The Science of Virtues Request for Proposals grew out of a consultation in May 2007 sponsored by the Templeton Foundation called “A New Science of Virtue.” Organized and chaired by Jean Bethke Elshtain of the University of Chicago, the consultation brought together an interdisciplinary group of the world-class scholars and scientists to think through the possibilities of a new “science of virtue.”One consensus of the consultation was that a key to advancing the study of virtue lay in developing fruitful interrelationships between the sciences and the humanities. For example, among philosophers, which questions would benefit from scientific research, or a more thorough integration of our understanding of human neurophysiology? Among scientists, which scientific theories or programs require perspective and guidance from the humanities, such that scientists know they are asking the right questions in the first place?
The “Science of Virtues” RFP was inspired by theories that synthesize traditional notions of virtue, narrativity, and human psychobiological tendencies such as those of Alasdair MacIntyre’s Dependent Rational Animals: Why Human Beings Need the Virtues (1999), Paul Ricoeur’s Oneself as Another (1991), Owen Flanagan’s Varieties of Moral Personality (1991), and Jean-Pierre Changeux and Paul Ricoeur’s What Makes Us Think? In the sciences, research has helped clarify the way cognitive capacities and social experience interact to shape moral behavior (Donald Pfaff, Antonio Damasio, John Cacioppo, Michael Gazzaniga). However, researchers such as Jonathan Haidt have argued that there is still a tendency for cognitive and social neuroscience to reduce morality to neural systems that have clear parallels to the dominant moral principles of modern liberal democracies, thereby giving no scientific account of virtue concepts found in the Western past as well as of most of the rest of the world (Haidt, “Moral Psychology and the Misunderstanding of Religion,” Edge, 2007). We hope that developing collaborations between the humanities (including theologians such as Stephen Post and Don Browning) and the sciences will help researchers in disparate traditions gain new perspective by taking serious the implications of findings within those traditions.
With this hope in mind, RFP leaders chose to change the title from “A Science of Virtue” to “A Science of Virtues” in order to de-emphasize traditional views of virtue as transcendent or necessarily universal. Modern virtue theory, especially when engaging with theories from the empirical sciences (including the social sciences), should not ignore calls for awareness of the philosophical, cultural, and historical assumptions inherent in scientific practice. Likewise, virtue theory in the humanities should not ignore the philosophical implications of research in the neurosciences.
Above all, we seek extremely creative proposals for how the sciences and humanities might draw from one another to understand “virtues” for modern society. We would like to emphasize that there are many scholars within the fields of psychology, religion, and philosophy working on virtues. However, one of the goals of this RFP is to stimulate highly original and creative work in fields that might not normally engage with such a question. We are not seeking to merely add to the existing traditions in virtues scholarship (that would happen without us). Current funding mechanisms do not typically allow, for example, computer scientists, engineers, microbiologists, or physicists to ask questions about virtue. We are passionate about providing opportunities for scholars with totally new approaches in fields that might not otherwise engage in this conversation. We leave the definition of “virtues” open. Anything less would undermine our hope to foster creativity and innovation in constituting a new field of inquiry.
- Joy Wattawa, Assistant Director for Interdisciplinary Outreach and Communications, Arete Initiative, University of Chicago
Information for this entry was taken from an unpublished Literature Review written by Don Browning, Alexander Campbell Professor Emeritus of Ethics and the Social Sciences, the Divinity School at the University of Chicago.
Photo by Gaetan Lee.
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