Dispatches from last day of our final working group meeting

(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.”

General Justice and the Common Good

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.

An Integrative Model for Affective Forecasts: Understanding Predictions about Future Feelings



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.  Heather C. Lench is Associate Professor and Associate Head in the Department of Psychology at Texas A&M University and scholar with Virtue, Happiness, & the Meaning of Life.


People try to make decisions that will improve their lives and make them happy, and to do so, they rely on affective forecasts–predictions about how future outcomes will make them feel. The greater the emotional impact people expect a future outcome to have, the more effort and resources they invest in attaining or avoiding it. Understandably then, inaccuracy in affective forecasting has been identified as a major obstacle to making good decisions. Decades of research suggest that people are poor at predicting how they will feel and commonly overestimate the impact that future events will have on their emotions. Although the simplicity of this idea is intuitively attractive, recent studies have revealed that people are actually very good at forecasting some features of their emotional reaction. This investigation tested a new theoretical model that explains past inconsistent results demonstrating that sometimes people overestimate, sometimes underestimate, and are sometimes accurate in their forecasts. The investigation clearly differentiates forecasts of emotional intensity, frequency, and duration for the first time in the real-world setting of a controversial presidential election. Participants accurately forecast the intensity of their reaction, but overestimated how frequently they would feel emotions about the election and how much their mood would be impacted by the election. Consistent with our theoretical model, bias in forecasts of emotion were predicted by cognitive features. Overestimating the importance of the election resulted in overestimating the intensity of responses; overestimating the frequency of thinking about the election resulted in overestimating the frequency of responses; and overestimating the relevance of the election to personal goals predicted overestimating the impact of the election on mood. By allowing researchers to achieve greater precision about the features of emotion being predicted, this study clarifies when and why people overestimate, underestimate, and accurately predict their emotional reactions. Addressing this question is essential, not only for a theoretical understanding of how people think about their futures, but also for understanding how to intervene to improve decisions.


The results inform interventions designed to improve decision-making in applied domains including health, public policy, education, and economics. People making important decisions–such as whether to undergo surgery, listen to public health warnings, or pursue a specific career– will be better informed if they can accurately predict how the outcomes of their decisions will make them feel. Thus, interventions that improve forecasting are critically important for helping people make informed choices with implications for the length and quality of their lives.
*This is a collaborative project with Linda J. Levine, and is funded by the National Science Foundation (#1451297)

*A similar abstract was submitted for the December 2016 meeting; however, discussion of these primary findings was delayed in favor of presenting several serendipitous results given the surprising outcome of the election.



What John Henry Newman’s The Idea of a University Has to Teach Us

University Church of St Mary the Virgin, where John Henry Newman became vicar in 1828. Photo by Arnaud Malon.

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.

Reinhard Hütter is Professor of Christian Theology at The Catholic University of America and Duke University.

In my last paper I argued that any robust philosophical, let one, theological account of happiness and self-transcendence presupposes an account of finality or teleology. I advanced the case that without an antecedent understanding of the specific nature and the distinct finality of the human person, it is rather futile to gain clarity about the nature of authentic happiness, of genuine self-transcendence and last, but not least, about the question of a perfect continuous state of ek-static bliss, surpassingly fulfilled self-transcendence, or, what the Catholic tradition calls, the beatific vision. Hidden disagreements on this fundamental metaphysical level (human beings are not persons but at best super-primates; they do not have rational souls, but the mind is an epiphenomenon of neurological processes; the universe is bereft of finality, because there does not exist a transcendent First Cause and Final End, usually called God) give rise to notions of happiness that are not only philosophically underdetermined but mutually exclusive, if not simply equivocal. I held that one important step toward a clarification of these matters is a straightforward description of a particular, comprehensive account of finality, self-transcendence, and happiness, an account that lays bare its philosophical and theological first principles.

In this paper I take another step by addressing one of the most daunting contemporary obstacles to a rigorous and comprehensive inquiry into the nature of happiness, self-transcendence, and the meaning of life—the late modern research university and its self-imposed limitation to the empirically falsifiable supported by a tacit but tenacious commitment to what can be variously described as the immanent frame, secularism, instrumentalism, and the privileging of the quantifiable and computable as the proper object of what is a “true” science. It is unavoidable that inquiries that transcend this self-imposed limitation of reason, because of their allegedly non-scientific character, are banned from the public space of university discourse and relegated to the realm of the subjective, to the private space of individual curiosity. Or such inquiries must be transformed in such a way that they fit the immanentist and empiricist framework. Certain disciplines (the sad and interiorly disarrayed remnant of the “humanities”) that engage in such inquiries may exist on the margins of the university as historically descriptive, textually interpretive, and conceptually analytic enterprises that may contribute, next to rigorous disciplines like mathematics and cybernetics, to a soft but still in some ways not completely useless propaedeutic to the real work of science. This reality is challenged by an understanding of the university as an institution that essentially engages the whole breadth of reason and does not deny its grandeur in any shape or form. It is in such a university, I suggest, where inquiries into happiness, virtue, and the meaning of life stand at the very center of what a university is about. It is John Henry Newman who articulates the idea of such a university with a still unsurpassed clarity and force.