Meghan Sullivan: Making Plans and Better Arguments

Meghan Sullivan is the Wilsey Family Collegiate Professor of Philosophy at the University of Notre Dame and serves as Director of the Notre Dame Institute for Advanced Study. Her latest book on virtue ethics with Paul Blaschko, The Good Life Method, is now available nationwide.

Sullivan’s research tends to focus on philosophical problems concerning time, modality, rational planning, value theory, and religious belief (and sometimes all five at once).   She has published work in many leading philosophy journals, including Nous, Ethics and Philosophical Studies. Her first book — Time Biases —develops a theory of diachronic rationality, personal identity and reason-based planning. 

She is now writing a monograph on the role love plays in grounding moral, political and religious reasoning.  It is tentatively entitled Agapism: Moral Responsibility and Our Inner Lives. And with Paul Blaschko, she has just finished a book on virtue ethics based on the God and the Good Life project.

How did you become interested in philosophy?

I arrived at college (the University of Virginia) confident I wanted to be a lawyer and I would major in politics.  I loved debate – which I had done in high school.  Like all freshmen, I had a hard time getting all of my first-choice classes that first semester.  My advisor put me into an introductory philosophy course called Issues of Life and Death.  I *loved* it. The assignments asked us to try to make clear, persuasive and logical arguments for big practical questions about the beginning and end of life. 

The goal was to find the most rational view to hold, not just to reproduce what other people thought about the view.  I discovered that I loved working on the assignments for that course – I would want to work on those projects even if they weren’t being graded.  I started taking more classes and declared a second major, thinking this would just be a hobby while I worked on all of my politics requirements.  But by my third year, I knew I wanted to get much more serious about this kind of research.  Twenty years later, I find I still work on a lot of philosophical questions that gripped my imagination when I was eighteen.

And we could design better arguments, and our moral, political, religious and philosophical lives will be better for putting in the work.  

Meghan Sullivan

What’s the most important concept or idea that you teach people?

A lot of folks assume that there really aren’t better or worse ways to reason about philosophical questions – you just need to pick a camp and learn how to defend it.  I work a lot with students to help them see there are often incomplete or badly designed arguments for moral, political, religious, or otherwise philosophical conclusions.  And we could design better arguments, and our moral, political, religious and philosophical lives will be better for putting in the work.  One of my strengths as a teacher is finding philosophical debates in the wild (in major newspapers, in modern life puzzles) and then teasing out all of the old philosophical questions in the fresh example.

What do you think is the most important piece of practical advice that we can derive from your work?

One topic I work a lot on concerns time and rational planning.  We oftentimes let our emotions narrow the time horizons of what we are willing to care about – we get anxious about the near future and have a hard time imaginatively or rationally engaging with the more distant future.  But we can give ourselves philosophical reasons that can help us manage and understand these biases, developing plans with longer time horizons and building our capacity to resist temporary disruption.  We do this with thought experiments and by learning to tell longer stories about how our lives are unfolding.  We’ll have better lives if we build up this skill.

Do you have a favorite quote that you use?

Are you not ashamed of your eagerness to possess as much wealth, reputation and honors as possible, while you do not care for nor give thought to wisdom or truth or the best possible state of your soul?   

Socrates in the Apology

Philosophy is meant to help us live better lives – it ought to matter to us.  And this takes a bit of work to keep our eye on the questions that really matter to our lives.  

What advice would you give someone who wanted to learn more about what you do?

You could start by reading The Good Life Method, a recent book I wrote (with my colleague Paul Blaschko) about how philosophers work and how philosophy can change how you live your life.  It’s a great place to start learning about philosophy as a way of life.  You might also check out a Youtube channel related to our project– Philife.  Or the website for one of my big classes: godandgoodlife.nd.edu.

Suppose you were able to give a talk at the original location of Plato’s Academy…

Plato understood – perhaps more than any modern philosopher – how hard it can be to pursue a philosophical life while also honoring democratic commitments.  Plato despaired about whether we could pull it off, especially once he saw how Socrates was dealt with by Athens.  It would be incredible to be back in the Academy now in 2022 and reflecting on whether we have made any progress in developing democracy or philosophical methods in the past two millennia.  I’d love to host a dialogue on whether philosophy can thrive in modern democracies.

What do you think?