Jennifer A. Frey on action, knowledge, and human goodness | Our Scholars at Oxford for Jubilee Centre Conference on Character, Wisdom, and Virtue, January 5-7, 2017

Photo by Jennifer A. Frey.

In early January, four of our scholars—Howard Nusbaum, David Carr, John Haldane, and Robert C. Roberts—and our 2 Principal Investigators—Jennifer Frey and Candace Vogler—all participated in a conference on Character, Wisdom, and Virtue held January 5, 6, and 7, 2017 at Oriel College, Oxford, UK, sponsored by the Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues at the University of Birmingham, UK. We are pleased to feature their abstracts and papers here on the Virtue Blog, with many thanks to the Jubilee Centre.

frey_jennifer_15_2aJennifer A. Frey is an Assistant Professor in the Philosophy Department at the University of South Carolina. Prior to joining the Philosophy faculty, 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.

Below you will find her short abstract, followed by a link to the larger paper discussed at the conference, “Action, Knowledge, and Human Goodness:A Prolegomena to a Theory of Practical Wisdom”.

ABSTRACT: “Action, Knowledge, and Human Goodness:A Prolegomena to a Theory of Practical Wisdom”

Aquinas and Anscombe both held that human action essentially involves a certain kind of practical self- knowledge. I argue that this knowledge is knowledge of action under descriptions that the agent can in principle connect to her general conception of how to live a good human life. An agent demonstrates her ability to make such connections by giving reasons. These rational connections between the particular action and the general practical knowledge of how to live are made explicit in the construction of practical syllogisms, understood as heuristic devices that make explicit the practically rational grammar of the act itself. Such an account of action, I argue, is the necessary foundation for any virtue ethics in which practical wisdom plays an important role. For any theory of practical wisdom must be able to show how it is the virtue that perfects the practical intellect, the faculty that provides the faculty of choice with a particular object of pursuit or avoidance, under some descriptions that can be rationally related to happiness.

Read the full paper here:

Meet our Faculty for our 2017 Summer Seminar “Virtue, Happiness, & Self-transcendence”


Our second summer seminar, “Virtue, Happiness, and Self-transcendence” is June 18  – 23, 2017 at the University of Chicago and features renown teachers in philosophy, psychology, and religious studies.

Our Seminar is intended for outstanding middle- and advanced-level graduate students and early career researchers in the areas of Philosophy, Psychology, and Theology/Religious Studies. Our aim is to involve participants in our innovative and collaborative research framework within these three fields, and to provide an engaged environment to deepen and enliven their own research.

Fr. Stephen Brock will lead the sessions, “Friendship” and “Law.” Read more here.
Fr. Stephen L. Brock is Professor of Medieval Philosophy, Pontifical University of the Holy Cross, Rome. He earned a B.A. in Philosophy at the University of Chicago and a Ph.D. in Medieval Studies at the University of Toronto. Brock writes widely on Thomas Aquinas and action theory, ethics, and metaphysics. He is the author of The Philosophy of Saint Thomas Aquinas. A Sketch (Wipf & Stock, 2015) and Action & Conduct: Thomas Aquinas and the Theory of Action (T&T Clark, 1998).

Jennifer A. Frey will lead the sessions: “Self-Love and Self-Transcendence” and “Happiness and Human Action.” Read more here.
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.  Prior to joining the philosophy faculty at UofSC, 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.  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.

Dan McAdams will lead the sessions “Psychological perspectives on virtue and morality” and “A virtue aimed at transcending and expanding the self:  Generativity.” Read more here.
Dan P. McAdams is the Henry Wade Rogers Professor of Psychology and Professor of Human Development and Social Policy at Northwestern University.  A personality and life-span developmental psychologist, Professor McAdams has explored the role of life narrative in human development, and how themes of agency, redemption, and generativity shape American biography, politics, society, and culture.  He is the author most recently of The Art and Science of Personality Development (Guilford Press, 2015) and The Redemptive Self:  Stories Americans Live By (Oxford University Press, 2006/2013).

VHML Candace Vogler photo by Marc Monaghan20150918_0001_1.jpg
Candace Vogler will lead sessions on “Virtue, Happiness, and Common Good.” Read more 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 with Virtue, Happiness, and 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.

For more information on the seminar, the sessions, and to apply, click here.

Interview with Zack Loveless, our new graduate research assistant

Photo by Marc Monaghan
Where are you from?
I am from Helena, Alabama.
Tell us about your research.
My research focuses on accounts of right action grounded in a picture of what constitutes being a good person. My basic picture is that an act is right if there is nothing specifically wrong with it: an act is right if it is not contrary to any virtue. This account allows us to preserve some of the hallmarks of an ethics of virtue (like the breakdown of a divide between moral and non-moral practical concerns) while preserving key moral intuitions (such as the existence of acts it is as such wrong to perform or that an any situation many courses of action will be right).
I became interested in the Virtue project for two related reasons. First, I am interested in how we incorporate into a life of virtue space for a pursuit of our own projects, amusements and leisure. Second, I am interested in attempts to explain some trait being a virtue to its role in a meaningful or happy life.
What do you like to do outside of academia?
When I am not pursuing my academic interests, I am probably watching football, listening to music or cooking.

Zack Loveless is a Ph.D. student in philosophy at the University of Chicago, and a graduate assistant with the project Virtue, Happiness, & the Meaning of Life.

Is Character Necessary for Moral Behavior?

Keith Haring | public art | ArtMarketMonitor

This question could be addressed in many different ways. I will begin by offering some preliminary remarks about the meanings of the relevant terms, which will help us get at a precise answer. First, by “character” I mean the possession of one or more virtues, and by “moral behavior” I mean the doing of morally good actions. But what does it mean to possess a virtue? One way to understand this idea, which comes from the ethical tradition associated with Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas, is that to possess a virtue is to have a deeply ingrained disposition, thanks to which one is able to not only recognize what is virtuous, but to do it promptly, easily, and without internal struggle. This is what I will mean by “possessing” a virtue or being virtuous.


With these definitions in hand, we can reformulate our question. Is a given virtue necessary for the kind of morally good action characteristic of that virtue? For example, is the virtue of courage necessary for courageous actions? Is the virtue of kindness necessary for kind actions? (Let’s leave aside questions about the so-called “unity” of the virtues — that is, for instance, whether one can be courageous but unkind, or kind but cowardly.) At first blush, it might seem obvious that the answer is “no”: people who aren’t particularly courageous sometimes do courageous things, and people who aren’t particularly kind sometimes do kind things. This is true. But do they do these things in the same way that courageous or kind people do them?


Good Character and Readiness of Action
Suppose you and a friend witness a terrible accident: a vehicle loses control, crashes into a tree, and begins to burn with the driver trapped inside. Let’s assume that it’s possible to save the driver, that going to his aid would be courageous, not reckless or foolhardy. Your friend, who is courageous, immediately springs into action. Before other bystanders have fully registered what has happened, he has rushed to the vehicle, found a means of breaking the window, and is in the process of dragging the unconscious driver to safety. If you are not particularly courageous yourself, it’s unlikely that you will react as your friend does. For one thing, you probably won’t react as quickly or decisively, even if you do want to help. You might, for instance, have a hard time deciding what to do and an even harder time doing it. In other words, you will have to wrestle with your fear of being burned or otherwise injured — even if you end up doing the courageous thing.


Risking one’s life to save someone else from a burning vehicle is brave. But, as the example indicates, there is a difference between doing a brave thing and being a brave person. When, belatedly and with trepidation, you go to help your friend, you do a brave thing. But your trepidation and tardiness are an indication that brave actions are not characteristic of you the way they are characteristic of your friend. By contrast, people like your friend, for whom bravery is an ingrained part of who they are, do brave things without any internal struggle and without having to stop to deliberate at length about whether they should act as they do. Perhaps most importantly, brave people seem even to want to do brave things; they see doing brave things as the obvious choice or the only choice. When the hero says that “anyone” would have done what he did, it probably isn’t empty posturing.


Does having a good character matter, then? Is it better to be a brave person rather than merely to have done a brave thing? An answer could be given by pointing to the features that distinguish our friend from us as well as from those who do nothing at all. A brave person acts more quickly — with less of an interior struggle — than the rest of us. And this clearly matters, at least when there are people who need to be rescued from burning vehicles. But what if there are no burning vehicles? Is good character still important in less dire circumstances?


It might seem that it isn’t. Surely, one might argue, what matters in those situations is doing the right thing. So long as someone ultimately does what’s brave or kind, what does it matter whether the person was quick or slow to act, or whether the person experienced an internal struggle or not?


Good Character and Moral Perception
There are again a variety of possible answers to the question I just raised. But I want to focus on one specific way in which good character might be necessary for moral behavior even in situations that are not extreme, a way that tends to get obscured in the example I initially proposed. In the case of the burning car, it is obvious what the brave thing to do is, and it is obvious how a lack of courage would impede our ability to do it. Those who witness the accident will not fail to notice that someone needs saving, and they would agree that saving the car’s driver is a good thing to do. But things are not always so obvious.


Consider some less dramatic examples of moral behavior. Peter, seeing that the walks are icy and worried that his elderly neighbor might slip and fall, salts his neighbor’s walk as well as his own. Paul, seeing how much cleaning up there is to do after a friend’s party, stays behind to help wash the dishes. All of us can agree that these are good things to do. But few of us ever actually do them.


Why not? The answer, I suspect, is that the thought of doing things like salting our neighbor’s walk or helping a friend clean up hardly ever crosses our minds. We all agree that it is good to help the elderly: if asked, we would all probably say that we care about the well-being of our elderly neighbors. And, if an elderly neighbor asked us directly for assistance, we’d most likely oblige. Yet, it rarely occurs to most of us to salt our elderly neighbor’s walk. If we all agree that these kinds of actions are good to do, why does the thought of doing them not occur to us more often? Here, again, the answer has to do with moral character.


Even if we recognize the value of being kind to others, that value doesn’t necessarily guide and shape our actions unless we are kind people. When we wake up to find our sidewalk coated in ice, our first thought is likely of the inconvenience this poses to ourselves — to our own risk of injury and our own well-being. It’s not that we consciously disregard the well-being of our neighbor but, rather, that we don’t habitually think of our neighbor’s well-being much at all. Most of us habitually think only of our own well-being. As a consequence, we don’t typically notice anything that doesn’t affect our own interests directly.


Someone who possesses the virtue of kindness, by contrast, perceives exactly the same situation in a different way. Because the kind person is habitually concerned for the well-being of others, this concern informs the very way he perceives the world. Thus, rather than perceiving the icy sidewalk as an inconvenience to himself, he perceives it as a threat to his neighbor’s well-being as well as to his own. And this perception makes it more likely that he will go and salt his neighbor’s walk as well as his own.


This, I propose, is why character really is a necessary pre-condition for moral behavior. Unless we possess virtues, we won’t recognize the vast number of occasions on which virtuous behavior is called for. Virtuous people are more likely to behave morally because they are more likely to see occasions for moral behavior in everyday life.


Discussion Questions:

      1. If character is so important for moral behavior, how does one develop it?
      2. Is vice related to immoral behavior in the same way that character is related to moral behavior?
      3. Does the relationship between character and moral behavior imply anything about the unity of the virtues?


Discussion Summary

This essay examined the question of whether moral character is necessary for moral behavior. I argued that moral character is relevant to moral behavior in two important ways. First, given that I am already aware of what I ought to do (i.e. of what the “moral” action is), moral character facilitates doing that action. The person who has moral character does moral actions more readily — more easily and more willingly than one who does not. I also argued that moral character matters in a second, much more fundamental way: the person who has moral character is able to recognize what is moral and occasions for moral behavior in a way that those who lack moral character cannot. Those who lack moral character often fail to act morally because they simply fail, in many instances, to recognize the morally relevant aspects of the situations they find themselves in.


A significant part of the discussion focused on the relationship between feelings and morality. Some readers felt that the desired moral results could be produced without the relevant feelings on the part of the agent. In other words, social norms or duty suffice to produce the desired outcomes. I think some difference of opinion here may stem from a different understanding of what “feelings” are. For Aristotle, the feelings relevant to moral character are themselves informed by and amenable to reason. So someone whose actions are consistently guided by their belief about what is right simply will come to have the relevant feelings. I think Aristotle is mostly correct about this.


But I also think that social norms, by themselves, can never produce the kinds of actions relevant to our discussion. If I desire social approval and I know that society expects a certain kind of behavior, then I will have reason to do it — when someone is watching. Only when I see the relevant actions as desirable for their own sake will I have a reliable reason to do them no matter what.


Other portions of the discussion focused on what it means to “have” a virtue and with the difficulty of acquiring a virtue. Is virtue all or nothing, or does it come in degrees? If I have to know what is virtuous in order to do it, isn’t virtue circular? How could someone who lacks virtue ever come to acquire it? The Aristotelian notion of the “phronimos” — the moral exemplar whose virtue we recognize and imitate — goes a long way toward answering these questions. Even if we are not ourselves virtuous, we can still recognize people who seem to have “gotten it right,” and we can imitate them. As we make progress in modeling ourselves after these exemplars, we grow in virtue.


New Big Questions:

        1. Can all the good aspects of moral character be possessed by someone who lacks the relevant moral feelings?
        2. What does it mean to say that someone “has” a virtue?
        3. Are there really “moral exemplars” that we can all recognize as such?


This post originally appeared on the blog Big Questions Online on June 10, 2016. Angela Knobel is Associate Professor in the School of Philosophy at The Catholic University of America and is a Scholar with Virtue, Happiness, & the Meaning of Life.

“To Change the World Through Thought” – Virtue Talk Podcast: Philosopher Matthias Haase

virtuetalklogorsClick the link below to hear our scholar and philosopher Matthias Haase discuss his research in philosophy of action, and the unexpected benefits of doing research with theologians and psychologists.

Matthias Haase | Virtue Talk

Matthias Haase is Lecturer at the University of Leipzig, and in January 2016, will be Assistant Professor of Philosophy at the University of Chicago. Read more here.

WGM June 2016_20160608_2826
Matthias Haase at our June 2016 Working Group Meeting. Photo by Valerie Wallace.



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