We’re happy to post this CFP for the sixth annual conference of one of our partners, the Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues, University of Birmingham, featuring keynotes by two of our scholars, Talbot Brewer and John Haldane.
Virtues in the Public Sphere
Oriel College, Oxford, January 4–6, 2018
The sixth annual conference of the Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues, University of Birmingham
Open Call for Papers
Virtues in the Public Sphere
In recent years, we have witnessed increased polarisation, not only between, but within societies, and the breakdown of civic friendships, in particular as a result of ‘political earthquakes’ that have hit both sides of the Atlantic. Questions have emerged about the relationship between public and private virtues. Do ‘sinners’ perhaps make better politicians than ‘saints’ – and are certain private vices, such as duplicity, necessary in order for the public sphere to function?
The main aim of this conference is to explore the role of virtues in the public sphere. Is there a virtue of ‘civic friendship’ and how can it be cultivated? Is the language of virtue apt for carving out a discursive path between illiberal radicalism and post-truth relativism? More specifically, does the language of virtue indicate an ethical and political approach that calls into question both extreme illiberal and liberal habits of mind – or does it carry an individualistic and moralistic bias that makes it inapplicable to political disagreements? What are the virtues of a ‘good’ politician or civil servant? Should we care whether a skilled diplomat or surgeon is also a good person? Can virtue be ascribed to collectives and institutions such as universities and schools and, if yes, what would, for example, a ‘virtuous school’ look like? Are character education and civic education comrades or competitors? What is the relationship between an ethos of good character in a school and the ethos of the neighbouring community? How, if at all, does virtue guide civic engagement and a pedagogy towards the public good? How do public virtues inform a social ethos of moral responsibility? And, at the most general level, what does it mean to talk about the ‘politics of virtue’?
The aim of the 2018 Jubilee Centre annual conference is to bring together experts from a range of disciplines to explore those questions and many more. Can theorists from philosophy, education, sociology, history and psychology learn from each other’s work? How can insights from theory and practice be integrated?
We hereby send out an open call for presentations falling under the broad theme of the conference. While our focus this time is on public virtues, we will also look favourably upon proposals that explore other character-related issues from a social scientific, philosophical or practice-oriented perspective. There will be parallel sessions devoted to general topics in the area of character, virtue and character education. We particularly welcome proposals from teachers and other practitioners.
We ask interested parties to send us an abstract of about 500 words to email@example.com (marked ORIEL PROPOSAL in the subject line) before July 1, 2017. We will send out notifications of acceptance before the end of July. The conference fee is £150 and covers full board at Oriel College (2 nights), including the formal conference dinner. Details of how to pay the registration fee will be provided in due course.
These remarks correspond to our latest Virtue Talk podcast with Tahera Qutbuddin, which you can listen to here.
I grew up in Mumbai, India, studied Arabic at Ayn Shams University in Cairo, Egypt, and came to Harvard University in the US for my PhD, which I completed in 1999. After that, I taught for a year at Yale University, then for two years at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City. In 2002, I joined the University of Chicago, where I’m currently Associate Professor of Arabic Literature in the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations (NELC). At the University of Chicago, I’m also affiliated with the Center for Middle Eastern Studies (CMES), the Committee on South Asian Studies (COSAS), and the Divinity School. And for the past six years, I’ve chaired a non-traditional major in the College named Interdisciplinary Studies in the Humanities (IS-Hum).
My work centers on classical Arabic literature. I have a deep interest in literary materials of the early Islamic period that preach virtue, which is my connection with the Virtues group of scholars. Overall, my scholarship focuses on intersections of the literary, the religious, and the political in classical Arabic poetry and prose. My areas of research are classical Arabic oratory and Islamic preaching (khutba); the Quran, traditions of the Prophet Muhammad, and the sermons and sayings of the first Shia imam and fourth Sunni caliph Ali ibn Abi Talib; and Fatimid-Tayyibi history and literature (the Fatimids were a Shia dynasty who ruled North Africa and Egypt from the 10th through the 12th centuries, and the Tayyibis are a Muslim denomination in Yemen and India, who look to the Fatimid legacy). I’ve also worked on Arabic in India.
My first journal article, which I published in 1995 while I was a graduate student at Harvard, was titled “Healing the Soul: Perspectives of Medieval Muslim Writers.” I discussed the ideas of certain key scholars in the Islamic tradition who used the metaphor of the physician and healing to promote virtue and faith. I found that the earliest accounts were based in either Greek ethics or the Qur’an, and the Greek aspects were rendered over three centuries into an Islamic matrix.
In my first monograph—published by Brill in 2005 titled Al-Mu’ayyad al-Shirazi and Fatimid Da’wa Poetry: A Case of Commitment in Classical Arabic Literature—I combined material and approaches from several disciplines to analyze the poetry of the 11th century scholar, al-Muʾayyad al-Shīrāzī, who was chief missionary for the Fatimid caliphs of Egypt. Al-Mu’ayyad is acknowledged as a giant in the Fatimid philosophical tradition, but none had worked on his poetry before. Because it is underpinned by esoteric doctrine, its true significance cannot be decoded without careful perusal of its philosophy and history. I found and used manuscripts of his poetry housed in private collections in India, and I also used an eclectic package of literary, historical, and theological primary sources, many of them also in manuscript form. I argued that al-Muʾayyad flew in the face of the rival Abbasid court’s conventional panegyric to create a new, very personal, “committed” form of Arabic poetry, with themes, imagery, and audiences consonant with his religio-political cause.
My currently ongoing monograph project is tentatively titled Classical Arabic Oratory:Religion, Politics and Orality-Based Aesthetics of Public Address in the Early Islamic World, for which I’m honored to have been awarded fellowships by the Carnegie Corporation and the American Council of Learned Societies. In the 7th and 8th centuries AD, oration was a crucial piece of the Arabian literary landscape, reigning supreme as its preeminent genre of prose. It was an integral component of pre-Islamic and early Islamic leadership, and it also had significant political, military and religious functions. Its themes and aesthetics had enormous influence on subsequent artistic prose. Little has come forth on the subject, due to substantial challenges posed by an archaic lexicon (these are hard texts to crack!), a vast array of sources, and the sticky question of dating. But I believe an approach sensitive to its oral underpinnings can meaningfully delineate key parameters of the genre. I’m analyzing the texts and contexts of these earliest Arabic speeches and sermons, and I hope to construct thereby the first comprehensive theory of classical Arabic oratory.
In the past five years, much of my intellectual energy has been directed to a new publication series titled “Library of Arabic Literature,” and it has been a joy and a privilege to be part of this emerging venture. In 2010, I was invited to its newly-forming Editorial Board, whose mandate is to produce facing-page Arabic editions and English translations of significant works of Arabic literature, with an emphasis on the 7th to 19th centuries, encompassing a wide range of genres, including poetry, religion, philosophy, law, science, and history. The project is supported by a grant from the New York University Abu Dhabi Institute, and its volumes are published by NYU Press. Its Editorial Board comprises a team of Arabic/Islamic professors at educational institutions in the US and UK. We meet twice a year in New York and Abu Dhabi, and in the first five years, we have produced a resounding 35 volumes. In 2015, our grant was renewed for another five years, and in this second phase we aim to bring out an additional 40 volumes.
Many of the really important texts of early Islamic literature remain in manuscript form, and many have not been translated into English, or have been translated in less than lucid renderings. In addition to my analytical research work, I’m also committed to making these masterpieces of Arabic literature available in reliable editions and engaging translations, especially those among them that promote virtue and contemplation.
In this context, I edited and translated a volume of Sayings, Sermons, and Teachings of Ali ibn Abi Talib, whom I mentioned before, who was the cousin and son in law of the prophet Muhammad, and the first Shia imam and the fourth Sunni caliph. (Library of Arabic Literature, NYU Press, 2013). The volume was compiled by al-Quda’i, who was a judge in medieval Cairo. The book is titled A Treasury of Virtues, and in beautiful desert metaphors and brilliantly pithy Arabic, it enjoins universal human virtues such as justice, wisdom, and kindness, presenting them in an Islamic and Quranic framework. For example, “ The best words are backed by deeds” “Oppressing the weak is the worst oppression” “Knowledge is a noble legacy” “The true worth of a man is measured by the good he does” “There is no treasure richer than contentment” “A just leader is better than abundant rainfall.”
I’ve recently completed editing and translating another volume for the series, this one being a compilation of the ethical and doctrinal sayings of the prophet Muhammad titled Light in the Heavens, by the same compiler, al-Quda’i. In a happy coincidence, its release date is today, November 8. The prophet Muḥammad (d. 632) is regarded by Muslims as God’s messenger to humankind. In addition to God’s words—the Qurʾan—which he conveyed over the course of his life as it was revealed to him, Muḥammad’s own words—called hadith—have a very special place in the lives of Muslims. They wield an authority second only to the Qurʾan and are cited by Muslims as testimonial texts in a wide array of religious, scholarly and popular literature—such as liturgy, exegesis, jurisprudence, oration, poetry, linguistics and more. Preachers, politicians and scholars rely on hadith to establish the truth of their positions, and lay people cite them to each other in their daily lives. These hadith disclose the ethos of the earliest period of Islam, the culture and society of 7th century Arabia. Since they also form an integral part of the Muslim psyche, they reveal the values and thinking of the medieval and modern Muslim community. Most importantly, they provide a direct window into the inspired vision of one of the most influential humans in history. These are a few sample hadith from the volume, which list traits that God loves: “God loves gentleness in everything,” “God is beautiful and loves beauty,” “God loves those who beseech him,” “God loves those who are virtuous, humble, and pious,” “God loves the believer who makes an honest living,” “God loves the grieving heart”.
Among the recent articles I’ve published, some are on Ali’s preaching. In one recent article I examine Ali’s melding of core Islamic teachings of the Quran enjoining piety and good works, with the oral, nature-based cultural ethos of seventh-century Arabia. Another recent article—and this is the one I shared with the Virtue scholars’ group in December—looks at Ali’s contemplations on this world and the hereafter in the context of his life and times. I argue that Ali encourages his followers to enjoy a happy life on earth and be grateful for God’s innumerable blessings, yet always keep preparing for the imminent hereafter, by cultivating virtuous traits and performing virtuous deeds. I’d like to read out to you a short excerpt from one of his sermons from this article:
O you who reproach this world while being so willingly deceived by her deceptions and tricked by her falsehoods! Do you choose to be deceived by her yet censure her? Should you be accusing her, or should she be accusing you?! When did she lure you or deceive? Was it by her destruction of your father and grandfather and great grandfather through decay? Or by her consigning your mother and grandmother and great grandmother to the earth? How carefully did your palms tend them! How tenderly did your hands nurse them! Hoping against hope for a cure, begging physician after physician for a medicament. On that fateful morning, your medicines did not suffice them, your weeping did not help, and your apprehension was of no benefit. Your appeal remained unanswered, and you could not push death away from them although you applied all your strength. By this, the world warned you of your own approaching end. She illustrated by their death your own.
Indeed, this world is a house of truth for whomsoever stays true to her, a house of wellbeing for whomsoever understands her, a house of riches for whomsoever gathers her provisions, a house of counsel for whomsoever takes her advice. She is a mosque for God’s loved ones, a place where God’s angels pray, where God’s revelation alights, where God’s saints transact, earning his mercy and profiting paradise.
In addition to the publications I’ve talked about, I always look to avail of opportunities to reach outside the ivory tower, and have lectured over the years on general topics related to Islamic history and Arabic literature, particularly on topics that promote goodwill among the human family. Two years ago, I gave a talk on “Imam Ali’s Preaching of Peace and Pluralism” at a UNESCO conference in Paris organized by its Iraq office titled “The contribution of Ali ibn Abi Talib’s Thought to a Culture of Peace and Intercultural Dialogue.” Just recently in September of this year I helped organize a conference in Kolkata, India, on exemplars of communal harmony in pre- and post-Independence India, that was hosted jointly by my father’s educational foundation Qutbi Jubilee Scholarship Program (QJSP) and the University of Calcutta, and was attended by the Vice Chancellor of the University of Calcutta, and the West Bengal Minister for Higher Education, and widely covered by the local media.
I’m very pleased to be part of the Templeton Foundation’s project Virtue, Happiness, and the Meaning of Life. I’m grateful to the Templeton Foundation for funding it, and to Candace Vogler for inviting me to participate. This has been a wonderful opportunity for me to expand my horizons, and bring my work into conversation with the major Western philosophical and theological traditions. I’ve especially enjoyed the practical perspectives of psychology and economics brought by the social scientists in the group on questions of virtue and happiness. It’s been a privilege to listen to these amazing scholars.
I’ve found many parallels with the classical Islamic traditions I work with, and hope to make use of these new insights and apply them to my own work. For example, many of the group’s scholars work on Thomas Aquinas, and the harmony of faith and reason that is expressed in his teachings resonates with several schools of Islamic thought, especially one that I work with, the Fatimid-Ismaili school. Others work on Aristotle, and his cardinal virtues of justice, temperance, wisdom, and courage are strongly reflected in the early Islamic aphoristic material, and in the sayings of the Prophet Muhammad and Imam Ali. The material my colleagues on the Virtue Scholars team work on is itself fascinating, and the questions and methodologies they bring to bear on it are equally illuminating.
I’m also happy to have the opportunity to present some Islamic approaches to virtue, to these scholars who may not have engaged with the Islamic tradition in any depth before.
A significant prompt that has come out of this workshop for me is a renewed emphasis on the importance of harnessing ideas to promote virtue and happiness on the ground. This is academic work, but it’s also very personal. The research on the hows and whys of a meaningful life discussed at the workshop is really valuable. For me, the natural corollary to the expert analysis is how to translate this information into becoming a better human being myself, and to work toward promoting kindness and virtue in the many communities I’m part of. The research, both individual and collaborative is important. But it’s equally important to think about how to use that practically to be a nice, kind person oneself, and to promote niceness and kindness among the people we live. I’m delighted to be part of this ambitious project, and I hope that together we can make a difference, and offer some contribution to a better and more peaceful world.
Tahera Qutbuddin is Associate Professor of Arabic Literature at the University of Chicago and Scholar with the project Virtue, Happiness, & the Meaning of Life.
In my last post, I ended with several questions about the purpose of higher education, and the relationship of higher education to human flourishing:
What is the point of seeking higher education in the United States these days?
What are we meant to be providing for our students?
What should they have when they compete their degrees that they did not have when they first matriculated?
The most obvious answers to these questions are not, I think, especially helpful to us. For example, reasonably stable statistics suggest that for most—but not all—people earning a four-year college degree will increase income-earning potential. The degree is a requirement for a better-paying job than one can get with a high school diploma (or its equivalent).
Notice that it is not obvious why this is the case. Some people think that the degree demonstrates to potential employers that the student can succeed in sticking to a course of study, has some experience with whatever level of self-discipline is required to show up for classes often enough, and, if her transcript is strong, has met some serious standards of assessment for work along the way. In addition, the person who completes her degree program and emerges with a strong transcript will have undergone important socialization outside the confines of her family. The university is a sheltered sort of larger world, but a larger world nonetheless, and, in the course of learning to live and work in the little larger world, the successful undergraduate will have developed at least some new interests and become involved in some sorts of groups or community activities that help to prepare her to take part in a larger sort of larger world.
If that’s all that we are doing for our students, if that’s all that they take away from our work with them, then we are failing them and failing to understand the kind of opportunity we have in higher education. Who are these people—our prospective and actual students? Many of them are young adults, sometimes away from home for the first time, often anxious, often hopeful, and almost inevitably at a crucial point in their lives where they are beginning to make the decisions and take the actions that will open or close the doors on how they will live after they leave us. They sometimes are full of questions about ethics or politics. If they think that all those questions have been answered for them long ago, they may be moving around in a perilous place with brittle conviction in an environment that, at its best, will at least ask that they have something to say on behalf of what they have come to take for granted. Some are entering our institutions or returning to such institutions after having been at work or at war.
Whether they are new to us or familiar with higher education, they may have very little experience with genuine educational moments. Genuine educational moments are necessarily alarming and destabilizing. In a genuine educational experience, one finds that a thing one has simply accepted or taken for granted wobbles. Educational experience disrupts one’s sense of mastery.
This is obviously true when one is learning higher mathematics or formal logic or a new language. By definition, advancing in a new language or learning a new formal system requires learning—usually through the wretched process of making mistake after mistake until the thing becomes more habitual, and it is possible to innovate a little—make a new sentence; figure out the sort of equation one needs in order to cope with the engineering problem; locate what’s broken in the program and fix it. In these fields the subject matter itself provides some of the standards one has to meet in order to do well. But a question ought to haunt students who are busily acquiring technical competence or linguistic ability. That question ought to be: to what end? Why should I go through the torture of learning German or Latin or organic chemistry or real analysis? Why should anyone subject herself to such discipline at all when you’d have to be mad to be incapable of imagining a more pleasant way of spending an hour or two this afternoon?
If the answer is something like ‘because I need to do well in organic chemistry in order to get into medical school,’ or ‘I have to know German in order to take the kind of position I want with a multi-national firm based in Hamburg, or else to do doctoral work in art history, say, or some area of history or philosophy,’ then, I think, the ‘Why?’-question ought to re-appear. And why go on with those things?
My disappointed, restless, demoralized and self-actualized thirty-somethings did not ask that second set of ‘Why?’ questions. All of them hold good degrees. Nothing in their academic careers demonstrated to them, or even asked of them, very much about the point of what they were learning. None of them were in an educational setting where it was as natural as reading or breathing or completing a homework assignment to attend to the way in which their academic work was meant to suit them to participate in a larger common good. Not just to give them new things to be interested in or to puzzle about. Not just to get them over a hurdle that they had to cross in order to try to clear the next hurdle. Rather, to give them something that could make it possible for them to be a source of good in the lives of people they will never invite over to dinner and will never meet at the interval at the opera.
In my line of work, people are often made very anxious by the suggestion that there needs to be a special point to our teaching and our research. We sometimes think that any suggestion that we ought to have something to say on this score threatens to reduce the grandeur of the life of the mind—an especially high and serious sort of calling for our sort of animal; the sort of thing that makes a human being more important than a really wonderful dog (even when the dog’s company is more pleasant)—to reduce the value of what we do to some grubby instrumental sort of affair belonging to the shabby business of getting and spending rather than the higher calling of truth and beauty and goodness.
I am all in favor of truth and beauty and goodness. I tend to think that genuine attachments to truth and beauty and goodness are attachments to common human good. These attachments are inexhaustible. My attachments to these can never exclude yours. Yours can never damage mine. When all goes well, mine instead enrich yours, and yours mine. And provided that we are honest and fair, and have the sort of humility that belongs to such matters properly understood, we can all seek a share in truth and beauty and goodness. I don’t think that such an aspiration is the kind of thing that allows for the cultivation of a big ego, actually. Again, properly governed, the self shrinks in the face of such things.
For all that, I tend to be pretty flat-footed about the daily business of higher education. Whatever subject I am teaching, my aim is to understand my classroom as a community gathered together for the sake of having and sharing an important educational experience—focused on the books or passages or films or images that we confront, and entering these things as human cultural materials produced in the face of genuine questions about what it is to be human, and how one ought to live. The silent partner in most of my classrooms is Aquinas. He taught me to understand that every student I have is there because they want to pursue something good, or avoid something bad. He taught me that they all have a basic grasp of what is good or bad in human life, even if almost none of them can articulate it. He taught me that we are all of us intellectual animals, and that, for us, it takes work to develop harmonious thought and feeling, desire and action, in order to pursue good reasonably and avoid bad appropriately. And he taught me that, even when one has a measure of wisdom in these matters, the ethical remains challenging. To put it bluntly, by the lights of this Catholic thinker, having a full measure of acquired wisdom—a good character, properly virtuous dispositions, and so on—will not obviate the need to go to confession. There still will be things that we do and fail to do, say and fail to say, think and fail to think, that we will have good reason to regret on reflection. And, for all of that, our bits are made to work together reasonably and harmoniously, even if almost none of us ever quite manages to live an entirely well-ordered life.
In higher education we are charged with helping our students learn to prepare for productive futures as creatures oriented to participation in larger common good—whether that is the good of the neighborhood, the good of the firm, the good of one’s patients or clients. In a culture that seems overwhelmingly directed to self-enhancement, self-expression, self-actualization, affluence, power, winning, and success, we have to help them to see what they do from a higher vantage point. We have to help them be alert to the people around them, even if only those people in the classroom. We have to help them see themselves as charged not just with getting whatever they might be able to get from us that could give them a clear path gainful employment after they leave us, but to recognize the larger goods and potential pitfalls at issue in any path to gainful employment they might pursue.
In this sense, I think, the height of higher education is better measured by the wider context in which we work. And, since, as near as I can tell, human beings are made for orientation to common good—again, on however small or grand a scale—I think that this is not nearly as abstract or difficult as it might seem from my words about truth and goodness and beauty. We can count on this in one another, whether or not we know it. And those of us who have faith in God can rely on Him for some help.
I promised to tall you two stories. The second is an extracurricular story about a garden.
My husband and I live on the south side of Chicago in a mixed income neighborhood not far from the Lake where many children live in poverty and many adults struggle to make ends meet. My husband and I have colonized the large vacant lot next to our building and made of it a park-like community garden. I have a big flower border, because flowers feed everybody. We have a community herb bed, and a vegetable garden that provides a lot of neighborhood folks with greens and cucumbers, tomatoes and peppers, carrots and beets all summer long. There is a stand of mulberry trees at one spot, and my husband built a low, very solid, very good treehouse in the largest of them with steps leading up to the big deck. The kids play on that lot all summer, and we made the treehouse for them. But, partly because the garden is the nicest place to be anywhere in the immediate vicinity, shortly after the treehouse was up, older kids started hanging out in the treehouse after dark on the weekends. Many belonged to what we call “street organizations,” but what you most likely know as “gangs.” The neighbors across the alley were in an uproar over this. They insisted that the treehouse had to come down. Of course, taking it down would have meant getting rid of the best and safest place to play during the day for scores of children.
So my husband started praying about it. We went back over basic Aquinas on human nature—how everyone has natural reason; how everyone wants to be toward good and away from bad…those things. And one night, when the treehouse has more than the usual crowd of armed folks using drugs and hanging out, my husband baked a big batch of chocolate chip cookies and headed out to the treehouse with two plates of cookies and a mission.
“We have to talk,” he said, offering them cookies.
And they talked. He explained that he understood that there were no jobs for them in our neighborhood and that they were in the underground economy for good reasons. But, he pointed out, their work put them at big risks of being victims of drive-by-shootings. “It would break my heart,” he said, “to find myself out here cleaning your blood off this treehouse.”
They have to make a living. No question there. But the garden is not the place for that activity. It is not even a place to use drugs.
They talked a long time. He explained that he was under pressure to dismantle to treehouse, and what that would cost the kids who played there all day. That it would cost the older kids a place to hang out in the early evening as well.
And they agreed.
Then they talked about cussing. My husband explained that he was, himself, a writer, and had very high regard for verbal artistry. He praised their impromptu, virtuoso skill with language. And allowed as how there had to be places to do their art. But, again, the garden was not that place. There were children. There were old people. It was important to make this very good place a special place where what passed between people was gentle and kind.
And they agreed.
That was three years ago. No one sells drugs from the garden. No one uses drugs in the garden. No one cusses loudly and at length in the garden. (Of course a bad word or two will leak out if someone, say, hits his thumb with a hammer or something.) Everyone recognizes the garden as a safe, beautiful place made to for anyone who wants to visit. We still have kids who throw tomatoes. We still have little ones who get in tussles and accidentally run over new beds sometimes. The youngest of this season’s local children still are children. But no one has any problem with the treehouse.
The local leaders of what we call “street organizations” are fully capable of hearing a call to preserve and protect a garden, and of changing course for the sake of common good.
If we can do this with a small band of armed drug dealers on the south side of Chicago, what does it say about us if we are unwilling to teach our students to locate their studies in a developing awareness of the good at stake in what we teach them? How are we seeing these beings if we do not think that they arrive hungry for ways of directing themselves to a larger good than a future paycheck?
Of course we have to attend to the future paycheck. I grew up in a scrappy world where future paychecks were tremendously important, and I had tenure before I finished paying off my student loans. But I was in the process of finding a vocation in addition to getting a degree with no expectation that it would turn into a job. And that eye toward the higher thing is what made it all worthwhile.
Candace Vogler is the David B. and Clara E. Stern Professor of Philosophy and Professor in the College at the University of Chicago, and Director and Principal Investigator for Virtue, Happiness, & the Meaning of Life.
I will tell us two stories—the first is about a group of highly successful people in their early 30s—doctors, business people, and a few junior partners at good corporate law firms. One is a former student. I began meeting the others in planes several years ago. (I travel a lot on the same airline; the miles make it possible for me to provide plane tickets for people who can’t afford to fly; they also get me a lot of free upgrades.) All of the professionals I met had impressive undergraduate records at good secular four-year colleges or universities. The doctors and lawyers had very respectable advanced degrees. Unlike some high-achievers, the ones I met were more likely than not to have children and several even belonged to churches. And, one-on-one, individually, each one talked to me about how things were going. My former student was about to flee a wildly successful job at Goldman Sachs in New York. The others just wanted to talk to someone, and even though telling people that you teach philosophy does not inspire quite the revelations that one of my colleagues gets when he tells people that he’s a psychoanalyst, when people hear “philosophy” they sometimes get thoughtful. And confidential.
To the extent that I could tell from brief acquaintance with the strangers (and long, if sporadic, association with my former student) these shining people had done everything they thought they were supposed to do to lead full lives. They were educated. The doctors had not done much with anything in the humanities because they had to get through so many requirements to get their pre-med out of the way and because there is really no time for that when you are in med school and doing your residency, but they listened to music or saw art occasionally when they could. To the extent you can tell by looking, my acquaintances were healthy. Most were still paying back some student loans, but they were doing well—many were buying homes of one kind or another. They had friends. They had some sort of family. As I say, a few belonged to churches. A few had some other sort of community, if only at work. And they were, to all appearances, pretty good human beings.
Here is what I learned about these young men and women, who were everything that parents concerned about the soaring costs of higher education could see as evidence that the investment was worth it: they were lost people.
A few were angry about that. A few felt guilty about that. And all of them expected that a philosopher ought to understand what was wrong. So I asked a lot of questions—you can ask a lot of questions on a long airplane flight and these poster children for our culture were accustomed to talking about themselves. They were high-achievers. They had made their parents proud. They were popular. I like to listen. And what I wanted to hear was how the machinery of very good institutions of higher education that were, as we say, secular—we are in the U.S. where the term was invented to mark the separation of church and state as in ‘no state religion; many sects,’ by which lights my university used to be secular and has become merely unaffiliated. Anyway, I was trying to understand how institutions of higher learning with no religious or faith affiliation had failed these people. The strangers had attended brick-and-mortar institutions. They had had teachers in classrooms with them. They had been in communities. Learning communities. And their lives were hollow.
Instead of something like happiness they had scattered moments of excitement or pleasure. Instead of challenging and nurturing intimacy they had phones with lots of photographs of pets or children to document the moments when things felt more or less okay. As Karl Marx put it in the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, I was meeting human beings who lived like birds—they had nests or, at least, large loans at low interest rates attached to what would be their nests. They flew here and there gathering things to bring back to the nests to feed and shelter and amuse themselves and any nestlings. They woke each morning with a huge to-do list hitting them in the face. And then flew off again. At least they were busy. Very, very busy. But there was no sense of meaning. There was no sense of purpose. There was, instead, the creeping realization that a busy life is not a full life, and that they had managed to get through a lot of higher education without ever developing the inner orientation or wider attachments that make all of the knowledges they had acquired and skills they had learned have a point.
One could object that their universities had not failed them. After all, the whole culture directs them to do what they did, and to focus their energies in the way that they had focused them. But Institutions of higher learning have tremendous influence on young people, and my strangers had all gone straight from secondary schooling to universities or four-year colleges.
Faced with my unhappy thirty-somethings I tried to think about the difference between people whose lives are hollow and people whose lives are full. I am a philosopher. We don’t have data. We have anecdotes. And in stories and writings we look for patterns, and we tend to look for patterns in an abstract sort of way with an eye toward catching sight of a problem.
It did not take much work to sense the problem that had hollowed out the lives of these beautiful young people. They had been fed a steady diet of the need to perform, to actualize themselves, to get an increasingly articulate sense of who they were and what they cared about, to find themselves, to express themselves, to meet the standards of their professions, to get ahead, and to use all of that effort to put together a secure life for themselves and any children who might come their way. Hollow people running to and fro in the shells of very busy lives punctuated by highs having to do with additional achievement spikes at work, fancy holidays in exotic places, and the undeniably wonderful things that the children said and did now and then, or genuinely heartwarming exchanges with the dogs or the cats. Higher education in the United States had prepared them for nothing better than this.
Frankly, it’s not worth it if that’s all we have to offer.
We are meant to guide and help them make a transition from home to the world in a way that equips them to act well. At their ages, with their tasks, and with our resources, moral formation will take place on campuses whether we like it or not. Higher education failed my thirty-somethings either by failing to attend to this obvious point, or else by attending to it and having whole modes of formation built right into the design and conduct of every class that cannot but churn out highly successful hollow people who are, of course, more likely than many to pay back their student loans.
I have been working with a grant from the John Templeton Foundation called “Virtue, Happiness, and the Meaning of Life.” We are a network project, bringing together an extraordinary group of empirical psychologists of many stripes, philosophers, theologians, and religious thinkers to read each other’s disciplinary works-in-progress with a shared set of foci. We want to understand the connections between virtue, happiness, and a sense of meaning or purpose in life. We want to use that shared focus to intervene in our separate disciplines. It is an unusual grant. So far, it is going very well.
It looked to me like happiness and virtue came apart in the lives of the thirty-somethings, and that senses of meaning or purpose were at best temporary, local, episodic, goal-based, and not quite the things that add up to any overall sense that life is worth living.
Now, there are scholars of Aristotle who will insist that these people are not really virtuous, because if you really are virtuous, then you will be a good human being who enjoys the special kind of happiness that comes of living a good human life. I have never known what to make of this view, even though I know one genuinely happy Aristotelian virtue ethicist who think just this, and two very serious Aristotle scholars who likewise seem to believe it, and to be both good human beings and pretty happy.
They are interested in the happiness that is sometimes called “flourishing,” which is the spiritually muted English translation of the Greek term eudaimonia. The daimon-bit in eudaimonia suggests some sort of traffic with divinity—a topic that is difficult and strange in Aristotle. So one can think of “flourishing” as the acceptable English translation that highlights what humans have in common with every other living thing.
These thinkers are very comfortable with the thought that the thing that people most want is happiness, and even my preferred neo-Aristotelian, Thomas Aquinas, takes some such view on board, although the desired happiness is not properly identified with good feeling or satisfaction or contentment in temporal life—the thing that my restless thirty-somethings found inexplicably absent both at work and at home.
It might be the case that there are no necessary connections between happiness and virtue, or between either of these and having a sense of meaning or purpose in life. Perhaps stubborn insistence that these things ought to connect up has more to do with a philosophical fantasy than with the business of leading a good life. I don’t think so, although I confess that I have never thought about happiness as a thing to go after, or unhappiness as a sign that I must have gone off the rails in some way. Still, partly in deference to a long tradition of thinkers much greater than I, I got very interested in the difference between hollow lives and full lives, and I had the hunch that full lives were lives lived with a keen sense of participating in, and working for, a good that was larger than just my own welfare, achievements, success, and self-actualization alongside the well being of those in my intimate circle. What was missing from the lives of those accomplished young professionals was, I suspected, a way of living that was fundamentally attuned to common good. Sadly, at this level of description, I think that there really is a place to ask questions about virtue and character and formation from a Thomistic neo-Aristotelian position.
As I read Aquinas, there is no such thing as genuine virtue that is entirely self-serving, even when I expand my sense of my self to include, say, members of my immediate family and my friends. The term that our research project uses to mark this point is self-transcendence—initially introduced in motivational psychology by Abraham Maslow to mark an orientation to life that was superior to an emphasis on self-actualization.
What, you may be asking yourself at this point, does all this talk of hollow lives, happy lives, self-transcendence, and good character have to do with higher education?
To answer this question, it helps to ask other questions:
What is the point of seeking higher education in the United States these days?
What are we meant to be providing for our students?
What should they have when they compete their degrees that they did not have when they first matriculated?
In the next post [scheduled for Friday, November 18], I will consider these questions and tell a couple of stories about moral education and everyday life.
Candace Vogler is the David B. and Clara E. Stern Professor of Philosophy and Professor in the College at the University of Chicago, and Director and Principal Investigator for Virtue, Happiness, & the Meaning of Life.
Click the link below to hear our scholar and philosopher Fr. Kevin Flannery discuss his research in action theory, how we analyze whether an act is good or not within its context, and how his research is impacted by working within our project.
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.
If character is so important for moral behavior, how does one develop it?
Is vice related to immoral behavior in the same way that character is related to moral behavior?
Does the relationship between character and moral behavior imply anything about the unity of the virtues?
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:
Can all the good aspects of moral character be possessed by someone who lacks the relevant moral feelings?
What does it mean to say that someone “has” a virtue?
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.
‘Vir,’ the Latin root for the term, links to the term for the male organ–as in ‘virile’–and was used to denote a strength of some sort.
In contemporary philosophy and religious studies, a virtue is a character trait, not a personality trait. Social scientists sometimes treat character traits such as virtues as features of personality, but some scholars have recently begun working on the necessity of elucidating the strict separation of work on personality from work on character. ‘Character’ is a developed, stable way of taking in what you get from the world, feeling/emotion/response to others, and action. For example, kind people don’t just help people who fall down on the ground in front of them, although they normally WILL do that; kind people also find instances and reports of cruelty painful, look for ways to make others’ lives go more smoothly, enjoy it when things go well for others, and try to avoid injuring people. Kind people notice the kinds of things that injure or could injure others. Kind people also are willing to do unpleasant things for the sake of helping others, and may even be willing to do dangerous things to help others. That is plain old virtue at work. Kindness may start when caretakers invite a child to think how she would feel if someone else did/said that thing (that she just did/said) to her.
There are two sorts of virtues–strengths–that our philosophers and religious thinkers have studied. These two are acquired virtue and infused virtue.
An acquired virtue is a strength of character that develops by doing the things one ought to do–e.g., telling the truth, paying your bills, looking after the health and well being of those who depend on you. Children begin to develop proto-virtues by obeying adults and gradually stopping doing the kinds of things that make it really hard to look after groups of children–hitting, lying, being selfish with toys or crayons, etc. Acquired virtues become habitual, and help direct the person towards good, but like any habit, they can also be broken, become infrequently used, or go entirely absent.
An infused virtue, on the other hand, is one given to you, and not one you can acquire. In Christian theology, infused virtues are given to us by God. Virtues that Catholic theologians always consider to be infused include faith, hope, and charity. Thomas Aquinas believed that infused virtues such as these prepare us for union with God. Instead of becoming confused, losing wisdom, and going astray–as we are wont to do–we are kept on track by our infused virtues, and our whole natures are better ordered towards the pursuit of what is best and most just, making us right with ourselves, each other, and God.
Aquinas thinks that he finds in Aristotle the idea that even plain old virtue is directed to the common good–basically, that my virtues (if I have any) are at least as likely to benefit others as they are to benefit me, and that the benefit to others is genuine benefit–I help contribute to GOOD ways of producing and reproducing the GOOD aspects of the social world we share. Although it is not at all clear that this view comes from Aristotle, what IS clear is that virtue is hard to cultivate and puts people at risk in various ways. Testifying truthfully in court about gang activity in my neighborhood can make me a target for bad stuff, for example. It is not nearly as easy to be kind to angry or frightened and unpleasant people as it is to be kind to puppies, well-behaved children, and pleasant adults. But it is often the unpleasant living things that need kindness.
Virtue, then, is not an attitude, although attitudes often go along with virtue. It is not a belief system or a kind of desire or a kind of feeling/emotion, although virtue shapes thoughts and feelings. It is closer to a stable, cultivated way of noticing what’s going on and responding to what’s going on (inwardly and through one’s actions) aimed at supporting, enabling, or doing actual good. On the traditional account, even though there are distinct virtues, these have to work together if actual good is supposed to be the result. For instance, it isn’t kindness if I tell you lies in order to make you feel better, even if telling you the truth will likely make both of us feel worse. It’s not generosity if I offer to drive the getaway car when you guys are set on armed robbery. Personality traits concern me and my psychology. Character traits can correct aspects of my personality. For instance, if I tend to be irritable or gullible or petty, virtues like temperance, practical wisdom, and justice can help to correct these flaws in my personality. If I am impulsive, virtue can help bring a measure of thoughtfulness and care to my doings. Basically, virtues help to govern my mind, emotions, will and actions so that I can pursue good without sabotaging my own efforts or impeding myself.
Candace Vogler is the David B. and Clara E. Stern Professor of Philosophy and Professor in the College at the University of Chicago, and Principal Investigator for Virtue, Happiness, & the Meaning of Life.