Daniel Russell on Ideals and Virtues
Date: January 10th, 2016

What are virtues?  Where do the virtues come from?  How do we develop virtue in our daily lives and how does this all relate to human well-being and religion?  These are a few of the questions addressed with Prof. Daniel Russell, a professor of philosophy at the University of Arizona’s Center for the Philosophy of Freedom.  This interview represents a slight departure from our normal fare in that we do not address issues of religion directly, although the topic of virtue lingers large in theological thinking and in ritual practice.  We do examine the relationship of virtue to religion (both belief and institutional organization) at the end of the discussion.

Prof. Russell first explains how he came to be a philosopher as compared to a welder.  He also puts Tony’s mind at ease by noting that Hegel was not one of his favorite thinkers (as Tony honestly admits that he couldn’t understand anything that German philosopher wrote).  Dan reveals that he also had a strong interest in “starting at the beginning,” which led him to the study of Aristotle and other ancient philosophers, from whereupon he builds his study of virtue.  Prof. Russell also makes a case for why Aristotle, particularly The Nicomachean Ethics, is important for the study of virtue.  He explains how Aristotle’s approach to well-being and virtue is “mundane,” meaning not that it is boring or typical, but rather it is embedded “in the world.”  We also learn that the concept of “happiness,” from Aristotle’s perspective, is not merely an emotion that one experiences from time-to-time, but rather is a “name of a life that you are going about” (i.e., a life well lived).  All of this focuses philosophy in a certain practical importance rather than an abstract concept that is distant from individuals.  This notion is integral for Dan’s view of philosophy.

We then dive into defining what ideals and virtues are, given that definitions are important in the field of philosophy.  Dan differentiates a number of different concepts of an “ideal.”  He tends to focus on “ideals” as abstract model that helps to focus thought as compared to a “perfect example.”  He illustrates this notion by relating it to a pendulum in a perfect vacuum without any other forces at work on them.  Prof. Russell also defines “virtue” as a long-standing attribute of someone’s character that relies upon practical reasoning and emotional soundness, a process that relies upon practice in the world.  This leads us to an interesting discussion on the notion of personality in psychology and how it relates to philosophy.  This becomes one of the most fascinating moments of an extremely interesting discussion in that Dan ties together many different fields of study that would seem rather distant from one another.  Tony probes Dan further on “virtue” on whether there is a closed list of virtues (e.g., generosity, trustworthiness, etc.) and to what extent an Aristotelian approach might lead down the path of moral relativism.  Dan explains that relativism is not necessarily an outcome of this philosophical approach.

We continue to explore the development of virtue with an eye to both psychology and philosophy.  This intertwining of fields is important as Dan explains how psychology explains how people “get better” when it comes to developing virtues whereas philosophers help us understand what “get better” means.  Personality comes up as a concept here and we look at stability and consistency in one’s personality.  The notion of consistency becomes important in understanding virtues from an Aristotelian perspective.  Understanding real world limitations are also important when it comes to understanding the development of virtues as well.  Dan then explains how we know when we are adequately successful in developing our virtues and uses a number of illustrative examples to help simplify this difficult philosophy.  We finish with some of Dan’s thoughts about how all of this psychology and philosophy stuff might relate to our general concept of religion — both in terms of spiritual beliefs and institutional organization (“churches”).  Recorded: December 21, 2015.



Daniel Russell’s bio at the Center for the Philosophy of Freedom (University of Arizona).

Daniel Russell’s personal website (including links to research papers).

Plato on Pleasure and the Good Life, by Daniel Russell.

Practical Intelligence and the Virtues, by Daniel Russell.

Happiness for Humans, by Daniel Russell.

The Cambridge Companion to Virtue Ethics, edited by Daniel Russell.


Gregory Popcak on Religion, Psychology, and the Seven Longings.

Justin Barrett on the Naturalness of Religious Belief.

Alexander Ross on Religion and Happiness.

Carolyn Warner on Religion and Generosity.

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