Thursday, January 20, 2011

The Detective's Virtues

This post is a contribution to two onging blog threads, the virtue epistemology thread (part 1, part 2 and part 3) and the thread on "Where the Action is: On the Site of the Playful Life".

The joys of parenthood are many. One of parenthood's greatest pleasures is that it provides a parent with the valuable opportunity to re-discover your own childhood (loving and caring for young ones helps keep you feeling young!).

For me, as a father to three young boys, I have re-discovered the joys of trying to learn the piano again, bike riding, playing video games, fishing, just to name a few.

Recently I re-discovered my favourite books from my early youth, when I first started reading (at least reading for fun, not for school or church).

The series was called the Three Investigators. I remember reading my first book, this one, when I was 11 years old. I was instantly hooked. I then purchased and read almost every book in the collection.

For the last quarter of a century my collection of Three Investigator books collected dust. But over the last few months they have come alive again. I introduced these books to my two eldest sons, and starting reading the series to them. And now they are hooked! We try to spend 30 minutes each weeknight reading about the adventures of Jupiter, Pete and Bob. Reliving these stories as an adult, and sharing them with my children, is a special treat.

Reflecting on my attraction to this series of books made me realize something about myself. Almost all of my favourite books and TV shows involved detectives! Another of my favourite book series was Encyclopedia Brown. And my favourite TV shows growing up included Magnum PI, Simon and Simon and Murder She Wrote.

More recently I have fallen in love with Midsomer Murders. And my two "all-time"/"hands down" favourite shows, which I still watch to this day every time I get the chance, are Columbo and this series of Sherlock Holmes. And my kids also love watching these two shows with me.

So what is my attraction to these detective shows and stories? Why do I have such an interest in seeing how the human mind can solve life's mysteries? To be honest I don't know. I just enjoy it. And I never realized how important they have been to my childhood and adulthood until very recently.

In Virtues of the Mind Zagzebski (1996, 114) characterizes the "detective's virtues" as an intellectual virtue. More specifically, she defines this virtue as "thinking of coherent explanations of the facts". The detective's virtues also require the exercise of other intellectual virtues- like the ability to recognize the salient facts and sensitivity to details (perhaps best exemplified by Sherlock Holmes); Intellectual humility (better exemplified by Columbo and Mrs Fletcher than Sherlock Holmes); Intellectual perseverance, diligence, care and thoroughness (traits often demonstrated by Magnum PI); and adaptability of intellect(a trait exemplified by Simon and Simon's ability to take on different identifies, and balance their different temperaments, as circumstances necessitated).

I believe that exposure to, and an appreciation for, the detective's virtues can help enhance our moral and intellectual development in important ways. These virtues extend far beyond obvious instances of the detective's virtues (e.g. Sherlock Holmes solving the mystery of a crime), for they also apply to science (e.g. unlocking the mysteries of our biology), democracy (e.g. unlocking the mystery of phronesis) and love (e.g. unlocking the mystery of human relationships and emotions).

The detective virtues are also important to political theory. I hope to blog about this particular point in detail later.