John Haldane - December 2015 Meeting Topic

Virtue, Happiness and the Meaning of Life.

John Haldane

Baylor University, US,

and University of St Andrews, UK.

No doubt human beings have been studying animal behavior from the earliest times, at least so far as hunting and being hunted are concerned. But the science of ethology, practiced as a branch of biology is only as old as the twentieth century. The term derives from the same Greek root: ήθος - ethos, originally meaning habitat and then habit, from which comes ethikos, moral character, and from that our term ethics.

Human ethics may be studied in the same spirit as ethology studies animal character, descriptively and explanatorily and from the observer perspective.  But it can also be explored, as ethology cannot,  from the first person point of view – be that singular or plural. Moreover the ethical study of human behaviour has an ineliminable normative component in which character and behaviour are evaluated as in various ways good or bad, right or wrong. To these might also be added the pair ‘meaningful’ (in the sense of significant and serious) and ‘meaningless’.

There are connections between character, conduct, meaning and happiness. These require investigation both from the participant and observer perspectives and here lies one nexus that calls for investigation: how are the sciences of human behaviour related to the philosopical investigation of questions of value and conduct. There is also a question internal to philosophy itself: what has the ethical evaluation of action to do with the issues of existential meaning and happiness?

I shall review something of recent trends within Anglophone philosophy (though also reach beyond that) in order to identify some of the notions and connections releant to the investigation of the themes of virtue, happiness and the meaning of life. In doing so I will also be concerned to provide a provisional analytical framework for relating them.