Skip to main content

(This post is part of a series on Shane Clifton’s book Crippled Grace. Earlier post on chapter 1 can be found here, chapter 2 can be found here., and chapters 3 and 4 here. This post is on chapter 5.)

In this chapter, Clifton aims to bring the virtue tradition and psychology–especially the subfield known as ‘positive psychology’–into dialogue to see how they relate to his account of disability and flourishing. Clifton admits that while “the findings of the psychological and behavioral sciences are not the standard fodder of theological and ethical reflection, … engaging them invariably aids the virtue tradition and religious faith as both contribute to the flourishing of people with disabilities” (95). I share both Clifton’s motivation and his conclusion; but I think some of the reasoning in this chapter is weak.

I think that careful attention the relevant sciences—not just psychology, but also neurology, biology, etc…—can help us better understand disability and virtue. Elsewhere, I’ve endorsed what I call the ‘Principle of Minimal Agential Realism’, which I define as follows:

Make sure, when constructing a theory of agency [or virtue], that the kinds of powers, capacities, and outputs posited by that theory could, for all we know, be had by us.

Most fundamentally, Clifton thinks that those with disabilities can flourish. I agree, though I think that some (but certainly not all) disabilities can make it (intrinsically) harder to flourish (see the discussion here). And I agree with Clifton that “a virtue-based account of happiness [is] relevant to living well with a disability” (15).

The challenge, though, is how we get from that motivation to support for that conclusion. And it is here that I think there are two problems with Clifton’s approach.

Much of the psychological literature that Clifton draws on means something very different that he does by ‘happiness’ or ‘the good life’. In order to align with the historical virtue tradition and Christian theology, Clifton needs to be working with an objective account of these concepts. But nearly all of contemporary psychology approaches happiness in terms of ‘subjective well-being’. The good life is seen as one that the agent evaluates as meaningful and gratifying, without making objective moral evaluation of its components. So, for instance, Clifton’s discussion of hedonic adaption is interesting; but notice that it doesn’t evaluate (as the virtue of temperance requires that we do) the pleasure involved.

Clifton is aware of this distinction. He writes that “we need to clarify the various ways in which the psychological sciences conceive of and measure happiness” (97), citing the difference between objective and subjective accounts of happiness as one such clarification. But I don’t think he pays careful enough attention to this distinction throughout; for if what a person is reporting about their happiness is objectively bad, then their subjective evaluation of its influence on their flourishing will be wrong. The virtue tradition does think that subjective elements play a role in happiness; but their indirect or secondary to virtuous activity.P

2. Problems for positive psychology
My second concern is related to the first. Clifton also draws on positive psychology, an approach marked by “a shift of focus … away from psychological deficits, and toward the nurturing of happiness and strength” (100). But positive psychology doesn’t want to take a firm stand on what the objective conditions for flourishing are. Eudaimonia isn’t just found in the “pursuit of transcendent meaning” (101). It is, for Aristotle and Aquinas, found in perfectly fulfilling the telos for all humans that results from their fundamental ontology (the formal cause specifies the final cause). And Craig Steven Titus and Christian Miller have raised significant methodological concerns about positive psychology that so far have gone unanswered.

One can’t simply measure positive and negative affect without knowing if those affects are apt. Granted, Clifton admits this at one point:

The strength of the psychological studies on positive emotion is their focus on subjective well-being, but that also is their limitation. Missing is the moral role of emotions, the extant to which our emotional intuitions, whether rational or irrational, just or unjust, predominately positive or negative, inform our ethical horizons and actions. (105)

But his treatment doesn’t incorporate this admission enough.

Leave a Reply