Conference Announcements

Just a reminder: the due date for submissions for the Ninth Annual Felician Institute Conference on Ethics and Public Affairs is this coming Sunday, March 1. We’ve got some great submissions already, but there’s still room for more. For more information, here’s a link to the Institute’s website. The conference itself is to take place Saturday, April 25, 2015 at Felician’s Rutherford campus. The plenary speaker is James Stacey Taylor of The College of New Jersey, defending the idea of markets in political votes.

My friend Graham Parsons is organizing what promises to be a great conference on the Ethics of War at West Point Military Academy (WPMA), to take place at WPMA on Friday, March 27, and Saturday, March 28, 2015.  Nigel Biggar, Richard Miller, Fiona Robinson, and Jeremy Waldron will each address plenary sessions; Michael Walzer will provide the keynote address. I’ll be there for Walzer’s address as well as the Saturday sessions, so if there are any PoT readers at the conference, let’s meet up.

An afterthought: I’ll be giving a paper (really, a mini-paper) at the 21st annual meeting of the Association for Core Texts and Courses at the Radisson Hotel in Plymouth, Massachusetts (April 9-12, 2015), so if there are any PoT readers at that conference, let’s make sure to meet up there.  My paper is called “From Nicomachean Ethics to the Grant Study: Virtue Ethics Meets Behavioral Science” (slightly modified from what I submitted). Here’s my four-sentence abstract:

George Vaillant’s Adaptation to Life (1977) is a classic of contemporary behavioral science; meanwhile, Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics is one of the founding texts of ancient Greek moral philosophy. Both texts implicitly address the same topic, but each does so in ways that fundamentally contradict the claims of the other. Given this, it’s a useful (and entirely Aristotelian) exercise to read the two books in tandem, using the one to challenge and correct the claims of its rival. The resulting inquiry leaves us with a better sense of the strengths and weaknesses of both behavioral science and moral philosophy, and leaves us with some difficult questions as well.

I’ll post parts of the paper here, as well as the exact date/time I’m giving it, in a few weeks. A recent article on the Grant Study (ht: Kate Herrick).

2 thoughts on “Conference Announcements

  1. All three sound like fun events to attend–for me, especially the talk you’ll give in Plymouth. Can’t make them all, though; will try for the one at West Point. Will let you know.


    • I’d love to see you at West Point.

      I will probably post the Plymouth talk here on the blog just before I give it. It’ll be very short: ACTC imposes a 5 page limit on presentations. The main idea is that the Nicomachean Ethics and the Grant Study in some sense study the same subject matter: human flourishing. And they do in the same empirical way: they observe flourishing individuals and give us a manual of how to emulate them. But the conceptual framework is fundamentally different in each case. Aristotle operates with a four-fold distinction between virtue, enkrateia, akrasia, and vice. The Grant Study operates in a neo-Freudian framework that effectively collapses virtue and vice on the one hand, and enkrateia and akrasia on the other.

      I know that last point sounds bizarre, but it has an understandable (if totally wrongheaded) rationale: virtue and vice are wholehearted states in which the agent experiences no internal conflict (although NE IX.8 makes that tricky); enkrateia and akrasia are half-hearted states in which the agent experiences some kind of internal conflict. Vaillant’s assumption in the Grant Study is that fundamentally, wholehearted states indicate psychological health while half-hearted ones indicate neurosis. (He makes some ad hoc exceptions to that, but they are totally ad hoc and relativistic.) So virtue and vice are psychologically equivalent: they both indicate health. And akrasia and enkrateia are equivalent: they both indicate illness or dysfunction.

      Further, we can operationalize the measurement of wholeheartedness and half-heartedness: we can conduct a detailed longitudinal survey and simply ask the experimental subject what he feels, or else do a therapy session and get the therapist to record what she thinks he really feels. The point is that for Vaillant, the operationalization drives the methodological assumptions of the study: if you can’t measure it, it doesn’t exist; since there is no measurable difference between virtue and vice, the distinction between them ceases to exist. Since there is a measurable difference between virtue/vice and enkrateia/akrasia, that’s what ends up mattering.

      Obviously, Aristotle takes the reverse direction, but the point I make is that the cost of taking Aristotle’s direction is a problem of operationalization. Aristotle is not supposed to be a “mere” consequentialist. So how does he operationalize or measure the difference between virtue and vice? That’s one of the “difficult questions” I mention in the abstract. Luckily I don’t have to answer it; I just have to point out that the purpose of teaching Nicomachean Ethics is to induce readers to try to engage with it.


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