November 20, 2008
Vol. 28 No. 5

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    Scholars will use two-fold definition of science to better understand human virtue

    By William Harms
    News Office

    Using a $4.2 million grant from the John Templeton Foundation, University scholars are seeking intellectual contributions from scientists and humanists for an interdisciplinary project on virtue.

    Project leader Jean Bethke Elshtain, the Laura Spelman Rockefeller Professor in the Divinity School, will join Don Browning, Professor Emeritus in the Divinity School, as co-principal investigators, along with scientific advisor Howard Nusbaum, Chairman of Psychology, to launch the New Science of Virtues Project.

    The project leaders are seeking proposals from scholars around the world to examine how the ideas from the natural sciences and the humanities can be brought together to understand human virtue. These scholars hope the project will generate new knowledge, informing often ambiguous, inherited moral, political and religious systems.

    “A new science of virtue is needed and timely because philosophical and religious virtue theory historically has almost always assumed understandings of human nature,” Browning said. “Today many natural sciences are throwing light on the naturalistic dimensions of human virtue, sometimes without reductionism and increasingly with philosophical sophistication and openness to dialogue with the humanities.”

    As a philanthropist, the late John Templeton was interested in promoting projects that helped draw together the perspectives of science and religion. “As Sir John once argued, bridging this divide requires the creation of foundational constructs that might link disciplines and, in the process, break down barriers to the scientific study of significant spiritual and ethical realities,” said Elshtain.

    The scholars are using a two-fold definition of science, which encompasses empirical studies in both the humanities and the natural sciences. Those perspectives include an examination of various definitions of virtue in philosophy, religion and cultures. Science also provides a guide to finding clarity among the studies of virtues, especially with respect to examining assumptions about human nature, according to the organizers.

    “Virtues such as wisdom, generosity and gratitude are attributes of human behavior,” said Nusbaum. “A submitted scientific proposal might look for genetic reasons why a person might be predisposed to greater generosity, for instance. Or a research team might examine non-human animal examples of generous actions and see how such actions can serve as a model for human virtue.”

    The project is seeking proposals for cutting-edge research around seven topics: virtue and modernity, models and exemplars of virtues, virtue and the natural sciences, virtue and society, the formation of philosophical conceptions of virtue, and research on specific virtues, such as courage, honesty and generosity.

    New Science of Virtues, which is administered through the interdisciplinary Arete Initiative, is organizing a project council of distinguished scholars and scientists, who will review letters of intent and invite 40 finalists to submit proposals. Proposals will be peer-reviewed, and the best in the group will receive funding for further work.

    Scholars joining the project will become part of a New Science of Virtues Research Network. Research results will be disseminated, and Elshtain expects to edit a volume based on the work. More information is available at http://www.scienceofvirtues.org/.