Identifying Morally Exceptional People
What is distinctive about moral exemplars? This question is not only important for moral philosophy but also for moral education. Investigating how to identify the morally exceptional and what their distinctive features are will provide valuable insights into how moral education should be organized. In this talk, I will explain my team’s interdisciplinary research project, which draws on the team’s expertise in moral philosophy and social psychology, to investigate how moral exemplars can be identified and what their appropriate role in moral education should be. I will start by presenting reasons to think that moral exemplars possess distinctive virtues. This poses a challenge to the use of exemplars in moral education. Anyone who emulates a moral exemplar simply by copying them runs a grave moral risk: the reasons that motivate the exceptional are quite often a poor choice for the less than exceptional. This makes it unclear how exemplars can serve as useful role models for the morally unexceptional.
I will then explain how our project seeks to overcome this challenge. We will first investigate whether moral exemplars can be reliably identified through the emotion of admiration. We will analyze the role of admiration conceptually, but we will also conduct experimental social psychological research to investigate a possible link between admiration, surprise and attention. Next we will investigate the role played by acts that are beyond the call of duty in the identification of moral exemplars. There is some controversy within moral philosophy about whether or not a moral theory needs to make room for such supererogatory acts. We will argue that they play a valuable role in facilitating our admiration of moral exemplars and so play an important role in our moral system. Finally, we will investigate the implications of our research for the role admiration and moral exemplars play in moral education. Drawing on insights into both the workings of moral education and the impact of nudging techniques, we will explore whether moral exemplars can be used in moral education to nudge students to morally improve their behavior and character.
Archer, Alfred. (Forthcoming). “Integrity and the Value of an Integrated Self.” The Journal of Value Inquiry.
Human Vulnerability And The Exemplary Community
Traditional philosophical discussions of the virtues have emphasized the importance of communities in cultivating and sustaining individual virtue. Fostering virtue involves the influence, training, and guidance of family, friends, local communities, and healthy civic structures. But some social structures undermine the chances for inculcating virtue; they mold communal life in ways that render virtue difficult and vice attractive. Given this traditional concern, it is curious that contemporary philosophical analyses of moral exemplars have focused chiefly on exceptional persons—the individual hero, saint, or sage. The aim of this project is to characterize exemplary communities, especially those concerned with the care of individuals affected by significant human vulnerabilities. Attending to the nature and structure of exemplary communities promises to expand our understanding of human interdependence and the virtues relevant to our flourishing in community. Substantive tasks such as care for persons with disabilities, or provision for the needs of the homeless, or protecting vulnerable populations from war or displacement can make moral demands that outstrip the capacities of individual persons. Exemplary communities are essential in addressing these needs. Furthermore, these kinds of communities may be crucial to cultivating individual virtues like compassion and kindness. Although it may be possible to form an exceptional moral character in a deficient social ethos, the virtuous community is better suited to foster these dispositions in its members. Finally, exemplary communities may teach us about the nature of the virtues. By considering virtue writ large in local communities, we can learn about the individual and communal dispositions central to human excellence and the common good.
Cobb, Aaron. “Exemplary Communities and the Virtues of Acknowledged Dependence” presented at the 54th Annual Alabama Philosophical Society Conference, September 30, 2016.
Cobb, Aaron. “The Theological Virtue of Hope as a Social Virtue” presented at the 2nd Annual Theistic Ethics Workshop, October 8, 2016.
Achieving Ethical Excellence: Classical Philosophy, Contemporary Psychology, and Moral Exemplars
How do some people achieve ethical excellence while others in similar situations dramatically fail? What are some of the most promising strategies for improving our characters so that we can gradually become morally exceptional over time? The answer, I argue, lies in the intersection of philosophical, psychological, and biographical resources.
The Confucian and Socratic philosophical virtue traditions offer surprisingly sophisticated advice regarding moral education: for example, regarding peer influence and instant gratification. When combined with contemporary developmental psychology and stories of real-life moral exemplars, such advice provides a set of highly practical lessons for developing virtue.
To realistically assess the feasibility of cultivating virtue and seek practical methods for doing so, I’ve turned to recent research in the psychology of moral development: e.g., Aristotle’s account of acquiring virtue by habituation is complemented by recent findings regarding the most promising methods for forming, maintaining, and breaking habits.
Biographies of exemplars can themselves contribute to moral development by inspiring (or at least obligating) us to emulate them. Further, by examining the processes by which they succeeded at moral development, we can attempt to replicate those processes in ourselves and those we influence. To identify those processes, I will conduct in-depth life-story interviews with fifteen nationally-recognized moral exemplars.
Because my project draws from a wealth of sources, I must focus my efforts strategically. The book aims to facilitate achievement of ethical excellence in three main ways and thus will be divided into three main parts:
Self-knowledge is both a crucial first step toward developing virtue and a key component in several ethical virtues such as humility and gratitude. As the Confucians teach us, upon observing bad (or good) qualities in others we should look within ourselves to see whether we mirror them.
Next we must overcome internal obstacles to virtue: temptations, fears, and bad habits that stand in the way of achieving ethical excellence. As Plato, Aristotle, and Xunzi argue in various contexts, we can overcome temptation and fear through temperance and courage; perseverance helps us keep working against our flaws until we defeat them.
Finally, we must “extend” our virtue. Mencius advises us to begin by exercising our budding virtues in less-challenging ways and toward those we know and love. As our virtuous habits become more established, we are able to exercise them in an increasing range of situations and toward those with in increasing degree of otherness. Virtues most ripe for extension tend to be those that are most other-directed: justice, generosity, and compassion.
In sum, my project’s significance lies in its integration of Socratic and Confucian philosophy, recent work in the psychology of moral development, and the lived experience of recognized moral exemplars to provide a more complete account of the most promising strategies for improvement of our characters: through gaining self-knowledge, overcoming flaws, and extending virtue. This comparative and multi-disciplinary approach will result in a book of rigorously-researched and accessibly-presented lessons for cultivating virtues as life skills.
The Excellent Mind: Intellectual Virtue for Education and Everyday Life
What makes for a complete education? Clearly, a large stock of knowledge is required. However, a little reflection shows that knowledge isn’t enough. Students could memorize a long list of facts, yet fail to grasp how their knowledge fits together, or how to reason their way to new knowledge, or how to avoid faulty reasoning. Thus, another part of the answer to our question must be this: a complete education requires skills in logic and critical thinking. Happily, standard textbooks provide good resources for those who wish to hone their skills in avoiding fallacies, evaluating arguments, and constructing proofs in various logical systems. But again, this isn’t enough. What students need in addition are intellectual virtues. Without such virtues (e.g., honesty, humility, and curiosity), students may use their newfound skills to intimidate others, to mask poor arguments, to seek the appearance of cleverness for its own sake, or to pursue knowledge solely for material gain. These are the very habits that tend to plague public discourse and stifle productive inquiry. However, standard logic texts rarely discuss such problems; nor do they discuss the virtues of character that promise a remedy. Further, though the intellectual virtues have been a prominent topic of scholarly conversation for over two decades, not enough of this work is accessible to students or lay readers. Thus, there is need for rigorous, practical, and readable introductions to the virtues of the mind. The present text seeks to help meet this need.
The book’s introduction characterizes the nature of intellectual character virtues and argues for their importance—for education and for practical issues arising in relationships, the workplace, and discourse about controversial topics. The book then unfolds in four parts. Part I considers the intellectual virtues most central to getting our intellectual projects off to a good start: curiosity, humility, honesty, and carefulness. Part II considers perseverance and courage, the virtues needed to persist in our intellectual projects in the face of obstacles. Part III treats the virtues most obviously relevant to communal aspects of inquiry: open-mindedness, fair-mindedness, charity, and firmness. Part IV provides advice—empirically grounded wherever possible—for growth in intellectual virtue.
Saints, Heroes, and Ordinary People: What Thinking About the Morally Exceptional can Teach the Rest of Us About How to Be Good
This talk will describe my planned book, which will examine the nature of moral praiseworthiness and blameworthiness and exemplariness, and then investigate which moral theories the most plausible account of their nature should draw us to.
I will argue that an agent’s praiseworthiness in performing an action reflects the extent to which she is motivated by the reasons that make her action right (regardless of whether she takes herself to be acting rightly, or aims to act rightly). But the degree of praiseworthiness of actions also reflects our standing to blame, and so reflects facts about what’s normal in our society, when it comes to moral behavior. This introduces an element of relativism into moral theory – a relativism, not about which actions are right and wrong, but about which are praise-and blameworthy and morally exceptional. This element of relativism allows me to explain a number of otherwise puzzling features of the moral landscape: how we can correctly judge that members of past generations are less blameworthy for certain kinds of bad behavior, and more praiseworthy for certain good behaviors, than we would be for similar behaviors today; why moral exemplars – such as heroes– can appropriately reject the label of hero; and how morality could require of us that we be as morally good as we can be without sainthood or heroism beings something we can expect and demand of others.
The book will close by examining what we can learn by thinking about theories of praise- and blameworthiness about what makes actions right or wrong. Moral theories, like utilitarianism, that entail that our decision procedures when acting should often come apart from the criteria of rightness of the action, begin to look a lot less plausible when paired with the account of moral praiseworthiness I will defend.
The morally exceptional in the political sphere: Anger, outrage, and political protest
The history of political change is full of apparently morally exceptional individuals. Some oppose oppressive regimes or protest particular injustices, often at great personal cost, when the majority do not. This project approaches general questions about the morally exceptional by focusing on these individuals who act exceptionally in the political sphere. One reason for that focus is what it can reveal to political philosophers, especially those interested in civic education and political protest. Another reason, which is the subject of this talk, is the way these political cases might be illuminating for considering the morally exceptional more broadly.
So, are those who are exceptional in the political sphere different from those who, say, donate kidneys to strangers or give away nearly all their income to charity? First, in these non-political cases, it is tempting to think of moral saints as either loving, demonstrating deep attachment to particular others, or calculating and detached, aiming at the overall good without regard to personal cost. But the lives of some political exemplars suggests an alternative kind of saint: one motivated by anger and outrage, unable to live with injustice. Can anger and outrage be defended as part of the make-up of a morally exceptional individual? If so, does this provide a more attractive vision of the good life than that of moral saints motivated by overriding love or pure calculation?
Second, we may have particular reasons to hesitate before suggesting that people should become morally exceptional in the political sphere. For a start, it is harder to escape the conclusion that being exceptional is burdensome. Further, if all were exceptional at resisting injustice, that might threaten any less than perfect state’s ability to function. So, this talk asks whether it is undesirable to have too many become exceptional in the political sphere in particular, and examines what this might suggest about how we should think about the role of the exceptional in society.
McTernan, Emily. “‘Civic education and social norms,’ workshop on social norms.” MANCEPT Workshops in Political Theory, University of Manchester, September 2016.
McTernan, Emily. “In defence of taking offence.” Conference for Interdisciplinary Approaches to Politics, Emotions in Politics and International Relations, University of Leeds, October 2016.
Moral Beauty and Moral Genius
There are at least two epistemic functions that exemplars can perform. We can have an existing understanding of some subject deepened by acquaintance with an exemplar. The idea that moral exemplars can play this role is familiar. We are taught about courage and self-sacrifice through stories of heroes and saints, and our grasp of these qualities gains nuance and definition as we encounter one exemplar after another. But there’s a second function. In the arts exemplars can also reconfigure the “frameworks” we use to engage with art. Marcel Duchamp submits a urinal to an art exhibition and in so doing exemplifies the possibility of transgressing many of our conventions about the production, appreciation, and value of art. This, in turn, fundamentally changes the way people engage with art going forward.
I am interested in the possibility of a species of exemplar that can play this second sort of role for moral thought. My suggestion is that there is a particular aspect of moral thought for which such engagement is profitable. Most of our moral thought takes certain a certain conceptual scheme, axioms, rules, paradigms, institutions, and much else for granted. A second level of moral thoughts tries to evaluate these frameworks themselves. This second, ideal level of moral thought is the one where reconfiguring exemplars can be useful.
The reason they can be useful is because this level of moral thought has important structural affinities with aesthetic judgment. In particular, it involves a form of judgment that purports to universality but is not mediated by rules. For this reason, engagement with moral analogues of Duchamp’s art—exemplars that have the potential to reconfigure—will have an important role in the ideal level of moral thought. The most important of these moral analogues are moral geniuses: individuals whose lives are beautiful and exhibit exemplary originality. Contemplation of such lives can acquaint us with radically different ways of living and schemes of ethical thought in a way that makes those alternatives seem compelling. Here are a few provisional examples of moral geniuses: Diogenes the Cynic, Henry David Thoreau, and Jeremiah the prophet. These men are poor candidates for emulation—we would not consider them particularly virtuous—but they can nonetheless play an important role in moral thinking.