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.

Herbst Wald Panorama im goldenen Sonnenschein
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.

WGM June 2016_20160608_2826
Matthias Haase at our June 2016 Working Group Meeting. Photo by Valerie Wallace.



Preview on iTunes

Read about our podcast “Virtue Talk”

Creatures of Habit

Photo by Sarah Tarno.
Photo by Sarah Tarno.

Recently it has been suggested that the concept of virtue can be understood as something like a skill. Like a skill, virtue is a disposition that requires habituation, where such habituation, however, cannot be reduced to mere routine. It has been central to this view that these two modes of practical knowledge, skill and virtue, are clearly distinguishable from mere habits.


According to this picture, skill and virtue are particular species of the more general categories of “acquired capacities” and “acquired tendencies.” Both rational and sub-rational animals are meant to have acquired capacities and acquired tendencies. A trained dog is said to have the capacity to control its sphincters, and if it is well behaved, it tends to exercise this capacity. An adult person has the capacity to fulfill her promises, and if she is virtuous, she will tend to fulfill them. According to this picture, only the capacities and tendencies of human beings are rational. The capacities of sub-rational creatures are mere habits. Thus skill and virtue are conceived as the rational species of two more general categories, acquired capacity and acquired tendency. They are meant to be more general because they also apply to sub-rational animals. I call this the Modern Approach to habit. It rests on the assumption that the contrast between acquired and not acquired capacities and tendencies, i.e. between habituated and non-habituated capacities and tendencies, is intelligible independently of the rational sub-categories.


I criticize this view and oppose to it what I call the Orthodox Doctrine of habit endorsed by Aristotle, Aquinas and Hegel. On this view, the relation between capacity and tendency on the one hand, and habit on the other hand, is not the relation between a genus and a species. Rather, habit is a formal feature that properly belongs to the idea of a rational power. According to this doctrine, sub-rational animals cannot, properly speaking, have habits; only rational animals are creatures of habit. While mere animals possess their capacities “immediately” or “by nature”, humans equip themselves with a “second nature” through repeated actions. A human is the creation of her own activity.


The opposition between the Neo-Aristotelian and the orthodox doctrines of habit thus comes to this: on the Neo-Aristotelian conception of the distinctions within the general category of capacity, the opposition rational/sub-rational is applicable to the concept of habit. There are rational as well as sub-rational habits. According to the orthodox doctrine, the rational/sub-rational opposition is not applicable to habit, since the latter constitutes a structural moment of rational capacities. There are no sub-rational habits. There are only good and bad habits: i.e. the two ways in which a rational capacity can be actualized. The wisdom of this orthodox doctrine is evident from the difficulties afflicting the Neo-Aristotelian account. So let us consider habit in its three principal dimensions: acquisition, act, and subject.


In the categorical framework of Neo-Aristotelianism, the conceptual capacities distinctive of humankind form a sub-category of acquired dispositions. Let’s assume for the moment that this is correct. What are we to say of those exemplars of our species who have yet to acquire any second nature? What are we to say of our first nature? John McDowell gives the following response: “Human infants are mere animals, distinctive only in their potential.” McDowell does not maintain that newborns belong to the class of beasts and brutes; he rather advances the thesis that the distinction between us and animals obtains at the level of first nature. An infant differs from mere animals not through its activities but through its as-yet unactualized capacities, its predispositions. Thus, when, in the course of their development, children acquire conceptual abilities and tendencies, they are actualizing a capacity that they were born with. In other words, human infants differ from mere animals by virtue of a second-order capacity, a capacity to acquire abilities. A rational second nature is thus the actualization of a second-order capacity that is in-born, and hence a first nature.


But if this capacity distinguishes us in virtue of our first nature, then the question arises as to whether the capacity to acquire rational capacities is itself a rational capacity. For mere animals can have a second nature as well, and therefore have the ability to acquire abilities. The capacities that they acquire, however, are—unlike ours—not rational. The question is what this means for the corresponding second-order capacities. What sort of distinction is there between their second-order capacities and ours? Are ours rational?


Aristotle, Aquinas, and Hegel deny that humans think from birth. A human infant differs from a mere animal in virtue of its predispositions, not in virtue of the (supposed) fact that it thinks. Infants first acquire concepts, which are applied in judgments, through practice. So why doesn’t the problem that these predispositions must themselves be rational capacities arise here? This problem only crops up if one assumes that the rational/sub-rational contrast applies to the concept of second nature. That is what leads to the question whether the relevant second-order capacity is itself rational or sub-rational. In the context of the orthodox doctrine of habit, this question makes no sense. Wherever first and second nature – ability and power – come apart, it is already settled whether the capacity in question is rational. It is the hallmark of rational lifeforms that their essential capacities are operative in individual exemplars only as mere predispositions. The spirited actuality of the human infant – and thus its mere being as “natural spirit” – consists precisely in the inactivity, the uncultivated indeterminacy of its essential vital capacities. It is precisely this unfinished quality of the individual, this dependency that is the material perspective, whose formal complement is the original sociality of humankind.

Matthias Haase is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at the University of Chicago (beginning Fall 2016), and scholar with the project Virtue, Happiness, & the Meaning of Life.

Days 1-2 Working Group Meeting in Chicago – photos

Our 2nd working group meeting of scholars met June 6-10, 2016 at the University of Chicago in the beautiful Neubauer Collegium for Culture and Society. Although the sessions were closed, you can read our scholars’ abstracts for their June Meeting Topics here and see more photos up in our Flickr album for the week.



Group photo: Working Group Meeting June 2016

Scholars Team June 2016
Click photo to make it larger. Photo by Marc Monaghan

We’re so happy our scholars are here in Chicago! Find out more about our scholars and their work this week in June here, and working group meetings in general, here.

Our scholars and team are:

From left to right, back row: Santiago Mejia, Michael Gorman, Matthias Haase, Jennifer A. Frey, Father Kevin Flannery, Candace Vogler, Katherine Kinzler, Howard Nusbaum, Talbot Brewer, Reinhardt Huetter, Marc G. Berman (not pictured: Tahera Qudbuddin).

Middle row: Christian Kronsted, Jean Porter, Father Thomas Joseph White, Mari Stuart, Nancy Snow, Heather C. Lench, Angela Knobel,  Erik Angner, Dan McAdams, Valerie Wallace, Jaime Hovey.

Front row: Paul Wong, David Shatz, David Carr, Anselm Mueller.

Questions our scholars are asking – round two


This coming week (June 6-10, 2016, at the Neubauer Collegium at the University of Chicago) is the second of four meetings for our  scholars (the first was December 2015 at the University of South Carolina). These meetings are immersive experiences for these scholars, who are philosophers, theologians, and psychologists; the meetings are aimed at generating systematic and integrated knowledge, including ultimately a new construct for empirical research on self-transcendence, new instruments of assessment, and new data.


Here are summaries of the questions and research our scholars will be discussing with each other in the coming week.


Matthias Haase: Can virtue be cultivated like a habit?


Tahera Qutbudden: Can one enjoy a happy and pleasurable life in this world while also preparing for the next?


Jennifer A. Frey: Is selfishness a particular kind of vice, or the nature of vice?


David Schatz: Is ignorance always a vice, or can it also be a virtue?


Heather C. Lench: Can boredom lead us to virtue?


David Carr: Does spirituality have a material dimension, and if so, can it be developed and educated?


Mari Stuart: Can the indigenous knowledge reflected in a moral ecology worldview teach things that climate science cannot?


Jean Porter: Can malice, like virtue, also give meaning to life?


Erik Angner: Is social well-being the same thing as happiness?


Paul Wong: Is it possible to measure Self-Transcendence?


Katharine Kinzler: Can infant food preferences teach us about the social world?


Mark Berman: Do ugly surroundings encourage criminal behavior?


Angela Knobel: Can the notion of virtue as a gift from God have broad appeal?


Father Thomas Joseph White: Can Aquinas help us understand Nietzsche’s ideas about truth and moral freedom?


Michael Gorman: Is a meaningful life also necessarily a good life?


Nancy Snow: Is magnificence—expenditure for the public good—virtuous, or vicious? Can it be both?


Tal Brewer: Are human beings irreplaceable, and due special forms of regard and good treatment?


Dan McAdams: What is the difference between habit and character? Do we narrate these things about ourselves in different ways?


Reinhard Hütter: How do we overcome the lure of self-sovereignty that surrounds us and attain true self-transcendence?


Father Kevin Flannery: What is the relationship between intention, choice, and virtue?