Dr. Peggy DesAutels is a collaborator for the SMV-funded research project, “Eudaimonic Growth: How Virtues and Motives Shape the Narrative Self and Its Development within a Social Ecology.”
It first struck me in graduate school that knowing moral theory or even teaching moral theory doesn’t appear to correlate with actually living a moral life. Ever since this realization, I’ve devoted my research to better understanding the varieties of psychologies of those who live morally and to providing realistic guidance for how best to both flourish and live morally in our everyday lives. On my view, a good moral theory should provide useful norms for our day-to-day moral perceptions, deliberations, choices, and practices. It should accommodate human cognitive constraints and respond to the complexities of actual experienced lives. In other words, our moral theories should be psychologically and socially realistic. I also stress that our moral theories and norms must be responsive to the fact that we live in a society in which some are systematically disadvantaged because of their gender, race, or class.
In order to provide realistic and non-idealized moral norms, I draw on contemporary moral theory, feminist theory, and advances in social psychology, cognitive science and neuroscience. My interdisciplinary approach means that I read quite widely in various fields, but I was especially influenced over the past few decades by Owen Flanagan’s Varieties of Moral Personality: Ethics and Psychological Realism, Lisa Tessman’s Burdened Virtues, Lee Ross and Richard Nisbett’s The Person and the Situation: Perspectives of Social Psychology, Anne Fausto-Sterling’s Myths of Gender: Biological Theories About Women and Men, and Don McAdams’ Power, Intimacy, and the Life Story: Personological Inquiries into Identity. My focus on virtuous lives also means that I have a well-loved and well-worn copy of Aristotle’s Nichomachean Ethics.
Interestingly, I met my collaborator, Jack Bauer (Professor of Psychology), because of our mutual interest in and admiration for Owen Flanagan’s work. Jack invited Owen to speak at our campus (University of Dayton) and because Owen and I had crossed philosophical paths, Owen asked that I be invited to join in on the scheduled social events and meals surrounding his talk. Jack and I soon discovered that we had many overlapping intellectual interests aside from those tied to Owen Flanagan’s work, and a fruitful collaboration was born. Anyone who know Jack, knows that he’s an enthusiastic, smart, kind, interesting guy. What more could I ask for in a collaborator?
Jack’s and my SMV research project could perhaps more briefly be titled: “Living Morally When Life Gets in the Way.” We collect, analyze and theorize about individual’s life stories with the following questions in mind: (1) How do motives, life goals, and virtues shape the development of the self? (2) How does one’s gender and social ecology both foster and constrain that development? (3) How do difficult circumstances both thwart and facilitate virtues? (4) What virtues should women and men have in patriarchal cultures and non-ideal gendered circumstances? Our project fits perfectly with each of our more long-term research goals: mine of developing realistic moral norms for actual people living in non-ideal circumstances and Jack’s of theorizing self identity and eudaimonia by drawing on person’s life stories.
I see this project as helping to advance contemporary virtue theory. There has been much recent interest in the degree to which one’s situation determines one’s behavior as opposed to a supposed personality trait. (See John M. Doris’s Lack of Character: Personality and Moral Behavior) For example, studies in social psychology show that we are more likely to exhibit helping behavior when we have just experienced a bit of good luck (e.g. when we have just found money in a phone booth). This shows, some argue, that a supposed “helpful” trait is not as trait-like as we would like to believe if helping behavior is so easily influenced by one’s situation. But Jack and I are more interested in ways that our cultural and historical “situation” and other significant circumstances influence one’s moral development over a lifetime. The scope and duration of the “situation” are significantly widened and lengthened. And the moral behaviors of interest involve patterns of behavior tied to careers or long-term projects motivated by moral concerns.