Nancy Snow Interview

Dr. Nancy E. Snow

The following is an interview with Dr. Nancy E. Snow, Professor of Philosophy at Marquette University. Her research interests are in moral psychology, ethical theory, and metaethics. She is currently working on a book on hope, and is the author of Virtue as Social Intelligence: An Empirically Grounded Theory. She has published over twenty articles in such journals as Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, American Philosophical Quarterly, The Journal of Value Inquiry, and Ethical Theory and Moral Practice, among many others.

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

In recent years, my work on virtue has centered on responding to the situationist challenge to virtue ethics. Philosophical situationists, such as John Doris, have claimed that virtue as traditionally conceived of by philosophers does not have an adequate empirical grounding, and thus, we should abandon virtue ethics. I’ve looked to psychology to argue that resources do exist to provide an empirical grounding for virtue as traditionally conceived of by philosophers. Thus, we have no need to abandon virtue ethics.

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

That’s hard to say. For the past 20 years or so, I’ve been interested in specific virtues and qualities, such as compassion, empathy, and humility. For the past 10 years or so, I began seriously studying the virtue ethics literature. When Doris’ book, Lack of Character: Personality and Moral Behavior (2002), I just didn’t buy his reading of psychology. So I spent a few years reading the psychology, and came to the conclusion that it has a lot of resources that could be used to support virtue. This led to my book, Virtue as Social Intelligence: An Empirically Grounded Theory (2010). It also led to my becoming convinced that philosophers need to be more empirically informed in their work.

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

I see six main areas of expansion. First, part of Doris’ contention is that personality is too fragmented to supported traditional virtues. He and others, such as Maria Merritt, are now challenging the idea that reason is as unified as philosophers have thought. So I think that work on character and virtue will expand into explorations of the nature of rationality, in particular, into whether and how rationality can contribute to a unified personality and character. Second, I think that work on character and virtue should draw on non-western traditions of thought, such as Confucianism and Buddhism. Work on Asian psychology will also help to expand our notions of character and virtue. Third, empirical psychological work on happiness and flourishing is needed to inform philosophers’ thinking on these topics. Fourth, the cultivation of virtue is a topic that requires more study, and should be empirically informed. Fifth, there is a need to bring together work on virtue ethics and virtue epistemology. Finally, virtue and neuroscience is a topic that needs to be explored. I am planning books and papers on all of these topics in the near future.

What book(s) or philosopher(s) has been most influential on you in general?

Though I don’t agree with what he says, Doris’ work has been very influential. I’ve found his challenges provocative and in need of response. More deeply, his work has challenged me to expand my reading into the areas of psychology and neuroscience. Aside from Doris, Linda Zagzebski’s Virtues of the Mind (1996) and Julia Annas’ The Morality of Happiness (1993) are magisterial books that engage in deep and creative ways with philosophical traditions. I think that Zagzebski actually started the virtue ethics revival. Rosalind Hursthouse’s On Virtue Ethics (1999) is a classic that was formative for me. More recently, Dan Russell’s book Practical Intelligence and the Virtues (2010), is another classic. Dan reviewed my book for Routledge; his insightful comments helped me to take my research to a completely new level. Lurking in the background of everything, I suppose, is the good old Nicomachean Ethics.