live out the urge to indulge their darker impulses through him. There are also those who aren't amused, of course, since their inclinations don't go in the same direction--but most of them are akratic when it comes to the virtue of courage, and so instead of standing up to him pretend instead not to have heard.

So we have this vicious drunk who is usually a focus of indulgent fascination and uneasy looking-the-other-way. But then one day he stumbles into a family restaurant on a Sunday, weaving through the after-church crowd, says the same intolerable crap he's always been saying...then vomits all over the mayor's daughter and makes a misogynistic joke about it at her expense. No one can pretend not to have heard it. The friends who usually laugh about it find themselves squirming in embarrassment, not wanting to be associated anymore with what, in their hearts, they've always known wasn't anything to laugh about.

It looks to me as if Limbaugh is apologizing this time around, not because he's been more horrifically misogynistic than usual. It looks to me as if he's apologizing this time around because, instead of spewing on the quiet woman in the bar and making some lewd remark about it to the laughter of his akratic friends, this time he's (metaphorically speaking) spewed on and insulted the mayor's daughter in front of the Sunday brunch crowd...and the guilty pleasure that his akratic friends usually take in his antics has been replaced by squirming embarrassment.

Even the vicious will apologize under those conditions--but what they're sorry about isn't their viciousness. What they're sorry about is that they've jeopardized their capacity to indulge their viciousness with impunity.

Of course, all of this is premised on the assumption that Limbaugh's misogynistic attacks of Fluke really were deeply inappropriate--and that even the vague shadow of practical wisdom possessed by the akratic is sufficient to make that clear. I'm not going to devote a lot of time to making the case for that here. What I will say is this: Some might note that offensive language can sometimes call attention to an important line of argument that might otherwise be ignored, and that in those cases one might be justified in couching the argument in offensive language.

But even if that's true, what Limbaugh did went beyond offensive language. The problem wasn't just with the "word choices" for which he explicitly apologized. Limbaugh singled out a human being, reduced her to a "slut" and a "prostitute," and dismissed her arguments by making them all about her sex life. In short, he sought to dismiss what she had to say about an important social controversy by inviting everyone to view her as nothing but a sex object. Even if there's a legitimate argument hidden amidst this fallacious dismissal of a human being, the fallacious dismissal is intolerable--especially given the broader social context, which is defined by a long history of women being defined in terms of their sexuality, valued primarily as objects of sexual possession, subordinated to men, and raped.

For women, the specter of rape always hangs over sexual objectification, over the aggressive demand to "put out" (in the form of posting sexual videos or in some other way). In a metaphorical sense, Limbaugh was engaged in the very public rape of Sandra Fluke. Even if he had a legitimate argument, that argument couldn't justify what he did.

But there isn't a legitimate argument hidden here. Limbaugh's "case" for calling Fluke a slut and a whore, for demanding that she put out in the form of posting sex videos of herself, was basically this: By speaking in support of a contraception mandate, Fluke was saying that she wanted the public to pay for her to have lots of sex. Apparently, the cost of contraception would be lower if she had less sex, and so health insurance coverage wouldn't be an issue. But if you want people to pay you to have sex, you're a prostitute. And so, according to Limbaugh, the public should get something analogous to a prostitute's services in exchange for paying for her contraception. She should post video footage of her sex life on the internet.

This is a bunch of nonsense in argument form. First of all, one of the main things Fluke sought to testify about is a serious health condition--polycystic ovarian syndrome--that produces chronic ovarian cysts, that is treated with the birth control pill, and whose treatment therefore falls outside the scope of those health insurance plans that don't cover contraceptives. Fluke is a law student at Georgetown--a Catholic affiliated school that refuses to offer health insurance plans that cover the birth control pill. A friend of hers at Georgetown with polycystic ovarian syndrome couldn't afford birth control pills and so stopped treating her condition. The tragic result was the loss of an ovary. Her point is that whatever religious convictions might be in play, there are also genuine public health concerns as well.

Even this point aside, the general public isn't paying for you to have sex if you get prescribed birth control pills by your doctor and your insurance policy covers it. You are paying a monthly premium to the insurance company in exchange for a coverage package. Everyone else who has the same policy is paying a premium for that same coverage package. I suppose one might argue that the premiums for everyone who enroll in a given policy are affected by what the policy covers and doesn't cover, such that if your policy happens to cover birth control pills this might make a marginal difference in what you pay as a premium.

But to equate that with prostitution goes beyond hyperbole. Suppose Joe likes to play tennis in the amateur tennis club in town, but has been having some shoulder problems that make it hard for him to play at the level he's used to. The problems don't interfere with the other activities of his life, but his tennis serve in particular has gotten worse...and so he goes to a doctor who recommends a surgical treatment. Now suppose his health insurance policy covers the surgery. Joe gets the surgery mainly so he can keep playing tennis. Are we paying Joe to play tennis? Does that make Joe a professional tennis player? Of course not.

And of course, the kind of birth control that would fall under health insurance is the sort whose cost is wholly unaffected by how much sex you have. You take the pill regularly whether you have sex twice a day or once a month, because that's the way the pill works. So Limbaugh's emphasis on the scope of Fluke's supposed sex life is a total red herring.

I'm not arguing here that the contraception mandate is uncontroversial, that there aren't difficult issues at stake that make it a complicated issue (although a friend of mine has offered a powerful argument on this issue that I think deserves wider reflection in the debate). My point is that Limbaugh's basis for attacking Fluke is intellectually bankrupt.

And this fact may, I think, be the best reason to conclude that what is on display in Limbaugh's case is genuine viciousness. Limbaugh's words have the form of an argument, but their intellectual vapidity undermines any claim to the effect that he had reasoned his way to a conclusion and then spiced up the presentation of his reasoning with controversial language. His "reasoning" here operates more as an excuse to indulge his urge to engage in misogynistic abuse--or, perhaps better, as a vehicle through which he carries out that urge. This is a case of cleverness put in the service of abusive impulses.

In other words, the very weakness of Limbaugh's arguments underlines the conclusion that Limbaugh is--at least when it comes to the misogynistic abuse of women--in the grip of viciousness. Practical wisdom has been abandoned, and his intellect is put wholly in the service of his inclinations rather than the other way around.

Such viciousness is poisonous. But recent events have brought the poison to light in a way that may not merely reduce Limbaugh's capacity to lure in the akratic, but may actually drive him to a place of social alienation that could force him to change his behavior. If so, another feature of Aristotle's philosophy becomes relevant: Our character is shaped, Aristotle claims, "by like activities." We become virtuous or vicious by behaving in virtuous or vicious ways until they become a habit.

Limbaugh's career has offered him a venue for indulging his misogynistic impulses and has rewarded him for doing so. It is no wonder he has fallen so deeply into vice. He's been encouraged to become who he is. And now he's so far gone that, when the temptation struck him, he couldn't hold himself back from crossing the line. Eventually, vicious drunks stumble into the Sunday brunch crowd to spew vomit and abuse on the mayor's daughter...because viciousness is about casting off the constraints of practical wisdom, and so is inherently hard to constrain.

But now there is an opportunity--one that isn't just good for the rest of us, but for Limbaugh himself. For Aristotle, virtue is the essence of a flourishing life. Limbaugh is a rich man, a self-indulgent man, but a man whose life is full of rage and distress and other poisons. And he stumbled into a career that, rather than encouraging resistance to the darker impulses of his nature, rewarded their indulgence. Perhaps, now, there is hope for him. Perhaps, now, the social forces around him will force a level of restraint that wasn't imposed on him before (and would never come from within at this stage in his life). Perhaps that enforced restraint, if perpetuated long enough, will seep into his character, become habituated. Perhaps this shameful public display of indecency will plant the seeds of Limbaugh's redemption.

Or so we can hope.


  1. Eric,

    Love reading your posts. I have to take a break, digest, then enter into the text again, but your reasoning is a breath of fresh air in a noisy environment filled with pockets of putridity.

    Thank you for applying your philosophical filter to this topic. It is desperately needed.

    I'll be sharing your post.

    Thank you for your thoughtful response,


  2. Hi Eric,

    Something about the blogspot comment system has changed and it is apparently no longer possible to subscribe to email notifications for new comments on a post while using your settings. I've done a quick search and it is still however if you use the “Embedded below post” setting for “Comment form placement (you are using “full page”).

    I don't know about others but I used this all the time and found it very useful – getting new comments through email is much easier and faster than checking the post from time to time to see if anything new has been added. It may even be possible now to subscribe to new comments without posting one, which would be a nice improvement.

  3. JP--Thanks for this. As you can see, I've made the suggested change, which I think may actually be useful in other respects as well (in terms of ease of referring back to the original post while commenting).

  4. Hi Eric

    An excellent and important post. The behavioural model you outline makes for a compelling metaphor, and I found myslef thining how usefully it could be employd in a school setting, when working through behavioural modification programmes with students.

    There's clearly a link between the Limbaugh approach and Santorum's anti-intellectualism, the passionate defence of our essential right to live without having to think too hard. So sad.


  5. This open letter to Rush Limbaugh beautifully captures the gravity of what Limbaugh did when he launched into his personal assault on Fluke--far better than anything else I've read.