Interview with Sungwoo Um, Summer Seminar Participant

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This post is part of a series of interviews with our incoming class for the “Virtue & Happiness” 2016 Summer Seminar. Sungwoo Um is a PhD Philosophy student and  Assistant Director of the Center for Comparative Philosophy at Duke University.

Valerie Wallace: Where are you from?

Sungwoo Um: I was born and raised in Seoul, South Korea. But I stayed in the UK for three years to get one of my two master’s degrees and have been studying in the US for about three years. I feel blessed to go through such diverse cultural and academic experiences, which are enriching my character as well as my study.


VW: Tell me about your current research.

SU: I’m mainly interested in ethics, understood as any serious attempt to answer the question, “How should we live?” I hope my life and my study enrich each other, forming something like a soaring double helix. I want be happy, but I need to be virtuous. My philosophical journey has been an endeavor to harmonize these two (seemingly conflicting) thoughts in a good human life. This is why I have focused on examining the relationship between them and investigating the nature of particular virtues such as modesty or trustfulness. My ultimate goal is to defend the thesis that the happiest life for human beings can be achieved when they live virtuously.

Now I am particularly interested in how to make sense of personal relationships in living a good human life. This reflects my personal belief that large part of my happiness comes from the intimate personal relationships I share with my family and friends. I believe such partial aspects of human life have irreplaceable ethical value and thus cannot be simply overridden by impartial morality. To solve the puzzle of partiality and personal relationships, I am now trying to develop a version of virtue ethics that puts relational aspects of human life at the center.


VW: What are you most looking forward to about this summer’s Virtue & Happiness seminar?

SU:  The Virtue & Happiness summer seminar will be a perfect opportunity to enhance my research for two main reasons. First, the topics addressed in the seminar, especially self-transcendence and moral development, are closely relevant to my current and future research. I expect the discussion of self-transcendence will help me to give a better account of how virtue and happiness of the agent herself can be harmonized with morality, which are often considered as mainly other-regarding. The discussion of moral development will also help me to explain how to cultivate the ethical virtues that are essential for human happiness in a diachronic manner.

The second reason for my interest in this seminar is its interdisciplinary approach. Joint work among researchers from philosophy, psychology, and theology/religious studies will create a great platform to gain new insights on the topic of virtue and happiness. I believe any plausible ethical theory should adequately respect the facts about what kind of creatures we are. Interaction with psychologists will help me to have a clearer idea about what kind of happiness is possible to us and how are we to cultivate what sort of virtues. Views from religious background would also be important for broadening my perspective because many people have been, and still are, seeking their source of virtue and happiness in the religions they endorse.



VW: What are your non-academic interests?

SUWhen I don’t study, I spend most of my time with my wife and my baby boy. They are the inspiration and the source of motivation for both my life and study.