Elusive virtue

Duke political scientist Ruth Grant searches for altruism.

By Diane Silver
Photo by David B. Travis, AB’71

Elusive virtue
After the 1969 University of Chicago sit-in, Ruth Grant first considered the complexity of human goodness.

Forty-two years ago, Ruth Grant was 18 and convinced she was right. With 400 other students, she occupied the University of Chicago Administration Building to protest the University’s decision not to reappoint a popular assistant professor. After Grant and the other protestors left the building 16 days later, she was one of 81 students who were suspended. Another 42 were expelled.

But it wasn’t her suspension or the protest’s failure that bothered Grant the most. Among those expelled were students who later joined the Weathermen, a group who used violent tactics to protest the Vietnam War and inequalities in society. For Grant, AB’71, AM’75, PhD’84, the transformation of people she knew and admired from peaceful protestors to violent militants was sobering. “It made me step back and think,” she says.

Today Grant continues to contemplate human benevolence, as a professor of political science and philosophy at Duke University and a senior fellow at Duke’s Kenan Institute for Ethics. In April Grant published her fourth book, In Search of Goodness (University of Chicago Press), a companion to her 2006 book, Naming Evil, Judging Evil.

In the new book, Grant and seven other authors examine the elusive nature of goodness. For her contribution, Grant wrote about altruism, often identified as a quality of goodness. Yet, as Grant points out in her chapter, Shel Silverstein’s children’s story The Giving Tree illustrates how selfless concern for others can turn destructive:

A tree loves a boy. When he is young, the boy climbs the tree, eats her apples, and rests in her shade. As he grows, he returns only when he wants something, picking apples to sell and cutting branches to build a house. He ultimately cuts down the trunk to build a boat and sail away, abandoning the tree. As an old man, he returns to rest on her stump. Once again, the tree is happy.

The story can be interpreted as the tree demonstrating an ideal of goodness and selfless love, Grant says, or as a nightmare where the tree is viewed as masochistic and self-destructive.

“There is no form of goodness that’s good in every situation,” Grant says. “Nobody is a perfectly good person.” Whether someone can be fully good “is like the question of defining goodness. That would be as if I were putting a box around the idea of goodness and saying that we all have to go out and be like that person.”

Grant’s concern about morality’s complexity is partly why she enlisted multiple authors from different disciplines, most from Duke, to put together her books about good and evil. For In Search of Goodness, which has eight chapters, Amelie Oksenberg Rorty, AB’51, a visiting professor of philosophy at Boston University and lecturer in social medicine at Harvard Medical School, scrutinized the existence of goodness as a unique property. Duke theological ethicist Stanley Hauerwas explored the relation between God and goodness. Other scholars, including political scientist Michael Gillespie, AM’75, PhD’81, looked at moral conversions and the meaning of innocence, among other topics.

Before the scholars wrote their chapters, the group met for lunches over nine months to share readings and debate ideas, starting in September 2008. Later that academic year, in February 2009, Grant invited academics from around the country, including Columbia, Rutgers, and the University of North Carolina, to critique the chapters at a conference.

The months of discussion and the conference prompted Grant and the other authors to challenge their own ideas. A danger in considering goodness is simplistic thinking that reduces morality to a checklist of dos and don’ts, Grant says. This is also one reason the group never attempted to create a shared definition of what it means to be good.

“It’s not about coming up with a particular definition of goodness, and then we don’t have to talk about it anymore because we already have the answer,” Grant says. “Moral issues are not like that. They’re going to be talked about forever.”

The purpose of the book, says Grant, is to invite readers into that conversation and to shake people up. She hopes readers consider, “I’ll have to think a little harder about some of the things I took for granted.”


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