Meet Our Researchers – Robert Roberts


Dr. Robert Roberts is a research team member on the SMV-funded research project, “Humility in Loving Encounter: Ontological and Cognitive-Motivational Models of the Moral Self in Stable Communities of Care, Forgiveness, and Reconciliation,” PI Dr. Michael Spezio.

ROBERT C. ROBERTS (Ph.D., Yale University, 1974) is Distinguished Professor of Ethics emeritus at Baylor University, Chair in Ethics and Emotion Theory at the Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues, the University of Birmingham (UK), and Professor in the Royal Institute of Philosophy

My current area of research (and expertise, to the extent that it is expertise!) is the study of broadly moral character, with stress on its affective and motivational dimensions. I came to be interested in the topic long ago, namely about 50 years ago, in the classroom of Paul L. Holmer at Yale University. Holmer offered courses with titles like “Virtues and Vices” and “Emotions, Passions, and Feelings” at least fifteen years before the appearance of Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue. He was inspired to this by the likes of Elizabeth Anscombe and Peter Geach, as well as Ludwig Wittgenstein and Søren Kierkegaard, whose writings peppered his course reading lists along with the works of other worthies like Gilbert Ryle, J. L. Austin, and Peter Strawson. At Yale I majored in Holmer, and in a way I do so to this day, though I tremble to contemplate his reaction, should he happen to have access, in his current residence, to a collection of my writings.

I started teaching philosophy in 1973, though my training at Yale and my PhD were primarily in the department of religious studies. That perhaps explains why I didn’t publish in philosophy journals until 1984. But in that year there appeared two papers that were harbingers of what I would do in the rest of my career. One was a response to Robert Solomon’s book The Passions (1976): “Solomon on the Control of Emotions” in Philosophy and Phenomenological Research. The other was “Will Power and the Virtues” which came out in the Philosophical Review. I remember the moment in 1978 when, preparing a lecture on a chapter from William James’s The Principles of Psychology (against the background of thinking about Solomon’s book), the idea that an emotion is a concern-based construal, something like a gestalt perception loaded with concerns, came to me. I used the idea to criticize Solomon’s proposal that emotions are judgments and a kind of action that we perform, and I based on my critique of Solomon an account of how we sometimes have voluntary control over our emotions.

The idea that emotions are concern-based construals became basic to all my thinking about moral psychology. (A more definitive statement of the view appeared in 1988 in the Philosophical Review under the title, “What An Emotion Is: A Sketch”, and a still more definitive view in 2003, Emotions: An Esssay in Aid of Moral Psychology (Cambridge U. P.) The other paper, on will power and the virtues, distinguished two very different kinds of virtues, what I called the virtues of will power (like courage, self-control, patience, and perseverance), and others that I called the substantive and motivational virtues (like justice, generosity, and compassion). The virtues of will power, I said, are skill-like and are not defined by any particular kind of motivation (I argued for the possibility of a courageous thief), while the motivational virtues are characterized by concern for a particular kind of object — say, just states of affairs, or the remediation of suffering. This distinction, as well as further ones, have become characteristic of my thinking about the virtues. I think you can see how the idea that some virtues are basically concerns, plus the idea that emotions are concern-based construals, plus the idea that a major function of the virtues of will power is to manage our emotions, can yield an account of the connections between virtues and emotions. That connection has been all over my work ever since the early 1980s.

I was riveted by Holmer’s teaching because it not only focused on pivotal issues about human existence and wellbeing, but was pursued with personal passion. Holmer conveyed in his lectures and conversations that thinking about these topics was crucial for the living of his life and ought to be treated in the same way by his students. In thinking about what he was thinking about, each of us was (or at least was invited to be) on a personal spiritual quest, a quest for excellence in the living of a human life. I think that character of his thinking and teaching has also rubbed off on my work. I try to think, write, and teach in such a way that the primary goal is that I, and anyone who thinks with me, could be helped in the search for wisdom. The contrast here would be with the idea that we are on a personally disinterested mission to add to the fund of scientific know­ledge. The disinterested stance is alien to, and distortive of, a grasp of the topics of virtue, emotion, and human wisdom.

Michael Spezio and I were members of an interdisciplinary group of twelve scholars who spent the academic year 2013–14 at the Center of Theological Inquiry in Princeton, New Jersey to engage in “An Inquiry on Religious Experience and Moral Identity.” Michael stood out as unusually talented, well read, and like-minded, and when the SMV project came into focus for me I proposed that he and I collaborate on a research proposal. Michael’s previous research investigated the moral/spiritual character of long-term members of religiously and service-oriented communities such as L’Arche; such endurance in such an endeavor seems to require and elicit several virtues (formed under the influence and in the interest of life in the community, as Michael would hasten to notice), and I wanted particularly to pursue interdisciplinary work on the virtue of humility. Michael responded with interest, and we came up with our proposal on Humility in Loving Encounter.

I have long been interested in the virtue of humility — in part because it seems to me to exemplify further psychological diversity among the virtues such as I early argued for in “Will Power and the Virtues,” but mostly because it seems to be a pervasively important virtue, one that, as Benjamin Franklin noted, is one of the most difficult to acquire (some people even think that some kind of self-referential logical problem bedevils even the effort to acquire it), and one of the most deeply misunderstood. Michael’s and my project has already advanced my understanding of the virtue, starting with the thinking we did in putting together the research proposal. My thinking about humility made incremental progress as Michael and I exchanged drafts of the proposal we were developing, and at that time I also read a paper by Kevin S. Reimer and M. Kyle Matsuba, “A Modest Polemic for Virtuous Pride” that somewhat took to task one of my earlier writings about humility and required new depths of reflection from me. (Reimer has become a consultant for our research team.) The paper that emerged is “The Virtues of Pride and Humility: A Survey.” It represents a significant step forward in my thinking about humility, because it begins to address the corresponding virtues of pride that underwrite the most virtuous humility. I presented it as “The Virtues and Vices of Pride and Humility” at a conference at Biola University in May, 2015. Most recently (January 27, 2016) I presented an early version of a new paper as work on the SMV project, “The Nature of Humility: Three Proposals” as my inaugural lecture as Professor in the Royal Institute of Philosophy in London.

Here is a brief history of my papers on humility approximately up to the two mentioned in the preceding paragraph: “Humility as a Moral Project”, a chapter in Spirituality and Human Emotion (Eerdmans, 1982), updated in 2007 as a chapter in Spiritual Emotions (Eerdmans, 2007); a chapter on intellectual humility in Intellectual Virtues: An Essay in Regulative Epistemology (with W. Jay Wood, Oxford U. P., 2007); “The Vice of Pride” in Faith and Philosophy (2009); “What Is It to Be Intellectually Humble?” an online article on the Templeton Foundation web site (2012); “Humility”, a draft chapter in Attention to Virtues, a book manuscript in progress; “Learning Intellectual Humility” in Jason Baehr, editor, Intellectual Virtues and Education: Essays in Applied Virtue Epistemology (Routledge, 2016); “Philosophical Views of Humility” (with Scott Cleveland), for Everett Worthington, Joshua Hook, and Donnie Davis, editors, Handbook of Humility (Routledge, forthcoming 2016); “Gratitude and Humility” in David Carr, editor, Perspectives on Gratitude: An Interdisciplinary Approach (Routledge, 2016). The most recent papers have cited the experiences of Fr. Gregory Boyle of Homeboy Industries, an examination of whose work will be part of the empirical dimension of the work for the SMV project. I note that the publication dates of some of the more recent papers don’t track very well the biographical chronology, because of delays in publication. I expect the collaborative work with Michael over the next 22 months to gel and deepen my understanding of humility significantly.