University of St Andrews

Gifford Lectures

Watch the 2015 Lectures

The 2015 Gifford lectures are now available to watch online.

See also the lecture abstracts and information on Linda Zagzebski.

Exemplarist Virtue Theory

Prof. Linda Zagzebski, University of Oklahoma

The 2015 Gifford Lecture series will consist of five lectures delivered over the course of a week in early October.

Thursday 1st October Lecture 1 Why Exemplarism?
Friday 2nd October Lecture 2 Admiration
Tuesday 6th October Lecture 3 Virtue
Thursday 8th October Lecture 4 Emulation
Friday 9th October Lecture 5 The division of moral linguistic labour


Exemplarist virtue theory is a comprehensive ethical theory in which all central terms in moral discourse (“virtue,” “good life,” “wrong act,” etc) are defined by direct reference to exemplars of goodness, picked out through the emotion of admiration. The theory maps the moral domain for theoretical purposes, but it also has the practical aim of helping to make people moral by structuring the theory around a motivating emotion– admiration. The structure is filled in by narratives and empirical studies that give content to moral terms by revealing the traits, aims, acts, and design of life of exemplars– persons like that. The theory’s semantics includes the principle of the Division of Moral Linguistic Labor, which explains the distinct social functions of value terms and deontic terms, and reveals the linguistic conditions for reaching moral agreement.

LECTURE 1: Why exemplarism?

This lecture gives the motives for inventing a moral theory based on direct reference to exemplars of moral goodness. I explain what direct reference is and why I think that using it can serve a number of different theoretical and practical purposes simultaneously. I then give an overview of the whole project.

LECTURE 2: Admiration

In this lecture I examine the emotion of admiration, the emotion from which the theory derives. I give my account of the nature of an emotion, the kinds of admiration, and the components of admiration, some of which have been empirically confirmed. I discuss the trustworthiness of admiration, and cynicism about the admirable arising from a psychological path that moves from painful admiration to envy and resentment of admirable persons, and sometimes the denial of the admirable as a moral category.

LECTURE 3: Virtue

This lecture shows how to define the value terms, including “virtue” and names for individual virtues, “good motive,” and “good life” by reference to exemplars. I will discuss three kinds of exemplars: the hero, the saint, and the sage, and will mention narratives and empirical studies relevant to each kind. I will show how reflective admiration can be used to identify the components of a virtue and to distinguish one virtue from another.

LECTURE 4: Emulation

In this lecture I look at the use of exemplarism for the practical purpose of acquiring virtue through emulation of exemplars. I discuss the psychological process of imitating an exemplar’s motives and acts, and the different process of learning moral reasons from exemplars. I respond to the worry that emulation is incompatible with autonomy and look at the deviant process of admiring the self in the exemplar.

LECTURE 5: The division of moral linguistic labor

This lecture defends a modification of Putnam’s principle of the Division of Linguistic Labor in moral discourse. I propose a way to define the deontic terms of “right,” “wrong,” and “duty” in exemplarism, and show how the semantics of moral terms I am using can be used to defend a moderate form of moral realism, and shows us some conditions for reaching cross-cultural moral agreement. I will conclude with some thoughts on the way that exemplarism converges at the top with deontic theories and neo-Aristotelian virtue ethics. 

About Linda Zagzebski

Linda ZagzebskiLinda Zagzebski is George Lynn Cross Research Professor and Kingfisher College Chair of the Philosophy of Religion and Ethics at the University of Oklahoma. She received her B.A. from Stanford University, her M.A. from the University of California, Berkeley, and her Ph.D. in Philosophy from the University of California, Los Angeles. A native Californian, she taught at Loyola Marymount University for twenty years before moving to Oklahoma.

She is President of the American Philosophical Association Central Division. She is also past President of the Society of Christian Philosophers and past President of the American Catholic Philosophical Association. In 2012-13 she held a Guggenheim Fellowship to complete her book, Epistemic Authority: A Theory of Trust, Authority, and Autonomy in Belief (Oxford University Press, 2012). Among her many endowed lectures, she has given the Aquinas Lecture at Marquette University (2013), the Romanell Lectures of Phi Beta Kappa (2005), the McCarthy Lectures at the Gregorian University in Rome (2006), the Wilde Lectures in Natural Religion at Oxford (2010), the Kaminski Lectures at the Catholic University of Lublin, Poland (2011), and the Olaus Petri Lectures at the University of Uppsala (2011). Her Aquinas Lecture, Omnisubjectivity: A Defense of a Divine Attribute, is published by Marquette University Press (2013).

Other books include The Dilemma of Freedom and Foreknowledge, (Oxford University Press, 1991), Virtues of the Mind (Cambridge University Press, 1996), Divine Motivation Theory (Cambridge University Press, 2004), Philosophy of Religion: An Historical Introduction (Blackwell, 2007), and On Epistemology (Wadsworth, 2008), as well as many edited books and articles in virtue epistemology, philosophy of religion, and virtue ethics, translated into ten languages.

Watch the 2012 lectures

We have prepared a poster with details of the 2012 lecture series.

Download the poster (PDF file, 467KB)

    Schedule of Lectures 2012

    Genes Determinism and God

    Dr Denis Alexander, University of Cambridge

    The lecture series will be delivered in School III of St Salvator’s Quad, North Street, St Andrews. Each lecture will begin at 5.15pm, and following the first there will be a reception in Lower College Hall. Lectures are free and open to the public as well as to staff and students of the University.

    Monday December 3rd Lecture 1 Genes, History and Ideology
    Tuesday December 4th Lecture 2 Reshaping the Matrix of Genes and Environment
    Thursday December 6th Lecture 3 Genetic Variation and Human Behaviour
    Friday December 7th Lecture 4 Molecular Genetics, Determinism and the Imago Dei

    LECTURE 1: Genes, History and Ideology

    This lecture provides an introduction to the general theme of the series, raising the question of whether variant genes are involved in constraining us to follow one particular future, and showing how the long historical debate between the idea of the mind as a blank slate compared to the idea of innate dispositions has been powerfully influenced by competing ideological priorities. The dichotomous language of ‘nature’ and ‘nurture’, arising in the late 19th century, has provided the biological parameters for this discussion, and has been re-framed numerous times in the past 100 years, most recently as ‘genes’ and ‘environment’. Academic opinion has tended to oscillate between the two poles, a trend that has continued up to the present day, but which is now being subverted by recent advances in the biological sciences. It is concluded that these advances lead to a very different understanding of the role of genes in the construction of human identities, an understanding which readily lends itself to an engagement with natural theology.

    LECTURE 2: Reshaping the Matrix of Genes and Environment

    This lecture reviews six different insights from contemporary biology, including some very recent discoveries, that provide a more integrated picture of the complexity of living organisms than the dichotomous language of nature/nurture will allow. These insights will be used to describe a model for human development that does justice to the richness of human diversity, and which raises questions about the meaning of causality in the relationship between genes and environments. It is suggested that genetics of all kinds, including epigenetics, together with environments of all kinds, both micro- and macro-, are all 100% involved in the generation of the complexity of human personhood. Such insights are illuminated by the behavioural biology of relatively simpler organisms, such as worms and rats. In place of linear chains of causal inevitability we find a succession of integrated Olympic rings of finely-tuned biological complexity with particular emergent properties. The implications of these insights for the profound sense of personal responsibility that characterizes human agency will be discussed.

    LECTURE 3: Genetic Variation and Human Behaviour

    This lecture begins to assess the relationship between the great swathes of human genetic variation uncovered by recent genomic analysis and differential human behaviours, particularly as estimated by the methodology of quantitative behavioural genetics. The definition and calculation of ‘heritability’ is described, along with the various assumptions inherent in family-based approaches, particularly twin studies, which are commonly used for its estimation. Some of the complications involved in the interpretation of heritability data are assessed, complications well illustrated by reports on the heritability of religiosity. This leads to the question of whether quantitative behavioural genetics has any relevance to the elucidation of particular variant genes, genes that might constrain us to follow one particular future.  It is concluded that the extensive human variation uncovered by genomics is consistent with a God who places great value on each person’s uniqueness, and, with the exception of severe genetic pathologies, does nothing to render the experience of human freedom less persuasive.

    LECTURE 4: Molecular Genetics, Determinism and the Imago Dei

    This lecture suggests that recent findings in molecular behavioural genetics do raise questions about personal destiny and introduces the role of Genome Wide Association Studies (GWAS) in the search for genetic variants of possible relevance to differential human behavioural traits. The mystery of ‘missing heritability’ is reviewed and it is concluded that, outside of medical pathology, GWAS is of limited use in the field of behavioural genetics. By contrast, the correlation of gene variants of known function with individuals displaying common behavioural traits may provide a more fruitful research strategy, although consideration of recent findings on impulsivity in a population of violent offenders highlights the dangers of over-interpreting the data. Irrespective of the precise role of specific variant genes, it is clear that variant genomes play an integral role in the generation of unique human persons. How can this biologically conceptualized notion of human personhood, reviewed in Lectures 2-4, be brought into conversation with theology? It is suggested that the theological notion of the Imago Dei (image of God) provides a natural conversation partner. The putative meanings of the Imago Dei are introduced within the context of the rival perceptions of humanity prevalent in the ancient Near East, and five particular strands in this idea of humankind made in the image of God are brought into conversation with human genetics. It is concluded that recent advances in biological thinking about the development of human personhood are a gift to natural theology.

    About Denis Alexander

    Dr Denis Alexander is the Emeritus Director of the Faraday Institute for Science and Religion, St Edmund’s College, Cambridge, where he is a Fellow.

    He was previously Chairman of the Molecular Immunology Programme and Head of the Laboratory of Lymphocyte Signalling and Development at the Babraham Institute, Cambridge. Prior to that Dr Alexander was at the Imperial CancerResearch Laboratories in London (now Cancer Research UK), and spent 15 years developing university departments and laboratories overseas, latterly as Associate Professor of Biochemistry in the Medical Faculty of the American University of Beirut, Lebanon, where he helped to establish the National Unit of Human Genetics. Dr Alexander was initially an Open Scholar at Oxford reading Biochemistry, before obtaining a PhD in Neurochemistry at the Institute of Psychiatry in London.

    Dr Alexander writes, lectures and broadcasts widely in the field of science and religion. Since 1992 he has been Editor of the journal Science and Christian Belief and currently serves on the National Committee of Christians in Science and as a member of the International Society for Science and Religion.

    He is the author of the critically acclaimed book Rebuilding the Matrix: Science and Faith in the 21st Century (Oxford: Lion, 2001) which provides a general overview of the science-religion debate. More recently he has edited Can We Know Anything? Science, Faith and Postmodernity (Leicester: Apollos, 2005), co-authored (with Bob White FRS) Beyond Belief: ­Science, Faith and Ethical Challenges (Oxford: Lion, 2004), published Creation or Evolution: Do We Have to Choose? (Oxford: Monarch, 2008, 4th printing 2010), and co-edited with Ronald Numbers Biology and Ideology: From Descartes to Dawkins (Chicago University Press, 2010). His most recent book, The Language of Genetics: An Introduction (Philadelphia: Templeton Foundation Press) was published in Spring 2011.

    Recordings of the 2010 Gifford lectures are available, now including the final lecture of the series.
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