The Virtue Blog

Blog for the Virtue, Happiness, & the Meaning of Life project

Dispatches from last day of our final working group meeting

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(from left: Josef Stern, Heather C Lench, Candace Vogler, Talbot Brewer, Stephen Brock, Jennifer A. Frey, Jean Porter, Matthias Haase, Erik Angner, Thomas Joseph White, Michael Gorman, Katherine Kinzler, Kevin Flannery, Reinhard Huetter, Robert C. Roberts, Anselm Mueller (not pictured but in attendence: Tahera Qutbuddin, Angela Knobel, David Shatz)

Not on Twitter? Here’s a sampling of our live-tweeting from our final day:

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Photos from Jean Porter’s Keynote, “What do we fear? Courage and cowardice in public life”

Moral theologian Jean Porter gave the talk “What should we fear? Courage and cowardice in public life” on Monday, June 5, 2017 at 7pm in the Swift Hall 3rd Floor Lecture Hall at the University of Chicago, followed by a lovely audience Q&A and reception. The talk will be posted on our website once it has been close-captioned.

 

 

 

Abstract from talk:

“Courage is pre-eminently an individual virtue. Yet we can also describe a community or a nation as courageous in its response to a threat or an attack. To take one well-known example, the behavior and attitudes of the English during the Blitz of 1940-41 offers an outstanding example of collective public courage. Somewhat to the surprise of government officials, the civilians subjected to intensive German bombing were not only relatively free of trauma, they were able to carry on with their lives, and even to be cheerful in the face of repeated attacks. The collective courage of the English under the Blitz was of course dependent on the courage of countless individuals, and yet it cannot be reduced to the sum of so many courageous acts and lives. The government promoted, and individuals cooperated in creating a set of practices and expectations that encouraged bravery and perseverance. At this point, England was a brave society, which both drew its courage from individuals and communicated it back to them.In my remarks this evening, I want to examine another example of public courage and public cowardice, which began to develop within the memory of many of us and is still unfolding today.  I am referring to public reactions to the threat of terrorism since the attacks of 9/11.  During and immediately after the attacks themselves, the men and women at the scene, together with the police, fire fighters, and medical personnel, behaved with exemplary bravery in the face of an unimaginable danger.  These clear, unambiguous examples of courage do not call for extended analysis. However, at another level, public reactions to the threat of terrorist attacks present a more complex and ambiguous example.  I want to suggest that we as a nation responded initially to terrorist assaults and the threat of further attacks with another kind of courage, not physical bravery but a firm resolve to hold onto central values, including equality, tolerance, and respect for the rule of law. However, over the past fifteen years, our attitudes as a civic society, as expressed by the actions taken in our name, reflect a growing unwillingness to live with risk and, correspondingly, a willingness to do almost anything to our supposed enemies, in order to secure our own safety.  In other words, we as a nation have moved from courage to a kind of cowardice when it comes to our attitudes towards these threats. I will consider some of the possible causes of this development, and suggest some ways in which we might reclaim our initial courage.”

MONDAY: Jean Porter, “What should we fear? Courage and cowardice in public life”

We hope to see you Monday evening for Jean Porter’s talk and the reception to follow with the scholars of the Virtue, Happiness, & Meaning of Life project, who are in town for their Spring meeting.

If you’re unable to attend, you can live-stream the talk on our website.

For more information and to RSVP or live-stream, go to https://virtue.uchicago.edu/porter

Monday, June 5, 2017 at 7pm in the Swift Hall 3rd Floor Lecture Hall, University of Chicago. An audience Q & A will be followed by a reception in the Swift Hall Common Room. This talk is free and open to the public.

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General Justice and the Common Good

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We’re presenting a short series of abstracts of the work-in-progress our scholars will present and discuss at their June 2017 Working Group Meeting.  Jean Porter is the John A. O’Brien Professor of Theological Ethics at the University of Notre Dame and scholar with Virtue, Happiness, & the Meaning of Life.
Porter will present the Keynote for our June 2017 Working Group Meeting, “What should we fear? Courage and cowardice in public life” on June 5, 2017. Click here for more information and to rsvp.
According to Aquinas, the common good is the formal object of a virtue, namely, the virtue of general justice.  It is initially difficult to know what to make of this claim.  We are accustomed to think of the common good as a political or social ideal, to be pursued through collective political actions.  Aquinas himself, together with most of his interlocutors, regards the common good as a principle of legitimation, which justifies political rule and legislative authority.   It is difficult to see how a virtue-oriented analysis of the common good can add to our overall understanding of a social ideal or a juridical principle. There is something admittedly attractive in the ideal of the virtuous ruler, reliably guided in the exercise of rule by wisdom, informed by good and honorable motivations.  But wise and virtuous sovereigns are not so common these days, and at any rate, this seductive ideal can easily be abused.  At any rate, Aquinas himself does not claim that virtues are sufficient, or indeed necessary to guide public officials in the exercise of their duties. I want to suggest that when Aquinas identifies the common good as the object of a particular virtue, he is not so much making a point about qualifications for rule – rather, he is making a point about the presuppositions and possibilities for the morally legitimate exercise of power.  The point at stake is not so much that a good ruler must be morally good,  but rather, and more fundamentally, a good ruler can be morally good.  Aquinas’ claims about general justice and the common good presuppose the moral legitimacy of political rule and the possibility of living a virtuous life in public office.  At the same time, his analysis of the common good as the object of a virtue is intertwined with his analysis of the common good as a principle of political legitimation.  The moral possibilities for political action and public service presuppose the moral legitimacy of political rule and the institutions set up to carry it out.   For this reason, reflection on general justice and its object, the common good, has something to teach us about the moral legitimacy of political authority and the conditions for exercising power in a morally admirable way.

“Justice is quickly eroded if one is too cowardly to hold firmly to the ideals that are central to a just society” | Interview with Jean Porter

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Jean Porter is a scholar with the project Virtue, Happiness, & the Meaning of Life, pictured here at our first working group meeting in December 2015.

Moral theologian Jean Porter (University of Notre Dame) will give the talk “What should we fear? Courage and cowardice in public life” on Monday, June 5, 2017 at 7pm in the Swift Hall 3rd Floor Lecture Hall at the University of Chicago. An audience Q & A will be followed by a reception in the Swift Hall Common Room. This talk is free and open to the public. Registration is required.

The talk and Q&A will be live-streamed at 7pm central time. For more information and to RSVP, go to https://virtue.uchicago.edu/porter

Amichai Amit is a PhD student in philosophy at the University of Chicago and a graduate assistant for Virtue, Happiness, & the Meaning of Life.



Amichai Amit: Courage is often considered a virtue most pertinent to times of crises and especially to actual battle. What is the importance of courage in day-to-day public life? 
Jean Porter: You are quite right, and Aquinas would in fact agree with this, with some qualifications.  Courage is the virtue through which someone firmly holds onto rational and spiritual values in the face of danger, especially the danger of death. As such, it is clearly exemplified by the willingness to face death on the battlefield in defense of the common good. It might seem that courage has little relevance to our day to day lives, which are so safe and secure. And yet, on reflection, how safe are we, and even more to the point, how safe do we feel? In my talk, I focus especially on public attitudes towards the threat of terrorism, and I argue that we are challenged to hold onto certain ideals — equality, tolerance, respect for rule of law — even in the face of potentially lethal attacks. You might say that in certain ways, we are a society in crisis, although it is hard to say whether at this point this crisis reflects actual dangers, or stems from our perceptions of the world.
AA: Is there any difference between courage in the private realm and courage in public life?
JP: The differences would be circumstantial.  Actually, in my talk I will focus on the courage of the community as such, acknowledging that courage at this level is dependent on the courage of many individuals, but assuming nonetheless that it makes sense to speak of a community or a nation as courageous. the parade example would be the courage of the British people during the Blitz, and I claim that the American people displayed courage in the immediate retractions to the 9/11 attacks.
AA: One may think that in a well-ordered society, one in which law and bureaucracy are in good order, courage is required only in times of crises and when the social and legal systems falter. What do you think about this view? 
JP: I think it is critically important for any large-scale, complex society to have a legal system and bureaucratic structures in good working order. These are not only requirements for efficient functioning, they are also the institutional embodiments of ideals of equality and freedom. To put this in medieval terms, they are the preconditions for political rule, in contrast to a kind of dominion that reduces subjects to a servile statues.  that being said, however, formal structures are not enough — they must also be defended and interpreted by individuals who are committed to the rules precisely as embodiments of  moral ideals, and are committed to interpreting them accordingly. Recent experience clearly indicates that formal structures, to say nothing of tacit norms of civility and discourse, are no match for malice and stupidity.
AA: (In relation to the previous question): What are the relation between justice and courage?
JP:  Like all good Thomists, I affirm the connection of the virtues, and therefore believe that true courage presupposes a disposition towards justice. Perhaps more to the point, justice is quickly eroded if one is too cowardly to hold firmly to the ideals that are central to a just society. Again, I think our experience confirms this.
AA: Do you think courage is a virtue especially needed in contemporary public life? Are there any characteristics of our times that render courage more crucial than in past times? 

JP:  I don’t know that I would say it is more necessary, but we are perhaps faced with a distinctive set of challenges. The dangers that we face are in one sense ongoing, but they tend to be expressed in episodic bursts of violence, rather than through continued onslaughts.  This situation encourages either paranoia or complacency, and we see both in public life.
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AA: Aristotle defined courage as the mean between rashness and cowardice. Your talk focuses on courage and cowardice, but not rashness. Do you think rashness is less crucial when it comes to the public sphere? 

JP:  Actually, I do talk about recklessness, which I argue only makes fear worse in the long run.

For more information and to RSVP for “What should we fear? Courage and cowardice in public life,” go to https://virtue.uchicago.edu/porter

Scholarship of Self-Transcendence

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Allegorical Tapestry with Sages of the Past, The Cloisters Collection, 2014, CCO, 1.0.

This article originally appeared in Tableau, the Division of the Humanities at the University of Chicago’s quarterly publication, as Scholarship of Self-Transcendence: Candace Vogler leads a search for the meaning of life by Courtney C. W. Guerra.

 

Candace Vogler, the David B. and Clara E. Stern Professor in Philosophy, is invested in her fellow human beings, and she’s determined to help them—us—find fulfillment. To tackle such a complex issue, she proposed the collaborative research project Virtue, Happiness, and the Meaning of Life, the aims of which are every bit as ambitious as its name implies. With major support from the John Templeton Foundation, this multiyear initiative—jointly led by Jennifer A. Frey, a philosopher at the University of South Carolina—explores self-transcendence: a feeling of connection to something beyond the individual self.

 

Of course, there’s no single way for human beings to attain self-transcendence: it can happen through spiritual practice, professional drive, familial bonds, or any number of commitments to a higher cause. Vogler’s group includes psychologists, philosophers, and religious thinkers from a variety of traditions. Many are UChicago colleagues: assistant professor Marc G. Berman and professor Howard C. Nusbaum in Psychology, associate professor Tahera Qutbuddin in Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations, and, in Philosophy, assistant professor Matthias Haase and Josef Stern, the William H. Colvin Professor Emeritus. The 30-scholar cohort represents institutions throughout the United States, Middle East, and Europe; they have been meeting and teaching since October 2015.

 

When she devised the project, Vogler says, “The ambition was to get a kind of deep integration between people working in very different disciplines” without relegating their work to the margins of less widely read, explicitly interdisciplinary publications. And it worked: the participants are “doing disciplinary work, they’re publishing in the disciplinary journals, and the inspiration for it is coming out of the frame of the project.”

 

These discussions have informed 10 published or forthcoming articles—a figure that “pretty dramatically exceeded” her initial expectations—with many more on the way. One essay that encapsulates the spirit of the project is being developed by Notre Dame theologian Jean Porter, about studies by Cornell University psychologist Katherine Kinzler on early childhood food preferences. Porter finds parallels between contemporary psychology and the views of Catholic philosopher Thomas Aquinas on the influence of group identity on what children choose to eat. (A draft is available on the Virtue Blog, along with other writings and filmed lectures.) This video helps to introduce and contextualize the group’s scholarship.

 

Like Porter’s essay, much of the project is “built on things that ought to be super interesting to people who are not academics,” says Vogler. She hopes a broad audience will attend the culminating conference at UChicago over the weekend of October 14–15. From there, Vogler plans to share her team’s findings with educators—from early childhood through MBA programs and beyond—to help promote self-transcendence at every stage of development. “There’s a big difference,” she points out, “between leading a life that’s super busy and leading a life that’s full.” Her hope is that the group’s work, as it reverberates out into the broader world, will help people achieve the latter.

“What should we fear? Courage and cowardice in public life”

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Moral theologian Jean Porter (University of Notre Dame) will give the talk “What should we fear? Courage and cowardice in public life” on Monday, June 5, 2017 at 7pm in the Swift Hall 3rd Floor Lecture Hall at the University of Chicago. An audience Q & A will be followed by a reception in the Swift Hall Common Room. This talk is free and open to the public. Registration is required.

The talk and Q&A will be live-streamed at 7pm central time. For more information and to RSVP, go to https://virtue.uchicago.edu/porter

Here is the abstract for her talk:

 

Courage is pre-eminently an individual virtue. Yet we can also describe a community or a nation as courageous in its response to a threat or an attack. To take one well-known example, the behavior and attitudes of the English during the Blitz of 1940-41 offers an outstanding example of collective public courage. Somewhat to the surprise of government officials, the civilians subjected to intensive German bombing were not only relatively free of trauma, they were able to carry on with their lives, and even to be cheerful in the face of repeated attacks. The collective courage of the English under the Blitz was of course dependent on the courage of countless individuals, and yet it cannot be reduced to the sum of so many courageous acts and lives. The government promoted, and individuals cooperated in creating a set of practices and expectations that encouraged bravery and perseverance. At this point, England was a brave society, which both drew its courage from individuals and communicated it back to them.In my remarks this evening, I want to examine another example of public courage and public cowardice, which began to develop within the memory of many of us and is still unfolding today.  I am referring to public reactions to the threat of terrorism since the attacks of 9/11.  During and immediately after the attacks themselves, the men and women at the scene, together with the police, fire fighters, and medical personnel, behaved with exemplary bravery in the face of an unimaginable danger.  These clear, unambiguous examples of courage do not call for extended analysis. However, at another level, public reactions to the threat of terrorist attacks present a more complex and ambiguous example.  I want to suggest that we as a nation responded initially to terrorist assaults and the threat of further attacks with another kind of courage, not physical bravery but a firm resolve to hold onto central values, including equality, tolerance, and respect for the rule of law. However, over the past fifteen years, our attitudes as a civic society, as expressed by the actions taken in our name, reflect a growing unwillingness to live with risk and, correspondingly, a willingness to do almost anything to our supposed enemies, in order to secure our own safety.  In other words, we as a nation have moved from courage to a kind of cowardice when it comes to our attitudes towards these threats. I will consider some of the possible causes of this development, and suggest some ways in which we might reclaim our initial courage.