The Minor in Minor Vices

A central proposition of our work is that the minor vices form a vital element of the machinery of power in a modern ethos. Our use of the term “minor” ranges over an interconnected set of meanings: “We are attempting to make visible and narratable the micro-practices of ethics that are essential to the (mal)function of associations and disciplines. That being said, the response to identifying and highlighting these micro-practices is frequently dismissive: the invoke the "minor" as trivial. This move naturally contributes to the anchoring of the micro-practices.”

1. An outside to the “major” vices: A hallmark of Christian moral theology of the early middle-ages, building on a legacy of critical interaction with the philosophy of late antiquity, was the production of multiple schematic compilations of the so-called “principle” or “cardinal” vices, anchored, most famously, in “seven deadly sins.” These schematics served penitential and pastoral functions insofar as they offered analytic decompositions of the moral physics of life.

2. The decomposition of major vices, priming micro-practices: One limitation of these earlier compilations, whether theological or philosophical, is that the major vices (and their indexical connections to the major virtues) were conceived as synthetic unities, composed of combinations of elements. One aim of our work is to decompose synthetic unities into series of relations in order to test the logic on the basis of which those unities have been synthesized. We have done this by priming places where vices appear as micro-practices.

3. The little everyday things: Vices can be thought of as “minor” insofar as they structure the play of everyday encounters and contribute to the background machinery the everyday life; we take this quotidian play of, and dependency on, the minor vices to be one measure of their significance.

4. Moral failiings for which one *can't* be held to account: In seeming contrast to our analytic attentions, a characteristic feature of a minor vice “in the world” is that it is a vice for which one cannot usually be held to account. The fact that they are seemingly everywhere is taken as a reason to treat them as incidental.

5. The accusation of "trivia": Because the minor vices and their associated micro-practices are held to be incidental for being everywhere, and for not being the major vices, our careful attention to the play of the minor vices brings with it the accusation that we are being petty or trivial and that we need to give attention to the major evils and not let ourselves “bothered” by minor things. The claim that these vices are “minor” is a way of blocking critique, and is basic to the continued operation of the machinery.

1 comment

kevinkarpiak wrote 2 years 46 weeks ago

The Dutch Royal Academy of Sciences: a possible ally?

I have seen no coverage of this process in the English language academic press or blogosphere, until a small note of retraction today from the editors of the journal Ethnos.  It appears that, after a lengthy investigation of the cumulative ouvre of Dutch anthropologist M.M.G. (Mart) Bax, he has been deemed guilty of long-standing and persistent scientific misconduct on several fronts.  You can find out more about the allegations, process of inquiry, conclusions of the committee and consequences here.

One passage in particular struck me as relevant for the discussion here:

In connection with the report into the scientific fraud committed by Diederik Stapel, Pim Levelt has said that an assessment of scientific conduct is concerned not only with fraud, but also more ‘minor’ irregularities, such the omission of unwelcome results, carelessness and vagueness (Levelt 2012b).  André Köbben (2012) proposed in an address to the Dutch Royal Academy of Sciences (KNAW) in connection with the same matter, that a distinction be made between ‘deadly sins’ and ‘everyday sins’. His argument was that “the cumulative effect of minor deception does more harm to science than spectacular major deception”. The KNAW report Zorgvuldig en integer (With due care and integrity), finally, pointed out that ‘due care’ in pursuit of scholarship is a matter of degree (from exemplary to careless), but that integrity is sharply defined in our use of language. In a certain sense, there can also be said to be degrees of integrity: “There is a threshold beyond which integrity is damaged, and people speak of scientific fraud” (2012: 11).

Perhaps this seredipity requires more reflection?


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