Our Co-Principal Investigator Candace Vogler spoke with journalist Richard McComb when she was a keynote speaker at the Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues’ annual conference at Oriel College, Oxford. For the full article, click here.
At a time of socio-political upheaval and uncertainty, both in Europe and the United States, it is perhaps not surprising that public interest has focused on the project’s pursuit of happiness.
Prof Vogler is wonderfully candid in her responses when asked about the secret of happiness.
“Stage one is, ‘Get over yourself!’” she says. “Don’t worry so much about self-actualisation, self-expression, self-development, self-this, self-that.
“See if you can break the fascination of your own ego for a little bit. See if you can turn your attention to something that is genuinely self-transcendent, that connects you to a world bigger than your intimate circle – and engage there. That is likely to be where you will develop in virtue and character. Your character develops when you get opportunities that are expressive and productive of goods bigger than you are.
“Do you engage at the soup kitchen a couple of times a week because you know you are supposed to be charitable? No, you volunteer at the soup kitchen by opening yourself up to the possibility that you could be drawn out of yourself rather than affirmed in a sense of your own goodness. The self-transcendence provides the context in which virtue is at home.”
Prof Vogler has little time for self-righteous navel-gazing, adding: “You don’t have a beautiful soul if it’s useless to everyone around you. You don’t have a beautiful soul if you can’t be bothered to think about how to engage more effectively in the world that you find yourself in, not just for the sake of your own success but for the sake of contributing to what is good in that world and helping it struggle against what is bad.”
Peggy Binette: How can the humanities contribute to happiness and meaningfulness in life – regardless of socioeconomic position?
Talbot Brewer: There is at best a tenuous connection between the humanities and happiness. Serious engagement with literature and art does of course have its pleasures, and we professors would be falling down on the job if our students did not come to know these pleasures. But If you went to a production of, say, Shakespeare’s Othello in hopes of making yourself happier, you’d be making a serious mistake. Seeing Othello can be, and indeed ought to be, a crushing experience. But while you probably would not walk out of the theater brimming with happiness, you might walk out with a deeper understanding of intimate love and the potentially deadly pathologies to which it exposes us. Whether such understanding makes life more meaningful is a complicated question. I think that it does. I would not wish to deny that someone who has never learned to read or write, and never learned to appreciate art, can have an extremely meaningful life, nor would I wish to rule out the possibility that someone with an advanced degree in philosophy or literature might lead a superficial existence. Still, I do think that when pursued in the right spirit, the humanities can deepen one’s experience of life, and that is an enormous gift.
PB: In this chaotic and ever-demanding world, how important is it for people to reflect on the concepts, virtues and values espoused in the humanities?
TB: We have devised a world in which mercenary words and images press upon us during almost every waking hour. When amid this clamor of manipulative messages we suddenly encounter something quite different, something called literature, or art, or philosophy, it is not easy to adjust our habits of attention and open ourselves fully to this newcomer. The cultural environment has not encouraged the traits required for proper engagement with the humanities: the habit of sustained attention and of patience and generosity in interpretation; the openness to finding camaraderie and illumination from others in the more treacherous passages of human life; the expressive conscience that cannot rest until it lights upon exactly the right words for one’s own incipient thoughts. By creating a space within which we can nurture such habits of mind and put them to their proper use, we make room for a kind of self-cultivation that has become increasingly rare, despite all the lip service we pay to authentic self-expression. PB: What is the one point or thought you want anyone who attends your talk to take away?
TB: Some have tried to ground the value of the humanities in their contribution to economic productivity. Others have tried to ground the value of the humanities in their contribution to the health of our democratic institutions. Neither approach seems to me very convincing. What drives so many friends of the humanities to these two options, I believe, is the thought that if the humanities do not boost the economy or strengthen the polity, then their value must be an entirely individual matter, hence not a genuine public concern. This way of framing the issue trades on a mistakenly atomistic conception of human culture. The attainment of a sophisticated level of articulacy about human life both depends upon, and contributes to, a background cultural sophistication about human life. When it comes to the contest between depth and superficiality, we are in it together. At a time when our metastasizing material productivity poses a serious threat to the future of human life on this planet, perhaps we would be well advised to put less emphasis on economic growth and more emphasis on this entirely sustainable shared pursuit, to which the humanities can make an important contribution.
My research focuses on accounts of right action grounded in a picture of what constitutes being a good person. My basic picture is that an act is right if there is nothing specifically wrong with it: an act is right if it is not contrary to any virtue. This account allows us to preserve some of the hallmarks of an ethics of virtue (like the breakdown of a divide between moral and non-moral practical concerns) while preserving key moral intuitions (such as the existence of acts it is as such wrong to perform or that an any situation many courses of action will be right).
I became interested in the Virtue project for two related reasons. First, I am interested in how we incorporate into a life of virtue space for a pursuit of our own projects, amusements and leisure. Second, I am interested in attempts to explain some trait being a virtue to its role in a meaningful or happy life.
What do you like to do outside of academia?
When I am not pursuing my academic interests, I am probably watching football, listening to music or cooking.
Zack Loveless is a Ph.D. student in philosophy at the University of Chicago, and a graduate assistant with the project Virtue, Happiness, & the Meaning of Life.
There are two things that come to mind. First, there is my long-standing interest in virtue ethics as a normative system that can potentially supply what I call a “thick” view of the good life. What I mean by that is wonderfully illustrated in C.S. Lewis’ little parable of the voyage of the ships, which represent the three concerns any picture of the good life should address:
The voyage will be a success only, in the first place, if the ships do not collide and get in one another’s way; and, secondly, if each ship is seaworthy and has her engines in good order. As a matter of fact, you cannot have either of these two things without the other. If the ships keep on having collisions they will not remain seaworthy very long. On the other hand, if their steering gears are out of order they will not be able to avoid collisions… But there is one thing we have not yet taken into account. We have not asked where the fleet is try to get to… however well the fleet sailed, its voyage would be a failure if it were meant to reach New York and actually arrived at Calcutta.
Lewis’ dissatisfaction with modern ethics, and one that I share, is that the view of the good life is too thin. That is to say, modern ethics tends to care chiefly about not hurting others and secondarily about achieving harmony within the individual; nonetheless, they tend to leave aside altogether the idea that there is some purpose or end for which human life is meant to satisfy. But the sort of research involved with Virtue, Happiness, and the Meaning of Life does not intend to leave out the third question, even if answering it proves to be notoriously difficult. Hence, my interest.
Secondly, there is my recently formed interest in Elizabeth Anscombe and her theory of intention. It is a long story about how I became interested in her, but the short of it is that I’ve found that her notion of voluntary action directed by reason to some end or goal to be ethically richer than the common tendency to reduce our actions to causal relations between different events of physical activity or inactivity.
So when Professor Jennifer Frey [Principal Investigator with our project], who is on my dissertation committee, kindly asked me to be her research assistant, I jumped at the chance.
Tell me more about your research.
My research primarily focuses on the issues relevant to moral status, specifically, the properties by virtue of which something is made morally considerable when judging a practice or action to be permissible or not. This concern motivates further research in metaphysics, particularly in the areas of human ontology and personal identity as well as general moral theory. The concrete results of this research has already yielded published articles on topics ranging from the wrongness of killing to the equality people share with one another by virtue of being human. Currently, I am writing my dissertation on what makes killing for organs wrong, which in turn, results in a defense of the so-called ‘dead-donor’ rule in transplant ethics. In my view, the rule says if the surgery used to retrieve the relevant organs would kill the patient, we ought not perform it. Thus, I seek to explain why killing for organs is wrong even if the donor consents to be killed.
As I have come to work out of my views, I have found that contemporary moral values such as “do no harm” and “respect people’s autonomy” to be far too weak for making sense of our most deeply held moral beliefs, which are often shaped by concepts of sanctity and dignity. No doubt, making sense of these concepts is difficult, but the view I am attracted to currently is one that is influenced by Thomistic and Aristotelian streams of thought: different kinds of things are to be distinguished by their potentialities, and the non-instrumental worth things possess involves the ends to which they are directed.
What do you like to do outside of academia?
I like to read fiction, keep tabs on cool new cars, participate in the life of my local church, cook a nice meal for my wife, and play with my two-year old daughter.
Adam Omelianchuk is a Ph.D. student in philosophy at the University of South Carolina, and a graduate assistant with the project Virtue, Happiness, & the Meaning of Life.
Rory O’Connell, PhD student at the University of Chicago interviewed our visiting scholar Anselm Winfried Mueller in June 2016.
Rory O’Connell: When did you first become interested in the topic of virtue?
Anselm Mueller: I am not quite sure, because it must have happened about half a century ago. My PhD thesis, on Wittgenstein’s Tractatus, betrays quite different interests. When I came to Oxford in 1965 to do more research in philosophy and was made to write brief essays for supervision sessions, I picked up, for this purpose, all sorts of topics that were in the air at the time – a time when philosophy was flourishing in Oxford. I remember that the philosophy lecture list announced more than 100 classes for any one term, many of them offered by big names. My interests still related to theoretical philosophy. But I did go to a lecture on “Virtues and Vices” that Philippa Foot then gave. Being new to the place, I was not aware that what she was doing in that lecture – e.g. approaching ethical questions via examining the ascription of goodness to components of plant and animal life – was not at all typical of Oxford moral philosophy, which at the time was dominated by Richard M. Hare’s Utilitarian Prescritivism. However, when I studied the lecture list, I myself could not help feeling that the topic of virtue was somehow soft and marginal if not out-dated! Why on earth did I nevertheless attend that lecture?
My first supervisor in Oxford was Anthony Kenny, himself an expert on Aristotle’s Ethics and his account of virtue. It must have been the wise and kind advice given by Tony that made me choose Philippa’s lecture. Later on I was supervised by Elizabeth Anscombe. Among the many topics that I discussed with her was that of practical reasoning, which her book Intention had brought to the attention of philosophers and which I suppose drew me into the philosophy of action and later ethics. It was through Elizabeth also that I got to know her friend Philippa well. Over the years we had many conversations about questions of moral philosophy, esp. in 1998-99, when I was on sabbatical leave at Corpus Christi College, and Philippa was in the course of writing her wonderful book Natural Goodness. Without the influence of these three brilliant philosophers as teachers and friends I would probably not have found virtue such an intriguing and fertile subject matter.
RO: So there was a degree of luck in it! What are your own research interests in relation to virtue now?
AM: You do not need to do “Virtue Ethics” in order to be interested in the notion of virtue. In the moral philosophy of Kant, for instance, the ideas of autonomy and law are central; nevertheless he published a voluminous treatise half of which he brings under the title “Doctrine of Virtue”. And neither Philippa Foot nor Elizabeth Anscombe (whose famous paper “Modern Moral Philosophy” tells her colleagues to replace the study of “moral obligation” by that of virtue) wanted to be classified as Virtue Ethicists. They treated the notions of human nature and practical rationality as central to ethics.
In the Aristotelian tradition, the virtues of character are viewed as reliable dispositions to act well in the various domains of human life. This may give rise to the investigation of questions such as: what kind of constitution makes the virtues reliable, how they may come to be formed (and lost), whether they leave room for freedom and individual ideals, whether there is a continuum of moral qualities between virtue and vice and whether virtue allows for weakness of will; or: to what extent an objectivist understanding of morality can accommodate cultural and historical variation in the specification of the virtues; or: what is the source of the distinction between different virtues, what a life of virtue looks like in regard to physical needs, to relationships, to one’s roles in society, to the cohesion and welfare of a political community; or: how it relates to one’s well-being, self-interest, pleasures, goals and, ultimately, happiness.
I have tried to take up these questions in a book I published in 1998 under the title Was taugt die Tugend? Elemente einer Ethik des guten Lebens. But already in that book, and later in some articles written in English, my chief interest was in the sort of rationality that the virtues seem to incorporate and confer on ways of acting well. This topic is itself one that branches out in a number of directions. But it is, I think, fundamental to a correct understanding of what a virtue is. And you have to get reasonably clear about it in order profitably to tackle those other questions.
RO:If you were forced to summarize, what would you say the importance of rationality to virtue was?
AM: To get clear about this, we must first of all distinguish two uses of the word “reason”. More particularly, we may ask on the one hand: “Why is it that human beings ought to practise virtues such as justice or courage?” and on the other, questions like: “Why ought you (as justice happens to require here and now) to give 200 dollars to NN”? In answer to the first question we have to mention a reason that explains the fact that the practice of those virtues is good for a community of human beings, whether these are aware of that fact and its explanation or not; perhaps we will show that they cannot get on well, or at all, without them: that the virtues are “rational” in the sense of functional. An answer to the second question, by contrast, will tell us what leadsyou to act as you do when you act as you ought to. Here, the reason is a consideration that prompts you to give someone 200 dollars. And this consideration is not the functionality of justice but rather, e.g., your having borrowed 200 dollars from them. In giving them the money, you are then not acting justly unless you do it because you borrowed 200 dollars from them. The rationality of virtue here amounts to this: Acting justly does not consist in giving the money, but rather in letting yourself be guided by a kind of reason that is characteristic of justice.
What, however, about the question “Why act justly”? It seems to sit somehow between the two questions just considered. On the one hand, it is not answered by the particular reason that you may have here and now, in accordance with justice, to give someone 200 dollars or, say, to treat two people alike. Nor, on the other, will our reasons for acting justly typically be the same as the reasons why justice is functional or necessary for a human community. Well, in general, our reasons for acting justly will be rather indeterminate, mixed and inarticulate. You may have a vague idea that you have to follow your conscience, or that you want to be this kind of person rather than that, or that by acting justly you will qualify for an eternal reward – or whatever. (And, by the way, some kinds of such “background motivation” would actually call your justice into question; e.g. if your “just” conduct is a matter of satisfying others’ expectations, or of appearing to be just.)
So there are these ways in which the idea of virtue raises questions of rationality. But there are others. Thus, it can be virtuous – or vicious – to treat a certain sort of situation as a reason not to act in a certain sort of way. (Honesty requires you to treat the falsehood of a claim as a reason not to make it.) Again, it can be virtuous – or vicious – not to treat a situation as a reason to respond in a certain manner. (Courage requires you not to treat a small risk as a reason to abandon an important aim.) Nor is it only ways of acting whose virtuous or vicious character is determined by what I call a “motivational pattern”. An emotion, too, can be morally good or bad: on account of the kind of behaviour or thought the emotion’s subject inclines towards in response to relevant situations. (Think of, say, compassion on the one hand, envy on the other.)
We can also ask whether virtue or vice are at work wherever we can speak of reasons for this or that sort of conduct; whether the implementation of the virtues in varying circumstances requires a kind of deliberation that is qualified specifically to cope with ethical challenges … – and other questions concerning practical reason. Further, various issues raised by an Ethics concerned with the virtues seem not to relate to their rationality at all: How are the virtues identified, and counted? How are they formed? Can they be lost? Do not many virtues primarily serve other people rather than the virtuous agents themselves? If so, how can great philosophers claim that acting well is constitutive of happiness? And so on. On inspection, however, almost none of these questions can be adequately answered unless we first gain a clear understanding of the ways in which the notion of a virtue involves the notion of practical rationality.
Anselm Muelleris Professor Emeritus, University of Trier, and a Visiting Professor with the project “Virtue, Happiness, and the Meaning of Life”. A student of Elizabeth Anscombe and Anthony Kenny at Oxford in the early sixties, Professor Müller has taught philosophy at Oxford University, Australian National University, University of Trier, University of Luxemborg, and Keimyung University. He has written many books and articles in the following areas: ethics, rationality, action theory, philosophy of mind, and the history of philosophy.
Rory O’Connellis a PhD candidate in philosophy at The University of Chicago. He works on practical reason and the philosophy of action.
Darcia Narvaez is professor of Psychology at the University of Notre Dame and the Executive Editor of the Journal of Moral Education. She specializes in ethical development and moral education. She also blogs for Psychology Today at “Moral Landscapes” and this summer, will be one of the faculty for the Virtue, Happiness, and Meaning of Life’s collaborative Summer Seminar, “Virtue & Happiness”. Valerie Wallace, Associate Director, Communications, interviewed Professor Narvaez in early March 2016.
Valerie Wallace: What is evolutionary parenting?
Darcia Narvaez: Evolutionary or primal parenting refers to providing the nest that humans evolved to for their children. Every animal has a nest for its young that matches up with the maturational schedule of the offspring. Humans do too. Moreover, humans are especially influenced by their post-natal experiences because we are born 18 months early compared to other animals, and more epigenetic effects (gene expression influenced by experience) occur postnatally for humans than for any other animal. Each person is a dynamic system whose early experiences influence the trajectory of who and what he or she becomes.
Adults in “civilized” societies have degraded the nest for the young for some time (10,000 years?), meaning that a species-atypical developmental system is now “normal” for the young. This, of course, necessarily results in species-atypical individuals, communities and cultures. But this has happened gradually over time so that we don’t realize it, except to know sense that something is terribly wrong with humanity.
How do we know what is species typical? The anthropologists have noted that all over the world the same nest is provided by small-band hunter-gatherers (SBHG), the type of society in which the human genus spent 99% of its history. The members of studied SBHG societies have similar personalities: pleasant, calm, fiercely egalitarian, generous, content, and generally peaceful. Of course we do not want to and could not return to living like these societies, but we can learn about how a species-typical nest shapes personality and morality. What is the nest that brings about these outcomes?
The human evolved nest or niche, very similar to that of social mammals generally (who emerged over 30 million years ago), includes soothing perinatal experiences, extensive breastfeeding (2-5 years); nearly constant touch or physical presence; responsiveness to needs (in baby hood it means keeping the baby from getting distressed); play from birth, which later includes self-directed free play in the natural world with multi-aged mates; positive social support for mom and child (which includes a sense of belonging); and multiple responsive adult caregivers. There is converging evidence from neuroscience, clinical studies, anthropology and developmental sciences on the importance of all these components for optimal mental, physiological, social, emotional and moral development. In other words, every move away from these components creates toxic stress for the growing brain and undermines optimal development.
Valerie: Tell me about your interest and research exploring torture and moral development.
Darcia: What happens when adults don’t provide the species typical nest is that children’s functioning in hundreds of systems and subsystems is undermined. They turn into people who are stress-reactive, easily perceiving threats from anything unfamiliar and feeling like they live in a dangerous world. When the stress response is activated, blood flow shifts away from higher order capacities including reasoning, open-mindedness and compassion. A stressed baby grows in the wrong direction—developing dispositions towards self-protectionism instead of relational attunement and communal imagination, which normally develop with the right hemisphere’s more rapid development in early life.
Undercare, the lack of the evolved nest (evolved developmental niche), leads to adults who have diminished human capacities. Species-atypical development leads to the atypical outcomes we see all around us, especially in the USA: adults with insecure social relations who want to dominate or withdraw from relational attunement. They don’t realize that they are socially unskilled and imaginatively impaired. They think the one-up/one-down orientation to relationships that forms from an overreactive stress response is just the way the world works. They have a deep distrust, established in babyhood, that people are not to be trusted, the world is not to be trusted, nor are their own spirit’s impulses (that’s what you learn when the adults around you disregard your needs for the evolved nest). With “empty selves” they end up latching onto ideologies of various kinds (religious, business, economic)–rigid scripts, to feel safe. They did not learn to be morally agile and flexibly attuned to others so “difference” is scary, “otherness” is turned into evil. One gets susceptible to rhetoric of dominance and power (much like Donald Trump is presenting in the presidential campaign), including that torture works (it doesn’t) because one also has lesser empathy for others.
You seem to have such a dynamic relationship with research and writing. That is, within the huge field of moral development and education you allow yourself to ask many questions, and go after them. How do you decide what’s next?
Darcia: I follow my muse. I’ve learned that when you have a creative spirit, if you don’t follow it, you become unhappy or unwell. So I follow the muse, always surprised where it leads because it usually is not in the direction I deliberately planned (e.g., becoming a professional musician, seminarian, business owner, classroom teacher). This was also true for my recent book, Neurobiology and the Development of Human Morality: Evolution, Culture and Wisdom, which ended up where I did not anticipate.
Valerie: On what journey did this book take you?
Darcia:Neurobiology and the Development of Human Morality: Evolution, Culture and Wisdom led me to more greatly appreciate the societies who live wisely and sustainably and, as part of their worldview, function as members of a biocracy– treating other-than-human entities as members of the community to be respected and honored as partners or even teachers. If we are to save our species and many others, we must readopt this indigenous perspective. First Nation peoples do not compartmentalize life; they have deep knowledge of their local landscapes that allows them to foster biodiverse flourishing.
I am chairing a conference September 11-15, 2016 called “Sustainable Wisdom: Integrating Indigenous Knowhow for Global Flourishing”. We have many indigenous speakers coming from multiple disciplines to discuss how to figure out a new way of being human in cooperation with the earth.
Valerie: Why did you say “yes” to teaching with us for our summer seminar “Virtue & Happiness”?
Darcia: In our ancestral environment (small band hunter gatherers), virtue went hand in hand with survival but also contentment. “Civilization” has blown apart human relations to the earth, which undermines a sense of place and belonging (as a creature of the earth in a biodiverse community of creatures), and deracinates the possibility of normal virtue development because children in species-atypical nests are typically forced to divorce themselves from their own feelings, from intimacy and from the landscape (e.g., when they are discouraged to play freely outside in a natural environment). We have disordered ourselves on so many levels in so many ways that we have to figure out how find our way back to flourishing for All. Every opportunity to think or share about how to revamp ourselves for virtue or happiness is one I try to take.
Valerie: Thank you!
Darcia: Thanks for inviting me.
To read more about Darcia Narvaez and her work, visit