VIDEO: Jean Porter, “What should we fear? Courage and cowardice in public life”

Moral theologian Jean Porter gave the talk “What should we fear? Courage and cowardice in public life” on Monday, June 5, 2017 at 7pm in the Swift Hall 3rd Floor Lecture Hall at the University of Chicago.  The video below includes Candace Vogler’s introduction and the audience Q & A following the talk.

Cooperation in evil and Thomas Aquinas’s understanding of justice


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

Kevin Flannery, S.J., is Professor of the History of Ancient Philosophy, Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome.

As the participants in our seminar may recall, I am writing a book on the ethics of cooperation in evil. At an earlier meeting of the seminar, I discussed some of the problems contained in the treatment of such cooperation as found in the manuals of Catholic moral theology of the 18th, 19th, and early 20th centuries. On that occasion, I expressed agreement with Elizabeth Anscombe’s criticism of that tradition as vitiated by what she calls “Cartesian psychology,” according to which “an intention was an interior act of the mind which could be produced at will.” I also expressed then a preference for an analysis in terms rather of Thomas’s Aquinas’s understanding of the moral virtue of justice. In my presentation, I would like describe how I understand this virtue and how it helps us to determine when a person’s—or indeed an institution’s or a government’s—cooperation is immoral. This will involve an explanation of how justice, according to Thomas, stands in relation to the other virtues, especially prudence. It will also involve an account of how justice, which is a virtue of the will, bears upon the consciences of individuals.

Virtue, Flourishing, Culture and the Evolved Nest


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

Darcia Narvaez is Professor of Psychology at the University of Notre Dame.

If we are going to discuss virtue and happiness, we must take into account the life world in which we exist. We must take into account the totality of flourishing. We must ask and find answers to who we are, where we are, where we have been and where we are going. The dominant culture that is decimating the earth relies on a reassuring narrative of human superiority, progress and future reward while denigrating humanity’s past and alternate, more sustainable cultures. The deep irrationality of the dominant cultural mindset represents a self-disinterest and is shaped by disrupted connection from birth which influences everything on the planet, fostering viciousness, dystopia and eco-disaster. The destruction and disconnection are rationalized with theories that claim there is no alternative path. How do we shift to a rational self-interest and to a sense of self that includes the entire biocommunity? We must shift both bottom-up practices and the top-down narratives we deploy.

Curiosity as a Virtue



There is little doubt as to the elevated status of curiosity in our modern secular culture. We are surrounded by its praise and by institutions that aim at nurturing and encouraging our desire to know. So natural and integral is this desire to our nature and experience that, bereft of it, human life appears dreary, and human society, dystopian. Indeed, for many, the mere thought of suppressing the fervent curiosity of children is petrifying, akin to depriving them of one of their senses. At times, curiosity seems like the centerpiece of modern education. Parents send their kids to classes to open their eyes to as many realms of knowledge as possible with the hope that their curiosity will be nurtured. Being curious has become not only the benchmark of a happy and promising childhood but also of a vital adulthood. As long as one is curious, one has not lost one’s vitality; one is still alive. In its absence, our life is dry and ossified.


The exaltations of the desire to know are by no means a peculiarity of our zeitgeist, but it is worth noting that curiosity was also condemned and even considered a sin by great thinkers like Augustine, Aquinas and Montaigne. The very fact that curiosity has not always been conceived as a virtue should pique our curiosity. How could the desire to know be a sin? What could possibly be wrong with pursuing our curiosity? Though the critique of curiosity offered by these early thinkers partly arises out of religious and social commitments more foreign to contemporary society, many of their concerns are as pertinent to us now as they were. Considering their views affords not only a critical distance from our wholehearted admiration for curiosity, but a more robust and nuanced concept of curiosity; one especially relevant to our understanding of curiosity’s place in education.


I first started investigating the virtue of curiosity following a rather mundane academic experience. A special kind of curiosity accompanies the reading of academic books in one’s own field of research. We might call this kind “a sober curiosity”; akin perhaps to the alertness of sense a devout gardener experiences in daily attending her beloved garden. It is an alertness to subtle changes in the familiar paths of her garden, rather than expectant of novelties or unknown marvels. With this “sober curiosity” I turned, not long ago, to reading a book in contemporary ethics. My curiosity, however, gave out not long after, as I found its treatment of subjects dear to my heart overly abstract and technical. After a short break, I reopened the book and noticed the following epigraph:

[…] I flatter myself that I understand all sorts of curiosity – curiosity about daily facts, daily things, about daily men. It is the most respectable faculty of the human mind – in fact, I cannot conceive the uses of an incurious mind. It would be like chamber perpetually locked up.

Joseph Conrad Chance


I felt strangely admonished by these words. After all, my own sober curiosity has just been stifled by the very work that followed. What did the author of the work intended by opening with this epigraph? Was it intended as a literary way to obviate accusations concerning the dry nature of his work: such accusations, the epigraph suggests, attest to the reader’s failed curiosity and “useless mind”? Or perhaps, I thought, the point was not to admonish those whose curiosity faltered in the face of a dry academic work, but rather to disclaim: “this work will capture only a mind of prodigious curiosity.”


Whatever the author’s intention might have been, curiosity itself then became the subject of my curiosity. The epigraph’s unchecked praise of curiosity in association with the nature of his book seemed wrong to me but I wasn’t sure why. Is any object, even the most boring, worthy of our curiosity? Can curiosity be ‘excessive’? What if desiring to know every fact is a deficiency rather than a virtue? If curiosity is like other psychological virtues—e.g., moderation or courage—we should expect it to be a mean between two extremes. But what are those extremes?


As I mentioned above, curiosity has not always enjoyed the elevated status it has today. The history of ideas is scattershot with thinkers who cautioned against the dangers it poses. In a famous part of Plato’s republic we encounter an aspect of curiosity I believe few would encourage:

Leontius, the son of Aglaion, coming up one day from the Piraeus, under the north wall on the outside, observed some dead bodies lying on the ground at the place of execution. He felt a desire to see them, and also a dread and abhorrence of them; for a time he struggled and covered his eyes, but at length the desire got the better of him; and forcing them open, he ran up to the dead bodies, saying, Look, ye wretches, take your fill of the fair sight. [439e]


If curiosity is a desire to knowledge, then Leonitus’ is a case of lust, or as St. Augustine put it, the “lust of the eyes”. It is an excessive case of the desire to know, one whose object we consider improper, in this case, we conceive of it as improper because it does not pay respect to the dead and because it leads to a terrifying and painful experience. For similar reasons, it is commonplace to admonish voyeurism and gossiping, and consider them as vices. We might see such vices as types of excessive curiosity, for in them, the desire for knowledge drives agents to compromise other values such as respect for others, their privacy and their good reputation.


We see then, that despite curiosity’s positive reputation there are cases where it can be seen as excessive and a vice. Thus, if curiosity can be harmful and sinful it would seem to follow that rather than being intrinsically good, its goodness depends on external circumstances and considerations. If so, then, against our contemporary intuition, it would seem that curiosity is not a virtue at all but rather a psychological disposition that can be either good or bad, depending on the situation. What, then, are we to make of this tension between curiosity as a virtue and its ethical ambiguity?


We can begin resolving the tension by distinguishing between the desire to know and the virtuous way of having this desire, i.e., curiosity. As long as we understand curiosity as a desire, i.e., the desire for knowledge, we should expect exactly the odd result we have received, since, in general, desires are not, in and of themselves, virtues. Rather, they are good only insofar as they are exercised in the right way, namely, neither too much nor too little. Consider, for instance, the desire for food: a too vigorous appetite is considered gluttonous, while an overly weak one expresses austerity or apathy, turning eating into a necessary but unpleasant task; neither, clearly, are considered virtues. A moderate appetite, however— neither gluttonous nor insensitive—we conceive as a virtue. Hence, virtue (e.g., moderation in relation to eating) is not a mere desire but rather the right way of having a desire. We can now trace the root of the confusion in relation to curiosity: it is a mistake to define curiosity both as a virtue and as a desire. Conceived as a virtue, curiosity must be the right way of desiring knowledge—the middle way between excessive desire (manifested in vices such as voyeurism) and too little (e.g., apathy).


All that said, the above discussion does not yet explain my response to the epigraph of the dry academic book. Though I sensed that having interest in this book would indicate excessive curiosity, being curious about it clearly would not have constituted something like voyeurism or gossiping—both instances where the desire for knowledge infringes on other values; it is hard to see what value is violated by finding a book interesting. As long as our desire causes no harm, it is tempting to think that there nothing is wrong with both having and satisfying it. Indeed, one may suggest, the stronger the desire the better; for a life that consists of prodigious desires is life filled with excitement and pleasure (with the provisos that we can satisfy them and no harm is made by that). On the basis of this position, it follows that the more vigorous the desire for knowledge, the better. Accordingly, she who can take interest in everything—e.g., every stone, every event, every constellation of objects etc.—is a happy person. It was in this vein that John Hobbes and Francis Bacon argued that the desire for knowledge is the greatest gift of man, for it offers man an endless and insatiable source of pleasures, unlike other appetites we share with animals. Understood as a source of pleasure, there seems to be no point in limiting the objects of a desire (with the above provisos).


What then is the source of unease with the idea that it is a virtue to take interest (i.e., desiring to know) everything? I think we can find a clue in another Platonic text: in the Gorgias, Calicles claims that the happiest life is one in which there is the greatest amount of desire and satisfaction. In response, Socrates asks him whether “a man who has an itch and wants to scratch, and may scratch in all freedom, can pass his life happily in continual scratching.” [494d] Socrates’ point, I take it, is that pleasures, important as they are, cannot be the sole consideration in evaluating human life. Life spent in scratching one’s back strikes us as eerily empty and meaningless. Generalizing from this Socratic example, we may say that pleasure cannot be the only measure of desire’s goodness. In evaluating a desire, like the desire for knowledge, we ought also to consider what is the good associated the desire. Moreover, as we shall see presently, once we understand the good toward which a desire is oriented, we also see that not all possible objects of a desire are equally of value.


Consider the desire for food once more. Surely it is pleasurable to satisfy our hunger, and savoring our favorite dishes is a great pleasure. However, there is more to eating than pleasure. Done properly, eating is also good because it sustains our health; it is crucial to human life; it isn’t merely pleasurable. Furthermore, once we note that health is an end of eating we can also see that not all kinds of food are equally good; desiring unhealthy food makes one’s appetite deficient even though one might still take great pleasure in eating it. Fully understanding a virtue, then, consists of knowing which objects are proper for it and which aren’t.


Against this backdrop, we can now understand my uncurious reaction to the book not (necessarily) as a sign of feeble curiosity, but rather (hopefully), as a recognition of its unworthiness as an object of my desire for knowledge. But how are we to determine whether my sense of its unworthiness is valid? As we have just seen, looking for the good associated with the desire to know is the way of tracing curiosity’s proper objects. Of course, answering these questions in any satisfying way exceeds the limits of the present essay. We might begin, though, by imagining the following case: it would be unjust, for instance, to accuse one of a lack of curiosity for not having any desire to know the number of tiles on the roof of a random building one sees. Indeed, showing such an interest would warrant special explanation. In the absence of such explanation, we might consider it a perversion of one’s desire to know—akin to that limitless, gluttonous appetite. But what makes the desire to know the number of tiles perverse? It seems to me that it is perverse since, strikingly, it has nothing to do with our life in general. We neither have a use for this kind of knowledge nor does it bear on any of life’s significant activities. Now, if told that this roof-tile enthusiast was an architect of rooves, we might become more understanding to her interest in the number of tiles; it may still be a peculiar interest, but not entirely outlandish. This example may suggest that objects worthy for one’s curiosity are objects that relate to one’s involvements, concerns and cares in the world; a result supported by the etymological sources of curiosity in the Latin cūra, which means, care, concern, or worry.


This short essay has aimed to set up the stage for a deeper understanding of curiosity as a virtue. Specifically, as we have seen, what we ought to admire and cultivate is not the mere desire to know, but the virtue of this desire; the right way of having it. In cultivating curiosity, as in cultivating other virtues, our aim must be to allow it to exist in harmony with other values and goods. Moreover, we need to cultivate the desire for proper objects of knowledge. An encouragement of the desire to know without orienting it to facts and subjects that should matter to us may result in an excessive and alienating desire rather than a virtuous one.


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.


The Structural Significance of Pagan Virtue


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

Angela Knobel is Associate Professor of Philosophy at the School of Philosophy at The Catholic University of America.


Augustine is supposed to have said that the virtues of the pagans were no more than ‘splendid vices’. Whether he actually made such a claim and what he meant by it is the subject of much debate.  But on one reasonable interpretation of that claim, Augustine believed that non-Christians could not possess any genuine virtues at all.  Several recent scholars have argued that this was not only Augustine’s view, but Aquinas’s as well.  Many of the scholars who make this claim do so in the context of emphasizing the importance of Aquinas’s (often overlooked) theory of infused moral virtue.  In this paper, I argue that Aquinas not only recognizes the possibility of genuine virtue in non-believers, but that that recognition plays a crucial structural role in his broader account of virtue.  We cannot truly appreciate his theory of infused virtue, that is  to say, unless we see it as building on and presupposing the possibility of pagan virtue.  I conclude by offering a hypothesis about a likely source of contemporary Thomist suspicion of pagan virtue.

“What should we fear? Courage and cowardice in public life”


Moral theologian Jean Porter (University of Notre Dame) will give the talk “What should we fear? Courage and cowardice in public life” on Monday, June 5, 2017 at 7pm in the Swift Hall 3rd Floor Lecture Hall at the University of Chicago. An audience Q & A will be followed by a reception in the Swift Hall Common Room. This talk is free and open to the public. Registration is required.

The talk and Q&A will be live-streamed at 7pm central time. For more information and to RSVP, go to

Here is the abstract for her talk:


Courage is pre-eminently an individual virtue. Yet we can also describe a community or a nation as courageous in its response to a threat or an attack. To take one well-known example, the behavior and attitudes of the English during the Blitz of 1940-41 offers an outstanding example of collective public courage. Somewhat to the surprise of government officials, the civilians subjected to intensive German bombing were not only relatively free of trauma, they were able to carry on with their lives, and even to be cheerful in the face of repeated attacks. The collective courage of the English under the Blitz was of course dependent on the courage of countless individuals, and yet it cannot be reduced to the sum of so many courageous acts and lives. The government promoted, and individuals cooperated in creating a set of practices and expectations that encouraged bravery and perseverance. At this point, England was a brave society, which both drew its courage from individuals and communicated it back to them.In my remarks this evening, I want to examine another example of public courage and public cowardice, which began to develop within the memory of many of us and is still unfolding today.  I am referring to public reactions to the threat of terrorism since the attacks of 9/11.  During and immediately after the attacks themselves, the men and women at the scene, together with the police, fire fighters, and medical personnel, behaved with exemplary bravery in the face of an unimaginable danger.  These clear, unambiguous examples of courage do not call for extended analysis. However, at another level, public reactions to the threat of terrorist attacks present a more complex and ambiguous example.  I want to suggest that we as a nation responded initially to terrorist assaults and the threat of further attacks with another kind of courage, not physical bravery but a firm resolve to hold onto central values, including equality, tolerance, and respect for the rule of law. However, over the past fifteen years, our attitudes as a civic society, as expressed by the actions taken in our name, reflect a growing unwillingness to live with risk and, correspondingly, a willingness to do almost anything to our supposed enemies, in order to secure our own safety.  In other words, we as a nation have moved from courage to a kind of cowardice when it comes to our attitudes towards these threats. I will consider some of the possible causes of this development, and suggest some ways in which we might reclaim our initial courage.

Tahera Qutbuddin on Arabic Oration and Imam Ali’s Peace and Pluralism

Mosaic at entrance gate of Shah mosque in Isfahan – Iran

We’re presenting a short series of abstracts of the work-in-progress our scholars will present and discuss at their June 2017 Working Group Meeting.

Tahera Qutbuddin is Associate Professor of Arabic Literature at the University of Chicago.

1. Chapter on “The Sermon of Pious Counsel,” from my monograph project currently underway titled Classical Arabic Oratory: Religion, Politics and Oral Aesthetics of Public Address in the Early Islamic World.

Abstract: Showcasing a unique outlook on the purpose of human life in the early Islamic world of the seventh and eighth centuries, the sermon of pious counsel was one of the four major types of Arabic oration. Rooted in the pre-Islamic desert-dweller’s deep consciousness of cosmic cycles and human mortality, it was channeled toward priming for the afterlife by the monotheistic vision of Muhammad and the Qurʾan. Pious counsel also permeated the other three categories: Friday sermons were an obvious repository of devotional material, but battle speeches and political orations were also frequently framed in a pietistic vein. The orator concentrated on reminding his audience of the inevitability of death, the necessity of leading a pious and principled life preparing for an imminent hereafter, and remaining at all times conscious of God. The chapter I am submitting for our Workshop examines these key themes and their religious and ethical subthemes with copious textual examples. In addition, it outlines the sermon’s historical development, formulae and patterns, and briefly describes concurrent non-oratorical genres of pious counsel. It ends with the text, translation and analysis of an illustrative sermon attributed to a commander of the Kharijite “Seceders,” Qatari ibn al-Fujaʾah (d. ca. 698).

2. Short paper titled “Imam Ali’s Preaching of Peace and Pluralism: Five Categories of Exhortations to Justice, Equity and Compassion from The Path of Eloquence (Nahj al-balaghah) and A Treasury of Virtues (Dustur maʿalim al-hikam )”—expanded write-up from presentation originally prepared for UNESCO World Philosophy Day, 2014, Paris, at a conference titled: The Contribution of Ali ibn Abi Talib’s Thought to a Culture of Peace & Intercultural Dialogue.

Abstract: Imam Ali ibn Abi Talib’s (d. 661) strong advocacy of peace and pluralism is well known and works on multiple levels of individual, society and state. In this paper, I present five broad categories of these early Islamic teachings through a selection of Ali’s sayings, sermons, letters and verse: (1) seeking justice and abstaining from vengeance; (2) pluralism; (3) focus on the hereafter, not worldly gain; (4) personal ethics: respect and sanctity of living creatures; and (5) the role of government.