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Meet the Fellows: 2017 Newcombe Fellow Samuel Gavin

The Charlotte W. Newcombe Doctoral Dissertation Fellowship is the nation’s largest and most prestigious award for Ph.D. candidates in the humanities and social sciences addressing questions of ethical and religious values. The 2017 class of Fellows includes Samuel Gavin, a doctoral candidate in philosophy at the University of Pittsburgh. Here, Mr. Gavin shares the questions that led him to his dissertation focus:

When I first started to study philosophy, I was struck by the importance of the issues being discussed, especially in ethics. What could be more important, I thought, than how we ought to live? At the same time, I was struck by the depth of disagreement amongst philosophers. How was it possible that so many people earnestly seeking the truth still disagreed on so many fundamental issues? I was convinced that the greatest philosophers must actually agree with each other, if only we could understand the core of truth in their views and clear away what was superfluous.

Since then, my instinct in philosophy has always been to look for similarities between different approaches and try to reconcile them wherever possible. This has ultimately led to my current project, which attempts to harmonize two views on the foundations of ethics. Some philosophers, following Aristotle, think that human nature is the basis of ethics, emphasizing virtue, wisdom, and the pursuit of the good life. Others, following Kant, look to reason and rationality, emphasizing duty, autonomy, and respect for persons and the moral law. But isn’t reason and rationality also a part of human nature, as Aristotle himself thought? If so, why have these two schools of thought gone off on such different tracks? Since both have inspired generations of philosophers over the centuries, there must be something worthwhile in both. Through my work, I seek to provide a way in which the insights of both traditions can be combined—and hopefully, we can get closer to the truth!

Mr Gavin’s dissertation title is Constitutivism and Natural Normativity in Ethics. For more information on the 2017 Newcombe Fellows and to see a list of their dissertation titles, click here.

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