Podcast: Elena Ferrante on Friendship and the Intellectual Life | Sacred & Profane Love

Download Episode 6: Elena Ferrante on Friendship and the Intellectual Life

 In Episode 6 of Sacred & Profane Love, Professor Jennifer A. Frey (University of South Carolina) has a conversation with Zena Hitz (St. John’s College) about friendship, the intellectual life, and the virtue of seriousness in Elena Ferrante’s Neopolitan novels.  This episode explores how the cultivation of an inner life through contemplation–i.e., seeing, understanding, and savoring things as they are–allows us to enter into a deep and meaningful communion with other human persons.

Ferrante novels: https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/26828169-the-neapolitan-novels

Zena Hitz is a Tutor at St. John’s College where she teaches across the liberal arts.  She writes in defense of intellectual activity for its own sake, as against its use for economic or political goals.  She is currently writing a book on intellectual life and why it matters for Princeton University Press, based on essays that have appeared in First ThingsModern Age, and The Washington Post.  Her scholarly work has focused on the political thought of Plato and Aristotle, especially the question of how law cultivates or fails to cultivate human excellence.  She received an MPhil in Classics from Cambridge and studied Social Thought and Philosophy at the University of Chicago before finishing her PhD in Philosophy at Princeton.

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.

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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.

Podcast: “Eros and Ecstasy” | Sacred & Profane Love

Download Episode 5: Talbot Brewer on Eros and Ecstasy

In Episode 5 of Sacred & Profane Love, Professor Jennifer A. Frey (University of South Carolina) discusses the erotic impulse and experience with Professor of philosophy Talbot Brewer (University of Virginia).  This discussion explores how eros draws us out of ourselves into a kind of ecstatic union with a beloved–a union whose power over us comes from its potential to give birth to something greater and more beautiful than one’s present self.
Detail from a portrait of a young woman – from a fresco from Pompeii – thought to be Sappho. Via Museo Archeologico Nazionale (Naples) via Wikimedia Commons.
Talbot Brewer is Professor of Philosophy and Chair of the Philosophy Department at the University of Virginia. He specializes in ethics and political philosophy, with particular attention to moral psychology and Aristotelian ethics.  He is the author of numerous essays, including “Reflections on the Cultural Commons” (in Nestor García, ed, Being Human in a Consumerist Society, 2014), “Two Pictures of Practical Thinking” (in Jost and Wuerth, eds, Perfecting Virtue, 2011), “Is Welfare an Independent Good?” (Social Philosophy & Policy 26, 2009), “Three Dogmas of Desire” (in Chappell, ed, Values and Virtues, 2007), “Virtues We Can Share: A Reading of Aristotle’s Ethics” (Ethics 115, 2005), “Two Kinds of Commitments (And Two Kinds of Social Groups)” (Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 66, 2003), and “Maxims and Virtues” (The Philosophical Review 3, 2002). He has been a visiting professor in the Harvard University Philosophy Department and has authored two books, the most recent of which is The Retrieval of Ethics (Oxford University Press, 2009).  He is currently at work on two books, one on Aristotelian action theory and its intersection with ethics, and another on a phenomenon that he calls “tragedies of the cultural commons”.
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.

 Subscribe

Preview on iTunes

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.

Happiness – reflection on the 2017 summer seminar

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“Virtue, Happiness, & Self-Transcendence”2017 Summer Seminar Participants (from left) Elise Murray, Molly Ogunyemi, Timothy Reilly, at the University of Chicago’s Neaubauer Collegium.

When I sent in my application to be a part of the Virtue, Happiness, & the Self-Transcendence seminar, I was certain that I would benefit from participating but I was not quite sure how much. Now, after the experience, I am really glad that I was part of it. I found it intellectually stimulating and very helpful. I learnt a lot from everyone. The keynote speakers and other participants were ready to discuss my research topics and the discussions that I had with them gave insights for developing my work both as a lecturer and as an early career researcher. For example, Professor Candace Vogler gave me wonderful suggestions for improving my teaching, and I have been able to apply some of them in my classes in Lagos.  In addition, the discussions in the sessions helped me to gain a deeper understanding of the topics of virtue and happiness. I learnt a lot from the interactions between the scholars. Those discussions I had with everyone made me want to study more and understand these topics better.

 

After the seminar, I came up with questions I emailed to the scholars I met in the seminar. I have been pondering over the themes of the discussions since the summer ended, and some more questions come up in my mind when I reflect on my experience from the seminar. The seminar reinforced my interest in interdisciplinary research work and the discussions and the subsequent emails from the participants, (e.g. Dan P McAdams, Timothy Reilly) gave me ideas for future directions in my research.

 

One of such questions was about the evolution and development of the self and how to interpret and integrate information, research results and ideas from psychology and the humanities while trying to understand human life. The discussion that I had with Tim and Maureen during the seminar and the emails afterwards, were really helpful. They suggested looking at the topic from the perspective of developmental psychology, while seeking themes that may be congruent with philosophical frameworks of the good life. I would like to explore these topics in future research.

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Philosopher Stephen Brock chats with Molly Ogunyemi at the 2017 Summer Seminar “Virtue, Happiness, & Self-Transcendence”.

What was the best part of the experience?

I think that the best part of the experience for me was being able to reflect about a topic that the participants and keynote speakers had explored from different perspectives. The scholars from the different fields gave a deeper understanding of the same topics in different lights, and I found it very interesting to see some of the different perspectives and views across fields and to see their commonalities identifiable from the discussions. Oftentimes, scholars from different fields use the same words to describe concepts that are similar and one can think that different fields are referring to the same concepts and content. However, the use of the same terminology may carry different connotations or meanings. Even while studying a concept within the same field, the depth of the meaning attributed to a specific concept may differ significantly. For example, I discovered that narrative psychologist’s concept of virtue is understood quite differently from what I thought I understood from my personal study of psychology. I discovered that the relationship between virtue and the ultimate good for human beings which is clear within classical Aristotelian philosophy ought not to be imposed on psychology’s notion of virtues. Even though both fields use the same words for similar concepts of habits which foster human flourishing and wellbeing, the Aristotelian concept of virtue is tightly linked to the ultimate good of the person found with the best use of his highest faculties, while this link is not so clear with psychology. Therefore one would need to be more attentive to such details when comparing results of studies from these two fields. Being able to speak and exchange ideas with scholars whose works that I had studied helped me to clarify my doubts about what I had understood from personal study.

 

What did you learn that you didn’t know before?

One of the many things I gained is a deeper understanding of Immanuel Kant’s anthropology and a moral philosophy. The concept of the highest good in Kant’s moral philosophy is a topic which was relatively new to me and I gained a lot from discussions on that topic. The discussions on Aristotelian concept of philia, identification and identity also gave me deeper understanding of friendship.

 

Additionally, I spoke with Dan P Mc Adams, whose work I had studied for my PhD thesis and to understand his thought better. After the seminar, he sent me an email explaining some points in the evolution of his thought to me which I had not known before. For example, he noted that the original idea in his early work on narrative psychology presents the role of narratives in the heroic quest to make grand meaning. Now, one discovers that narratives are one among many other tools for that quest.

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Psychologist Dan P McAdams leading a session during the 2017 Summer Seminar “Virtue, Happiness, & Self-Transcendence”.

How did the interdisciplinary nature of the seminar open new possibilities for your research?

My PhD thesis had an interdisciplinary approach and meeting people who work with an approach similar to mine helped to discover points of dialogue.

 

I am currently thinking of a research project on virtues and values in education in Nigeria and I hope to engage some of the scholars whom I met at the seminar. I am still in the idea stage. Additionally, I think that some of the projects which the participants were working on can be replicated in my country. I expect that applications of the discoveries from such projects will foster human flourishing, virtue and happiness in my context. It is true that the methods, the specifics of such investigations and the findings in my country may differ from those in other contexts. However, I think there will be significant proportions of commonalities in the general framework for such investigations and findings and it would be interesting to discover points of confluence that cut across cultures. For example, even though the specific manifestations and applied nomenclature of some of the cardinal virtues may be different in different cultures, one may be able to find that there is some essential concept which stems from each virtue that is common to all.

 

On the whole, I am quite happy that I participated in the seminar as I am sure it has contributed to my development. I believe that it is the beginning of intellectual dialogue and mutually enriching interactions.

 

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Omowumi Ogunyemi obtained her first degree in medicine and surgery. She has worked as a medical practitioner in various hospitals in Nigeria including The Federal Neuro-Psychiatric Hospital, Lagos, where she co-managed patients with substance-induced disorders. She holds a licentiate degree and a doctorate in philosophy (Anthropology and Ethics) from the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross, Rome. Currently, she lectures in the Institute of Humanities of the Pan-Atlantic University, Lagos, Nigeria. “Molly” Ogunyemi was a participant with the 2017 Summer Seminar, Virtue, Happiness, & Self-Transcendence

Old versus New Virtue – an Hegelian Remark on Virtue Ethics and the Unity of Virtues

High Road, Low Road Green Road Sign with Copy Room Over The Dramatic Clouds and Sky.

This text is a very short version of a paper that I had the pleasure and honor to present at a conference celebrating the 60th Anniversary of G.E.M. Anscombe’s Paper “Modern Moral Philosophy” at the University of Notre Dame, January 21-23 2018.

I. Hegel’s harsh verdict on modern virtue

In his Phenomenology of Spirit (§390), Hegel makes a striking comment on virtue ethics: modern theories of virtue produce only “emptiness” and “boredom”. He claims that they contain nothing real, only pompous rhetoric, and that they try to instill a pretentious sense of moral excellence in their readers with meaningless words. While Hegel criticizes contemporary attempts to virtue ethics quite harshly, he praises their ancient predecessors: Philosophers like Aristotle and Plato provided a robust and substantial account of the practical good and the virtues. Hegel obviously thinks that ancient theories of virtue succeeded where modern theories fail. Hegel explains that the main difference between these two different kinds of accounts is a logical one. He argues that modern theorists falsely depict virtue in the category of generality (Allgemeines) while ancient philosophers appropriately use the category of particularity (Besonderes). Unfortunately, Hegel’s terminology notoriously tends to obscure his arguments. In this text I try to sketch out a systematic reading that might not only help us to decode Hegel’s text but also might show us something about the logic of virtue – independently from Hegel’s other philosophical convictions and the historical context of the Phenomenology of Spirit. First, I will propose my interpretation of Hegel’s distinction between general and particular accounts of virtue (part II). Secondly, I will reconstruct Hegel’s argument why a proper concept of the virtues should be in the category of particularity (part III). Finally, I will mention an important consequence from this claim for the supposed unity of virtues.

II. General and particular virtues

I would like to suggest the following reading of Hegel’s remarks: By distinguishing the generality of modern virtue and the particularity of ancient virtue, Hegel alludes to a difference in scope of virtue norms. Modern theories usually take virtue norms to be “general” in the sense that they apply to all mankind. Virtues are defined as qualities that make a human being good qua human being. They are part of the essential description of the human life-form. The virtuous life realizes a perfect or ideal version of the human life. A vicious person, on the other hand, does not only violate some moral laws, she represents a deviation from this ideal of the human life. The vicious person fails to fully realize her life-form. The vicious person is still a human being, of course, but only in a defective way. This way of thinking about virtue norms as general norms for the whole life-form is reflected, for example, in the expression that a certain virtuous behavior is “humane” or when a virtuous person is called a “true human”. An important logical feature of this modern view is the assumption that particular ethical demands (e.g. of a certain social role) are derived from the general norm. The general formulation of a virtue (“humans act justly”) is supposed to have logical priority over the particular formulation (“judges act justly”). The particular virtues of a judge, for example, are only applications of the general norm to the particular situation of a judge. Ancient virtue ethics, however, are more modest in their claims, according to Hegel. The scope of their virtue norms is limited to the ethical demands and obligations of particular social roles and relationships. They do not purport to describe the good life and good actions of a human being per se, but the actions and life of a good parent, a good politician, a good friend, and so on. The particular norms of social roles have logical priority over statements like “humans act justly”. The latter are only abstractions from the substantial particular norms. To understand what justice is, therefore, we have to start from an understanding of the particular justice of a parent, a judge, a teacher, and so on. The general and abstract formulations are mainly shorthand for the more elaborate particular versions. Hegel’s characterization of ancient virtue ethics might surprise some readers. It is often assumed that Aristotle himself introduced the concept of virtue by the notion of being good qua human being. In the first book of the Nicomachean Ethics he equates the virtuous life with the good human life. Also, his descriptions of the virtues in the following books seem not to be limited to certain social roles. He seems to talk about justice, courage, prudence, temperance, and so on in an unqualified sense and not about the courage of a father and the temperance of a poet. Such passages apparently point to a general conception of the virtues like the one that Hegel attributes to the modern authors. After all, many modern virtue ethicists explicitly posit themselves in the tradition of Aristotle. I cannot defend Hegel’s reading of Aristotle here. Hegel would, however, caution us not to take the mentioned passages too literally. Aristotle often seems to speak about human virtues and human life in a very general sense. Nevertheless, he has a very particular audience in mind. The virtues described in the Nicomachean Ethics are the virtues of experienced and rich Athenian noblemen, i.e., citizens that occupy a particular set of social roles. This particularity becomes quite apparent in the virtue of magnificence (megaloprepeia, NE IV.4-6): The magnificent man is able to donate temple buildings to the city-state, equip warships and host theater festivals – it is obviously a virtue only for the happy few. This kind of dependency of the virtues on social status is even more conspicuous in Plato’s Politeia: In the discussion of his Utopian city, he explicitly differentiates between the virtues of the philosopher-king, the guardians and the workers.

III. Co-operation and Sociality

According to Hegel, ancient virtue ethics have a better conception of virtues than their modern epigones because of a profounder understanding of human nature. Aristotle calls us humans the “social animal”. Human sociality, however, is characterized by co-operation and division of labor to a much higher degree than any other animal. Human societies tend to develop a multitude of social roles with highly specialized functions and activities. The particularity of ancient virtues acknowledges this fact about human sociality. Their virtues mirror the partitioned structure of co-operation. If human life is essentially characterized by co-operation and division of labor, then this also applies to the human good. The daily lives of a scientist and a soldier, for example, differ widely and so do the ethical demands that we place on them. Different social roles have different functions in society. Therefore, to act well means something different in each of these roles. Sometimes these differences might be obscured by the general terms that we use. The sentences “A criminal judge should treat the accused justly” and “Parents should treat their children justly” apply the same adverb “justly”. Nevertheless, they refer to two distinct kinds of norms. Parents who behave like criminal judges toward their children certainly do not act justly. A similar mistake is made by the judge who treats the accused motherly or fatherly. Hegel would not deny that there are still some similarities between the two kinds of justice – after all, it is no coincidence that we apply the same term to both. These similarities, however, are only vague. They do not carry enough content to guide our actions. If we want to know what we should do, Hegel urges us to focus on the particular demands of social roles and personal relationships. The reference to a broad and general concept of a good human being, for example in the form of the advice “Be a good human being!” is less than helpful. There is nothing substantial to be learned about good action and virtuous character by rhetorically pointing to the idea of mankind. For that reason, Hegel criticizes contemporary virtue ethics as “empty” and “boring”.

IV. The Problem of Unity

There is one important consequence of the logical difference between modern and ancient concepts of virtue that I want to mention here at the end of my text: Hegel states that the particularity of the ancient concept allows us to see that the unity of the virtues and the human life-form is a non-trivial problem. Modern accounts tend to overlook this philosophical challenge since they already presuppose the unity of the virtues and of the life-form in a certain sense. If all particular virtues of social roles were only applications of a general virtue to certain circumstances, as modern accounts seem to assume, there can be no true conflict between the virtues. All agents act on the same principles, namely the virtues of the human life-form. Disagreement may occur only about questions of application and contingent circumstances, not about the principles itself. The picture of the ancient account of virtues, however, differs hugely: In human society, many different virtues, which are based on different social roles, interact with one another. There might be incompatible demands and claims due to the different underlying principles. Although the different social roles share common goals, and their functions are mutually interdependent, these common goals and functions are not simply given, as for example, the basic biological purposes of survival and reproduction. From an abstract perspective it seems quite obvious that, e.g., a scientist, a soldier, a judge and a poet co-operate in a society and share common goals. If we look closely, however, it is far from clear how this co-operation is structured and whose ethical demands should have priority over others. To complicate matters: human societies are not static, their goals evolve and with them the specifics of our co-operation changes. Conflicts between ethical demands cannot be resolved by reference to some general notion of human life, they have to be worked out by reflection and creative compromise. The unity of human virtues and the unity of a human life-form are not a starting point of our historical and philosophical enterprise, they are an end – an end that has to be re-evaluated and re-shaped constantly. The human life-form is in an act of constant self-reaction. Hegel believes that the ancient virtue ethics provide us with the proper account to face this challenge.

 


 

Martin Palauneck was a visiting student at the University of Chicago in 2013. He is a doctoral candidate in philosophy at the University of Leipzig. His thesis pertains G.W.F. Hegel’s take on Aristotle and ancient virtue theory. 

Cultivating virtue & living wisely

On the desktop are: a clean white sheet of paper, a simple pencil, old books, pocket watch on a gold chain and a kerosene lamp. Retro stylized photo.This post is an excerpt of “Living Within Reason” on the blog “Virtue Insight”, of the Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtue, available here.

 

Cultivating virtue helps us to live well within reason. But how are we to understand the kind of guardrails reason provides? Why suppose that reason can govern action and emotion in the way that neo-Aristotelian theorists of virtue seem to suggest that it can?

 

After all, there is an impressive body of empirical research suggesting that people frequently fail to live up to their own ideals. Worse, there is a lot of evidence that resentments, strong and unwelcome desires, and emotional scarring from old psychological injuries—aspects of our inner lives that rarely occupy conscious attention—may have more influence on what we do in some areas of our lives than thinking about what to say or do. And spending a lot of time thinking out what to do can itself be a symptom of a failure of sound self-governance. One of the characters on a popular television series in the U.S. these days is a moral philosopher who is effectively paralyzed by treating all decisions—what sort of soup to order in a restaurant, for example, or what to name his dog—as situations requiring long and careful deliberation.

 

For all that, developing various habits of reflection is likely our best hope of living up to our own standards and leading lives that we find satisfying and meaningful. The very psychologists and philosophers whose work draws our attention to our tendencies to lose track of what we find most important when making concrete decisions at work or at home also provide some guidance on ways of counteracting these problems in practice.

 

TIBERIUS ON THE REFLECTIVE LIFE

In The Reflective Life: Living Wisely With Our Limits, Valerie Tiberius discusses the importance of developing a core and structured sense of the things that matter to us in life—family and friendship, for example, or health and an acceptable level of material security—that can provide some basic guidance in making major decisions. But Tiberius hopes to bring the study of major life choices down to earth in thinking about the more  mundane business of daily life.

Business cartoon of a wise businessman meditating on a cliff, his coworker is looking for 'some business wisdom'.

She argues that we need to work against tendencies to cynicism, to work toward realistic optimism, to be open to entertaining alternate perspectives on matters of conduct and policy, and to be mindful of our own tendencies to see ourselves in lights brighter and more favorable than will be strictly warranted. Humility and gratitude, she urges, are crucial to the kind of self-awareness we need if our own senses of what matters most to us are to shape our choices. Lively awareness of considerations of fairness can help to counteract our tendencies to acting on self-interested impulses (and to hide such tendencies from ourselves). Tiberius is not a Thomist and Aquinas did not have access to the empirical findings that inform Tiberius’s work on practical wisdom. Nevertheless, the thought that working to develop the habits associated with secondary virtues—cultivating fairness, humility, and gratitude, for instance, and thereby articulating and supporting cardinal virtues—alerts us to the ethically salient aspects of our circumstances and helps us to make wise decisions is in keeping with the spirit of Aquinas’s work on virtue. The job of virtue is to provide us with the frameworks that give us a good understanding of our situations and so guide our choices. Leading reflective lives gives reason the right role in self-governance, not through paralyzing, rigid, and frequently deluded insistence on planning every aspect of daily life—as though it was in our power to prevent the world from confronting us with situations that demand a different response—but by helping us to pause and reflect when that is what we need to do.

 

 

EXAMPLES

Suppose, for example, that like most people I find that I tend to make foolish decisions when things that I take to be in my self-interest look to be at odds with things that I ought to do for the sake of my family or for the sake of my job. It’s not as though I will lose my job if I put my interests ahead of what the larger organization looks to need from me. Nor am I likely to alienate my family members if I seek to gratify myself now and then. But I want to be a better person, so I have decided to try to curb my more unattractive selfish side. Self-critical self-awareness is enough to let me know that some change is in order. Suppose that I start small, by reminding myself to step back and think about others. I could work on kindness and generosity, for example, starting small.

 

I decide to begin my self-improvement regime by getting into the habit of greeting everyone at work each morning—both the people with whom I work closely and the people who make our workplace run smoothly whom I tend not to notice as much—administrative staff, people on the cleaning crew, people at the lunch counter, and so on. I make a point of greeting everyone. This takes almost no time, but it helps me to be aware of my fellow human beings. A habit this small can have a profound effect on my decision-making. Through morning after morning of quiet, cheerful well-wishing, the reality of my fellow human beings begins to be part of my basic sense of myself and my world. Concerns about fairness, willingness to compromise, and more generally some sense for others’ interests can begin to inform my daily conduct at work. I have different material for reflection when faced with the tug of the dear self from one decision to the next on the job. And there is some evidence that even this kind of change in the behavior of one relatively highly-placed person in a busy office can begin to have a positive effect on the larger culture of the workplace. My colleagues might wonder what I’m up to, initially, and think that I might have some nefarious scheme afoot. But if I am cheerful, quiet, and steady in my efforts, my innovation can even begin to help my colleagues cooperate more effectively and productively. Reflective self-awareness taught me that I needed to change something about how I was living. Beginning to make the change began to give me better materials for reflective decision-making at work.

 

Working to become a better member of my own family can be at once more necessary and more difficult. Members of my intimate circle often know me better than I know myself, and if I have been as disappointing to my nearest and dearest as most of us have been, those closest to me will likely have developed healthy defenses against being too optimistic about the likelihood that I will improve much. Here, reflection advises me to be open to understanding the ways large and small in which those closest to me may have suffered from my selfish impulses, may have felt invisible to me, and may have had to adjust to a long history of experiencing me at my worst. I need to be able to see and take seriously the effects that my self-involvement has had on my loved ones. They have at least as strong an interest in seeing me change as I do. But they may not share my optimism. At home, I need to learn to listen very carefully to what my loved ones say, to notice and express genuine encouragement and support for them in their efforts at pursuing what matters most to them, to ask in detail about what they are doing and pay attention to what they say, to do my best to track their moods, and more generally to make each of them more vivid in my own mind. Kindness, patience, fairness, gratitude, generosity, and humility all are involved in becoming a better partner or parent or sibling, and the department of justice that demands that I keep my commitments faithfully—if only to give my loved ones a chance to experience a more reliable and trustworthy version of myself than they may have known in the past—all will conspire to guide me in making better choices at home. Among other things, these habits will help me respond better spontaneously to the demands of my home life and identify situations in which I need to pause and think carefully with others to decide how to respond to the challenges that we face.

 

For those of us interested in thinking about the ways that virtuous activity allows reason to effectively guide us in leading better and more fulfilling lives, work on cultivating virtuous habits is just work on learning to live wisely.

 


Candace Vogler is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Chicago and a Principal Investigator on ‘Virtue, Happiness, and the Meaning of Life’, a project funded by the John Templeton Foundation. She is also the Chair in Virtue Theory, a joint appointment with the Jubilee Centre and the Royal Institute of Philosophy. 

Truth and Goodness and Rationality: Interview with Anselm Mueller

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We’re pleased to share this interview with Anselm Winfriend Mueller, our 2017-18 visiting scholar, who is a visiting professor this quarter at the Department of Philosophy at the University of Chicago. He spoke with Johann Gudmundsson, a doctoral student at the Universität Leipzig currently on a research stay at the University of Chicago, where he’s working on his dissertation on moral judgment and practical goodness.      

Johann Gudmundsson: For many years, you’ve been pursuing the thought that to act well is to act from practical reason. How are truth and goodness related to rationality? Do you think that there is a deep affinity between goodness and truth?

Anselm Winfried Mueller:  Can we reasonably ask whether what you ultimately aim at in acting, rather than just whatever happens to attract you, is really good? – I think we can. At least, we take it for granted that in principle the question has an answer. For, in a year’s time, you may think you were wrong to aim at what you aimed at (much as you may come to think false what you believed to be true a year before). Such a thought makes sense only if there is a standard of goodness by which to evaluate purposes objectively (much as beliefs are evaluated objectively by the standard of truth). So ascriptions of goodness will themselves be true or false.

What is the place of rationality in this context? – To manifest knowledge, a statement has, as a rule, to be based on adequate reasons. Theoretical rationality is to this extent the way we reach truth. But a statement can be true without manifesting knowledge. By contrast, the goodness that we achieve in acting well depends unrestrictedly on what reasons we respond, and don’t respond, to. To act justly, for instance, is: to be motivated by others’ rights; to act courageously is: not to be turned away from important pursuits by the threat of danger etc.

JG: In the mid-20th century, questions relating to ethical language were in vogue, and reflection on moral discourse and meaning was held to be crucial. For example, a central question was whether ethical statements, qua speech act, should be understood as full-blown assertions or not. Those questions have faded from spotlight in recent years. How do you estimate the significance of language for ethical thought?

AWM: Quite generally, the way we talk about things supplies significant hints at their correct understanding. This is so with talk about actions and their moral qualities as much as it is with talk about causes, numbers, social institutions, or whatever.

Now, in order to improve our grasp of the relevant concepts, attention has to be directed at the interaction between the ways we talk and the ways we act. What philosophy needs to get clear about is the different roles that different uses of words play in the wider context of human social life. So philosophers have rightly become critical of arguments based simply on “what we (don’t) say”.

But, as far as I can see, present day analytical philosophy suffers more from the opposite error: its practitioners are often insensitive or indifferent to the problematic character of formulations required or admitted by their theories, when by taking notice of it they might have discovered, e.g., that the phenomena they were hoping to cover by a unifying account were in fact more disparate than this account allowed.

JG: It seems that there are two kinds of good that pertain to human beings. On the one hand, there’s individual well-being or happiness. On the other hand, there’s moral perfection. Would you be happy to draw this distinction? If yes, how do you think individual happiness and moral perfection are related?

AWM: I can’t say that I would be happy to draw that distinction. Shouldn’t one feel honored to belong to a species noble enough to find their happiness guaranteed by adherence to reason realized in a life of virtue, as the Stoics taught?

Unfortunately, this doctrine is a sort of philosophical self-deception. It is indeed true, I think, that a person cannot be happy without attempting to lead a virtuous life. And also, that human happiness cannot but consist in the satisfying use of reason. But we just have to acknowledge that serious suffering tends to prevent the virtuous person from being happy.

Moreover, although the practice of virtue is typically a source of happiness, there are other things as well, such as family life or the successful pursuit of a worthwhile project, that may well be constitutive of the (limited) happiness a man is able to attain. I agree that it won’t make you happy to pursue such a project by evil means. But this does not mean that ethical virtue is the feature of your pursuit that secures your happiness.

So honesty requires us to answer your first question by acknowledging the distinction between happiness and moral perfection. The second question may be one of those that it is the task of philosophy to raise and keep alive although it cannot answer them. As Kant observed, we just cannot discard the idea that there “must” be a way in which the pursuit of virtue issues in happiness. This, too, honesty requires us to recognize. I suspect it is even part of virtue itself to think, with Socrates: It cannot, ultimately, be to my disadvantage to pursue it.

JG: You probably would agree that the aim of philosophical activity is to get clear on certain fundamental notions. The aim of practical philosophy then would be to clarify notions such as intention, reason, goodness and rationality. Do you think that practical philosophy can also be of practical guidance by providing answers to substantial moral questions? Or can such answers only be reached beyond philosophy, for example in public discourse, individual conscience or religious traditions?

AWM: It would be pleasant for practical philosophers to think of themselves as benefiting humanity by giving the kind of guidance you mention. But I think their ambitions have to be more modest.

I am not a skeptic about the possibility of showing that human life is in need of moral norms. But, first, such demonstrations remain theoretical: they explain moral requirements, and they give you reason to believe that doing this and avoiding that serves human flourishing; but they do not thereby already give you reason to do this and avoid that. And, second, nobody – philosopher or not – will adopt a moral norm such as: not to cheat, or: to take responsibility for one’s children, or: to refrain from cruelty, because of a philosophical demonstration; for one’s conviction of the need to comply with such norms will almost certainly be more certain than one’s confidence in any philosophical argument for them.

Nevertheless, philosophers need not despair of their public utility. On the one hand, people who already listen to the voice of virtue are in a position, and will be ready, also to learn, for their practice, from theoretical reflexion on what you call substantial moral questions – on how to carry on in view of considerations that may have escaped them. On the other hand, and possibly even more importantly, good philosophy is needed to refute the brand of bad philosophy that claims to show that morality is an illusion, or that what it enjoins is “authenticity” in the pursuit of your likings, or the like – the kind of claim that is sensational or shocking enough to make it into the media and is hailed by those already tempted to deceive themselves, or compromise, where moral requirements challenge their questionable inclinations.

I am not myself enough of a columnist to take on the task of facing popular versions of misguided philosophical claims. The job that your question well describes as clarifying “notions such as intention, reason, goodness and rationality” is (I hope!) more congenial to my temperament and talent. So I cheerfully resign myself to peaceful exchange with those enviable colleagues who engage in both “philosophizing for philosophers” and “philosophizing for the world”.

 


Johann Gudmundsson got his Magister Artium degree in Philosophy and German studies from the Universität Leipzig after having studied there and at the University of Iceland in Reykjavik. He then worked as a research assistant at the Universität Leipzig and as a coordinator of a project funded by the National Academy of Sciences Leopoldina on institutional and quality problems of the German doctorate, and now a doctoral student at the Universität Leipzig currently on a research stay at the University of Chicago, where he’s working on his dissertation on moral judgment and practical goodness.