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Interviews, Longreads

A Still More Excellent Way: An Interview with Robert C. Roberts

Robert C. Roberts


Philosopher Robert C. Roberts discusses the theological virtues, happiness, and human emotion.

Professor of Ethics and Emotion Theory at the Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues
April 9, 2019

“Do what makes you happy.” You’ve read it (or wrote it) on one too many graduation cards this year for it to have any meaning left in at all. But trite as it is, the phrase reminds us of a challenging reality: the good life is a life of doing. Doing what? For that, we turn to eminent philosopher Robert C. Roberts of Baylor University.

Dr. Roberts earned his PhD from Yale University has been teaching and publishing since 1973. In addition to his numerous professorial posts, Dr. Roberts has spent his career on the frontiers of modern ethics research, partnering with institutions like the Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues and the Virtue, Happiness, & the Meaning of Life Project at the University of Chicago. CCT’s Evan Rosa sat down with him for a discussion on the good life, morality, and the ins and outs of emotion.

Evan Rosa (ER): To get us going, why don’t you say something about what the components of a good, moral life are? What are those things in a life of a human person that make for a good life at a theoretical level?

Robert C. Roberts (RCR): A standard view among, say, psychological researchers about happiness—people like David Myers, for example, and Martin Seligman, and some of the people who’ve been writing about happiness ‑‑ as well as some philosophers who think about this, is that happiness is what you take happiness to be. It’s really not possible to think that you’re happy and not be happy, or to think that you’re unhappy and actually be happy. There’s a one‑to‑one correspondence between the way people feel about their life, the amount of pleasure in their life, or the self‑reported satisfaction that they give and their well‑being. That’s what well‑being is according to that view.

On a more classical view, on the view that, say, would be promoted by most of the Greek philosophers—Aristotle would be the primary one—and, I think, also the biblical view, is that there is not a one‑to‑one correspondence between the way one feels and the degree of one’s happiness.

What is needed in addition to a certain amount of pleasure and a certain amount of, you might say, happy interpersonal relationships and adequate resources in one’s life, what’s needed in addition to those things is to be a certain kind of person, to be formed in a certain way.

Aristotle thought that you couldn’t be a happy person without being a good person. When Jesus talks about blessedness in the Sermon on the Mount, of, “Blessed are you when men persecute you and misuse you for my sake,” He says, and, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness.”

There’s a paradoxical sound to those statements because we’re inclined to think that the people who are poor in spirit are not blessed. They’re the ones who are suffering and the ones who are being persecuted are certainly not the happy ones and so forth.

But, the explanation of this, both in Aristotle and in Jesus’ teaching, is this. Let me expound Aristotle just a little bit because this is more explicit in Aristotle than it is in the “Bible.”

Aristotle thinks that for every species of living thing there is a kind of telos or a goal of that thing’s life. The goal of its life is to become a mature specimen, a well‑formed specimen. The goal of the life of an acorn is to become a beautiful, well‑formed, leafy and large oak tree.

The telos of a raccoon is to become a sleek raccoon with good fur that does the kinds of things that raccoons do and does them well and fluently. The same is true of human beings.

We have some conception of what a human being is ontologically, basically, fundamentally, etc.  What is the very nature of a human being? This becomes much more controversial in the case of human beings than it is in the case of raccoons, acorns, oak trees, and the like because there are competing conceptions of what a human being is.

In contemporary biology, there’s a dominant view that human beings are basically just a somewhat more complicated animal than other primates, and other mammals, and so forth and that there isn’t really anything very fundamentally different about human beings.

Whereas in both Aristotle and in the Christian tradition there’s quite a gap between even the most sophisticated animals and human beings. One of the features of that gap is that human beings need to be in a relationship with the transcendent, with something that’s beyond us.

Christians think that that needs to be God thought of in a particular way, God thought of as the Father of Jesus Christ, the Trinity, the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. We get that picture of what God is from Christian theology and, to some extent, in the Bible.

You can see that that’s a very controversial view. St. Augustine says, “Restless are our hearts until they rest in You, Oh Lord.” The idea is that we are not going to be happy, we’re not going to be well‑formed until we are in that relationship with God. It’s controversial what human beings are.

In Aristotle’s biology and in any common sense biology, organisms, living things are always fit for an environment of some sort. That is to say the surrounding world is crucial to the well‑being of the species.

For raccoons and oak trees, that environment is not very complicated. It’s very complicated, of course, but there’s not much controversy about what it is. You need a certain temperature. You need a certain amount of water. You need light and so forth. Those are the conditions under which this maturity of the species will be achieved.

But, again, it’s controversial what the environment is for human beings. Is the environment just air, water, a certain temperature, and so forth? It seems as though it also requires a certain kind of upbringing to become a fully formed human being, a certain kind of love in one’s family. Then, again, the question about what the larger environment is is a controversial question.

The larger environment, according to the Christian tradition, is that there is God, and that’s a major, crucial element in the environment. The Aristotelian tradition in moral philosophy identifies some virtues that are characteristic of the mature human being.

Aristotle didn’t make it terribly clear which were the cardinal virtues, but it becomes clear in the tradition, both before and after Aristotle, that these virtues are courage, temperance, justice, and wisdom. Those four cardinal virtues are, you might say, the pagan picture of what it is to be a flourishing, well‑formed human being.

If you’re just, courageous, temperate, and wise, then you have made it to human adulthood. You are a fully formed human being. Aristotle thought that you also had to have a relationship with God to be the very happiest kind of human being, because he thought that contemplation of eternal things was essential to a fully flourishing human life.

In the biblical tradition, what gets added to those four cardinal virtues are three theological virtues that are also required according to the Christian tradition for the achievement of happiness and the fully mature human life. Those virtues are the virtues that relate us specifically to God.

Faith, hope and love are the three virtues. Faith is a kind of intellectual relationship to God and, in some kinds of thinking, that’s the way it goes. Love is, of course, love for God and hope is hope in God. These are all theological in the sense that they all make reference to God and they relate the individual person to his creator in that way.

The biblical view is that there is not a one‑to‑one correspondence between the way one feels and the degree of one’s happiness.

ER: In the pursuit of those virtues, theological and cardinal, what are the ends along the way? Are there major milestones that we can pursue on the path toward faith, hope and love?

RCR: How do we actually acquire the virtues of faith, hope and love? Certainly, we do so, in part, by directing our attention to God. It is often recommended—and wisely so—that people spend a certain amount of time just directing their attention to God. Thinking about God, thinking about themselves in their relationship with God.

Praying to God in such a way that their life is in a kind of conversation with God. They are taking into consideration God in his nature, in his love, in his requirements, in his commandments, and they are examining themselves as to how well they are conforming themselves to the image of God as it’s shown in Jesus Christ.

This would be a way of forming, I think, all three of the theological virtues. You would be allowing the Holy Spirit to form you in faith, and in hope, and in love perhaps with…Hope is a kind of future‑directed virtue. It has to do with the way you look at eternity. The way you look even beyond your own life. The Christian trusts and hopes in God’s promises for eternal life.

ER: On the journey towards these virtues, what are some contingent factors that we have some control over? Maybe we don’t have control over everything, but let’s think about the environment. In hoping to be formed ourselves, how can we shape the environment of our relationships in such a way that that will promote a good life?

RCR: Part of our management of ourselves is the management of our environment. We want to avoid putting ourselves into situations where the worst is likely to be drawn out of us. I think Christians believe that their hearts are hidden, to a large extent. They don’t understand their hearts. They realize there are potentials in their hearts that are, perhaps, surprising.

We learn this from the biblical narrative. Simeon in the temple says to Joseph and Mary that this child will reveal the hearts of many. When we look at the New Testament narrative, we see that the coming of Jesus into the Palestinian environment created a change in that environment that was very surprising and very immorally shocking.

Upright religious leaders became murderous connivers, and prostitutes, and cheaters, and exploiters of the public became apostles who were willing to give their lives for the good. That’s just astounding. The hearts of many were revealed by the coming of Jesus into that environment. He changed the environment.

You would never have expected a little thing like one human being being born into that environment to change things so radically, reverse the moral roles in that way. We Christians, I think, don’t trust our hearts very much. We know that we are morally fragile. We know that we can be easily derailed if we get ourselves into the wrong environment.

So, we try to manage the environment as we can. We don’t put ourselves in temptation’s way if we can avoid it. We do put ourselves, as much as possible, into a salutary environment. An environment in which the better part of us will be drawn out and developed.

I think that, to a large extent, that better environment is the church. I know that the church can also be faulted, and it can sometimes be a pretty nasty environment in which people get corrupted. But, on the whole, I would think that church life would be a good thing, a good bet, you might say, as to bringing out the best in people.

Also, putting ourselves in contexts of service. Putting ourselves where we need to stretch a little bit to serve others where it won’t be entirely comfortable for us. You don’t want to strain yourself so much that you go off the deep end,  that you throw in the towel and give it up, but you do want to challenge yourself, I would think.

ER: What are the ways in which a church setting can allow the better part of ourselves to emerge? How does that happen in Christian relationships?

RCR: In the Christian community you have shared assumptions and shared expectations that are, perhaps, not present in the business world or the educational world. You have a way of conceiving yourselves as well. One explicitly names oneself a brother or sister to the members of the congregation.

That’s not typical, say, in the business world to think of oneself as the brother of one’s associates, or the sister. I think the way we conceive ourselves within the church, we conceive ourselves in the language of the church. We use that language to describe ourselves and to conceive of ourselves, to think of ourselves, to perceive ourselves. It exerts a kind of pressure on us.

It may not be entirely comfortable to think of some of the people in your church as your brothers and sisters. That might be a little bit off‑putting, actually. Maybe an effort, and a discipline, and an intentional effort is proper there and also encouraged. The church environment actually encourages it as well.

ER: Let’s think about bringing emotions into the picture. What are emotions, and what kind of significance do they have in this project of becoming mature, fully formed, flourishing human beings?

RCR: Emotions are, of course, very complicated and many‑sided phenomena. One of the striking things about the contemporary explosion of academic interest in the emotions is how interdisciplinary it is. You can look at emotions from a whole number of different academic disciplinary directions.

When I talk about emotions, I’m particularly interested in the way in which they’re discussed in the Bible. There, they seem to have an important role in the spiritual life, an important role in the moral life. I say about emotions that they are concern‑based construals. We might ask, “What is a construal?” I say it’s a kind of perception.

If you look at gestalt drawings in psychology books, you’ll sometimes see a picture that can be seen either as an old woman or as a young woman. If you develop a certain facility with the picture, you can just switch back and forth yourself. You can see it one way, see it the other way. Now that’s a construal.

We might say you can construe the figure as an old lady, or you can construe the figure as a young lady. Those are two different construals of the same figure. Now, when we have an emotional experience of a given situation, I say we construe that situation in a certain way. For example, if we construe it in an angry way, then we see in that situation some kind of an offender.

Somebody has done something that’s not good. They have offended against something that we care about. They are bad, at least momentarily. We see the other person as an offender. We see the other person also as perhaps deserving to be punished or hurt in some way.

Anger has these various dimensions, just in the same way that the figure can be seen as having a nose right here, hair on this side, and a chin, and so forth. We’re seeing the situation as having these elements of a culpable offender, an offense, a victim of, namely, us or maybe something we care about, somebody we love, and a potential punishment out there.

There’s a little set of things in terms of which we see that situation when we’re angry. The very same situation that some people will see angrily, others will see in other terms. They might see that the so‑called offender is really just trying really hard. They’re really trying to be good. Other things might be salient in that situation for the other person.

ER: Why don’t we move toward bringing into view the connection between emotions and morality. What sort of emotional presence? What is the purpose of an emotion in a flourishing life?

RCR: On this view of emotions that I’m promoting, namely that they are concern‑based construals, the concern on which an emotion is based will have a big influence on which emotions one has in a given circumstance. For example, if one cares about justice to human beings, then one will be likely to have emotions that are about justice.

One will get angry at injustices. One will rejoice over the reversal of injustices. One will hope for circumstances that will bring about greater justice and so forth. Jesus talks about hungering and thirsting for justice, hungering and thirsting for righteousness. The word for righteousness and the word for justice are the same word in Greek.

Jesus is praising the heart that is oriented towards justice. The emotions of a person who consistently hungered and thirsted for justice would be emotions that would show forth that virtue.

They would be exemplifications of the virtue in something like the same way that actions of rectifying justice and doing justice are. They’re an emotional counterpart of just actions, just emotions. That’s an example of a virtue that would be a direct consequence of a caring, of a concern.

Then the different construals of the situations in one’s life in terms of that concern would be the justice emotions. Now, that’s a pretty basic story about the moral emotions. When the Apostle Paul talks about rejoicing in the Lord, this desire for justice is right there behind that rejoicing.

He looks at the world, and he says, “Look. This is a world into which the Lord has come. This is a world that the Lord has blessed with His righteousness, with His justice.” That’s a cause of rejoicing for Paul. That’s not something about which everybody rejoices, but it takes a Christian heart to rejoice about that.

It takes that particular love, that particular metaphysics, that particular orientation towards reality that the apostle has to have that particular emotion. We can divide up the moral dimensions of emotions and specify about four or five different ways in which emotions impinge on the moral life.

I say that one of the ways in which they impinge on the moral life is epistemic, or it has to do with moral knowledge. Let’s consider a scenario. Two people are watching a video of a riot in the South, in Mississippi in the 1950s. In this video clip, a bunch of black folks who have been demonstrating for freedom are hosed down by firehoses.

These people are knocked down and they’re scattered by these firehoses. Now we have two people who are watching that video in, say, the year 2010. One of these people feels woeful emotions about this. He feels a regret, a guilt, a sorrow about what was done there and about the conditions that enabled that sort of thing to happen to those people.

The other person sitting right by him looks at that video, and he finds it quite amusing the way all those bodies goes flying when the hoses hit. He just thinks it’s quite an entertainment. Now that’s a big difference in moral perception. They’re looking at the very same video.

They’re looking at the same video in the same way that you look at that same gestalt figure in the psychology book, and it can be seen in two very different ways. It can be seen through the, you might say, the lenses, the form of guilt, sadness, and regret, or it can be seen through the lens of amusement. That tells you something about the subject there.

It tells you something about the viewer. The one seems to exemplify something like justice, that his heart is about justice. The other person doesn’t seem to have that concern. At least it’s not being exemplified in this particular perception of the video. It’s not at work in his moral perception.

You ask yourself from a moral point of view, “Which of these people is closer to the truth about what’s going on in that video? The moral truth.” A Christian or, I think, mostly any decent human being will think that the person who experiences it with sadness, guilt, and maybe a little anger is epistemically better. He’s in a better knowledge position. He knows more.

He’s getting it right in a way that the other person is not. That’s one dimension of emotions. They have this moral perception. They’re forms of moral perception. Another way in which emotions are important is that they engender actions. They motivate us to do things.

Let’s say I’m angry about the way in which my state representative is voting for the reduction of benefits for children. I get upset about that. I’m angry as a Christian. I get angry that my representative would do a thing like that, take a position like that, and so I might be motivated to write a letter to him, or I might be motivated to vote against him in the next election.

These are then actions that are motivated by that anger. The anger is based on the sense of justice, on the concern for justice. Then, in turn, it motivates the actions that I perform. Two people, again, might both vote against that representative. They might cast just identical votes against that representative, but they might have very different reasons.

If your reason is motivated by the justice anger at the representative, maybe the other person votes against him because he’s a Democrat or he’s got some other kinds of reasons. Those are not the same action, even though they’re both voting against the same person. In one sense they’re the same action, but in a moral sense they’re different actions.

The emotion makes the difference there. That’s a second way in which emotions have moral import. A third way is that they are a kind of binding material, a kind of glue, you might say, a kind of relational bond in morally significant relationships. What is a friendship, anyway? What is it to be friends with somebody?

Well, in part, it is to do things with another person, to spend time with the other person, to do things for the other person, but that’s not the whole story. In fact, even if you did spend a lot of time with somebody and do a lot of things for the person, you might not be that person’s friend if you didn’t have the right kind of emotions towards the person.

Friends rejoice when their friends rejoice and grieve when their friends grieve. Their emotions are coordinated in this way. They care about the well‑being of their friends. The friends become aware of the care that the other friend has for the one friend. It sets up a reciprocal caring, a reciprocal emotional bond there between those two.

A fourth way emotions relate to morality brings us back to the concept of happiness. We tend to think that happiness is having positive emotions and unhappiness is having negative emotions.

You can measure the happiness in a person’s life, say, by monitoring the positive and the negative emotions throughout a period of the person’s life. If you’ve got a dominance of negative emotions, then the person’s unhappy. If you’ve got a dominance of happy emotions, positive emotions, the person’s happy.

On the classical conception of happiness, I said earlier that one‑to‑one correlation between happiness and positive emotions is not true. I think we can understand a little better, now, why it’s not true, because there are plenty of negative emotions that are associated with moral rectitude, with being a morally well‑formed person.

When the Apostle Paul grieves because the people of Israel are not converting to Jesus Christ in the way that he hoped they would, that grief is a holy grief. That’s a righteous grief. He desires something good for these people, and he is sad that they’re not responding. Paradoxically, his sadness is a mark of his well‑being. That shows how healthy Paul is that he’s sad about that. If you think that well‑being is a necessary ingredient of happiness, then, to that extent, he’s a happier person for his grief. That example actually accords very nicely with some of those paradoxical sayings and the Beatitudes of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount, “Blessed are those who mourn.” Here’s Paul mourning about the non‑conversion of his Jewish brothers and sisters.

Happiness, in both Christian and Aristotelian conception, seems to involve a good deal of negative emotion.

Happiness, in both Christian and Aristotelian conception, seems to involve a good deal of negative emotion.

Rosa: You’ve brought up some of the positive psychologists, but plenty of psychologists today want to take a perspective on emotion that favors embodiment, that emotions are essentially inherently embodied states. Does that differ from the way you think about the emotions?

Roberts: It is just clearly true that our emotions incorporate bodily phenomena. Our muscles tense up, perhaps, when we’re angry. Our facial skin can flush or blanch in response to emotions. We have facial expressions that go with emotions. There’s the physiology, obviously, of the central nervous system that’s involved. I don’t see any point in denying any of that.

I don’t think that the psychologists who stress the bodily character of emotions would contrast that with the psychological character. I think they think that the psychological character and the bodily character are two sides of the same coin. Now, there is a controversy in Christian philosophy about the embodied character of emotions.

Thomas Aquinas, he distinguishes, actually, between passiones, which are passions, and affections, which are just like passiones except that they don’t have a bodily concomitant. You can have an affection of joy, or you can have a passion of joy. You can have an affection of anger or a passion of anger.

The difference is just that, with the passion, you have the bodily concomitant. With the affection you don’t. I think that he introduces this distinction initially so that non‑embodied beings can have emotions. Angels can have emotions even though they don’t have bodies, and God can have emotions even though he doesn’t have a body.

It seems to me that it’s also true that the embodied character of emotions varies in human emotions, too, so that some emotions are almost un‑embodied, if not completely un‑embodied. That is to say, the physiological aspect of the emotional change is undetectable. Psychologists who’ve tried to test this question have actually concluded that some emotions don’t have a bodily concomitant.

As a result they posit a special circuit in the brain that gives you the impression that you had a bodily concomitant along with your emotion, even when the bodily concomitant wasn’t there. A psychologist who reports these findings is Nico Frijda at the University of Amsterdam, and the neuroscientist who posits the as if circuit in the brain is Antonio Damasio, who’s a very famous neuroscientist.

ER: Where do you think you fall along those lines?

RCR: On the idea that emotions are concern‑based construals, I don’t put into the basic conception of the emotion any bodily reference. I’m open to either their having bodily concomitance necessarily or not. My opinion is that they don’t necessarily have bodily concomitance. The idea of a concern‑based construal doesn’t necessarily imply any bodily change.

I’m  thinking about the metaphysical implications for that. Does emotion as concern‑based construals require that we have an immaterial soul? Is that space in which an emotion lives?

If you thought that emotions necessarily had a bodily concomitant then, strictly speaking, you would think that an unembodied soul couldn’t have any emotions. That would just follow. Of course, this embodied soul might have something that’s very much like emotions, perhaps affections.

William James actually reports an experiment with a boy who, apparently, was entirely anesthetic. That’s to say, he didn’t feel anything. He had no bodily sensations whatsoever. I’m not sure how James could be absolutely sure that he didn’t have any bodily sensations, but supposedly this boy was entirely anesthetic, and so he did an experiment on him.

He presented him with a very sad story to see whether he would react at all, because, on William James’, theory you have to have bodily feelings in order to have the emotion. The boy shed tears in response to this story. He was emoting. He was feeling an emotion, but was not feeling anything in his body.

It looks as though he was having an emotional episode and, presumably, also feeling the emotional episode, but without feeling in his body. It’s very noble of James to report this because it’s contrary to his own theory.

ER: Do emotions live in the soul? Is that a good way to understand our emotions, as pointing to the spiritual, immaterial nature of human life?

RCR: Ordinarily, our actual emotions do have bodily concomitance, and so we’re not disembodied beings, at least at this point in our history. Our emotions have a pretty significant physiological aspect. But emotion relates one to the spirit of God, to spiritual realities like God and one’s neighbor.

ER: There’s a traditional view that God is impassable. If emotion has a spiritual side to connect us to God, if God is a father and our experience of fathers, our parents, is deeply emotional, what does that say about God’s emotions

RCR: Well, scripture speaks about God’s emotions quite freely. God is jealous. God is compassionate. God is angry. There’s rejoicing in heaven. I suppose that’s God’s rejoicing, or maybe it’s the angels rejoicing, I don’t know. We have the scriptural language about God.

I’m inclined to take that maybe analogically but as a fairly close analogy, not such a distant analogy that it would be unrecognizable as emotion, but to think that God has emotions that are analogous to our emotions. We are created in the image of God after all. I think the concern‑based construal view fits God’s emotions fine.

When God gets jealous of the Israelites going after Baal and other gods, it’s because he cares. He’s concerned about their well‑being and he’s concerned to be honored himself as God. Then he construes the situation as one in which the Israelites are not honoring Him and they are giving the honor that’s due to Him to another god.

That seems to fit concern‑based construal quite well. I think God’s anger, and God’s mercy, and God’s compassion also fit, quite nicely, the model.

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