A happy homecoming for Russ Shafer-Landau

After a two-year stint at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the Parr Center for Ethics, the metaethics expert is glad to be back at the UW-Madison philosophy department.

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Photo by Sarah Morton, College of Letters & Science

Welcome back to UW! What made you decide to return?

Thanks — very happy to be back! It’ll probably sound trite but it’s true: Madison was a great home for our family and we really missed it. Luckily for me, the philosophy department hadn’t yet hired my replacement, and my colleagues were kind enough to take me back. 

You taught here from 2002 to 2015. What did you miss most after you left?

February. Just kidding. I missed the people. I count several of my colleagues among my closest friends. The vibe in the department is very positive. No schisms or factions, people giving you the benefit of the doubt, senior colleagues rooting for junior colleagues to succeed. Although I’m surrounded by world-class thinkers, no one’s on an ego trip, everyone is willing to pitch in and do their share and there is a strong sense of communal purpose about the value of what we are doing for our students.

How has campus changed in the time you were away?

I just went to Memorial Union and with all the remodeling — and my complete lack of spatial sense — I couldn’t figure out where I was.

What have you been working on since leaving UW? And what is your current work and research?

I’ve been working on two books. One is based on the Contemporary Moral Issues (PHIL 341) class I’ve taught for many years. It’s a textbook that combines readings on issues such as abortion, the death penalty and environmental ethics with a lot of analysis on my part about the arguments on different sides of these contentious issues.

The other book is co-authored with my UW colleague John Bengson and a philosopher from the University of Vermont. Three-way collaborations are pretty rare in philosophy, and this has been a very enriching intellectual experience for me. The book is about the foundations of ethics. We defend the view that morality is objective — there are moral truths not of our own making. Our view is that each person, as well as entire cultures, can be mistaken about what’s right and wrong. Before you accuse me of being (i) pretentious, (ii) intolerant, (iii) dogmatic or (iv) all of the above, read the book! 

More broadly speaking, why are you interested in ethics? Why do you think it is, and continues to be, such a compelling topic?

Though there’s no consensus among philosophers on this point (or nearly any other), ethics is by far the coolest area in philosophy. How should I live? What sort of person should I be? These are the central questions of ethics, and of our everyday lives.

What are you most looking forward to about the fall semester? What will you be teaching?

I’m always excited by the start of the school year. This year, of course, there is the added pleasure of returning to a community I feel so comfortable with and proud to be part of. I’ll be teaching an intro course (Contemporary Moral Issues) as well as an upper level class pitched to philosophy majors (Modern Ethical Theories). In this second course we consider many of the Big Questions of moral philosophy: What is the good life? What is the fundamental principle of morality? (Fun fact: It’s not the Golden Rule.) How can we gain moral knowledge? Are we morally responsible for our actions? 

Ethics is by far the coolest area in philosophy. How should I live? What sort of person should I be? These are the central questions of ethics, and of our everyday lives.

Will you be bringing the MadMeta workshop back? If so, could you please tell us a bit about it.

Yes! MadMeta — short for Madison Metaethics Workshop — is an annual conference I started in 2004. Metaethics is the area of philosophy I do most of my research in. It’s the part that asks about whether morality is objective, why we should do our duty, how our moral views motivate us, how we can acquire moral understanding. In short: Rather than asking about the content of morality (what’s right and wrong, good or bad), metaethics asks about its status.

The workshop draws about 120 philosophers to UW every fall. Folks come from almost every continent; many leading lights, many grad students and lots in between. We’ve managed to maintain a friendly and constructive spirit and people absolutely love coming to Madison in the fall. Thanks to the support of the philosophy department and the College of Letters & Science — and especially Dean Karl Scholz and Associate Dean Sue Zaeske — MadMeta has become the world’s premier forum for this kind of research.