The Anxiety of Loss and the Anxiety of Meaning: Part One

 

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This is a two part series. Part Two, “Rationality and the Anxiety of Meaning”, posts tomorrow.

Part One: Anxiety and Loss

It is of our very nature as rational animals to reflect on our life. We do not only pursue ends, but also ask whether our ends are good and whether our life as a whole is going well. We might say that our rational practical capacity, the capacity to question and justify our ends, allows us an ethical life. By virtue of our reason we may amend our ways and also live with the knowledge that our life and the ends we pursue are as they should be. However, along with the ethical light bestowed by reason come worries unique to rational beings like us. Being able to question our ends opens the possibility of doubt and skepticism about the worth of those ends and the worth of our life as a whole. And with our comprehension of the possibility of change comes the worry that we may lose that which is of worth. In following the light of reason we are haunted by the shadows of anxiety.

 

Human reflection on anxiety has always accompanied the rational reflection on the good life (ethics). However, it sometimes appears that unlike the rational contemplation of human life (ethics) that has given rise to systems of thought, the shadowy realm of anxiety is formless and particular; subject matter for the human imagination and artistic creation, rather than for rational systematic philosophy. But since anxiety comes with practical rationality, it is forever marked by the contour of reason. Though anxiety may lack the internal rational articulation of ethics, it bears eternal witness to the rational anatomy of ethics. In what comes next I propose that from our nature as rational animals, i.e., beings with both desires and reason, follows two essential kinds of anxieties: the anxiety of meaning and the anxiety of loss. The anxiety of meaning concerns the apprehension that our life and ends are meaningless and worthless. The anxiety of loss concerns the dread that whatever is of worth, may—and eventually will—change and degenerate.

 

But before I show in what sense these two anxieties are essential and follow from our rational nature, an important distinction is in order. Anxiety is not identical to fear and has a different relation to our rationality. In attempting to distinguish between ‘fear’ and ‘anxiety’ it is often said that fear has an object (say, a menacing stray dog), and anxiety does not; fear is a response to a real threat, whereas anxiety isn’t. In other words, while fear is infused with reasons (“the stray dog is about to attack me, this is why I’m afraid!”), anxiety isn’t. This distinction provides a negative understanding of anxiety; namely, through its not being in the space of reasons, i.e. its being non-rational. However, it is less often noted that anxiety is entirely tied with reason, and while it has no object (or content) of its own, it arises from the form of our practical reason. What do I mean by the form of practical reason? I mean that which pertains to practical reason regardless of any specific ends (contents). Thus, regardless of what one’s pursuits in life are, as an agent one must have pursuits, must have ends; must have desires. Bereft of desires one has no reasons to act at all (consider clinical depression). Accordingly, having desires, we may say, is a formal characteristic of creatures like us. Another formal characteristic comes from our rationality. As noted earlier, as rational agents, we also reflect on our ends, both to see whether they are attainable (and how) and to see whether they are worthy. Accordingly, the capacity to rationally assess and evaluate one’s end and the means to one’s ends is a formal characteristic of our practical being. We see then that these two aspects of human agency, desire and reason, are formal aspects in the sense that they hold regardless of one’s actual objects of desires. Whether one desires to be a lawyer, a priest, spend time with one’s family or watch football, qua rational agent one has desires and reason – both capacities constitute the form of human agency. In light of this, we see that anxiety, unlike fear, transpires from the very form of human agency. The anxiety of loss transpires from having objects of desire (ends), the anxiety of meaning from being able to rationally consider our ends.

 

I now turn to elaborate on the two essential anxieties. Desiring, for finite creatures like us, comes with the perennial risk of loss. As conscious beings, we are conscious of this risk as internal to our human condition. We are aware of it as a formal characteristic of our life. As such, rather than being a mere unfortunate fact of human psychology, the anxiety of loss is bound with the form of human life; even the happy life. Part of human happiness consists of desires, most importantly, of care and love, for people, ideas and projects. For instance, family, friends, community and vocation, constitute such central objects of care and love, and in their absence we consider life deficient. These are some of the core objects of human desire (ends) and few would voluntarily opt for life bereft of them (though this is perhaps not at all a matter of choice). But along with having these ends comes the realization that we can lose them. Traditionally, the figure of Job poignantly symbolizes the fragility of human life—how a good life, a life rich with family, friends, and possessions, can always fall into pieces. Being finite beings we always stand in danger of losing that which is precious to us and so, a painful shadow lurks even in the happiest life. The consciousness of our fragility and constant risk of losing (or never getting) what is good in our lives is the anxiety of loss.

 


Amichai Amit is PhD student in philosophy at the University of Chicago. His research concerns the foundations of ethics and normativity. He also has strong interests in the history of philosophy (ancient and German idealism) and existentialism. He previously received an MA in Philosophy from Tel-Aviv University.

 

CFA for UChicago Undergraduates: “Speaking of Character” with David Brooks, Anne Snyder, and Candace Vogler

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Speaking of Character

May 27th, 11-3:30 (coffee and pastries at 10)
Open to University of Chicago undergraduates, by application.

Many different cultures treat developing good character as one of the central challenges in human life. Your character draws together strengths that help you to pursue and promote good reasonably, avoid bad responsibly, and participate in the collective movements toward common good that shape the social world in which you find yourself. Good character is, as one says, a proof against rewards–a good person does not, for instance, betray her friends or her firm for the sake of personal advantage. Good character is supposed to help people set their priorities, to think well about good courses of action they might pursue here and now, experience sorrow over genuine losses, joy over real triumphs, and more generally to live wisely and well.  With background reading by two philosophers, we will gather to think and talk about character in a one-day seminar.

David Brooks became an Op-Ed columnist for The New York Times in September 2003. He is currently a commentator on “The PBS Newshour,” NPR’s “All Things Considered” and NBC’s “Meet the Press.” He is the author of “Bobos In Paradise: The New Upper Class and How They Got There” and “The Social Animal: The Hidden Sources of Love, Character, and Achievement.” In April of 2015 he came out with his fourth book, The Road to Character, which was a #1 New York Times bestseller. Mr. Brooks also teaches at Yale University, and is a member of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences.

 

Anne Snyder is the Director of The Character Initiative at The Philanthropy Roundtable, a pilot program that seeks to help foundations and wealth creators around the country advance character formation through their giving. She is also a Fellow at the Center for Opportunity Urbanism, a Houston-based think tank that explores how cities can drive opportunity and social mobility for the bulk of their citizens. Prior to jumping to the Lonestar state she worked at The New York Times in Washington, as well as World Affairs Journal and the Ethics and Public Policy Center. She holds a Master’s degree in journalism from Georgetown University and a B.A. in philosophy and international relations from Wheaton College (IL). Anne has published in National Journal, The Washington Post, The Atlantic Monthly, Philanthropy Magazine, Orange County Register, Center for Opportunity Urbanism, The Institute for Family Studies, FaithStreet, Comment Magazine, Verily, Humane Pursuits, and FareForward.

 

Candace Vogler is the David B. and Clara E. Stern Professor of Philosophy and Professor in the College at the University of Chicago, and Principal Investigator on “Virtue, Happiness, and the Meaning of Life,” a project funded by the John Templeton Foundation.  She has authored two books, John Stuart Mill’s Deliberative Landscape: An essay in moral psychology (Routledge, 2001) and Reasonably Vicious (Harvard University Press, 2002), and essays in ethics, social and political philosophy, philosophy and literature, cinema, psychoanalysis, gender studies, sexuality studies, and other areas.  Her research interests are in practical philosophy (particularly the strand of work in moral philosophy indebted to Elizabeth Anscombe), practical reason, Kant’s ethics, Marx, and neo-Aristotelian naturalism.

Who is invited: UChicago undergraduates, by application only. Visit hydeparkinstitute.org/speaking-of-character for more information and to apply.

Contact person: zloveless@hydeparkinstitute.org

David Carr on Wisdom, Knowledge and Justice in Moral Virtue | Our Scholars at Oxford for Jubilee Centre Conference on Character, Wisdom, and Virtue, January 5-7, 2017

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Oriel College, Oxford University. Photo by Jennifer A. Frey.

Last week, 4 of our scholars—Howard Nusbaum, David Carr, John Haldane, and Robert C. Roberts–and our 2 Principal Investigators, Jennifer Frey and Candace Vogler, all participated in a conference on Character, Wisdom, and Virtue held January 5, 6, and 7, 2017 at Oriel College, Oxford, UK, sponsored by the Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues at the University of Birmingham, UK. We are pleased to feature their abstracts and papers here on the Virtue Blog for the next few days, with many thanks to the Jubilee Centre. http://jubileecentre.ac.uk

 

David Carr.jpgDavid C. Carr is Professor Emeritus, University of Edinburgh, and Professor of Ethics and Education, University of Birmingham, Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues. His principal research interests include the study of ethics, virtue ethics and moral education; the nature of professionalism and professional ethics; aesthetics; and education of the emotions. He has written widely in these areas and is the author of Making Sense of Education: An Introduction to the Philosophy and Theory of Education and Teaching (Routledge 2003). Recent publications include “Virtue, Mixed Emotions and Moral Ambivalence,” Philosophy 84:1, 31-46, and “Character in Teaching,” British Journal of Educational Studies, 55:4, 369-389.

 

Below you will find his short abstract, followed by a link to the larger paper discussed at the conference, “Wisdom, Knowledge and Justice in Morally Virtuous Character.”

 

ABSTRACT: “Wisdom, Knowledge and Justice in Moral Virtue”

 

According to an early attempt to understand the nature of moral virtue – associated with Socrates and Plato – there can be no true virtue without wisdom, defined in terms of the acquisition of knowledge conceived as the elimination of ignorance about oneself, the world, and one’s relations with others. Still, Aristotle offers an account of moral wisdom that departs significantly from this Socratic picture, arguing that it is not the prime purpose of moral wisdom to define or know ‘the good’, but to help us become agents of good moral character – sharply dividing the ‘practical’ virtue of phronesis or moral wisdom from epistemic or knowledge-seeking virtues. A disturbing possible consequence of this Aristotelian separation of moral wisdom from the knowledge-seeking epistemic virtues – drawn by virtue theorists such as Julia Driver – is the idea that there may be virtues that actually require ignorance for their proper expression. However, building on the critical literature regarding ‘virtues of ignorance,’ this paper will proceed to a fuller discussion and evaluation of the complex issue of the epistemic dimensions of virtue.

 

Click here for the full paper: http://jubileecentre.ac.uk/userfiles/jubileecentre/pdf/conference-papers/CharacterWisdomandVirtue/Carr_D.pdf

 

Varieties of Virtue Ethics collection features our scholars

We are very happy to announce a new book that will be of great interest to researchers, students, and general readers concerned with the many contemporary varieties and applications of virtue ethics: Varieties of Virtue Ethics, Edited by David Carr, James Arthur, and Kristján Kristjánsson, from Palgrave Macmillan (December 2016). Edited by two of our Project Scholars, David Carr and Kristján Kristjánsson, both at the University of Birmingham Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues, the book explores recent developments in ethics of virtue, and includes three essays by scholars of the project Virtue, Happiness, and the Meaning of Life.

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The collection acknowledges the Aristotelian roots of modern virtue ethics, with its emphasis on the moral importance of character, while also recognizing that more recent accounts of virtue have been shaped by many other influences, such as Aquinas, Hume, Nietzsche, Hegel and Marx, and Confucius and Lao-tzu. The authors examine the influence of virtue ethics on disciplines such as psychology, sociology and theology, and also look at the wider public, professional and educational implications of virtue ethics.

Essays in the volume include a chapter by our Virtue project scholars John Haldane, who is the J. Newton Rayzor Sr. Distinguished Chair in Philosophy at Baylor University, on “Virtue Ethics in the Medieval Period;” our Principal Investigator Candace Vogler, the David E. and Clara B. Stern Professor of Philosophy at the University of Chicago on “Virtue, the Common Good, and Self-Transcendence; ” Robert C. Roberts, Professor of Ethics and Emotion Theory at the Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues, and a joint Chair with the Royal Institute of Philosophy, on “Varieties of Virtue Ethics;” and David Carr, Professor Emeritus, University of Edinburgh and Professor of Ethics and Education, University of Birmingham Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues, on “Educating for the Wisdom of Virtue.”

For more information, including the table of contents, visit http://www.palgrave.com/us/book/9781137591760.

Higher Education in a Wider Context – part 1

A close up shot of Arnaldo Pomodoro’s Grande Disco sculpture at the University of Chicago
“Brave New World”- photo by Chris Smith. [A close up shot of Arnaldo Pomodoro’s Grande Disco sculpture at the University of Chicago.]

I will tell us two stories—the first is about a group of highly successful people in their early 30s—doctors, business people, and a few junior partners at good corporate law firms. One is a former student. I began meeting the others in planes several years ago. (I travel a lot on the same airline; the miles make it possible for me to provide plane tickets for people who can’t afford to fly; they also get me a lot of free upgrades.) All of the professionals I met had impressive undergraduate records at good secular four-year colleges or universities. The doctors and lawyers had very respectable advanced degrees. Unlike some high-achievers, the ones I met were more likely than not to have children and several even belonged to churches. And, one-on-one, individually, each one talked to me about how things were going. My former student was about to flee a wildly successful job at Goldman Sachs in New York. The others just wanted to talk to someone, and even though telling people that you teach philosophy does not inspire quite the revelations that one of my colleagues gets when he tells people that he’s a psychoanalyst, when people hear “philosophy” they sometimes get thoughtful. And confidential.

 

To the extent that I could tell from brief acquaintance with the strangers (and long, if sporadic, association with my former student) these shining people had done everything they thought they were supposed to do to lead full lives. They were educated. The doctors had not done much with anything in the humanities because they had to get through so many requirements to get their pre-med out of the way and because there is really no time for that when you are in med school and doing your residency, but they listened to music or saw art occasionally when they could. To the extent you can tell by looking, my acquaintances were healthy. Most were still paying back some student loans, but they were doing well—many were buying homes of one kind or another. They had friends. They had some sort of family. As I say, a few belonged to churches. A few had some other sort of community, if only at work. And they were, to all appearances, pretty good human beings.

 

Here is what I learned about these young men and women, who were everything that parents concerned about the soaring costs of higher education could see as evidence that the investment was worth it: they were lost people.

 

A few were angry about that. A few felt guilty about that. And all of them expected that a philosopher ought to understand what was wrong. So I asked a lot of questions—you can ask a lot of questions on a long airplane flight and these poster children for our culture were accustomed to talking about themselves. They were high-achievers. They had made their parents proud. They were popular. I like to listen. And what I wanted to hear was how the machinery of very good institutions of higher education that were, as we say, secular—we are in the U.S. where the term was invented to mark the separation of church and state as in ‘no state religion; many sects,’ by which lights my university used to be secular and has become merely unaffiliated. Anyway, I was trying to understand how institutions of higher learning with no religious or faith affiliation had failed these people. The strangers had attended brick-and-mortar institutions. They had had teachers in classrooms with them. They had been in communities. Learning communities. And their lives were hollow.

 

Instead of something like happiness they had scattered moments of excitement or pleasure. Instead of challenging and nurturing intimacy they had phones with lots of photographs of pets or children to document the moments when things felt more or less okay. As Karl Marx put it in the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, I was meeting human beings who lived like birds—they had nests or, at least, large loans at low interest rates attached to what would be their nests. They flew here and there gathering things to bring back to the nests to feed and shelter and amuse themselves and any nestlings. They woke each morning with a huge to-do list hitting them in the face. And then flew off again. At least they were busy. Very, very busy. But there was no sense of meaning. There was no sense of purpose. There was, instead, the creeping realization that a busy life is not a full life, and that they had managed to get through a lot of higher education without ever developing the inner orientation or wider attachments that make all of the knowledges they had acquired and skills they had learned have a point.

 

One could object that their universities had not failed them. After all, the whole culture directs them to do what they did, and to focus their energies in the way that they had focused them. But Institutions of higher learning have tremendous influence on young people, and my strangers had all gone straight from secondary schooling to universities or four-year colleges.

 

Faced with my unhappy thirty-somethings I tried to think about the difference between people whose lives are hollow and people whose lives are full. I am a philosopher. We don’t have data. We have anecdotes. And in stories and writings we look for patterns, and we tend to look for patterns in an abstract sort of way with an eye toward catching sight of a problem.

 

It did not take much work to sense the problem that had hollowed out the lives of these beautiful young people. They had been fed a steady diet of the need to perform, to actualize themselves, to get an increasingly articulate sense of who they were and what they cared about, to find themselves, to express themselves, to meet the standards of their professions, to get ahead, and to use all of that effort to put together a secure life for themselves and any children who might come their way. Hollow people running to and fro in the shells of very busy lives punctuated by highs having to do with additional achievement spikes at work, fancy holidays in exotic places, and the undeniably wonderful things that the children said and did now and then, or genuinely heartwarming exchanges with the dogs or the cats. Higher education in the United States had prepared them for nothing better than this.

 

Frankly, it’s not worth it if that’s all we have to offer.

 

We are meant to guide and help them make a transition from home to the world in a way that equips them to act well. At their ages, with their tasks, and with our resources, moral formation will take place on campuses whether we like it or not. Higher education failed my thirty-somethings either by failing to attend to this obvious point, or else by attending to it and having whole modes of formation built right into the design and conduct of every class that cannot but churn out highly successful hollow people who are, of course, more likely than many to pay back their student loans.

 

I have been working with a grant from the John Templeton Foundation called “Virtue, Happiness, and the Meaning of Life.” We are a network project, bringing together an extraordinary group of empirical psychologists of many stripes, philosophers, theologians, and religious thinkers to read each other’s disciplinary works-in-progress with a shared set of foci. We want to understand the connections between virtue, happiness, and a sense of meaning or purpose in life. We want to use that shared focus to intervene in our separate disciplines. It is an unusual grant. So far, it is going very well.

 

It looked to me like happiness and virtue came apart in the lives of the thirty-somethings, and that senses of meaning or purpose were at best temporary, local, episodic, goal-based, and not quite the things that add up to any overall sense that life is worth living.

 

Now, there are scholars of Aristotle who will insist that these people are not really virtuous, because if you really are virtuous, then you will be a good human being who enjoys the special kind of happiness that comes of living a good human life. I have never known what to make of this view, even though I know one genuinely happy Aristotelian virtue ethicist who think just this, and two very serious Aristotle scholars who likewise seem to believe it, and to be both good human beings and pretty happy.

 

They are interested in the happiness that is sometimes called “flourishing,” which is the spiritually muted English translation of the Greek term eudaimonia. The daimon-bit in eudaimonia suggests some sort of traffic with divinity—a topic that is difficult and strange in Aristotle. So one can think of “flourishing” as the acceptable English translation that highlights what humans have in common with every other living thing.

 

These thinkers are very comfortable with the thought that the thing that people most want is happiness, and even my preferred neo-Aristotelian, Thomas Aquinas, takes some such view on board, although the desired happiness is not properly identified with good feeling or satisfaction or contentment in temporal life—the thing that my restless thirty-somethings found inexplicably absent both at work and at home.

 

It might be the case that there are no necessary connections between happiness and virtue, or between either of these and having a sense of meaning or purpose in life. Perhaps stubborn insistence that these things ought to connect up has more to do with a philosophical fantasy than with the business of leading a good life. I don’t think so, although I confess that I have never thought about happiness as a thing to go after, or unhappiness as a sign that I must have gone off the rails in some way. Still, partly in deference to a long tradition of thinkers much greater than I, I got very interested in the difference between hollow lives and full lives, and I had the hunch that full lives were lives lived with a keen sense of participating in, and working for, a good that was larger than just my own welfare, achievements, success, and self-actualization alongside the well being of those in my intimate circle. What was missing from the lives of those accomplished young professionals was, I suspected, a way of living that was fundamentally attuned to common good. Sadly, at this level of description, I think that there really is a place to ask questions about virtue and character and formation from a Thomistic neo-Aristotelian position.

 

As I read Aquinas, there is no such thing as genuine virtue that is entirely self-serving, even when I expand my sense of my self to include, say, members of my immediate family and my friends. The term that our research project uses to mark this point is self-transcendence—initially introduced in motivational psychology by Abraham Maslow to mark an orientation to life that was superior to an emphasis on self-actualization.

 

What, you may be asking yourself at this point, does all this talk of hollow lives, happy lives, self-transcendence, and good character have to do with higher education?

 

To answer this question, it helps to ask other questions:

What is the point of seeking higher education in the United States these days?

What are we meant to be providing for our students?

What should they have when they compete their degrees that they did not have when they first matriculated?

 

In the next post [scheduled for Friday, November 18], I will consider these questions and tell a couple of stories about moral education and everyday life.

 


Candace Vogler is the David B. and Clara E. Stern Professor of Philosophy and Professor in the College at the University of Chicago, and Director and Principal Investigator for Virtue, Happiness, & the Meaning of Life.

Interview with Adam Omelianchuk, our new graduate research assistant

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Where are you from?

The Twin Cities of Minnesota.

What drew you to want to work with our project?

There are two things that come to mind. First, there is my long-standing interest in virtue ethics as a normative system that can potentially supply what I call a “thick” view of the good life. What I mean by that is wonderfully illustrated in C.S. Lewis’ little parable of the voyage of the ships, which represent the three concerns any picture of the good life should address:

The voyage will be a success only, in the first place, if the ships do not collide and get in one another’s way; and, secondly, if each ship is seaworthy and has her engines in good order. As a matter of fact, you cannot have either of these two things without the other. If the ships keep on having collisions they will not remain seaworthy very long. On the other hand, if their steering gears are out of order they will not be able to avoid collisions… But there is one thing we have not yet taken into account. We have not asked where the fleet is try to get to… however well the fleet sailed, its voyage would be a failure if it were meant to reach New York and actually arrived at Calcutta.

Lewis’ dissatisfaction with modern ethics, and one that I share, is that the view of the good life is too thin. That is to say, modern ethics tends to care chiefly about not hurting others and secondarily about achieving harmony within the individual; nonetheless, they tend to leave aside altogether the idea that there is some purpose or end for which human life is meant to satisfy. But the sort of research involved with Virtue, Happiness, and the Meaning of Life does not intend to leave out the third question, even if answering it proves to be notoriously difficult. Hence, my interest.

Secondly, there is my recently formed interest in Elizabeth Anscombe and her theory of intention. It is a long story about how I became interested in her, but the short of it is that I’ve found that her notion of voluntary action directed by reason to some end or goal to be ethically richer than the common tendency to reduce our actions to causal relations between different events of physical activity or inactivity.
So when Professor Jennifer Frey [Principal Investigator with our project], who is on my dissertation committee, kindly asked me to be her research assistant, I jumped at the chance.


Tell me more about your research.

My research primarily focuses on the issues relevant to moral status, specifically, the properties by virtue of which something is made morally considerable when judging a practice or action to be permissible or not. This concern motivates further research in metaphysics, particularly in the areas of human ontology and personal identity as well as general moral theory. The concrete results of this research has already yielded published articles on topics ranging from the wrongness of killing to the equality people share with one another by virtue of being human. Currently, I am writing my dissertation on what makes killing for organs wrong, which in turn, results in a defense of the so-called ‘dead-donor’ rule in transplant ethics. In my view, the rule says if the surgery used to retrieve the relevant organs would kill the patient, we ought not perform it. Thus, I seek to explain why killing for organs is wrong even if the donor consents to be killed.
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As I have come to work out of my views, I have found that contemporary moral values such as “do no harm” and “respect people’s autonomy” to be far too weak for making sense of our most deeply held moral beliefs, which are often shaped by concepts of sanctity and dignity. No doubt, making sense of these concepts is difficult, but the view I am attracted to currently is one that is influenced by Thomistic and Aristotelian streams of thought: different kinds of things are to be distinguished by their potentialities, and the non-instrumental worth things possess involves the ends to which they are directed.

What do you like to do outside of academia?

I like to read fiction, keep tabs on cool new cars, participate in the life of my local church, cook a nice meal for my wife, and play with my two-year old daughter.

Adam Omelianchuk is a Ph.D. student in philosophy at the University of South Carolina, and a graduate assistant with the project Virtue, Happiness, & the Meaning of Life.

Virtue Talk Podcast: Philosopher Talbot Brewer

virtuetalklogorsClick the link below to hear our scholar and philosopher Talbot Brewer discuss his research in looking at agency within ethical theory, and how his research is impacted by working within our project.

Talbot Brewer | Virtue Talk

Talbot Brewer is Professor and Chair of Philosophy at the University of Virginia. Read more here.

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Tal Brewer with Philosopher and Principal Director Candace Vogler and Psychologist and fellow Scholar Heather C. Lench at our June 2016 Working Group Meeting.

 

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