Patience is the Heart of Ethics, Says University of Arkansas Philosopher

Irene McMullin, assistant professor of philosophy, University of Arkansas
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Irene McMullin, assistant professor of philosophy, University of Arkansas

FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. — While fidgety children may be told that “patience is a virtue,” a University of Arkansas philosopher has found patience to be much more profound than simple, passive waiting. Rather, patience is “the living heart of ethics.”

In a presentation on Nov. 8 to the Society for Phenomenology and Existential Philosophy, Irene McMullin discussed patience as a “neglected virtue,” little examined by philosophy or society at large.

“I call patience a neglected virtue because we don’t value it as much as courage or generosity because it involves a withholding of self,” McMullin said. “In business, for example, we don’t recognize good management as patient, such as when a manager steps back and lets others be part of the creative process.”

The self-restraint specific to patience is specifically oriented to the other person’s “agency” or ability to act. McMullin uses an example of letting her young nephew take his time tying his shoelaces. She holds herself back from doing the task for him. Her restraint is characterized by “a hovering attentiveness, a silent co-willing, an expressive encouragement and recognition of his struggle.” While she wants the laces to be tied, her attitude is directed not to the goal of tied laces, but primarily toward her nephew’s achievement of the goal. This type of attitude involves both a willingness to share one’s time with the other person and an acknowledgement of the limits of human agency.

“In patience, I share an orientation to the other’s future that is attentive to the struggle involved in its accomplishment,” McMullin said.

She contrasted patience with impatience, which can include an element of contempt for another person’s abilities or a refusal to acknowledge the awkwardness and difficulties of so many human activities. McMullin called impatience “a type of rage in the face of human finitude.”

The impatient person — the person who taps a foot while someone else negotiates the ATM instructions — communicates a sense of being offended, even wronged, by the failures of others and the necessity of sharing time with them. In a sense, the very fact that the other person is in the world takes away from the impatient person.

McMullin distinguished patience from tolerance.

“When I tolerate someone, I do not share the drama and meaning of his struggle,” McMullin said. “Though tolerance is an important and necessary part of shared public life, patience involves a deeper form of recognition and accommodation of the other’s presence as an individual struggling to act in the world.”

McMullin observed that in patience, a person subordinates his or her own wishes and goals to another’s future, sometimes a future they will never share. An individual practicing tolerance simply waits for the completion of activity — for the other person to walk away from the ATM, for instance. In contrast, the patient individual encourages the other person to take the time necessary for successful completion.

“Though we may not be able to characterize patience as a 'heroic’ virtue, the ability to accommodate and forgive the limits of human agency in its struggle for self-expression is the bedrock of our public life,” McMullin said.

McMullin’s analysis of patience is part of a larger project aimed at showing everyday ways people acknowledge the “personhood” of those around us. She is an assistant professor of philosophy in the J. William Fulbright College of Arts and Sciences at the University of Arkansas.

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