The Virtue Blog

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

Racism and Negligence

 

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Torch-bearing white nationalists rally around a statue of Thomas Jefferson on the University of Virginia campus in Charlottesville, Va., on Aug. 11, 2017. (Edu Bayer/New York Times)

For those who thought the racial tensions that have long shaped the fault lines of American politics could continue to be ignored, Charlottesville was the seismic event that shook up this complacency. Like many an earthquake, much of the damage was not limited to the initial event; the political aftershocks have done equal, if not greater, damage. For when torch wielding Nazis and white supremacists march in large numbers, chanting racist slogans, screaming slurs, and threatening violence against minorities, when one of them drives his car into a crowd, killing one and injuring nineteen others, we should be able to expect our President, at the very least, to denounce them immediately and unequivocally. And yet this did not happen; incredibly, the opposite did.

 

Civility and a commitment to equality for all are American values that transcend partisan interests. We have a right to expect our leaders to form a government for everyone, and strive to keep the peace for all of the people. President Trump appeared to be trying to do this, denouncing “hatred, bigotry, and violence on many sides, many sides” (emphasis mine). However, this initial response was, as many have pointed out, disastrously off base: the bigotry was clearly on one side, and there is no moral equivalence between the promulgation of fascist and racist ideology and principled opposition to it. While the counter-protest was far from perfect, it was not worthy of our president’s equal condemnation.

 

Presidents are supposed to unify their citizens in times of crisis, but in the aftermath of Charlottesville the only thing that seemed to unify most Americans was disappointment in the president’s inability to carry out this vital task. In a rare moment of concession to his many critics, Trump later denounced the hate groups by name. But this rare act of humility was short-lived. Just a few days later Trump lashed out at the press and doubled down in defense of himself; notoriously, he even went so far as to claim that there were “some very fine people” involved in the “unite the right” rally. And just in case anyone doubted what his true priorities were, the following week Trump held a rally in Phoenix, not primarily aimed at defusing racial tensions or uniting a divided populace in turbulent times, but solely in defense and even celebration of his troubling remarks.

 

We are about a month on from Charlottesville; nuclear threats, destructive hurricanes, and football now dominate our news feeds, and it would be all to easy to forget about it. But forgetting about it is a kind of political negligence, a failure to give it the importance it deserves. Negligence is a too little considered feature of our moral and political life. It is also important to the analysis of what was so awful about Trump’s post-Charlottesville behavior.

 

Consider his defense of some of those marching for “historical preservation” in Charlottesville. Negligence is a key to grasping why these defenses are indefensible. Let us set aside the issue of whether it is legitimate to support confederate monuments, as it is beside the point. As is well known, the “unite the right” rally in Charlottesville was organized and promoted by white supremacist groups. The names listed to speak at the rally comprise a veritable who’s who of fascist and racist political leaders in America. These are men who openly admire Hitler, adopt Nazi imagery and rhetoric, and who advocate some form of racial apartheid in our country. A rally that is organized, promoted, and features speeches by such men is arguably a racist rally, no matter what cause it serves; but it is most certainly a racist rally when the cause is the defense of the statues of men who devoted their lives to the perpetuation of enslavement of blacks in the South. Any right thinking person who merely cared about preserving historical monuments as a testimony to history would not make common cause with Nazis, fascists, and white supremacists.

 

Even if we concede the very remote possibility that one of these warm hearted historical preservationists somehow missed the fact that the organizers, promoters, and speakers at the rally were all extreme racists, at best we could say their actions were grossly negligent, which makes them very far from being “very fine.” Failure to know what’s going on isn’t admirable, nor does it inoculate one against censure or blame. Ignorance doesn’t always excuse.

 

Determining culpable ignorance is an important aspect of morality and the law, and is part of any theory of negligence. Negligence comes from the Latin phrase “nec eligens” which literally translates to “not choosing.” Negligence is a normative and not merely descriptive word. There are an infinite number of choices I didn’t make this morning, but most of them, like the choice I didn’t make to begin writing the next great American novel, are of no consequence. Only a very small range of what I don’t do counts as a blameworthy failure, and the determination typically depends on the roles that can be legitimately assigned to me (for instance, as a parent, I am culpable if I oversleep and fail to get the kids to school on time).

 

We know as a matter of common sense morality and the law that we are responsible for what we fail to do, even when that failure is completely unintentional. Now, a prudent citizen should be well informed about the kinds of civic engagement he participates in; therefore a failure to notice that an event is organized by and prominently features white supremacists is a classic case of culpable ignorance.

 

Even so, one might still argue that culpable ignorance does not necessarily imply racism. Fine, but footage of Charlottesville reveals that once there one could have had no doubt that this was an event for promoting racist ideology. At that point, one is further at fault for not realizing that marching in the rally not only would not advance the cause of preserving history, but would also deepen racial tensions in Charlottesville and possibly lead to racially motivated violence.

 

To march alongside virulent racists shouting racist slogans and slurs displays a culpable lack of concern for members of the minority groups being targeted. We need to be clear that one is a racist not simply if one has active animus directed towards racial minorities, but also if one lacks active good will towards them; one lacks such good will when one does not care at all, or does not care enough about their well being and security to act (and not act) towards them in certain ways. One should care enough about minorities not to march alongside those that seek to marginalize and defame them. Failure to care enough about the manifest harms to these communities by placing the importance of historical preservation above their safety and well being is racist.

 

Charlottesville should still deeply trouble us. We cannot make racial progress, however, if we cannot come to a reasonable agreement about what racism is. If elements on the left can sometimes be blamed for making us all racists just in virtue of being born into a racially unequal society, elements on the right can sometimes be blamed for making the racist into a fantastical unicorn by imagining criteria for it that almost none of us will ever meet. A sensible understanding of the complexities of racism would steer a steady course between these two extremes, and we need such an understanding if we have any hope of having a reasonable public discourse about race in this country. A small step in this direction would be to acknowledge that racism of neglect is a real and damaging.


Jennifer A. Frey is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at the University of South Carolina and Principal Investigator with Virtue, Happiness, and the Meaning of Life.

CFA and CONFERENCE: God, Virtue, & Moral Absolutes: Anscombe’s “Modern Moral Philosophy” At 60


God, Virtue, & Moral Absolutes: Anscombe’s “Modern Moral Philosophy” at 60, a graduate student conference sponsored by the Nanovic Institute for European Studies, will take place at the University of Notre Dame on January 21-23, 2018.

Keynote Speakers

Alasdair MacINTYRE, University of Notre Dame

Cyrille MICHON, University of Nantes

Rachael WISEMAN, University of Liverpool

Jennifer A. FREY, University of South Carolina

In 1958, the English philosopher Elizabeth Anscombe published “Modern Moral Philosophy,” one of the most influential essays in contemporary philosophy. Reacting against a half-century of British moral philosophy, Anscombe charted a path to a revival of Aristotelian moral inquiry, boldly defending three controversial theses. First, that it is “not profitable for us at present” to engage in moral philosophy until there has been the development of “an adequate philosophy of psychology” (i.e. a proper understanding of action, habit, choice etc.). Second, that the concepts “moral obligation and moral duty” presuppose the existence of a divine lawgiver and, in the absence of a belief in such a deity, should be abandoned. Third, that twentieth-century English philosophers are separated by differences “of little importance,” with such authors generally rejecting the existence of absolute moral prohibitions, should consequences be sufficiently detrimental. These claims have played a large role in the forging of contemporary research projects on virtue theory, theological ethics, the history of moral philosophy, and other matters of practical and speculative importance.

Call for Abstracts
We welcome papers from a variety of fields of moral inquiry, including but not limited to philosophy, theology, political science, psychology, and law. Suggested topics include:

  • Divine Command Theory
  • Virtue Theory
  • Neo-Aristotelian Ethics
  • Theories of Intention and Action
  • Natural Law Theory
  • Exceptionless Moral Norms
  • The Relationship Between Legal and Moral Categories

Please submit an abstract of no more than 300 words by October 1, 2017 to  kscott3@nd.edu.

For more information in the full Call for Abstracts, click here.

Photos of our June 2017 Working Group Meeting

Twenty of our scholars met in Chicago for their final working group meeting to discuss their work in progress with each other across the disciplines of psychology, theology, and philosophy.

Find more photos on our Flickr page.

 

 

More photos from this session can be found on our Flickr page.

 

Group Photo and Last Day of the Summer Seminar “Virtue, Happiness, and Self-Transcendence”

“I feel very fortunate to have listened to and engaged with such gifted people from so many places…”

“I’m having a great fascinating time and I’ve heard attendees from all perspectives/traditions express how appreciative they are of getting this opportunity to have a respectful interdisciplinary discussion on these topics.”

We feel the same, and grateful for the comments already coming our way from our fabulous participants.

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From left: Madison Gilbertson, Carissa Phillips-Garrett, Sarah Ann Bixler, Cabrini Pak, Dan McAdams, Andrea Yetzer, Candace Vogler, Jennifer Rothschild, Ellen Dulaney, Anselm Mueller, Samantha Mendez, David McPherson, Joseph Stenberg, Fr. Steve Brock, Andrew Flynn, Jennifer A. Frey, James Dominic Rooney, Jane Klinger, Molly Ogunyemi, Tim Reilly, Craig Iffland, Marta Faria, Elise Murray, Andrew Christy, Alberto Arruda, Sanaz Talaifar, Theresa Smart, Maureen Bielinski, Samuel Baker, Jaime Hovey, Tal Brewer, Anne Jeffrey.

Today’s sessions are Jennifer Frey on Happiness and Candace Vogler on Happiness and Social Life; follow along with our live-tweeting from @UChiVirtue.

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Below is a sampling from yesterday’s sessions with Fr Stephen Brock on Aquinas and the Law and Dan McAdams on Generativity.

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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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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.

Frey and Vogler Keynote Stockholm Conference

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Photo by Erik Angner

Our scholar Erik Angner has coordinated the workshop “Workshop: Happiness, Virtue, and the Meaning of Life” at Stockholm University.

In recent years, psychologists, neuroscientists, economists, and other scientists have turned their attention to traditional philosophical themes of happiness, virtue, and the meaning of life. Perhaps not coincidentally, philosophers’ interest in these themes appears to have been rekindled.

This two-day workshop aims to close the gap between empirical and philosophical approaches to questions of happiness, virtue, and the meaning of life, in the interest of encouraging the development of an empirically informed philosophy and a science with philosophical awareness.

The workshop’s keynotes are the Co-Principal Investigators for Virtue, Happiness, & the Meaning of Life.


Jennifer A. Frey’s talk is

Self-Love and Self-Transcendence
 
This paper will address the question of the connections between virtue, happiness, and meaning of life through the lens of “self-transcendence.”  I will explore what the concept of self-transcendence means by way of an account of appropriate self-love.  Aquinas argues that vice, and bad human action generally, should be understood in terms of inordinate (excessive or misdirected) self-love.  Appropriate self-love, by contrast, inclines one to, and finds its ultimate fulfillment in, the love of others; in short, it is a “self-transcendent” love. In this paper, I will explore Aquinas’s account of appropriate self-love as the foundation for the good or happy life, and the implications of this account for virtue ethics.

Candace Vogler’s talk is

Synderesis

Aquinas holds that human beings are the animals that have to figure out what to do–things are differently challenging for us than they are for other kinds of animals, however careful he is to notice that the highest levels of cognitive functioning in some nonhuman animals are very close to the simplest levels of human cognitive functioning.  But he also holds that we come equipped with something that he calls a “natural habit”–synderesis.  Synderesis gives us some initial direction, and gains more specific content as we mature.  In this talk, I will discuss Aquinas’s notion of synderesis, and explain the sense in which it is plausible to think that there is such a habit, linking my discussion to some work in developmental psychology with an occasional nod in the direction of controversy in contemporary Anglophone philosophy about the ‘guise of the good’ thesis.

For more about the workshop, speakers, and schedule, visit http://www.philosophy.su.se/english/about-us/events/workshop-happiness-virtue-and-the-meaning-of-life