Robert Stern – ‘How is human freedom compatible with the authority of the Good?’

Event Date: 4 October 2021
Virtual [ZOOM] University of London
Malet St
London WC1E 7HU

The Aristotelian Society presents:

The 114th Presidential Address

As the first talk for the 2021-22 Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, this year’s Presidential Address marks the official inauguration of Professor Robert Stern (University of Sheffield) as the 114th President of the Aristotelian Society. The Society’s President is elected on the basis of lifelong, exemplary work in philosophy. Please visit our Council page for further information regarding the Society’s past presidents.

The 114th Presidential Address will be chaired by Bill Brewer (KCL), the 113th President of the Aristotelian Society.

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Professor Robert Stern (University of Sheffield) – ‘How is human freedom compatible with the authority of the Good?’ Murdoch on moral agency, freedom, and imagination

This paper deals with the issue of self-determination and agency in moral action. On the one hand, it seems that the moral agent should use their practical reason to identify what it is right for them to do, and act accordingly; on the other hand, this seems to leave little room for the agent to decide for themselves how to act, where this is often said to be a marker of freedom and how the will is exercised. In response to this difficulty, Ruth Chang has argued recently that at least some reasons themselves need to be seen as being created through an act of will. Looking at the work of Iris Murdoch, it is argued that this response is problematic. At the same time, it is also argued that Murdoch can provide a fruitful way of dealing with this problem through her account of the imagination. This gives a role to the will of the agent not in creating reasons, but in uncovering what is morally required of us in the first place, thereby locating the will within practical reasoning itself, and showing how the authority of the good can be made compatible with human freedom.

Robert Stern is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Sheffield, where he has been since 1989. Prior to that he did his BA and PhD at Cambridge, and held a research fellowship at St John’s College Cambridge. His main research interests are in the history of philosophy – particularly Kant and Hegel, and also Kierkegaard, and more recently K. E. Løgstrup, Iris Murdoch, Emmanuel Levinas and Martin Luther. He connects these historical inquires with more systematic questions in metaphysics, epistemology and ethics, particularly topics such as realism vs idealism, the use of transcendental arguments, and the nature of moral obligation. His books include three works on Hegel; a collection of papers on Kant; a discussion of transcendental arguments; an investigation into Kant, Hegel and Kierkegaard on obligation; and a study of Løgstrup. He has been a Fellow of the British Academy since 2019, and has served on the Executive Committee of the Aristotelian Society and as President of the British Philosophical Association, and is currently chair of the Philosophy sub-panel for REF2021.



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