Interview with Kate Phillips, “Virtue & Happiness” Summer Session Participant


Today marks the start of a new series of interviews with our incoming class for the “Virtue & Happiness” 2016 Summer Seminar. Today’s post features Kate Phillips, Lecturer in the Writing, Speaking, and Argument Program at the University of Rochester.

Valerie Wallace: Where are you from?

Kate Phillips: I am from Rochester, NY. I grew up in a small, canal-town suburb of Rochester called Pittsford. Like many Rochesterarians, I have a fondness for seasons, a love of spring, and a well-developed tolerance for snow and overcast skies. In an unexpected (given my love of travel and academia) and pleasant twist I still live and work in Rochester after also having gone to graduate school in philosophy here. I now own a home in the city proper, and enjoy the rich intellectual diversity in the interdisciplinary Writing, Speaking, and Argument Program where I work. I can also now confidently say I will always love western New York for its many lakes, great beauty, fabulous parks, and super annoying weather.

VW: What are your research areas? Why?

KP: My broad research areas are ethics and philosophy of science. One project of long-term interest to me is comparing arguments about scientific realism with arguments about moral realism. My more specific, current research interests include investigating the intersection of philosophy and psychology by looking at work developed in the situationism/virtue ethics debate. I’m spending a lot of time thinking about what constitutes a eudaimonic life and how that relates to attacks on character developed out of work from the empirical domain. I suspect eudaimonia has a deep and interesting connection with the innate psychological needs, an account of which can be found in work on Self-Determination Theory from psychology.


Part of the reason that I am particularly interested in the ongoing debate about situationism and virtue ethics, or more broadly how empirical psychology and normative ethics intersect, is the essential practicality of ethics. I think sometimes that our theoretical inquiries can overlook this fact, separating ethical and moral investigation from the context of our lives. I think the very practicality of ethics became even more important to me when my long-term interest in ethics led me to join the Peace Corps immediately after college and before I entered grad school. While of course how people actually behave doesn’t tell us how they should behave, the actual behavioral tendencies of humans must tell us ethicists something interesting and relevant to our theories. I enjoy trying to figure out what that is.


VW: What are you most looking forward to about this summer’s Virtue & Happiness seminar?

KP: I am most excited about the diversity of scholarship that will be represented at the summer seminar. In particular I am excited about the many conversations we can have about the variety of studies of virtue and happiness, what they have in common and what they don’t, and what we will learn from each other. I am excited to be surrounded by a group of people interested in virtue and happiness.


VW: What are your non-academic interests?

KP: My most important current non-academic interests are dog ownership and homeownership. Last year, around the time of finishing my dissertation, I discovered that I could build things. It turns out building furniture can be a really nice thing to do when you finish a long and grueling intellectual project (or at least press a momentary pause on it by graduating), so I built a bookshelf, a place to keep my clothes (which is actually just a bunch of crates screwed together, but I like it), and what turned out to be a surprisingly nice 6.5’ dining room table. The next obvious step to test my handiness was homeownership, so I took the plunge. It turns out homeownership is much more difficult than building a table (unsurprisingly) but it has a lot of fun moments, in addition to some really stressful nonsense.


Part of my interest in homeownership was the longtime dream of having the privilege of being a dog caretaker. So, not long after moving into the new house, my wonderful partner and I adopted a 6-year-old Aussie Shepard/collie/spaniel mix, who has a long history of friendship with cats. He came from a local rescue with the name R2D2, which he obviously got to keep. Getting to be R2’s people is an unparalleled delight, and also a unique challenge. Given his background and his persistent uncertainty in life, R2 finds the world to be a scary place, with being alone the most challenging monster of all. We do a lot of work together to remind R2 that the world has got much great beauty in addition to its pain and sadness, and also to associate seeing another dog on leash with treats and good things rather than an explosion of unbearable emotion. We also are working slowly towards understanding that we will always be back, and being at home alone means the best toys and foods as well as gentle naps instead of a whole life unbearably alone.