Our principal investigator Candace Vogler will be at Harvard University September 21-22 to give a Graduate seminar and Medical School seminar delving into topics such as Happiness, Virtue, Evil, and Doing Good. She will be hosted by the Thomistic Institute Graduate Chapter at Harvard University.
How to be Happy: Virtue and the Path to Human Happiness
Call both one’s efforts at being a good person and the ways of thinking, feeling, and responding to circumstances that develop while one works to be a good person ‘virtue.’ Let ‘human happiness’ pick out a pattern in one’s life marked by such connected and interrelated goods as love, health, strong family ties and friendships, intellectual engagement, interesting work, a reasonable measure of material security, optimism for one’s future, and availability to experiences of joy and peace. On some traditional views, the development and exercise of good character—of virtue—is supposed to be enough to guarantee happiness. On other views, traditional and more modern, virtue and happiness can come apart. Both sorts of view share the idea that people want happiness. Both sorts of view share the understanding that acting well can be costly. In this talk, I will trace some of the tensions between virtue and happiness, urging that, while there may be no guarantee that the living will be easy when we work to be good human beings, the kinds of temporal happiness we can enjoy are only worth going for in the context of our efforts to be good people.
Good and the Privative Understanding of Evil
In this talk, I will think about bad things, and the ways in which we can apprehend and consider what is bad—both the kind of badness at issue in so-called “natural evils” like illness, injury, and some forms of suffering, and so-called “moral evils”—like injustice (with the understanding that moral evil can sometimes show itself in manmade natural evil). It can seem like both sorts of bad function completely independently of the goods that they block, impede, prevent, or otherwise sabotage. It can seem that way even if we don’t have unproblematic access to an account of what overall good might look like in the relevant area of human experience, life, or action. I will take seriously the difficulty of giving an account of all-around goodness in specific areas of life, experience, and action, and argue that, nevertheless, any understanding of badness is parasitic on a grasp—however inchoate or indeterminate—of good.
Join us for our “capstone” conference, which will feature talks, panels, and discussions with the philosophers, religious thinkers, and psychologists who have been working together to investigate whether self-transcendence helps to make ordinary cultivation and exercise of virtue a source of deep happiness and meaning in human life.
Thank you to our conference co-sponsors: The Chicago Center for Practical Wisdom, the Committee on Social Thought, the Lumen Christi Institute, the Martin Marty Center, the Neubauer Collegium for Culture and Society, the University of Chicago Department of Philosophy, the University of Chicago Divinity School, and the University of Chicago Division of Humanities.
We’re presenting a short series of abstracts of the work-in-progress our scholars presented and discussed at their June 2017 Working Group Meeting.
Robert C. Roberts is Professor of Ethics and Emotion Theory at the Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues, and joint Chair with the Royal Institute of Philosophy. Michael Spezio is Associate Professor of Psychology & Neuroscience and head of the Laboratory for Inquiry into Valuation and Emotion (LIVE) at Scripps College in Claremont, CA.
After living for a significant period in l’Arche communities, people often experience a change of self-other concept. It is a character change in which, from conceiving self-other in a way that is typical for modern secular societies, members’ experience of self in relation to others is transformed under the reign of what we call humble love. Both before and after the transformation, the experience of self-other has the character of concern-based construal, but the terms of the two kinds of construal are mutually contrary. Following Jean Vanier, we call the ethos guiding the first self-other style of construal “the Normal” (he writes of “the tyranny of the Normal”). The leading concepts on which this ethos turns are success, competence, competition, advancement, achievement, power, superior-inferior, rival, reputation/recognition/ acclaim, and the like, as criteria for the evaluation of persons. Here the self is seen as in relation to the other/ others, but the relations are distancing, alienating, ones of rivalry, differential competence, superior achievement, competition for power, winner and loser, etc. The relations are not those within a community, in the strict sense, but rather within a social arena of agonistic differentiation. By contrast, the terms of self-other construals that are fostered by long-term living in l’Arche are characterized by commonality, mutuality, and reconciliation: brother/sister, friend, helper, colleague, forgiveness, love. Humble love combines two highly congruent and complementary virtues: humility and charity. The tyranny of the Normal erects “walls” that impede the mutuality construals of self-other that are characteristic of love. Humility, which dissipates or undermines the distancing, alienating self-other construals, brings down these walls, making way for the genuine communion of love with its characteristic self-other construals.
Candace Vogler will give a talk September 15 at Valparaiso University as part of their programming on the theme of the pan-humanities seminar taken by every freshman, and the theme this fall is “human meaning and purpose.” She will be hosted by the Department of Philosophy at Valparaiso University.
The Place of Virtue in a Meaningful Life
Call both one’s efforts at being a good person and the ways of thinking, feeling, and responding to circumstances that develop while one works to be a good person ‘virtue.’ Let a ‘meaningful’ life be a life imbued with a sense of purpose or significance—a life that is full, engaging, and engaged, where the fulness comes of something more than mere subjective interest and enthusiasm. It can seem as though virtue and meaning have very little to do with each other. Whatever sort of struggle might be involved in working to be a good human being can seem like something personal—an individual quest to have a beautiful character or a shining soul. Having a meaningful life, on the other hand, looks like the sort of thing that will require that I go beyond the business of working toward having a lovely soul and into a larger world where I try to find things that are genuinely worth pursuing, and devote myself to their pursuit. In this talk, I will work to bring the two together, partly by urging a different account of virtue, partly by developing a slightly more articulate account of meaning in human life, and always by drawing on work by Thomas Aquinas.
Hollow Pursuits, Fulfilling Pursuits, and Ultimate Satisfaction
According to an ancient truism that I have no interest in challenging, people want happiness. According to more contemporary thought on the topic, in seeking love, wealth, health, friendship, adventure, something that counts as family, some sort of supportive community, interesting work, and the kinds of security associated with these things, people are seeking happiness. Alongside these goods, people sometimes take an interest goods that go beyond the stuff of personal well-being and the well-being of those in their immediate proximity. They want to be good people. They want to play the good that they enjoy forward in some area of human life. They want to work for social justice, say, or for other good causes. But according to the ancient truism that understands this human busy-ness as directed at happiness, genuine happiness shows itself in complete satisfaction. Drawing on the thought of Thomas Aquinas, I will urge that it is folly to think that a very good life will all by itself be completely satisfying. While allowing that sources of temporal happiness really are sources of happiness, I will suggest that human life points beyond itself to a kind of spiritual good that we cannot secure on our own.
For those who thought the racial tensions that have long shaped the fault lines of American politics could continue to be ignored, Charlottesville was the seismic event that shook up this complacency. Like many an earthquake, much of the damage was not limited to the initial event; the political aftershocks have done equal, if not greater, damage. For when torch wielding Nazis and white supremacists march in large numbers, chanting racist slogans, screaming slurs, and threatening violence against minorities, when one of them drives his car into a crowd, killing one and injuring nineteen others, we should be able to expect our President, at the very least, to denounce them immediately and unequivocally. And yet this did not happen; incredibly, the opposite did.
Civility and a commitment to equality for all are American values that transcend partisan interests. We have a right to expect our leaders to form a government for everyone, and strive to keep the peace for all of the people. President Trump appeared to be trying to do this, denouncing “hatred, bigotry, and violence on many sides, many sides” (emphasis mine). However, this initial response was, as many have pointed out, disastrously off base: the bigotry was clearly on one side, and there is no moral equivalence between the promulgation of fascist and racist ideology and principled opposition to it. While the counter-protest was far from perfect, it was not worthy of our president’s equal condemnation.
Presidents are supposed to unify their citizens in times of crisis, but in the aftermath of Charlottesville the only thing that seemed to unify most Americans was disappointment in the president’s inability to carry out this vital task. In a rare moment of concession to his many critics, Trump later denounced the hate groups by name. But this rare act of humility was short-lived. Just a few days later Trump lashed out at the press and doubled down in defense of himself; notoriously, he even went so far as to claim that there were “some very fine people” involved in the “unite the right” rally. And just in case anyone doubted what his true priorities were, the following week Trump held a rally in Phoenix, not primarily aimed at defusing racial tensions or uniting a divided populace in turbulent times, but solely in defense and even celebration of his troubling remarks.
We are about a month on from Charlottesville; nuclear threats, destructive hurricanes, and football now dominate our news feeds, and it would be all to easy to forget about it. But forgetting about it is a kind of political negligence, a failure to give it the importance it deserves. Negligence is a too little considered feature of our moral and political life. It is also important to the analysis of what was so awful about Trump’s post-Charlottesville behavior.
Consider his defense of some of those marching for “historical preservation” in Charlottesville. Negligence is a key to grasping why these defenses are indefensible. Let us set aside the issue of whether it is legitimate to support confederate monuments, as it is beside the point. As is well known, the “unite the right” rally in Charlottesville was organized and promoted by white supremacist groups. The names listed to speak at the rally comprise a veritable who’s who of fascist and racist political leaders in America. These are men who openly admire Hitler, adopt Nazi imagery and rhetoric, and who advocate some form of racial apartheid in our country. A rally that is organized, promoted, and features speeches by such men is arguably a racist rally, no matter what cause it serves; but it is most certainly a racist rally when the cause is the defense of the statues of men who devoted their lives to the perpetuation of enslavement of blacks in the South. Any right thinking person who merely cared about preserving historical monuments as a testimony to history would not make common cause with Nazis, fascists, and white supremacists.
Even if we concede the very remote possibility that one of these warm hearted historical preservationists somehow missed the fact that the organizers, promoters, and speakers at the rally were all extreme racists, at best we could say their actions were grossly negligent, which makes them very far from being “very fine.” Failure to know what’s going on isn’t admirable, nor does it inoculate one against censure or blame. Ignorance doesn’t always excuse.
Determining culpable ignorance is an important aspect of morality and the law, and is part of any theory of negligence. Negligence comes from the Latin phrase “nec eligens” which literally translates to “not choosing.” Negligence is a normative and not merely descriptive word. There are an infinite number of choices I didn’t make this morning, but most of them, like the choice I didn’t make to begin writing the next great American novel, are of no consequence. Only a very small range of what I don’t do counts as a blameworthy failure, and the determination typically depends on the roles that can be legitimately assigned to me (for instance, as a parent, I am culpable if I oversleep and fail to get the kids to school on time).
We know as a matter of common sense morality and the law that we are responsible for what we fail to do, even when that failure is completely unintentional. Now, a prudent citizen should be well informed about the kinds of civic engagement he participates in; therefore a failure to notice that an event is organized by and prominently features white supremacists is a classic case of culpable ignorance.
Even so, one might still argue that culpable ignorance does not necessarily imply racism. Fine, but footage of Charlottesville reveals that once there one could have had no doubt that this was an event for promoting racist ideology. At that point, one is further at fault for not realizing that marching in the rally not only would not advance the cause of preserving history, but would also deepen racial tensions in Charlottesville and possibly lead to racially motivated violence.
To march alongside virulent racists shouting racist slogans and slurs displays a culpable lack of concern for members of the minority groups being targeted. We need to be clear that one is a racist not simply if one has active animus directed towards racial minorities, but also if one lacks active good will towards them; one lacks such good will when one does not care at all, or does not care enough about their well being and security to act (and not act) towards them in certain ways. One should care enough about minorities not to march alongside those that seek to marginalize and defame them. Failure to care enough about the manifest harms to these communities by placing the importance of historical preservation above their safety and well being is racist.
Charlottesville should still deeply trouble us. We cannot make racial progress, however, if we cannot come to a reasonable agreement about what racism is. If elements on the left can sometimes be blamed for making us all racists just in virtue of being born into a racially unequal society, elements on the right can sometimes be blamed for making the racist into a fantastical unicorn by imagining criteria for it that almost none of us will ever meet. A sensible understanding of the complexities of racism would steer a steady course between these two extremes, and we need such an understanding if we have any hope of having a reasonable public discourse about race in this country. A small step in this direction would be to acknowledge that racism of neglect is a real and damaging.
Jennifer A. Frey is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at the University of South Carolina and Principal Investigator with Virtue, Happiness, and the Meaning of Life.
The Expanded Awards Jury, gathered at the University Francisco de Vitoria on July 13 and 14th, selected our scholar Darcia Narváez, for work titled, Neurobiology and the development of human morality: Evolution, Culture and Wisdom for the Research category to be awarded 25.000 euros.
The awards were organized by the University Francisco de Vitoria in collaboration with the Vatican Foundation Joseph Ratzinger-Benedict XVI. The Awards Ceremony will take place in Vatican City on September 27th.
The international Jury, integrated by members highly esteemed in their fields was composed by Alister McGrath (University of Oxford), Olegario González de Cardedal (Universidad Pontificia de Salamanca), Stefano Zamagni (Università di Bologna and Johns Hopkins University), Francesc Torralba (Universitat Ramon Llull), Gianfranco Basti (Pontificia Università Lateranense), Federico Lombardi, S.J. (President of the Joseph Ratzinger-Benedict XVI Vatican Foundation), and Daniel Sada (President of the Universidad Francisco de Vitoria).
The Expanded Reason Awards aim to encourage and acknowledge those professors and researchers who are making efforts to broaden the horizon of rationality through a transdisciplinary dialogue with philosophy and theology. The University Francisco de Vitoria and the Joseph Ratzinger-Benedict XVI Vatican Foundation have taken this initiative convinced that if scientific rationality becomes the only form of sure knowledge, fundamental and vital questions for humanity would be ignored.