Today: Stream Candace Vogler’s interview on “Positivity Matters”


“Translating wellbeing research into positive community experiences.”

Nick Hernandez will interview Candace Vogler at 11:30 am central time today, March 19 on KZUM Community Matters for the program “Positivity Matters”.

Stream the talk here.



Candace Vogler is the David B. and Clara E. Stern Professor of Philosophy and Professor in the College at the University of Chicago, and a Principal Investigator for the project Virtue, Happiness, & the Meaning of Life.  She has authored two books, John Stuart Mill’s Deliberative Landscape: An essay in moral psychology (Routledge, 2001) and Reasonably Vicious (Harvard University Press, 2002), and essays in ethics, social and political philosophy, philosophy and literature, cinema, psychoanalysis, gender studies, sexuality studies, and other areas.  Her research interests are in practical philosophy (particularly the strand of work in moral philosophy indebted to Elizabeth Anscombe), practical reason, Kant’s ethics, Marx, and neo-Aristotelian naturalism.

A stairway to heaven: A terror management theory perspective on morality

Congratulations to our Summer Session 2017 participant Andrea Yetzer, PhD student in Psychology at Northwestern University. She’s written a chapter for “Atlas of moral psychology,” out now from Guilford Press.
This chapter views moral values, judgment, and behavior from the framework of terror management theory (Solomon, Greenberg, & Pyszczynski, 1991, 2015). Terror management theory posits that as cultural animals, we seek to achieve the behavioral standards set forth by our cultural worldviews, from which we derive both self-worth and meaning, as they ultimately protect us from the anxiety aroused by thoughts of our own eventual death. From a terror management perspective, individuals care about living up to moral values because doing so enables them to view themselves as enduring, significant contributors to a meaningful world who will continue to exist after death–either literally by qualifying for an afterlife, or symbolically by contributing to something greater than themselves that will last forever.
Yetzer, A. M., Pyszczynski, T., & Greenberg, J. (2018). A stairway to heaven: A terror management theory perspective on morality. In K. Gray & J. Graham (Eds.), Atlas of moral psychology (pp. 241-251). New York: Guilford Press.

Podcast: “Redemptive love and comic mercy in the short stories of Flannery O’Connor” | Sacred & Profane Love

In Episode 1 of the podcast Sacred & Profane Love, philosopher Jennifer A. Frey has a conversation with the Thomist theologian, Father Thomas Joseph White, O.P., about Aquinas on grace and charity, and how Thomistic concepts of grace and charity operate in the short stories of Flannery O’Connor. The episode covers themes of grace, redemption, the comic unveiling of the human person to itself, and the violence of Divine Love as a necessary antidote to human folly and brokenness.


Works under discussion in Episode 1:
Flannery O’Connor: “A Good Man is Hard to Find,””Greenleaf,” “Revelation,” “The Enduring Chill”
Thomas Aquinas:  ST I-II q. 26-28 and ST III, q. 60, q. 64-65

Thomas Joseph White, O.P. completed his doctoral studies in theology at Oxford University, and entered the Order of Preachers in 2003. His research and teaching have focused particularly on topics related to Thomistic metaphysics and Christology as well as Roman Catholic-Reformed ecumenical dialogue. He is the author of Wisdom in the Face of Modernity: A Study in Thomistic Natural Theology (Sapientia Press, 2009), The Incarnate Lord: A Thomistic Study in Christology (The Catholic University of America Press, 2015), and Exodus (Brazos Press, 2016). He has edited several books, and is co-editor of the theological journal Nova et Vetera (English edition). In 2011 he was appointed an ordinary member of the Pontifical Academy of St. Thomas Aquinas.


Jennifer A. Frey is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at the University of South Carolina.  Prior to joining the philosophy faculty at USC, she was a Collegiate Assistant Professor of Humanities at the University of Chicago, where she was a member of the Society of Fellows in the Liberal Arts and an affiliated faculty in the philosophy department.  She earned her PhD in philosophy at the University of Pittsburgh, and her B.A. in Philosophy and Medieval Studies (with Classics minor) at Indiana University-Bloomington. Her research lies at the intersection of philosophy of action and ethics, with a particular focus on the Aristotelian-Thomist tradition.

Episode 2: “Transfiguring love in The Brothers Karamazov” with David McPherson

Sacred and Profane Love is a podcast in which philosophers, theologians, and literary critics discuss some of their favorite works of literature, and how these works have shaped their own ideas about love, happiness, and meaning in human life. Host Jennifer A. Frey is A Assistant Professor of Philosophy at the University of South Carolina and co-Principal Investigator at Virtue, Happiness, and the Meaning of Life.

This podcast is a project of Virtue, Happiness, & the Meaning of Life, and is made possible through a generous grant from the John Templeton Foundation.

Content copyright the University of South Carolina and the University of Chicago.

 Music credits, “Help me Somebody,” by Brian Eno and David Byrne, licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.5.

March 19: Save the date to hear Candace Vogler on “Positivity Matters”


“Translating wellbeing research into positive community experiences.”

Nick Hernandez will interview Candace Vogler at 11:30 am on March 19 on KZUM Community Matters for the program “Positivity Matters”. Stream the talk here.

Podcasts of past episodes: 


Candace Vogler is the David B. and Clara E. Stern Professor of Philosophy and Professor in the College at the University of Chicago, and a Principal Investigator for the project Virtue, Happiness, & the Meaning of Life.  She has authored two books, John Stuart Mill’s Deliberative Landscape: An essay in moral psychology (Routledge, 2001) and Reasonably Vicious (Harvard University Press, 2002), and essays in ethics, social and political philosophy, philosophy and literature, cinema, psychoanalysis, gender studies, sexuality studies, and other areas.  Her research interests are in practical philosophy (particularly the strand of work in moral philosophy indebted to Elizabeth Anscombe), practical reason, Kant’s ethics, Marx, and neo-Aristotelian naturalism.

4 Philosophy Professors Weigh In on The Good Place

This article was originally published in POPSUGAR on February 28, 2018. LINK

Kristen Bell as Eleanor, William Jackson Harper as Chidi, and Ted Danson as Michael.

There’s a scene in the second season of The Good Place where, in order to illustrate the classic moral dilemma known as The Trolley Problem, the characters are forced to live it. The famous thought experiment, which asks different variations of whether you would steer an unstoppable trolley into one person to avoid killing five, has long been a go-to for ethics scholars — but watching the show’s hilariously gory take on it brought the lesson to life in a way Agnes Callard, an associate professor of philosophy at the University of Chicago, hadn’t considered before. “There’s something very violent about the thought experiment itself, like, we’re asking them to imagine murdering people,” Callard told POPSUGAR. “And the show just takes that really seriously, like, ‘OK, let’s really imagine it.'”


It’s just one of the ways tuning into the NBC sitcom has been a fun first for philosophy and ethics professors like Callard, who aren’t used to seeing their area of expertise at the center of a hit network comedy. Callard and the three other philosophy professors/The Good Place fans we talked to said that while pop culture has always reflected on philosophical themes, they don’t remember a show or movie ever examining specific theories and works this explicitly. The little Easter eggs creator Michael Schur has included in the series so far go beyond sneaky references to the Parks and Recuniverse. There are plenty of nods to the world of academic philosophy, too. Season one introduced the show’s philosophical foundation by way of actual mini lectures on how to be a good person from ethics professor Chidi (William Jackson Harper). But after the just-finished season two’s even deeper dive into questions of what it means to be good, the real-life philosophers said they can’t wait for season three.


Back in the fall of 2015, UCLA ethics professor Pamela Hieronymi says she got an email from Schur asking if she would be willing to discuss some ideas he had for a new project. “He wanted to pick my brain about ethics,” Hieronymi told POPSUGAR. “And I think that’s because he saw a paper on my website that sounded like the issues he was interested in about the motives for becoming a better person and whether it’s possible to become a better person.” The two spent about three hours chatting over coffee, Hieronymi said. About a year later, she spotted a billboard for The Good Place. After reaching back out to Schur to congratulate him, Hieronymi has occasionally served as a philosophical sounding board for the show’s writers, even visiting the studio at one point to teach them about The Trolley Problem and other lessons.


“The philosophy is working at two levels,” Hieronymi said of the show, which she’s watched from the beginning. “So, there’s the obvious level where Chidi is giving little lessons and namedropping both classic philosophers like Plato and Aristotle and Kierkegaard and contemporary philosophers, which is really kind of wild . . . but then there’s the actual more serious exploration of those issues that are taking place in the story line and with the characters.” Though the show is set in the afterlife — a topic that’s been examined by philosophers for centuries — all four professors said they don’t really see it as being about heaven or hell. Instead it’s about the kinds of questions philosophy aims to answer: What makes someone good or bad? What matters? How should we treat other people?


That last question comes up a lot, specifically in references to philosopher T.M. Scanlon’s book What We Owe to Each Other” (it’s even part of the clue to help Eleanor and Chidi reconnect after the season one twist). The idea that the show uses modern-day philosophers like Scanlon, a professor emeritus at Harvard, has been especially exciting for fans in the academic community. Jason Bridges, an associate professor at the University of Chicago who specializes in the philosophy of action and the philosophy of the mind, studied under Scanlon, and said that specificity has been one of the highlights of watching the show. “Certainly I’ve never seen a show where books that are on my shelf, and not just classic works, recent works of philosophical ethics, keep popping up as props,” Bridges said to POPSUGAR.


Seeing the life of an ethics professor on the small screen is another treat, according to the professors, but they had mixed feelings on whether they identified with the neurotic Chidi. Bridges said he likes the character but doesn’t see a big connection between Chidi’s neuroses and his interest in philosophy (though he did admit “moral philosophers may be more prone to stomachaches than the average person.”). Callard, too, said the portrayal of Chidi as being nerdy and boring doesn’t represent the philosophers she knows. (“I much more identify with Eleanor,” Callard said.) But fellow University of Chicago professor Candace Vogler said the idea of a philosopher “actually taking ordinary choices fairly seriously” is familiar. And Hieronymi said she has seen other philosophy professors post joking warnings on Facebook for colleagues to strive not to be like Chidi. “The indecisiveness is a real phenomena,” Hieronymi said. No one took offense at the show’s running joke that everyone hates moral philosophy professors. Chidi’s portrayal also just gives average viewers a playful peek into the world of a philosophy academic, Hieronymi said. “This show is more of what [The] Big Bang [Theory] was for science graduate students.”


For viewers who’ve never taken a philosophy class, the professors agreed that the show is giving the field some potentially valuable exposure, even if Eleanor does complain about her ethics lessons being boring. Vogler said she’s recommended The Good Place to introductory-level students. Hieronymi’s heard about other professors using the show itself as a teaching tool. Though Callard, Hieronymi, Bridges, and Vogler recognize that Chidi’s teachings are extreme simplifications of the complicated, nuanced theories they teach, and some of them had picked up on small issues (Vogler wasn’t a fan of Chidi’s reading of Kant, for example), the bigger-picture questions the characters address show that philosophical thinking can be practical — and compelling — for everyone. “Philosophy seems like a rarified thing to study,” Bridges said. “It seems like perhaps an impractical thing to major in, but what it does, if you study it, is cultivate ways of thinking and writing and communicating that are of general value and of use to a whole range of careers and human endeavors, and so this show helps illustrate that.”


Bridges says he thinks the topic of free will would be a no-brainer for season three, which we can maybe expect in the Fall. Hieronymi would be interested in seeing the show dig deeper into the timely issue of people getting defensive and having trouble taking constructive criticism about their actions. Whatever direction the show’s writers take, the professors said they’ve loved seeing the creative team take the public’s growing interest in self-reflection and run with it in such imaginative, accessible ways.


“Just the fact that the central problem for the characters is to try to figure out how to be better people and the thought that selfishness and narcissism are huge obstacles that people have to overcome in order to become better people,” Vogler said. “That’s profound.”


View of basalt stack Hvitserkur at Vatnsnes peninsula

A few months ago I participated in a conference centered on the theme of humility at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. And ever since I have been thinking a lot about humility, its nature as a virtue, its problematic tendencies. One the one hand I do feel, as I’m sure a lot of us do, that humility is rather under-valued—not to mention difficult to find—in American life today. On the other hand I suppose I am enough of a Nietzschean to feel that there is something a bit off-putting about this alleged virtue. (Or perhaps a Humean – it was Hume, after all, who famously disparaged humility as a “monkish virtue.”)  Doesn’t humility involve putting ourselves down? Doesn’t it conflict with pride, and with confidence, both of which, surely, do have some positive value, at least when appropriately felt and expressed? Moreover, doesn’t humility involve pretending to think worse of ourselves than we really do, thus committing us to dishonesty and insincerity?


Perhaps I find humility particularly perplexing because the first person I think of when I think about humility is Socrates, and in particular the Socrates of Plato’s Apology. The Apology, as I read it, is all about humility, and in particular about intellectual humility. Of course, it is also about courage. Socrates displays a magnificent courage throughout that dialogue; he stands firm against his accusers, indeed he achieves a majestic role reversal, becoming the accuser of his accusers, putting on trial those who have brought him to trial. He so mercilessly goads the Athenian jury that he practically forces them not only to convict him but to condemn him to death, even as it is obvious that there were a great many things he could have done—falling on his knees and begging for mercy, promising never to practice philosophy again, proposing exile as a penalty during the sentencing phase—that would have saved his life. Socrates’ own explanation of his courage—and this, really, is the heart of the Apology—is that it is grounded in humility. He does not fear death, because he is humble enough not to pretend to know what he does not know; not knowing what death is, or whether it is a good or a bad thing, he thinks it not only unreasonable but unvirtuous to fear it. (He shows his humility in other ways, too. In particular, contrary to the claims of his accusers, he refrains from asserting grand metaphysical claims about the nature of the universe and such. How would he know such things? In this, it is worth noting, he differs greatly from the Socrates of Plato’s later dialogues, who—serving as Plato’s mouthpiece—is happy to assert sweeping and speculative metaphysical positions.)


Socrates’ complaints against his accusers, and indeed against the Athenians in general, are more than anything else directed toward their lack of humility, their insistence that they understand things they clearly do not understand. Socrates has spent his life exposing such pretenders (and thereby made a lot of enemies). He points out that the Athenians as a whole spend little time or energy on self-reflection, let alone self-criticism. They have settled for a deeply inadequate theory of the good life, one that focuses on reputation and worldly wealth and neglects both inquiry and virtue. They act as if they possess a fully adequate understanding what it was to live a good human life; yet—as is so easily demonstrated—they have given barely any thought to that matter at all, and all they have to offer on the subject are banal clichés.


The thing is, though, that the Socrates of Plato’s Apology does not strike us as a humble man. He is prideful. Indeed, he is arrogant. He goads the Athenians, and he looks down on them. He tells them that no one has served the city as well as he, that they will likely never find a man as good as him to replace him, that a fitting “punishment” for his lifetime of service to Athens would be to be feted in the Prytaneum. His so-called “human wisdom” consists in his knowing how little he knows; but he accepts the claim of the Oracle at Delphi that, precisely because he knows how little he knows, he is the wisest man in Athens. And it is clear both that he takes great pride in this and that he holds his fellow Athenians in a certain degree of contempt.


I find this combination of humility and arrogance—a combination where the two seem not merely to exist side by side (human beings are complex, as we know, and can contain multitudes), but to be intimately linked—quite fascinating. And every once in a while I come across another example of what seems to me the same combination. Nietzsche, at times, seems to exhibit it. My favorite contemporary example is the novelist John Banville. In an interview with the Paris Review,[1]  Banville was asked, “Do you really hate your own novels?.” He responded, “Yes! I hate them. I mean that. Nobody believes me, but it’s true. They’re an embarrassment and a deep source of shame. They’re better than everybody else’s, of course, but not good enough for me.”


Perhaps Banville was simply making a joke. I don’t think so. I think he meant what he said, that while he was probably exaggerating a bit for effect—I am not convinced that Banville truly believes his novels are better than those of any other contemporary writer—he was being, for the most part, sincere. I would say, too, that he is one of the few contemporary writers who could get away with saying such a thing. He is a brilliant writer. And it matters, in this context, that he is a brilliant writer, because the remark, made by any lesser artist, would not mean the same thing and would not be interesting at all. It would be an expression of misguided arrogance, and nothing more. Whereas, coming from John Banville, the statement seems to represent something quite different: a sincere attempt to come to grips with the recognition that a given body of work might simultaneously be, on the one hand, among the best that is being produced, and on the other hand, deeply disappointing.


But isn’t it arrogant to be disappointed in what one acknowledges to be the best there is, to hold oneself up to inhuman, godlike standards? Isn’t this, in itself, really just an indirect way of complimenting oneself, of saying, I believe myself to be capable of such greatness that I hold myself to standards the rest of you could not possibly aspire to, perhaps could not even conceive. When Banville says that his novels are “not good enough for me,” the clear implication is that they would be good enough for the rest of us—isn’t it?


Perhaps, though, this is to focus in the wrong place. Perhaps Banville’s dissatisfaction with his own work is not so much a reflection of his view of his own capabilities, but rather a principled dissatisfaction, the kind of determination that moves even the greatest artists—and, perhaps, the most admirable moral saints—to be unsatisfied with what they have done, no matter how impressive it is. Perhaps it is what moves them to keep trying to achieve on a completely different, even unprecedented level. (Many notable altruists, too, have been profoundly dissatisfied with their contributions to the world, despite the fact that they have sacrificed and accomplished far more than the rest of us.) Viewing things from this angle may encourage us to adjust the way we think about humility, to think of it as being naturally and directly opposed not so much to pride, or even arrogance, but rather to complacency. We might take a view, that is, that resists defining humility as having a low assessment of oneself and one’s abilities, or anything of the sort, but rather equates it with a tendency to be, as a matter of principle, perpetually unsatisfied with oneself and one’s abilities, and to be committed to developing and improving them.


One way to fail to be humble, then is to be fully satisfied, to the point of complacency, with oneself as one is: to feel that one has achieved enough, has contributed enough, has achieved a sufficiently comprehensive and sophisticated understanding of the world, etc. (This, again, is the failing Socrates sees everywhere around him in Athens; if we look, we may find it everywhere around us, and inside us, as well.) Exhibiting this kind of humility seems fully compatible with holding a realistic assessment of one’s own achievements—even if you happen to be a genius or a saint, a John Banville or a Socrates. It does not require arrogance; it may, indeed, undermine arrogance, and whether or not it does so it will surely help prevent one of arrogance’s most harmful effects, which is to encourage us to so love ourselves as we are that we become reluctant to admit that we might sometimes be wrong or that it is possible for us to improve and important that we do.


As someone who works in higher education, thinking about humility in this way not only helps me appreciate its value, it helps me appreciate how endangered it is in our current cultural environment. Students need a sense of the world’s vastness and complexity, a sense of how much there is for them to learn, if they are to prosper in university. Without this sense they will miss the fact that university is a site for exploration, a place that offers myriad possibilities for becoming a fuller, more complete person, and a place at which their goals and desires can not only be sharpened and deepened, but altogether altered, perhaps even discarded in favor of new and better goals and desires. But the dominant model of education, and of American life, does not encourage such a sense. Rather, students often arrive at university with a set of pre-established goals they are rigidly committed to, deeply inclined to discount the possibility that they might learn there something that will reshape their sense of who they are and what they might want out of life. Approaching the university as consumers—which is how today’s university administrators for the most part seem to think of them—they are seeking not self-improvement or self-development, but a well-defined product to fit into a pre-defined and often shallowly conceived slot.


Many incoming university students, moreover, tend to have absorbed an attitude of radical egalitarian neutrality that has led them to think not only that everything they might study and pursue at university is equally valuable (so long, that is, as it contributes to their career goals) but also that all views and opinions are equally valid, regardless of why one accepts them or what one has to offer in support of them. Indeed, a great many people in our society suffer from this, both inside and outside the university. It is difficult for people who have accepted such attitudes to believe that they have anything to learn at university – or, for that matter, anything to learn from open conversations with their fellow citizens, or by reading newspapers whose viewpoints they are not guaranteed already to agree with. It is difficult, in such an environment, for people to take seriously the idea that their beliefs, and their ways of forming and evaluating beliefs, might be improved—and, in particular, improved by encounters with people who come from different backgrounds or have different commitments and beliefs. What recognizing this requires is, precisely, a certain sort of of humility. It would be good for us to find ways of teaching and encouraging this kind of humility, because the fact that it is in such short supply is, it seems to me, a major contributor to bleakness of the situation we find ourselves in today.



Troy Jollimore holds a PhD in Philosophy from Princeton and currently teaches at California State University, Chico. He is the author of three books of philosophy, including Love’s Vision and On Loyalty.   He is also the author of three collections of poetry: At Lake Scugog, Tom Thomson in Purgatory, which won the National Book Critics Circle Award for poetry, and Syllabus of Errors.  He has received fellowships from the Stanford Humanities Center, the Bread Loaf Writers Conference, and the Guggenheim Foundation.

Dynamics of Living Aspirations

Human life in all forms of communal existence can only be understood through a clear grasp of the dynamics of human aspirations. They are the missing link between human creativity and socio-cultural processes of transforming and enriching life. In this lecture, sponsored by the Living Aspirations project at the Neubauer Collegium, Visiting Fellow Günter Thomas (Ruhr-University Bochum) will look at three dynamics of living aspirations. How do living aspirations emerge and why are they a practice of freedom? How are aspirations embedded in our natural environments, and how are they embodied in our social and our built environments like urban spaces and architecture? What are the media for communicating aspirations? In exploring these dynamics, the lecture will shed light not only on the purpose of higher education but also on new and surprising avenues of collaborative research across disciplinary divides.



This project will support the Visiting Fellowship of Günter Thomas from Ruhr-University Bochum. In collaboration with William Schweiker (Divinity), Thomas will explore the place of aspirations from the vantage point of moral philosophy, religious thought, and socio-cultural analysis. The project takes it as intuitively the case that one of the most profound characteristics of human beings is to seek to realize their aspirations in actual life. The experience of aspirations coming alive, really motivating thought and action, is the starting point of all social, religious, and academic creativity. The project will consider aspirations as the key missing link, under-examined in current thought, between human creativity and social and cultural processes of transforming and enriching life. The project raises three fundamental questions: (1) How and under what conditions do human aspirations become powerful drivers of innovation in culture, religion, the sciences, and society?; (2) What are the conditions that endanger human aspirations from motivating thought and action for the sake of enhancing life?; and (3) How do we distinguish between aspirations that are destructive of human life from those aspirations that respect and enhance life?

Image: Tom Friedman, Looking Up (2015) © Tom Friedman. Courtesy of the artist, Luhring Augustine, New York, and Stephen Friedman Gallery, London.