Jennifer Herdt Interview

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Dr. Jennifer Herdt

The following is an interview with Dr. Jennifer Herdt, Professor of Christian Ethics at Yale Divinity School. She is the author of Religion and Faction in Hume's Moral Philosophy and Putting on Virtue: The Legacy of the Splendid Vices. Her primary interests are in early-modern and modern moral thought, classical and contemporary virtue ethics, and contemporary Protestant social ethics and political theology. Her articles have appeared in a variety of journals, including the Journal of Religious Ethics, The Journal of Religion, Modern Theology, Soundings, Studies in Christian Ethics, and American Catholic Philosophical Quarterly.

Can you give us a very brief overview of your own work on character and/or virtue in recent years?

In Putting On Virtue (2008), I explored the theological distinction between acquired and infused virtues, the early modern preoccupation with hypocrisy and merely apparent virtue, and underlying issues having to do with divine and human agency, habituation, and identity. Since that time I've continued to explore related questions: In 2012 I edited a special issue of the Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies on Virtue, Identity, and Agency, featuring essays by literary scholars, historians, philosophers, and theologians. I am now working on questions surrounding happiness, well-being, obligation, and ethical naturalism, and on understandings of character, agency, and community in German Romanticism and Idealism.

How did you get interested in issues related to character and virtue?

I first became interested in virtue ethics in graduate school at Princeton starting in 1989, reflecting on the challenges associated with ethical life in pluralistic modern societies. How, I asked, can we sustain the virtues in the absence of any shared agreement on the common good? Jeffrey Stout was a splendid guide and mentor as I grappled with this question.

What do you see as areas of research where further work needs to be done on character or virtue?

A) The mid-twentieth-century revival of virtue ethics often sought to displace deontology and utilitarianism, or even moral theory altogether. Now we are seeing important work that moves in a more holistic direction, arguing in particular for the complementarity of ethics of virtue and ethics of action rather than the reduction of the latter to the former, and arguing for a rapprochement between Kantian and virtue-based approaches. B) We have also seen a multi-disciplinary turn to social practices as the site of ethical formation and malformation (e.g., how the practices of global capitalism form identity and desire) . With neo-Aristotelian, Wittgensteinian, and post-structuralist approaches all speaking to these issues, questions remain about the criteria for distinguishing formation from malformation and about the character and possibility of moral agency. C) The turn to virtue ethics in theological circles has gone hand in hand with an emphasis on particularism, on the specificity and untranslatability of theological practices and virtues. More work needs to be done to show how this emphasis on particularity can not simply preserve identity, but also play a positive role in advancing the common good in conditions of pluralism. D) Philosophical and Theological virtue ethics needs to be informed by and responsive to new empirical research on virtue and character, such as that of situationist social psychologists.

What book(s) or philosopher(s)/theologian(s) has/have been most influential on you in genera

My core questions were formed by, and over against, Alasdair MacIntyre, J.B. Schneewind, and Stanley Hauerwas.