Dr. Blaine Fowers is co-PI of the SMV-funded research project, “Virtues as Properly Motivated, Self-Integrated Traits.”
My area of expertise is the psychological study of virtue and flourishing from an Aristotelian perspective. I am one of a rare and quixotic breed known as theoretical psychologists, which has led me to focus my work at the nexus of philosophy and psychology. Early in my career, I tilted at windmills by critiquing the unexamined ideologies of individualism and instrumentalism in psychology from an ontological hermeneutics perspective (primarily Gadamer, Taylor, and MacIntyre). Those critiques have made me very popular! This led to my first book, Re-envisioning Psychology. At that time, I also studied romantic relationships empirically. In 2000, I thought I would write a one-off paper about how couple communication skills could be reconceptualized as proto-virtues. I began to read Aristotle for this paper, and I have never stopped. This “little paper” changed my focus to Aristotle’s philosophy and led to my second book, Beyond the Myth of Marital Happiness, an exploration of the role of virtues in high quality marriages. What I like most about Aristotle’s ethics is his guidance for reformulating psychological theory, research, and practice to transcend the limitations of individualism and instrumentalism. I did not find the resources for this reformulation in hermeneutic philosophy. Mostly, I would just mumble something at the end of a paper or book. Aristotle’s philosophy points me toward clear, practical recommendations, which psychology desperately needs!
I conduct theoretical and empirical research on virtue and flourishing, which made the SMV rfp very exciting! I train psychology doctoral students and do research with them. We have studied empirically how modes of goal pursuit predict hedonic and eudaimonic well-being, how people choose their goals, and the virtues of kindness and friendship. We just completed a series of studies developing a measure of the eudaimonic aspects of romantic relationships. A recent experimental study indicated that kindness is a better predictor of observed helping behavior than Agreeableness or any Big Five personality trait. We also recently finished a meta-analysis that refutes the situationist interpretation of helping behavior. I thought it was time for psychologists to respond to Doris, Miller, and Alfano’s misappropriation of psychological research.
Theoretically, we have examined the implications of eudaimonic theory for romantic relationships, multiculturalism, psychotherapy, moral psychology, and positive psychology. I just completed a book that integrates eudaimonic theory and human evolution, called The Evolution of Ethics: Human Sociality and the Emergence of the Ethical Mind. I argue that humans flourish when we fulfill our evolved human capacities (e.g., attachment, cooperation, group membership. You can see more about this work on my web site: bfowers.com, or on my Research Gate page.
I met my collaborators, Brad Cokelet and Jean-Philippe Laurenceau as fellow faculty members at the University of Miami. I sought Brad out because of our shared interest in Aristotle’s ethics. I was mostly looking for a conversation partner, and he is a wonderful one! I have always been delighted that he is as interested in psychology as I am in philosophy. We began collaborating on the interdisciplinary Virtue and Eudaimonia Conference we hosted in Miami in 2011. We want to make this an ongoing conference series. Jean-Philippe and I became acquainted and began collaborating via our mutual interests in studying romantic relationships. We have continued to collaborate, most notably on creating the Relationship Flourishing Scale.
The SMV project funding will help us expand and deepen our research program on virtue and flourishing. The funding will make it possible for us to study the virtues of kindness and justice experimentally and to conduct a longitudinal experience sampling study of those virtues. In experience sampling, we ask participants to respond to a short questionnaire four times per day for 14 days. Thus, we will assess within-person and between-person variation in these virtues. We will assess how much the participants’ motivations and self-processes covary with kind and fair actions. Finally, we will attend to the contexts in which people do and do not express these virtues. This relatively new method is extremely valuable for examining traits, and we are expanding on this method by studying motivation, self-processes, and context. Ultimately, we hope to contribute to a vibrant research paradigm for empirically studying virtue.
The discipline of psychology is only slowly waking up to the idea that virtues and flourishing are worthwhile research topics. The positive psychology movement has contributed much to this awakening. Unfortunately, most positive psychologists have not gained a deep understanding of these topics. Most just stick with common-sense ideas and typically study virtues and flourishing with unsophisticated single time-point time self-report scales. We want to expand and deepen this research with more sophisticated and compelling methods and with a richer philosophical understanding of Aristotle’s thought. There are a few ongoing collaborations between philosophers and psychologists (hooray Nancy and Darcia!), but not nearly enough. We are very optimistic about the fruitfulness of this approach and hope to demonstrate its value in better theory and better science. We hope to show that virtue traits are just as measurable and useful as personality traits, and that virtue traits predict behavior and well-being. We think that would be a nice contribution to psychology, philosophy, education, and our society.