The Virtue Blog

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

Practically Self-Conscious Life

 

WassertropfenWe’re presenting a short series of abstracts of the work-in-progress our scholars presented and discussed at their June 2017 Working Group Meeting.

Matthias Haase is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at the University of Chicago.

 

Ethical Naturalism, as Philippa Foot conceives it, is the thesis that ethical goodness is a species of natural goodness. On this view, the central concept of meta-ethics is the concept of life. Natural goodness and defect is an aspect of the relation between a life-form and its exemplars. This relation is also exhibited by the sub-rational life of plants and animals. Ethical goodness concerns a certain dimension of the relation between a specifically rational life-form and its exemplars. Ethical Naturalism so conceived may thus be described as a two-step program for the treatment of our fundamental normative concepts of ethics. The first step introduces a general notion of normativity through the reflection of the concept of a life-form and its bearers. The second step is supposed to establish that the necessity expressed by ‘ought’ and ‘cannot,’ as they figure in our discourse about good action, is a sub-determination of the general notion of vital normativity.

 

Both steps have come under attack in the literature. It has been doubted that the concept of life introduces any genuine notion of normativity. And it has denied that ethical necessity belongs to such vital normativity. In both cases, the doubts may be presented as qualms about the logical forms to which the Ethical Naturalist appeals in the respective step of the proposed program. The notion of natural goodness is supposed to be elucidated by appeal to the special kind of generality exhibited by our descriptions of the life-cycle of a species: Natural Historical Judgments, as Michael Thompson calls them. Shifting such judgments into the self-conscious register of practical thought is supposed to provide the notion of a life-from that is essentially represented by its exemplars and thereby illuminate the idea of life in which the question ‘How should I live?’ has a place. In the paper I am concerned with this second step: the transition from life to practically self-conscious life.

 

My question is what form a developed Ethical Naturalism has to take for this transition to be articulated within its framework. I discuss a tension within Foot’s own account. And then turn to different ways in which the tension gets resolved in the theories of Rosalind Hursthouse and Michael Thompson. Each is confronted with further difficulties.

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.

 

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.

Photos and Opening Remarks: Practical Truth and Virtue

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On April 21-22, our co-PI, Jennifer A. Frey, hosted a philosophy workshop at the University of South Carolina titled, “Practical Truth: Reflections on the Aristotelian Tradition.”  Frey hosted an international group of philosophers on campus in Columbia, SC to discuss the importance of the concept of practical truth, both historically within the Aristotelian tradition and in terms of its relevance for contemporary philosophical debates about action, practical reason and virtue.  She is currently pursuing the possibility of publishing the essays in an edited volume.

In her opening discussion of practical truth, Professor Frey discussed her reasons for thinking the concept of practical truth is central to a philosophical account of virtue. What follows is a condensed version of her basic argument.

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Let us start with the claim that the knowledge the virtuous person possesses is a distinctive kind of knowledge, what the ancients and medievals called practical knowledge or practical wisdom. What marks the difference between practical and theoretical knowledge and wisdom?  Well, traditionally the thought was that it is grounded in the distinction between theoretical and practical reasoning, which Aristotle differentiated in terms of distinctive ends or aims (their distinctive work or operation as modes of reasoning).  Theoretical reasoning, Aristotle argued, aims at an understanding of being or what is, and its measure is truth; such reasoning is finished (i.e., its work is done) when truth is grasped intellectually.  Theoretical wisdom, the perfection of theoretical reasoning, aims to know general and timeless truths about the highest or best objects of contemplation.  But practical knowledge, by contrast, aims at praxis, at realizing or making actual a good human life through deliberative choices of certain actions and activities; it aims to realize what is truly good in particulars, in human actions.  If we say that its measure is also truth, it must be truth of a special kind, one that somehow hooks up with realizing what is truly good.  It cannot be a truth that ends with an intellectual grasp of what is; rather, it would have to be a truth that is achieved in the living of a certain life, in a praxis.

It is worth noting, in this regard, that Aristotle thought one could possess theoretical but not practical wisdom—theoretical but not practical truth.  Suppose, for instance, that someone excels in math, physics, chemistry, biology, and general cosmology.  Such a person grasps the way things are ordered at the most basic and fundamental level, and he can apply these most general principles to explain much of what happens in the world.  Suppose he has devoted his life to this kind of knowledge.  Of course, this in no way guarantees or even tends to the cultivation of his moral virtue. Perhaps he is lascivious with women outside of the lab; perhaps he is willing to lie, steal, and cheat when it allows him more time and grant money to pursue his passion for science, perhaps he is a coward and incapable of helping others in need; and so on.  None of this necessarily impacts his ability to do great science; and, more importantly, nothing about doing great science inoculates him against developing a gross moral character.

It wouldn’t change anything, I suspect, if we added theology to the list of studies to which our imagined knower dedicated himself.  Being able to argue about the metaphysics of the Trinity does not necessarily make you a loving or good person either.  A mere change of topic won’t cut it.  For the same reason, one might even be a great moral theorist and have a bad moral character; that is, one might have theoretical knowledge about practical subject matters but not the practical dispositions that lead to making good decisions and living well.

This goes back, once again, to the different inherent teleologies or inherent aims of the two different kinds of reasoning.  Practical reasoning is not practical in virtue of having a special kind of content; it is not ordinary theoretical thought and inference suddenly turned to the topic of human good. Practical reasoning is practical because it aims to realize some good or end that the agent desires—most especially the desire to live well or to flourish.  Such reasoning depends on the agent wanting to realize some end or objective or good; thus desire for some good is essential to practical reasoning, it is the arche or starting point of such reasoning.  This explains why Aristotle defines practical truth as “truth in accordance with right desire.”

Now, if practical knowledge and reasoning essentially aims at action, and if such thought depends for its teleology upon a certain appetitive orientation, then it can only be successful when the agent brings about the goods in question through the use of this very thought and reasoning.  So it is somewhat misleading to say that the practically wise man knows how to live, because again, he may know this as a theory rather than as a praxis.  To come to know the praxis would require a different kind of training that the one the moral theorist typically receives.  What we might strictly speaking say of the practically wise man, if he is really practically wise, is that he knows he is living well, not simply that he knows how to live well, generally speaking.  For the knowledge is operative in the practically wise and is the explanation of what he does—of his choices and actions.  The manifestation of the knowledge is primarily in what he does rather than what he says.

Thus it seems to me that there is a difference between a theoretical conception of living well, which the moral theorist might possess, and a practical conception of living well, which only the practically wise possess. It also strikes me that the good or happy life is one that displays a kind of truth about human nature and human beings—a truth about what our good is.  But again, this is a distinctively practical kind of truth that is displayed in living well, not simply in the possession of correct general propositions or principles.  One sees practical wisdom and practical truth principally or paradigmatically in action, as it were, not standing behind it.

In contemporary virtue ethics, there is almost no discussion of practical truth.  But if the line of reasoning I have outlined is roughly correct, virtue ethics needs an account of a distinctively practical notion of truth just as much as it needs a distinctively practical account of knowledge and wisdom.  The point of the workshop (and eventually, the collected volume of papers) is to begin to advance such an account in light of our understanding of the Aristotelian tradition, broadly construed to include Aquinas and the work of Elizabeth Anscombe.

Questions our scholars are asking – part 1 of 2

We’ve distilled our Scholars’ research for this semester into respective questions; tomorrow we’ll post eight more. And in forthcoming posts, we’ll feature in-depth look at each. For now, we thought our readers would enjoy pondering each question. Together, they can read as a kind of meditation on the inter-relatedness of virtue, happiness, and deep meaning in life.

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Click photo to make it larger.

Can cognitive effort be measured?

~Marc Berman, University of Chicago

 

What good are the humanities?

~ Talbot Brewer, University of Virginia

 

What work does anger do across moralities?

What work ought anger to do in a particular morality?

~ Owen Flanagan, Duke University

 

How can Thomistic notions of of Temperance enlarge and enrich our understanding of that virtue?

~ Jennifer Frey, University of South Carolina

 

What is the role of friendship in human flourishing?

~Michael Gorman, The Catholic University of America

 

Given my circumstances, can I do what befits a human being? 

~Matthias Haase, University of Chicago

 

Can we achieve happiness without an understanding of the ultimate finality of the human soul?

~Reinhard Huetter, Duke Divinity School

 

Can human character experience sudden moral change?

~Angela Knobel, The Catholic University of America

 

How is Aristotle’s meta-virtue of megalopsychia, or magnanimity, useful to us today?

Can immoral people undergo sudden moral conversions?

~Kristján Kristjánsson, Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues, University of Birmingham

“To Change the World Through Thought” – Virtue Talk Podcast: Philosopher Matthias Haase

virtuetalklogorsClick the link below to hear our scholar and philosopher Matthias Haase discuss his research in philosophy of action, and the unexpected benefits of doing research with theologians and psychologists.

Matthias Haase | Virtue Talk

Matthias Haase is Lecturer at the University of Leipzig, and in January 2016, will be Assistant Professor of Philosophy at the University of Chicago. Read more here.

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Matthias Haase at our June 2016 Working Group Meeting. Photo by Valerie Wallace.

 

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