Truth and Goodness and Rationality: Interview with Anselm Mueller


We’re pleased to share this interview with Anselm Winfriend Mueller, our 2017-18 visiting scholar, who is a visiting professor this quarter at the Department of Philosophy at the University of Chicago. He spoke with Johann Gudmundsson, a doctoral student at the Universität Leipzig currently on a research stay at the University of Chicago, where he’s working on his dissertation on moral judgment and practical goodness.      

Johann Gudmundsson: For many years, you’ve been pursuing the thought that to act well is to act from practical reason. How are truth and goodness related to rationality? Do you think that there is a deep affinity between goodness and truth?

Anselm Winfried Mueller:  Can we reasonably ask whether what you ultimately aim at in acting, rather than just whatever happens to attract you, is really good? – I think we can. At least, we take it for granted that in principle the question has an answer. For, in a year’s time, you may think you were wrong to aim at what you aimed at (much as you may come to think false what you believed to be true a year before). Such a thought makes sense only if there is a standard of goodness by which to evaluate purposes objectively (much as beliefs are evaluated objectively by the standard of truth). So ascriptions of goodness will themselves be true or false.

What is the place of rationality in this context? – To manifest knowledge, a statement has, as a rule, to be based on adequate reasons. Theoretical rationality is to this extent the way we reach truth. But a statement can be true without manifesting knowledge. By contrast, the goodness that we achieve in acting well depends unrestrictedly on what reasons we respond, and don’t respond, to. To act justly, for instance, is: to be motivated by others’ rights; to act courageously is: not to be turned away from important pursuits by the threat of danger etc.

JG: In the mid-20th century, questions relating to ethical language were in vogue, and reflection on moral discourse and meaning was held to be crucial. For example, a central question was whether ethical statements, qua speech act, should be understood as full-blown assertions or not. Those questions have faded from spotlight in recent years. How do you estimate the significance of language for ethical thought?

AWM: Quite generally, the way we talk about things supplies significant hints at their correct understanding. This is so with talk about actions and their moral qualities as much as it is with talk about causes, numbers, social institutions, or whatever.

Now, in order to improve our grasp of the relevant concepts, attention has to be directed at the interaction between the ways we talk and the ways we act. What philosophy needs to get clear about is the different roles that different uses of words play in the wider context of human social life. So philosophers have rightly become critical of arguments based simply on “what we (don’t) say”.

But, as far as I can see, present day analytical philosophy suffers more from the opposite error: its practitioners are often insensitive or indifferent to the problematic character of formulations required or admitted by their theories, when by taking notice of it they might have discovered, e.g., that the phenomena they were hoping to cover by a unifying account were in fact more disparate than this account allowed.

JG: It seems that there are two kinds of good that pertain to human beings. On the one hand, there’s individual well-being or happiness. On the other hand, there’s moral perfection. Would you be happy to draw this distinction? If yes, how do you think individual happiness and moral perfection are related?

AWM: I can’t say that I would be happy to draw that distinction. Shouldn’t one feel honored to belong to a species noble enough to find their happiness guaranteed by adherence to reason realized in a life of virtue, as the Stoics taught?

Unfortunately, this doctrine is a sort of philosophical self-deception. It is indeed true, I think, that a person cannot be happy without attempting to lead a virtuous life. And also, that human happiness cannot but consist in the satisfying use of reason. But we just have to acknowledge that serious suffering tends to prevent the virtuous person from being happy.

Moreover, although the practice of virtue is typically a source of happiness, there are other things as well, such as family life or the successful pursuit of a worthwhile project, that may well be constitutive of the (limited) happiness a man is able to attain. I agree that it won’t make you happy to pursue such a project by evil means. But this does not mean that ethical virtue is the feature of your pursuit that secures your happiness.

So honesty requires us to answer your first question by acknowledging the distinction between happiness and moral perfection. The second question may be one of those that it is the task of philosophy to raise and keep alive although it cannot answer them. As Kant observed, we just cannot discard the idea that there “must” be a way in which the pursuit of virtue issues in happiness. This, too, honesty requires us to recognize. I suspect it is even part of virtue itself to think, with Socrates: It cannot, ultimately, be to my disadvantage to pursue it.

JG: You probably would agree that the aim of philosophical activity is to get clear on certain fundamental notions. The aim of practical philosophy then would be to clarify notions such as intention, reason, goodness and rationality. Do you think that practical philosophy can also be of practical guidance by providing answers to substantial moral questions? Or can such answers only be reached beyond philosophy, for example in public discourse, individual conscience or religious traditions?

AWM: It would be pleasant for practical philosophers to think of themselves as benefiting humanity by giving the kind of guidance you mention. But I think their ambitions have to be more modest.

I am not a skeptic about the possibility of showing that human life is in need of moral norms. But, first, such demonstrations remain theoretical: they explain moral requirements, and they give you reason to believe that doing this and avoiding that serves human flourishing; but they do not thereby already give you reason to do this and avoid that. And, second, nobody – philosopher or not – will adopt a moral norm such as: not to cheat, or: to take responsibility for one’s children, or: to refrain from cruelty, because of a philosophical demonstration; for one’s conviction of the need to comply with such norms will almost certainly be more certain than one’s confidence in any philosophical argument for them.

Nevertheless, philosophers need not despair of their public utility. On the one hand, people who already listen to the voice of virtue are in a position, and will be ready, also to learn, for their practice, from theoretical reflexion on what you call substantial moral questions – on how to carry on in view of considerations that may have escaped them. On the other hand, and possibly even more importantly, good philosophy is needed to refute the brand of bad philosophy that claims to show that morality is an illusion, or that what it enjoins is “authenticity” in the pursuit of your likings, or the like – the kind of claim that is sensational or shocking enough to make it into the media and is hailed by those already tempted to deceive themselves, or compromise, where moral requirements challenge their questionable inclinations.

I am not myself enough of a columnist to take on the task of facing popular versions of misguided philosophical claims. The job that your question well describes as clarifying “notions such as intention, reason, goodness and rationality” is (I hope!) more congenial to my temperament and talent. So I cheerfully resign myself to peaceful exchange with those enviable colleagues who engage in both “philosophizing for philosophers” and “philosophizing for the world”.


Johann Gudmundsson got his Magister Artium degree in Philosophy and German studies from the Universität Leipzig after having studied there and at the University of Iceland in Reykjavik. He then worked as a research assistant at the Universität Leipzig and as a coordinator of a project funded by the National Academy of Sciences Leopoldina on institutional and quality problems of the German doctorate, and now a doctoral student at the Universität Leipzig currently on a research stay at the University of Chicago, where he’s working on his dissertation on moral judgment and practical goodness.      

Video: Candace Vogler and Rev. Lola Wright at the Chicago Humanities Festival

Candace Vogler spoke with Reverend Lola Wright about about her work as principal investigator of our project on self-transcendence as the key to the connections between virtue, happiness, and the meaning of life, for the Chicago Humanities Festival Fallfest17: Belief! on Sunday, November 12, 2017 at the Chicago Sinai Congregation.

Research suggests that individuals who feel they belong to something bigger than just themselves—an extended family, a spiritual practice, work for social justice—often feel happier and have better life outcomes than those who do not. This sense of connection has a name in academia: “self-transcendence.”

Learn more about RevLo and Candace and this event here.

CFP: Muslim-Christian Workshop on Philosophy, Religion, and Science at the American University of Sharjah, March 2018

Our co-principal investigator Jennifer A. Frey will give the keynote addresses
“Virtue and Happiness” and “Virtues and Meaning in Life” at the Muslim-Christian Workshop on Philosophy, Religion, and Science at the American University of Sharjah (College of Arts & Sciences) 14-17 March 2018.

The main objective of this workshop, the second in a series in the Middle East, is to bring scholars and young academics from the Muslim world and from the USA, trained in philosophy, religion and/or science, to benefit from in-depth lectures and discussions on issues at the interfaces of philosophy, religion, and science from both Islamic and Christian perspectives.

Scholars will give 1-hour lectures or 2-hour workshops to cover major topics, while 15-20 young academics (graduate students, early career professors) will present their selected research papers in 30 minutes each. The goal is for everyone, particularly the young academics, to benefit from multi-disciplinary and inter-religious perspectives and to identify new avenues of research.

The workshop will run over 4 days, March 14 to 17, 2018 not including arrival and departure days.

The submission deadline for papers is: January 21, 2018, possibly extendable to Jan. 31, 2018.

For more information, including paper submission details, visit

Top 75 Happiness Blogs

happiness concept
The Virtue Blog has been selected by Feedspot as one of the “Top 75 Happiness Blogs” on the web.
“These are the best Happiness blogs from thousands of top Happiness blogs in our index using search and social metrics. Data are refreshed once a week.” Read more here:
Spoiler alert: We’re #54!

Community in the Classroom

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Note: This post is a reprint from the November 2017 article in Fulbright Hearts and Minds. The piece and more information about the Fulbright Specialist Program can be viewed here.

In August and September 2017, Professor Candace Vogler from the University of Chicago spent three weeks in residence at the Institute for Ethics & Society at The University of Notre Dame Australia in Sydney, supported by a generous grant from the Fulbright Specialist Program.

Candace is a world leading moral philosopher, and one of the most creative minds at work today on how to translate the insights of moral philosophy into improving tertiary education environments.

Her expertise dovetails with the Institute for Ethics & Society’s research strengths in moral philosophy and ethics education.

Candace and researchers at Notre Dame share the conviction that integrating moral philosophy into university curriculums has a unique role to play in contributing to the intellectual and moral formation of all university students.

During her visit at Notre Dame, Candace delivered a public lecture, gave two keynote conference papers, taught a master-class on the history of moral philosophy, and facilitated a pedagogy workshop on creating community in the classroom.

She also consulted with researchers and senior leadership on how to develop connections between moral philosophy and professional education – a particular passion for Notre Dame in its commitment to providing an excellent standard of training for the professions.

The visit made a huge impact on students and faculty at Notre Dame, and led to the Institute for Ethics & Society being named an official partner institution with the University of Chicago’s $2.2m John Templeton Project “Virtue, Happiness, and the Meaning of Life” – a partnership which will bring the Institute for Ethics & Society into a global community of scholars and allow it to further develop its research expertise in moral philosophy and ethics education.

Professor Sandra Lynch, Director of the Institute for Ethics & Society was responsible for the successful FSP proposal. “Winning this grant has opened many doors for us and stimulated our thinking, especially in relation to ethics education. Not only did we have the pleasure of engaging with and learning from Candace for three weeks, but the link has enabled us to begin building research linkages around the world.

“A number of our researchers have been admirers of Candace’s scholarship for many years. This grant has provided us with a pathway to continue benefitting from Candace’s expertise in the future, and we also expect it will provide a platform for discussion and dissemination of our research in years to come as we interact with scholars of moral philosophy and ethics education around the world.”

The impact of this specialist visit was also felt in the wider Australian academic community. Activities associated with her visit saw researchers and students from universities across Sydney, as well as from the University of Oxford, University College London, and Princeton Theological Seminary, gather at Notre Dame to learn from Candace.

Cardinal Blase J. Cupich, Prof. Jonathan Lear to give keynotes at conference

cardinal-and-learnews(From left): Cardinal Blase J. Cupich and Prof. Jonathan Lear will present the keynote talks.

Oct. 13 and 14 event caps Virtue, Happiness & the Meaning of Life project

By Andrew Bauld

After more than two years of research with collaboration between philosophers, religious thinkers and psychologists, the Virtue, Happiness & the Meaning of Lifeproject will present its findings at a capstone conference on Oct. 13 and 14, featuring keynote talks by Prof. Jonathan Lear and Cardinal Blase J. Cupich.

The conference culminates a project that brought scholars together from around the world to examine the enrichment of human life. Research in both the humanities and social sciences suggests that people who feel they belong to something bigger than themselves—be it family, a spiritual practice, or work in social justice—are often happier than those who do not. Scholars refer to the feeling as “self-transcendence.”

Panelists throughout both days, including scholars from religious studies, theology, philosophy, psychology, and economics, will discuss whether self-transcendence truly makes people happier and provides deeper meaning in human life.

Speakers from the University of Chicago include Candace Vogler, the David B. and Clara E. Stern Professor of Philosophy and co-principal investigator for the project; Marc Berman, assistant professor in psychology; and Tahera Qutbuddin, professor of Arabic literature.

“This conference serves to share our research with the broader community,” said Jennifer A. Frey, co-principal investigator, assistant professor of philosophy at the University of South Carolina and formerly a scholar at the University of Chicago. “Our scholars from a variety of disciplines have reached similar conclusions about the essential role of self-transcendence in the general account of what makes for potential happiness and meaning in human lives. Our hope is that as this project winds down, we are only at the beginning of a new line of research.”

Lear, the John U. Nef Distinguished Service Professor in the Committee on Social Thought and the Department of Philosophy, will speak at 7 p.m. Oct. 13 at the Oriental Institute. His talk, titled “Gettysburg,” will look at the ethical difficulties of memorializing the dead and in particular the soldiers that died following the bloodiest battle of the U.S. Civil War.

Cardinal Cupich will speak at 6 p.m. Oct. 14 in the auditorium at the Law School. He will deliver a talk considering virtue in the context of building up the common good, titled “A Consistent Ethic of Solidarity: Transcending Self, Transforming the World.” President Robert J. Zimmer will introduce the cardinal.

“Cardinal Cupich has distinguished himself in his fundamental love of and concern for some of the most disadvantaged people in the city of Chicago,” said Vogler. “His call for solidarity is rooted in the genuine practice of solidarity, day in and day out.”

The conference is free and open to the public, but registration is required. To learn more, visit the Virtue, Happiness & the Meaning of Life website.