Meet Our Researchers – Cokelet


Dr. Bradford Cokelet is co-PI of the SMV-funded research project, “Virtues as Properly Motivated, Self-Integrated Traits.”

BRADFORD COKELET (Ph.D., Northwestern University, 2009) is Visiting Assistant Professor of Philosophy at the University of Kansas. Learn more about his research by visiting his personal website.

I work in moral philosophy.   My main expertise is contemporary moral theory and meta-ethics (What sort of ethical ideal should we aspire to embody? What sort of objectivity should we aim for in our thinking about ethics and the good life?), but I like to think about ethics in a cross-cultural and interdisciplinary context. My undergraduate majors were Math and Religious Studies and I was drawn to contemporary philosophy because it encouraged me to think logically and carefully about existential questions and questions about the good life. I was raised knowing little about Religion and my interests in ethics and cross-cultural philosophy grow out of the classes I took on religious philosophy as an undergraduate. I come from a line of scientists so I am also naturally inclined towards inter-disciplinary questions, e.g. about how to combine moral philosophy and empirical science.

Various religious studies, comparative literature, and intellectual history professors at Washington University inspired my pursuit of philosophy, but it was really cemented by a group of friends I squatted with in an apartment one summer (we were young and foolish!). The owner showed up half way through the summer, but was such a nice guy that he let us stay for the rest of the summer and joined our life-affirming and free-wheeling discussions of Hegel, critical theory, and how to live a good life. I miss the youthful kinds of conversations about life and philosophy we had back then, but I feel lucky to have a job that lets me keep thinking about some of the same ideas as they show up in a more rigorous and historically informed academic setting.

I met Blaine when the University of Miami hired me and we hit it off right away. We share a love of Aristotle and Hermeneutics. I am always impressed by his ability to put philosophic insights to work in his psychological research and that has inspired me to get involved in interdisciplinary work myself.

Various cultural commentators, philosophers, and sociologists have raised worries about how modern societies, with their bureaucracies, pressures to focus on productivity and profit, underfunded and uneven forms of education, questionable practices of child-rearing, and so forth promote individualist pathologies such as narcissism, anxiety, and alienation. I am very interested the nature of these pathologies and questions about how they conflict with or impede personal happiness, authenticity, and our ability to embody admirable ethical ideals (which philosopher’s call ‘conceptions of virtue’). Our research project is connected to one facet of this question: inspired by (philosopher) Alastair Macintyre, we will test the hypothesis that because we are pressured to adopt different personas at work and at home it is hard for us to constantly and fully embody virtues such as kindness.

Lots of philosophers want their moral or ethical theories to identify ideals that normal people can reasonably hope to embody in their lives, but there is serious debate about what kind of constraint this puts on our theorizing. Some philosophers appeal to social science to support a rather unflattering picture of human nature and then argue that we need to bring our hopes for humanity, and the ethical ideals we set up, down to earth. This is certainly a view is worth taking seriously, but like MacIntyre, I also think that we need to be cognizant of the way that contingent social structures and features of our culture may impede or enable us to reach various ideals. Our study is designed to test one hypothesis in this vein and it is part of an argument that philosophers need to think systematically about the social and cultural contingencies that may explain some of the social science results to which they appeal. In short, instead of reigning in our hopes and ideals in the light of social science, perhaps we should be thinking about how we can change our institutions, practices, and culture in order to reach higher standards.