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 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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
Philosopher Robert C. Roberts will join the group of scholars affiliated with the project Virtue, Happiness, & the Meaning of Life (VHML). Roberts’ research focuses on ethics (especially virtue ethics), Kierkegaard, emotion theory, moral psychology, and epistemology.
Kristján Kristjánsson, fellow VHML Scholar and colleague at the Jubilee Centre for Character Education and Virtue Ethics, praises Roberts, saying “He is a leading light in research into how emotional traits can be understood as virtuous, either in the Aristotelian or Christian traditions, and how feeling the right things towards the right people at the right times is an indispensable part of the well-rounded, meaningful life. He has published two (out of three pre-planned) major works with CUP on the emotions and the good life, and is in the process of completing the trilogy. He has also written extensively about virtue epistemology and the intellectual virtues.”
Roberts is Professor of Ethics and Emotion Theory at the Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues, and has a joint Chair with the Royal Institute of Philosophy. He is currently a recipient, with Michael Spezio, of a grant from the Self, Motivation, and Virtue Project at the Institute for the Study of Human Flourishing at the University of Oklahoma, for a study of Humility in Loving Encounter. Read more about Roberts here.
Says Roberts, “I have broad interests in the nature of human virtue and flourishing, especially in the ways that Christian faith and the affective life bear on them. My current work is in the ethics and psychology of humility. This group of scholars promises a great deal of stimulation in these matters because of its combining of psychology, philosophical ethics, and theology.”
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.