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.

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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. 

LISTEN: Community Matters – Candace Vogler: Virtue, Happiness and the Meaning of Life

Candace Vogler recently spoke with Nick Hernandez on “Community Matters” for KZUM 89.3 FM; hear their conversation on SoundCloud.

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Host Nick Hernandez

“Community Matters is a radio show about wellbeing and community building. Exploring topics that can enhance community wellbeing like friendship, playfulness, curiosity, creativity, leisure, work, etc. and then approach each of those topics from several angles: the philosophy of ___, the history of ____, the art of ___, the science of____, the technological implications of ____.”

 

_dsc3851Candace Vogler is the David B. and Clara E. Stern Professor of Philosophy and Professor in the College at the University of Chicago.  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. She is the co-Principal Investigator for the project Virtue, Happiness, & the Meaning of Life.

 

New course for Autumn 2018 @UChicago: Character and Commerce: Practical Wisdom in Economic Life

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On the schedule for Autumn 2018 at the University of Chicago is a new course for undergraduate and graduate students by our co-Principal Investigator Candace Vogler.

Annette Pierdziwol and Tim Smartt, two doctoral students who work with the Institute for Ethics and Society from Notre Dame University Australia, will join Vogler to observe the course with an eye toward implementing it in the new Business School at Notre Dame Australia.

 

PHIL24098/34098. Character and Commerce: Practical Wisdom in Economic Life. The operations of the global economy set the terms that most people live with every day of their lives.  In the face of the vastness, movement, and variety of economic life, it can be hard to see how moral philosophy can intersect meaningfully with economic concerns.  It is one thing to be worried about economic growth and development, sustainability, regulation, taxation, and the like—concerns with large-scale policy matters.  It is quite another to reflect on individual conduct.  In this course, we will look at one small aspect of the place of individual conduct in an economic landscape frequently dominated by large firms.  As anyone who has spent time reading work by Immanuel Kant, say, or Thomas Aquinas, or a newspaper will know, human beings can act against their own better judgment.  My better judgment can be better in any of the following senses: it can track what will be more advantageous for me, it can target more effective and efficient solutions to problems that I am charged with solving or helping to solve, or it can direct my actions and responses ethically.  The ‘or’ is inclusive. Practical judgment brings a host of general considerations to bear on my circumstances.  Practical wisdom is excellence in practical judgement.  In this course, we will read empirical work on the systematic ways in which people fail to live up to their own ideals alongside philosophical work on practical wisdom, with an eye toward exploring ways of cultivating practical wisdom.  Our cases and examples will be drawn from studies of corporate life and economic decision-making.  But the lessons we will hope to learn are more generally applicable.

Violence, Redemption, and the Liberal Imagination

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This is an excerpt of Introduction: Violence, Redemption, and the Liberal Imagination by Candace Vogler and Patchen Markell. Public Culture, Volume 15, Number 1, Winter 2003, pp. 1-10 (Article) Published by Duke University Press. The full article is available here.

 

Violence haunts liberal political thought. The defining image of early modern European social contract theory—and an image that remains potent in contemporary contractarian moral and political theory—locates the possibility of civil society in a compact among men who are long accustomed to the use of force in the bloody business of self-assertion and self-preservation. These men, so the story goes, surrender their right to fight one another (and to dominate the defenseless), investing a common, sovereign power with the right to command obedience for the sake of peace, justice, prosperity, and reasonable expectations of security. In turn, their consent legitimates this common power—the state—at least as long as its use of coercion serves the welfare and good future of a voluntarily toothless citizenry.

 

This is an image of redemption from violence. Casting the state as the bringer of peace and prosperity into a disorderly world, this picture replays, in secular terms, the Christian theme of an epochal transformation in the human condition that the Oxford English Dictionary unsurprisingly lists as the first definition of redemption: “deliverance from sin and its consequences by the atonement of Jesus Christ.” At the same time, however, this is also an image in which violence persists, though often reorganized, renamed, or repressed. While the liberal state aims to control our violent tendencies by depriving us of the right to use force against one another, it also takes into itself the right to use violence in pursuit of this goal, exemplifying the capacity of redemptive aspirations not only to suppress but also to motivate and direct the coercive use of force. And often to disguise it: when one arm of society is elevated to a position of dominance over, and putative difference from, all others, its uses of force can easily come to be euphemized—as “patient justice,” for example, something altogether different from the pathological “violence” it combats. Similarly, since the liberal state thus conceived derives its legitimacy from the lingering threat of interpersonal violence, its redemptive promise must coexist, uneasily, with a portrait of the liberal individual as a very dangerous person. Without the benefit of a coercive sovereign power holding everyone in check, the liberal individual will use any means necessary in the pursuit of material benefits, will struggle to the death for the sake of recognition, honor, or self-esteem, and can have no good reason to expect decent treatment from his fellows.

 

In short, even in one ideal world of liberal political imagination—a world where all questions of legitimate authority are addressed in foro interno, where no one is expected to give up anything without good reason, where superstitious dread and vainglory are banished and rational scrutiny holds sway, where each citizen can reject or accept governance and will allow considerations of peace and prosperity to decide the matter, and where every state is established for the sake of the common weal—the potential for coercion, cruelty, outrage, disorder, and brokenness are abiding aspects of social life. This seam in the liberal imagination points to the need to broaden our sense of the ways in which the terms violence and redemption are tied to each other. For example, how does the pursuit of redemption from violence relate to the pursuit of redemption through violence? Or, recalling that redemption may also refer to more mundane acts of buying back, freeing, recovering, or making recompense for some particular loss or wrong, we might wish to distinguish between redemption from violence—the radical deliverance of humanity from the affliction of violence as such—and those concrete acts of compensation and counterbalance that, in assigning meaning and value to violence suffered, enable agents to project possible futures (though not necessarily fundamentally transfigured ones) in its wake. To survive violence, to find a way forward under its weight: is this less or more radical than to dream of overcoming violence in a final, exceptional stroke?

 

Some of the essays collected in this special issue were originally presented in fall 2001 at a conference organized by the Late Liberalism Project at the University of Chicago’s Center for Gender Studies in conjunction with the Center for Transcultural Studies. The Late Liberalism Project was initiated in 1998 by a group of scholars from across the humanities and social sciences who shared an interest in the intersection between liberal ideas and social forms, as well as a frustration with the usual ways of approaching that intersection. Liberalism is often treated either as a set of norms or principles (typically rooted in foundational moral or political theory) or as a constellation of institutions, practices, movements, identifications, and modes of affect and desire. This is a troubling division of labor, founded on a distinction (itself greatly valued by some liberals) between the mobility of abstraction and the immobilizing grip of the concrete. Too often, this division merely sustains a tired controversy between those who celebrate the power of liberalism’s normative content to transcend its own historical limitations and those for whom the history of liberalism’s concrete social forms merely reveals the essential bankruptcy of liberal ideas. It was unclear to us that the customary ways of separating concrete from abstract matters could be sustained in the face of careful historical work on liberal forms. Moreover, the whole of the intellectual conversation about liberalism tended to focus on North American and European contexts. We wanted to open a different kind of conversation about liberalism.

 

Seeing ourselves as neither partisans of “the liberal project” nor its debunkers, we resolved to consider more carefully the relations among liberal ideas, liberal desires and aspirations, and liberal forms, giving special attention both to liberalism’s colonial and postcolonial contexts and to the relationship between liberalism and globalization. Through what dynamics of imagination and desire do certain institutions and practices come to represent liberal ideas? What modes of feeling and subjectivity have liberal ideas authorized, opposed, or rendered unintelligible? How are liberal ideas themselves disseminated, multiplied, or transformed through the reproduction of the social forms in which they are vested? How do emergent, alternative social forms and ideas interact with various strands or species of liberalism? Do they inflect liberal ideas and practices? Are they deflected or suffocated by them? The essays collected in this issue attend to this nexus of idea, desire, and practice across a number of different social and historical contexts. Zeroing in on the relationship between redemptive promises and the organization, experience, and effects of violence, these essays study the ways in which ethically charged political desire, both liberal and nonliberal, sometimes organizes violence and sometimes attempts to heal the breach that comes in its wake.

 

Read full article is available here.

Register for the eighth annual Thomas Aquinas Philosophy Workshop, “Aquinas on Divine Attributes”

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June 14, 2018 – June 17, 2018
Mount Saint Mary College

The Catholic and Dominican Institute’s Eighth Annual Philosophy Workshop, “Aquinas on Divine Attributes,” will be held at Mount Saint Mary College on June 14-17, 2018.

The Catholic intellectual tradition has staunchly maintained that God’s existence can be known by reason alone and long heralded St. Thomas Aquinas’s Five Ways as prime examples of plausible demonstrations. This year’s workshop on the divine attributes will serve as a robust introduction to Aquinas’s natural theology for the Thomistic beginner and a speculative advancement for the veteran. Specific divine attributes will be explored as well as the broader issues of the possibility of knowledge of God in this life and divine naming.

Presenters include:

  • Anna Bonta Moreland, Villanova University
  • Fr. Stephen Brock, Pontifical University of the Holy Cross
  • Brian Carl, PhD, Dominican House of Studies
  • Michael Gorman, PhD, The Catholic University of America
  • Josh Hochschild, PhD, Mount St. Mary’s University
  • James Madden, PhD, Benedictine College
  • Fr. Raymund Snyder, OP, Thomistic Institute
  • Candace Vogler, PhD, University of Chicago

This event is sponsored by the Catholic and Dominican Institute at Mount Saint Mary College; the Thomistic Institute at the Dominican House of Studies in Washington, D.C.; and the Notre Dame Center for Ethics and Culture in Indiana.

Want to learn more? Download the conference brochure.

Registration

Click here to register online. Space for this workshop is limited and registration will close before May 7 if seats are full.

For more information, please email cdi@msmc.edu

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

s26872qpmdownload

“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.

 

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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.

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

s26872qpmdownload

“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: 

vhml-candace-vogler-photo-by-marc-monaghan20150918_0001_1

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.