William & Mary

It's a Process: Discussions Fine-tune Scholarship on Theistic Ethics


Several years ago Professor Christopher Tucker (Philosophy) took note of some interesting insights emerging in mainstream philosophy, having to do with moral theory. He and colleagues Mark Murphy (Georgetown University) and Christian Miller (Wake Forest University) had the idea to convene a workshop where scholars explored how such insights might apply in the area of theistic ethics.

Professor Christopher Tucker

"In theistic ethics, we take up a central question of philosophy and apply it to religion or god to see if we can come up with anything interesting," said Professor Tucker. How might conceptions of free will, for example, apply in a religious context that posits the presence (or absence) of an ultimate, all-powerful, all-knowing entity? What about the problems of evil, and pain?

In October 2017 William & Mary hosted the Third Annual Theistic Ethics Workshop, funded in part by the Arts & Sciences Annual Fund. Previous workshops took place at Wake Forest University and Georgetown University.

For this year's workshop, nine philosophy scholars shared summaries of their works-in-progress ahead of time, so that all participants were familiar with the ideas that would be discussed. At the workshop they each had forty minutes to present their work and then engage in peer critique and discussion for another forty minutes.

"This is our research process in philosophy," noted Professor Tucker. "While still forming our ideas, we hear objections so that we can iron out and improve the persuasiveness of our arguments."

Lucas Erdahl '20: "The practical relevance of topics like these is a hallmark of the study of ethics."Lucas Erdahl '20 attended several sessions and was especially interested in how Professor Moller, at the University of Maryland–College Park, posed and addressed the question of whether theism makes a practical difference.

"Among other things, [Prof. Moller] dealt with the tension between ascetic detachment from the world for the sake of God and a decidedly non-ascetic enjoying of the things of the world for the sake of God," said Erdahl. "This is a tension that I myself experience, and I was glad to hear the thoughts of a philosopher on it, as well as those of the audience."

Senior student Hannah Winckler-Olick '18 chaired the session by Moller. She has undertaken an Honors project titled "Ethical Borders: Citizenship as a Partial Relationship" and plans to complete a graduate program in philosophy.

According to Tucker, "We're seeing that these workshops are helping to jumpstart some very interesting scholarship on the relationship between ethics and god." Given that record of success, it's likely there will be a fourth annual workshop next year.

Thumbnail image: Conception of the Holy Spirit, at St. Pius V Church, St. Louis, Mo., by Emil Frei.