Key Questions of the Project


I. The “Self, Virtue, and Public Life” Project: Introduction to the Research Initiative

A. Big Questions and Research Themes

Sir John Templeton’s life was deeply concerned with bringing the prestige of science to bear on big questions. With this spirit in mind we propose to dig deeper into the factors that contribute to supporting or undermining virtue in public life. By ‘public life,’ we mean the civic or political sphere. Virtue in public life encompasses both political and professional figures, but also citizens.

The two “Big Questions” the “Self, Virtue, and Public Life” Project addresses are:

  1. “The Nature of the Human Person and the Potentials for Personal and Societal Well-Being”: “This encompasses discoveries concerning what it is to be human and, as well as the various ways human beings can progress. . . . This category includes dimensions of human flourishing, … the fostering of mental and spiritual frameworks, and the role of values in shaping worldviews,” and
  2. How do the values of science influence civic virtue? Does civic virtue require a wedding of two worldviews – science and humanities? Are particular philosophies of life more conducive to civic virtue than others?

Our thirty-six month research initiative into the “Self, Virtue, and Public Life” will open avenues of research into civic virtue. The central research themes we seek to explore through our Request for Proposals can be framed at the level of the civic virtues of individuals, as well as at the level of institutions.

Regarding individuals, research projects should aim to address, in some respect, at least one of three types of roles: that of ordinary citizen or layperson; that of a nonprofessional who steps into a leadership role; and that of a professional public servant.

For ordinary citizens, a number of questions could be investigated. What kinds of motivations are required for acting virtuously in the public sphere? Must the individual have a broader conception of the good or is self-interest sufficient? Are there better or worse ways to approach diversity—e.g., of religion, politics, worldview, vocation—when collaborating with fellow citizens? What kind of skills must a virtuous citizen have to influence the workings of the public sphere? How much does truth and a commitment to truth matter? How might such a commitment affect a person’s approach to “fake news” or “alternative facts”? What does each virtue (e.g., thrift) mean when considering the common good? What are the differences between being a good citizen within a democratic republic in comparison to citizenship in a dictatorship or autocracy? When should resistant or compliant behavior be taken up by a virtuous citizen? How does a society slip from being a democracy to an autocracy (e.g., Venezuela, 1930s Germany), and how does this slippage relate to the virtues of its citizens?

The second role involves leadership by community members. What motivates people to step out of their ordinary roles and take on additional roles in public life to advocate for the common good, speak up for civic values and larger communal purposes? This includes those who step forward and run for the school board, who show up for rate hike meetings or at city council meetings, who advocate for the local library, who join in United Way causes, who go door to door for political campaigns. What drives people to get involved in community leadership and what kind of vision of the common good do they carry? How are efforts sustained or not? How do they motivate their fellow citizens to become more involved? How do expertise vs. commonsense, knowledge versus ignorance, and the variety of media and community environments influence individual citizenship?

Then there are those who dedicate their lives to public service, for which a host of questions follow. For example, can a virtuous public servant be both ambitious and sufficiently dedicated to serving the public? Can he or she be both independent-minded and beholden to party politics? To what extent do faith-based motivations play a role in politics? How do the religious origins of the American republic shape the way virtue in public life is viewed today? What kinds of social conditions contribute to or detract from virtuous public life? What social factors affect virtue, especially when those in public life are considered representatives of a constituency, or members of a political party? Finally, what factors lead to vicious behavior in public life, and, after a moral fall, is moral repair possible? Can a politician, once morally compromised, regain his or her personal integrity and/or stand in the eyes of the public? If so, what kinds of processes contribute to this? Many, if not all of these questions, suggest that self-related factors influence virtue in public life. In broad terms, what kinds of changes or development can be discerned in the lives of virtuous, as opposed to vicious politicians? Do patterns emerge? And, is private virtue a necessary component of public virtue?

At the institutional level, researchers could investigate questions about ways in which civic institutions (and other institutions, such as churches) shape citizens’ perceptions of themselves, their virtues, and their capacities to contribute to public life. E.g., is the recent rise in populism related to the perception of the breakdown of democratic systems and processes? Are the virtues and effectiveness of public servants helped or hindered by the institutions within which they serve, and if institutions do exert such influences, by what means does this happen? Can virtuous community members and public servants change corrupt civic institutions for the better? If so, by what means can this occur, and what virtues are most useful in doing so? Can virtues be attributed to civic institutions themselves, and if so, are they derivative from the virtues of their leaders, or do the virtues of civic institutions take on ‘lives of their own,’ transcending the leadership and influence of specific individuals?

These are some of the themes and research questions that we believe bear closer scrutiny.

B. Methodological Innovation

We seek to encourage new ways of measuring virtue and its effects. Measuring virtue in scientific study is difficult. Traditional survey measures may fail to get at the phenomenon. In addition, behavioral measures by themselves do not yield information about subjects’ motivations for action, which is crucial for determining whether the behavior is virtuous. Moreover, although every method of data collection has its limitations, traditional paper-and-pencil measures, i.e., surveys, may provide the least insight into virtue. Completed in laboratory or office settings, surveys are removed from the habitat of daily life. Yet it is in situ – in the real world environment – that researchers can learn most about how people act or fail to act virtuously through such methods as controlled observations, interviews or experience sampling. Consequently, an aim of this research initiative is to encourage methodological innovation in the study of civic virtue. This RFP requires that awardees move beyond traditional self-report measures to include the use of innovative methods such as experience sampling measures, computer simulations, projective tests, repertory grid, Q-sorting, think-aloud protocols, narrative analysis, autobiographical analysis or other methods in addition to self-report measures.

C. Deep Integration: Closing the Disciplinary Gap

Research into character and virtue is often conducted by scholars from within a single disciplinary perspective — philosophers research by themselves, psychologists team up with each other, and historians and anthropologists proceed from their own disciplinary perspectives. This disciplinary isolationism is not maximally productive of new knowledge about virtue as it involves the whole person situated within a community guided by personal and cultural narratives and practices. Greater insights into the self, virtue, and motivation in public life can be achieved only by combining the talents of practitioners of different disciplines. To ensure that research funded by this proposal closes the disciplinary gap, we will require that funded research teams meet the requirement of “deep integration.” By “deep integration,” we mean that successful teams will be comprised of at least one humanist and one scientist who are fully and equally invested in the research project from its inception to its completion. Ideally, research teams should be composed of humanists and scientists who are rooted in different traditions and bring different perspectives to bear on a research topic.

The foregoing discussion is an overview of the funded research initiative. Modeled on the highly successful “Self, Virtue, and Motivation” project, we seek to stimulate empirically informed research on the topic of “Self, Virtue, and Public Life” while maintaining our previous emphases on methodological innovation in the study of virtue and deep integration. Because of today’s challenges, scholarly research into “Self, Virtue, and Public Life” could not be more timely.

II. The Background of our Research Initiative and Request for Proposals on “Self, Virtue, and Public Life”

In the history of western philosophy, interest in virtue and public life can be traced to the time of the ancient Greeks, where politics emerged. In the Republic, Plato famously outlined a regime for moral education that would result in wise and just rulers. In the Nicomachean Ethics and the Politics, Aristotle emphasized the interconnections of virtue and public life. The Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius drew on the virtues of the Stoics for strength and guidance. Cicero, too, thought virtues essential for public life. Through later ancient and medieval times, interest in the virtues of rulers and ruling classes continued, followed by the emergence of democracies and active citizenry. Non-western traditions, too, have sought to cultivate the virtue of rulers and the ruled. For example, Confucius was concerned to cultivate de, or virtue, in rulers, and thought that the virtue of rulers would serve as positive examples to the ruled. The ruled also had responsibilities to develop the virtues of living in a well-functioning society (see The Analects).

In western philosophy, the emergence of Enlightenment thinking gave rise to what is called ‘modern philosophy.’ Exponents of modern philosophy who contributed to political philosophy include Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. These thinkers developed social contract theories to explain and justify relations among governments and governed. The basic idea was to imagine a pre-social “state of nature,” and the kinds of conditions that would propel denizens of that state to form a civil society. The upshot of this general approach was that a focus on the virtues of citizens and rulers fell into abeyance, as contractarian frameworks stress, instead, the rights and duties of citizens and sovereigns. A parallel development can be seen in the case of moral philosophy: modern philosophers such as Immanuel Kant and John Stuart Mill developed deontology and consequentialism, respectively, according to which ethics is conceptualized in terms of duties and rules, and maximizing happiness or good consequences. Virtues, though included in these ethical theories, do not have pride of place.

In 1958, Elizabeth Anscombe questioned the hegemony of deontology and consequentialism, recommending a shift toward Aristotle’s virtue theory in ethics (see Anscombe 1958). Rosalind Hursthouse’s seminal book, On Virtue Ethics (1999) developed virtue ethics as an alternative ethical theory type on a par with, or even superior to, deontology and consequentialism. Philosophers, psychologists, theologians, anthropologists, and even some neuroscientists have taken notice. Since that time, we have been experiencing a renaissance of interest in virtue.

Interest in the moral virtues came first, and interest in the intellectual virtues is now gathering force. Yet the study of political or civic virtues has not proceeded apace. In 1972, John Rawls published his masterpiece, A Theory of Justice. This is a modernized contractarian approach to distributive justice with definite roots in Kantian deontology. It had the effect of stimulating subsequent work in political philosophy in the direction of analyses of democratic institutions, the rational bases of cooperation and the norms of public life, and rational choice theoretic approaches to the problems of civic life. The political philosophy written in the wake of Rawls’s work has been extensive, sophisticated, and complex, but it has not highlighted the virtues of individuals. (Mark LeBar aptly makes this point in his introduction to his forthcoming edited volume, Becoming Just, where he notes that volumes have been written about the justice of institutions, but the virtue of justice as possessed by individual citizens has been a relatively neglected topic.) Even theorists of liberalism, such as Macedo (1990) and Dagger (1997), whose work promises to prominently feature civic or liberal virtues, discuss these virtues only briefly in the context of broader liberal approaches to democratic government. Communitarian responses to Rawls’s theory, such as those of Sandel and MacIntyre, are more hospitable to the virtues. Indeed, MacIntyre’s After Virtue, often cited as a communitarian alternative to political liberalism, made a significant contribution to the development of virtue ethics. MacIntyre’s book was published in 1987. Since then, some philosophers have paid attention to individual civic virtues or to civic virtue in general. For example, Calhoun (2000), argues that civility is a basic virtue of social life, extending well beyond the civic realm. Audi (1998) offers a liberal theory of civic virtue in which he discusses institutional dimensions of civic virtue (Audi 1998, 167-168). Costa (2004) discusses the ambivalence of liberal theory toward civic virtue, and argues in Costa (2009) that Philip Pettit’s neo-republicanismm, which is built on civility, cannot work without a politics of virtue. An issue of the journal Social Theory and Practice (volume 33, number 4, October 2007), features some work on civic virtue (see Galston 2007, Murphy 2007, Blum 2007, Burtt 2007, Mason 2007, Davis and Neufeld 2007, and Keller 2007). More recent work has been done from the perspectives of several disciplines on the challenges of multiculturalism for civic virtue (see Ford 2012; Soutphommasane 2012; Jaffe 2013). A shared feature of philosophical work on civic virtue and on individual civic virtues is that it has not been inspired by a larger virtue ethical perspective. That is, unlike the philosophical work that has been done by philosophers in the past 15 or so years on moral and intellectual virtues, which has been inspired by the revival of virtue ethics and the beginnning of virtue epistemology, work on civic virtue has, for the most part, stood outside of and apart from the major trends of research on virtue (Calhoun (2000) and Annas (1996) could be considered exceptions to this). It has been situated in the realm of political philosophy. Our conjecture is that because the philosophy of political liberalism is ambivalent about virtue (see Costa 2004), civic virtue has not received the philosophical attention it deserves. In short, it is time for virtue ethicists to turn their attention to the civic virtues.

That said, political scientists writing more recently than Macedo (1990) and Dagger (1997) have creatively investigated specific virtues. Tolerance is explored in a “Critical Exchange” among several theorists in Contemporary Political Theory (volume 14, number 2, 2015). Scorza (2004) investigates liberal citizenship and civic friendship, drawing insights from Ralph Waldo Emerson’s conception of friendship. Lombardini (2013) argues that wittiness, in Aristotle’s sense, provides the foundation of an account of democratic humor. Button (2018) makes an argument for democratic humility, and Skeaff (2013) draws on Spinoza to develop an account of political judgment that he calls ‘citizen jurisprudence.’ In an older article, Burtt (1990) examines the psychology of civic virtue; more recently, Oosterhuis (2012) examines psychological definitions of citizenship in the Netherlands. In addition to this theoretical work, some political scientists have investigated civic virtues using empirical studies. Fowler and Kam (2006), for example, use an empirical approach to argue that patience significantly increases voter turn-out, and, in “Political Participation and Civic Courage: The Negative Effect of Transparency on Making Small Campaign Contributions,” La Raja (2014) empirically analyzes the negative effect of transparency laws on small donors, especially when they are surrounded by people holding divergent political views. Empirical approaches have also been used in interesting studies by Lundin, Nordström-Skans, and Zetterberg (2016) on leadership within civic organizations and candidacy in public elections; and by psychologists Stavrova, Schlösser, and Fetchenhauer (2013) on civic virtue, antisocial punishment, and subjective well-being. Hoesterey (2012) has studied Islam, pop psychology, and civic virtue in Indonesia; and Zhu and Fu (2016) make a case for the civic virtue of “communal space,” that is, the effects that communal space can have on community-building and civic participation in China.

Two other themes of interest merit mention. First, civic virtues have been studied in educational contexts (see, for example, Damon, 2011; White, 1996; and Williams, 1992). Empirical studies have also been done in Dutch schools (see Willems 2013, and Willems, Denessen, and Hermans 2012) as well as in the United States (see Youniss and Yates 1997; Flanagan and Levine 2010; Hart, Matsuba, and Atkins 2014, Kessler and Fink 2008; and Haft and Weiss 1998). The extensive work on civic education, both national and international, of Judith Torney-Purta (cited at length in the bibliography), provides a rich resource for those seeking to deepen understanding of how youth acquire civic virtue. Education theorist Sigal Ben-Porath has investigated patriotism and democratic education (2007) and argues provocatively that in this age of diversity and multiculturalism, inequality and poverty, schools should teach different civic virtues to different kinds of children (2013). Ben-Porath’s intriguing work indicates an especially interesting area for further exploration. A second question, flagged as one of our “big questions,” concerns the interrelations of science and democracy. Science and technology have developed alongside of modern liberal democracies. Koertge (2005, 3) explores “. . . the positive relationship that exists between science and liberal democracy,” pointing out that science has traditionally been an important component of education for citizenship; in an age in which technology is becoming increasingly prominent, basic knowledge of the way the world works is essential. Themes of science and democracy are also taken up by Brown (2009) and Collins and Evans (2017).

We believe it is important to bolster interest in interdisciplinary, empirically informed work on the self, virtue, and public life. This research is important, not only out of academic interest, but also because the world is in political turmoil. We are seeing emerging trends of global significance that cry out for focused research into questions of self, virtue, and public life. The popularity of political strongmen in nations such as Russia, Hungary, the Philippines, and South Africa is one cause for concern. Another is the rise of populist movements, some on the far right or featuring far right elements, in countries such as the United States, the United Kingdom, Germany, France, and the Netherlands. A third is the economic devastation of entire countries, such as Venezuela and North Korea, under corrupt and tyrannical leadership. Finally, the placement in government and exposure of individually unfit or corrupt politicians has destabilized both the workings of government as well as trust in democratic systems. A recent example in the United States is the exposure of Mike Flynn’s conversations with Russians, about which he lied to Vice President Pence, his removal as a National Security Advisor, and the subsequent discovery of his ties to Turkey. Anyone who cares about the integrity of political processes, the moral caliber of public servants, and the future of democracy should be concerned about these developments. What can be seen in all these social trends is members of the citizenry who acted or did not act to prevent the devolution of their societies. We can see the positive influence of citizens who tried different tactics to make their societies more just, persevering in the face of opposition. For example, Nelson Mandela, Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr., are classic examples of individuals who mobilized their fellow citizens to act in mostly nonviolent ways to bring about change. By examining the contemporary trends previously mentioned, funded researchers will be able to uncover current role models and provide insight into motivations and the skills needed for virtuous citizenship in the 21st century.

To guide respondents to our Request for Proposals, we have included in that document relevant references to work cited here and in the Civic Virtue Bibliography. We thereby hope to inform respondents of what is already known about the research questions we propose, to highlight work on specific virtues that we find interesting and worthwhile, and, in general, to point them in what we believe are directions in need of further exploration.

For the references cited above, please see our
Civic Virtues Bibliography