In this interview, Christian B. Miller, A. C. Reid Professor of Philosophy, talks about growing up in Florida, playing Nintendo, rescuing baby sea turtles, giving a speech at the UN, dabbling in pragmatism, Rorty, Cornel West, posing and posturing, being blown away after reading After Virtue, predestination and divine command theory, being steered away from doing a dissertation on philosophy of religion, working with Audi, Velleman, 9/11, job market prep, how his family changed his work habits, John Doris and situationism, the limits of the philosophical and psychological study of morality, the Templeton Foundation and the Character Project, Pol Pot, Harriet Tubman, Ted Bundy, Jesus, David Lewis, Dinotrux, The Usual Suspects, U2, and his last meal…
So, where did you grow up?
I was born on a large cattle farm on the eastern shore of the Chesapeake Bay in Maryland. It was an amazing place to be a young boy. I got to ride tractors, feed the animals, and even help deliver a calf. My family lived there until I was seven, and then they moved to Florida where we would stay until I went off to college.
What was your family like?
I am an only child, and my parents have been married for close to 50 years. My father was very good at breeding cows on the farm, and then transitioned to investments in Florida. My mother is an amazingly talented wildlife artist (I'm biased of course). The covers of my two academic books on character feature her work. People usually think those are photographs of animals, but they are actually her acrylic paintings.
Wow! As a little kid, what were you into?
Reading, playing Nintendo, snorkeling, skimboarding, and boogie boarding. Can you tell that we lived near the ocean? Around second grade, I started helping my father rescue endangered baby sea turtles.
Favorite NES game?
Tell me more about the baby sea turtles!
One day when I was walking along the beach with my parents, I came across a dead sea turtle. I had never seen one before, and asked my parents about them. We discovered that sea turtles (in this case loggerhead sea turtles, which are the most common in Florida), are endangered species, due to a number of threats they face such as eating plastics in the water, being hunted for their oil, eggs, and shells, and being confused as babies by beach-side lighting which leads them away from the ocean and onto roads and yards.
To make a long story short, about a year later my father and I were trained and officially certified to help rescue baby sea turtle hatchlings. A given nest will have about 100 eggs, and the hatchlings emerge at night when it is cool. Our job was to come along the next day after a nest had hatched and rescue any babies that were still trapped inside and could not escape on their own. We would free them and take them to the ocean where they could swim off on their own.
We had a roughly three mile stretch of beach to monitor, which took about three hours to patrol every day. And the sea turtle nesting season lasts about 7 months a year.
For the next eight years, my father and I walked the beach looking for signs of nests that had hatched. I don't have the exact numbers anymore, but we ended up rescuing about 17,000 baby hatchlings that most likely would not have survived otherwise.
Towards the end of our time with the turtles, the media heard about what we were doing, which led to some completely unexpected opportunities, like speaking at the United Nations General Assembly. That's a story for another time, though, as I've gone on long enough already.
You’re not getting off that easy! Tell me about this United Nations thing, dude.
Well, thanks to appearing in a book called Kid Heroes of the Environment, someone at the United Nations got wind of what we were doing with the turtles and invited me to be a keynote speaker at the United Nations Environmental Programme’s conference which met in the General Assembly. There I was standing at the famous podium, talking about why we need to protect endangered species. I really had no clue at the time what I was doing. That’s probably a good thing, as I would have been a lot more nervous if I had.
Was your family religious? Philosophical?
As I was growing up, I think it's fair to say that my family was nominally Christian (this would change later). The church we went to was more of a social gathering place than anything else. Or so it seemed to me at the time. My family was definitely philosophical, however. On those long walks home after monitoring the nests, my father and I would talk about lots of deep questions. We'd also look at the ships in the ocean and wondered about the lives of the people on board.
As a teenager, did you get into any trouble?
Not that I can recall. I was too into studying and learning, and thereby completely excluded socially from the cool kids. That helped keep me out of trouble.
Were you interested in philosophy in high school?
By junior year in high school, I started running out of classes to take, so I began going to a local college. The first course I took was Introduction to Philosophy. I had started reading philosophy on my own, and here was a chance to get a more systematic introduction. I was hooked immediately and ended up taking two more courses with the same professor. Oh, and his name was Dr. Bible. Seriously. Wonderful person and teacher.
In high school, did you start thinking about what you wanted to do for a living?
Yes, actually by junior year I had pretty much made up my mind that I wanted to be a professor. The life of the scholar (as I envisioned it at the time) seemed made for me, and I never really entertained anything else. That never changed throughout the rest of high school or all of college, either. I always thought I wanted to become a professor. And here I am today.
Where did you go to college? You knew you wanted to be a professor, but when did you decide to become a *philosophy* professor?
I went to Princeton for college, thinking I was going to be a biology major and embark on a career in laboratory research. First semester chemistry, followed by the bio lab spring semester, quickly changed all that. I realized that I didn’t want to spend my life sitting in a lab using gel electrophoresis and micropipettes. Thank goodness biologists do their important work, but it just wasn’t for me. At the same time, I kept taking philosophy courses. I had the good fortune to be in classes with van Fraassen, Cooper, Nehamas, Longuenesse, Jeffrey, Harman, Broadie, Soames, and others. I avoided David Lewis, sadly, as he had a reputation at the time among undergraduates of being intimidating. By sophomore year it was clear to me that philosophy was where I wanted to be. I ended up writing my junior paper with Nehamas on Pascal and my senior thesis with Harman. It was a defense of virtue ethics. As you can imagine, he didn’t buy any of it, but that’s okay.
How did your philosophical interests change?
One big change in my philosophical interests happened when I took a course on pragmatism with Jeff Stout. He was one of my favorite teachers, and reading Rorty, West, and company was very alluring at the time. I got caught up in that world for a while, but after a year or two was able to see my way out of it and come back to a realist perspective about truth and reality. Still, I’ve always been interested in the pragmatist tradition, and my first two publications were actually on Rorty (should I admit that?).
Sure! Lots of people experiment in college. I still sort of dig Rorty. I think there is some good stuff in there, even if it needs to be unpacked and defended more carefully. When you look back on your college self now, do you find anything embarrassing?
Looking back, one thing I find embarrassing is how much time I spent in college pretending to be a good philosopher. I could name drop about people in the department or the profession, carry around my copy of MacIntyre or Nozick, and use the jargon with the best of the undergraduate majors. But all this just masked the fact that I was not very strong philosophically; plenty of my fellow majors were better on their feet and deeper, more careful thinkers. I wish I could have done that all over again and stopped pretending.
What did you do for fun?
Lots of different things, but one that stands out was playing pool. By junior year it was a game or two after lunch and another game or two after dinner at our eating club, plus a few games during the party nights. It was a great time to bond with my friends, and the fact that I was pretty good (or so I thought) no doubt helped too.
What attracted you to virtue ethics?
I read MacIntyre’s After Virtue for the first time junior year, and was swept away by the book (although troubled by what seemed to be the underlying moral relativism). It not only attracted me to virtue ethics, but also further inspired me to become a professional philosopher (and to go to Notre Dame!).
How did your religious views evolve? Flirt with atheism during your pragmatic period?
As far as I can recall, my religious views changed little during college, even during the pragmatic period. This might have been because there were well-known examples of pragmatist religious philosophers like Cornell West, or it might have been because I was not being very consistent in my thinking (perhaps compartmentalizing the pragmatism and the religious views). I’m not sure. What did change religiously was, for the first time, being part of a rich religious community where faith commitments were not treated merely as intellectual beliefs but were being lived out in prayer, song, personal struggle, and daily life. These were heart experiences much more than head experiences.
Do your religious views inform your philosophical views? Do your philosophical views influence your religious views?
They do. And, incidentally, I think everyone’s religious views (where this includes being an agnostic or atheist) informs his or her philosophical views, at least in the sense of opening and closing certain positions from serious consideration. Consider atheism and divine command theory, for instance. Or atheism and Reformed epistemology.
One example of how my religious views inform my philosophical views is in meta-ethics. There I take seriously views which ground deontological moral properties in God’s will (so divine will theories, not divine command theories). I have written several papers trying to think through such an approach.
Of course there are many views I hold in philosophy that don’t seem to be informed by my religious views. For instance, I am confident I would still reject the Humean theory of motivation, motivational internalism, internalist views about normative reasons, identification approaches to agency, various formulations of moral realism, and so forth even if I suddenly became an atheist.
As far as my philosophical views informing my religious views, one example is that I have incompatibilist leanings about free will, which makes it hard for to accept certain views about predestination, election, and divine determinism.
What was the process of applying to graduate school like?
By senior year my main areas of interest were philosophy of religion and ethics (especially virtue ethics). That made Notre Dame the obvious place to apply. I applied to about 3-4 other places (not a wise strategy, I admit!), but really only gave serious thought to Notre Dame. Thankfully it worked out!
Was grad school what you expected? Friendly? Competitive? Who did you work with? What was your dissertation on?
Graduate school at Notre Dame was even better than I expected. I didn’t quite anticipate how great it would be to not have to pay anything (and actually get paid!) to read, talk, and write philosophy. But even more than this, what I really didn’t expect was that I would find such a wonderful community of people. This started with the other graduate students, who were not competitive at all and became some of my closest friends (and remain so even today, 14 years later). It included the faculty. Phil Quinn and I, for instance, would eat lunch about 2-3 days a week, and he always treated me with kindness and respect. It also extended to the staff at Notre Dame, other graduate students and faculty…really everyone I got to know during my five years.
By my third year, I realized that I wanted to work in meta-ethics (I was rightly steered away from doing a dissertation in philosophy of religion), but Notre Dame did not have many people to work with in that area. So I spent my fourth year visiting the University of Michigan, where David Velleman was extremely generous with his time and taught me a bunch of action theory. I began to see a number of implications of views in action theory for moral psychology and meta-ethics, and so that’s the direction I went in the dissertation. I ended up focusing on topics like how to formulate the positions in meta-ethics, motivational internalism, the Humean theory of motivation, and agency and identification. Michael DePaul was a wonderful director of the project, and I was also fortunate that Notre Dame hired Robert Audi before my final year in the program. Ted Warfield, David Solomon, Paul Weithman, and Phil Quinn were all great too.
So, why were you steered away from doing a dissertation in philosophy of religion?
Two reasons, and both of them good ones. First, there is the very practical point that there are (almost) no jobs in philosophy of religion. And a dissertation in philosophy of religion is not going to be marketable for other AOS areas, usually. But second and also very important is the fact that so much of philosophy of religion is informed by work in related areas. Religious epistemology is the obvious example. But so too is religious ethics informed by meta-ethics and normative ethics. And of course metaphysics has had a huge impact on philosophy of religion. So the idea is to specialize in one of these other areas, and then down the road one can, if one likes, start applying it to relevant topics in philosophy of religion.
What's Audi like?
Since I work on character, let me mention the first character trait that comes to mind. Kindness. He arrived during my last year at Notre Dame, and has basically supported me in all kinds of ways ever since. Of course there are traits everyone would associate with him – energetic, productive, outgoing, and the like. But I’ll start with kindness.
Could you describe Velleman a bit?
First trait that comes to mind is generous. I was only a visiting graduate student at Michigan, and many of the professors in ethics I had hoped to work with were not around that year. In the spring I asked Velleman if he would be willing to meet once a week with me for an independent study on action theory. He agreed, even though I wasn’t a student in the department, and we kept meeting all throughout of the summer too. It was standard material for him, and I doubt he benefitted much from our meetings, but it was hugely influential in changing the entire direction of the dissertation and shaping my work for the next ten years. Being so generous with his time is something I will never forget, and something I try to emulate with my students today.
After Virtue blew you away. What was it like meeting MacIntyre?
Intimidating. I think just about any student who has met him would say the same thing. He doesn’t engage in much small-talk, and his knowledge about so many subjects is incredibly vast. If you can get past being intimidated, I found he was wonderful to talk with. And along with Michael Loux, he was the best teacher I had in graduate school. I’m still grateful to have taken the last graduate seminar he ever offered, which was on competing theories of practical rationality.
9/11 happened while you were in grad school. What was that day like?
People in my parents' generation always say they remember what they were doing when they heard that JFK had been shot. This was certainly true in my case with 9/11. I was working at David Solomon's center that semester cataloging their book collection. On that day we were all called into the center's conference room. There we remained glued to the television for hours. I don't remember what I did the rest of the day, but the image of the towers burning and then collapsing is etched into my memory.
Philosophy basically was my life in graduate school. I rarely wasn’t in the library. I knew I had a long way to go to get better as a philosopher, and plus I really loved what I was doing. It is heretical to say this, but I didn't even go to any home football games during my time at Notre Dame. What was I thinking? I really was single-minded, no doubt way too much so.
Don’t feel bad. I never went to an FSU home game (I sometimes lie about it to avoid the conversation). Any challenges in grad school?
The only stressful period I can recall was during my final semester. I went out on the job market in a very limited fashion that year, and ended up – much to my surprise – being hired by Wake Forest University. At the time I only had about two chapters written, so I basically spent 8am to midnight in the library every day for two months straight and cranked out about 300 pages. Needless to say, I wouldn’t recommend that approach.
Great problem to have. Job market preparation?
I gave a practice job talk at Notre Dame. I found it much more stressful than the actual talks at Columbia and Wake Forest a few weeks later. No doubt it was because I was trying to make my teachers proud of me (or at least not embarrass myself). Phil Quinn, as he usually did, slept for half of the talk in the front row. Alasdair MacIntyre, as he usually did, slept for half of it in the back row. And yet, again as they usually did, they asked two of the toughest questions of anyone.
Wake Forest is in Winston-Salem. Interesting town! How would you describe to somebody who has never been?
My family and I love living here. We are a few hours from the mountains in one direction and the beach in the other. The people are very nice, and the cost of living is low. I have a five minute commute, and we enjoy all four seasons without any of them being too harsh. The city is moderately sized, which I like, and has lots of parks and trails. The former tobacco industry which dominated the city in the past is being replaced with state-of-the-art science research facilities. Some very good schools for kids, and really a great place for raising a family.
At Wake Forest how have you evolved as a teacher?
I guess part of my evolution as a teacher at Wake Forest is that I came to find some strategies that I really liked for the classroom and that seem helpful for students. For example, I use detailed handouts every day, and find that students love them. They save a ton of class time that would otherwise be spent on copying down an argument, and we can proceed much more quickly to discussion. I never lecture, but generate a lot of discussion throughout each class session at various points on the handout. Also, I never do exams in upper division courses, and write extensive comments on each paper (usually 1-2 pages single-spaced). Students seem to like that too. Finally I try to be really available outside of class and especially want to work with students who are struggling after the first test or paper. Now I am pretty stuck in my ways, but am open to changing course if I see that something is no longer working.
You are married, right? How did you guys meet? What does she do?
Yes, married for 9 years to the amazing Jessie Lee Miller. When we started dating she was working at Wake Forest in corporate and foundation relations, and then later as an assistant dean of admissions. Now she stays at home with our three kids. Talk about character, what an incredibly self-sacrificial and demanding job that is.
Did having kids change your philosophical perspectives? Does your research inform how you raise your kids?
I can’t say that having children has changed my philosophical perspectives as much as it has changed my perspective on the importance of doing philosophy all the time. My wife and children have helped me see other things that matter more, which has brought much needed balance and moderation into my life. Just yesterday I had a ton of fun helping my oldest son assemble his 883 piece Lego set that he got for his birthday!
I get asked a lot whether my research on character informs how I raise my children. And it does to some extent, but probably not as much as it should. The effect of role-modeling on character development, for example, is one that I try to remind myself of when I am at home, since the kids are always aware of what I am doing.
When and why did you get into the psychology stuff?
It was my second year in graduate school, when I came across John Doris’s initial paper on situationism and virtue ethics. That took me to Harman’s papers, which of course had special interest to me since he advised me for a year at Princeton. I thought this whole topic was fresh, bold, and controversial. I had to see for myself what the psychological studies had to say. Fortunately I ended up publishing the paper I wrote for that seminar in The Journal of Ethics (and am to this day grateful to Doris for his generous help with the paper!). After my first few years at Wake, I got burned out on the meta-ethics and moral psychology stuff, and switched to interdisciplinary work on character. I’ve been doing it ever since.
What are limits of the philosophical study of morality?
One that is important to me is that philosophy can’t answer empirical questions about, say, the extent to which people are living up to the normative requirements of virtue and vice. For that I prefer to look to carefully done psychological studies which put people in various morally relevant situations and probe their behavior and underlying motivation.
What are the limits of the psychological study of morality?
There is the usual one of not being able to draw normative conclusions from the empirical data. For me as someone interested in empirical questions about character, there is another, rather unfortunate limit which I always face. It is not a principled limitation, but just a limitation of the way the research happens to have been carried out, namely that there are almost no longitudinal studies of moral behavior. There are several understandable reasons why this is so, but obviously when drawing conclusions about whether, say, most people are honest or not, it would be great if we could track the same people over time as they confront various opportunities to lie, cheat, and/or steal.
How did you get involved with the Templeton Foundation?
About 8 years ago, there was interest in the philosophy division at JTF in awarding large grants to particular schools where there were specialists on a given topic, and have those folks lead one or more funding competitions to which scholars from around the world could apply. As far as I remember, Al Mele’s grant at Florida State on free will was the first such project, and I think we were one of the next ones. I had been working on character for a few years, and we have several top people in personality psychology here at Wake Forest who work on traits, behaviors, and situations. So we were encouraged to submit a proposal, which of course had to go through the normal (and quite demanding) review process. The fortunate result was The Character Project, by far the largest professional task I have ever undertaken. And the most rewarding as well.
What do you make of criticisms of the Templeton Foundation?
I can’t speak to any criticisms that are more than 8 years old, which is when I first got to know the foundation. But as a general observation, the criticisms I have read do not resonate with my own experience. For instance, I have never once felt any pressure from Templeton to adopt a particular political, philosophical, or religious position. And when we have made funding decisions for our various grant competitions, the staff at Templeton has been completely hands off, to the point that they might not even know who the applicants were for those competitions. This is as it should be, and it is because of policies like this that I have felt very comfortable about our relationship over the years.
Top 5 most virtuous people who ever lived?
Any interesting projects on the horizon?
Well, at least interesting to me! I just finished my first trade (non-academic) book, The Character Gap, which was a lot of fun to do. Now I am working on a new academic book on the virtue of honesty. Surprisingly, there is almost nothing published in analytic philosophy in over 50 years on this virtue. In fact I couldn’t find a single paper in a mainstream journal devoted to unpacking the conceptual contours of the virtue. So I am going to give it a try. Depending on how that goes, I might see if there could be a trade book in the neighborhood too. And someday I’d like to do a book on the virtue of generosity too. That’s another virtue which has been seriously neglected by philosophers.
Interesting! Are you tired of the character stuff, yet?
With respect to parts of it, I am getting a bit restless. I developed my mixed trait view, for instance, in two academic books plus the trade book, and I am ready to move on. Same thing with situationism. That literature has been around in philosophy for about 20 years now (and even earlier if you include Owen Flanagan’s book), and the discussion has gotten a bit stale in my view. As I just mentioned, though, other areas of research on character are in their infancy, and I find them exciting.
Do you find any trends in philosophy disconcerting?
There are several, but since we just wrapped up a tenure-track search this week, the one that is most vivid in my mind is the increasingly bleak job market. At least, it certainly seems a lot worse than when I was on the market in 2004. I hate it that friends in the profession with stellar teaching evaluations and loads of publications, who are better philosophers than I am, keep striking out at tenure-track jobs. Even worse, after having been out for a few years teaching in 3/3 or 4/4 temporary positions and still managing to publish a lot, they get penalized in job searches for potential “red flags” that aren’t showing up in the file. Or so the thought is. Very disconcerting, in my opinion.
On the last point, just an encouragement to not jump to the “red flags” explanation, but to first empathize with these applicants and their situations. Given how tough the market is and how many excellent philosophers are not getting jobs, it shouldn’t be at all surprising to see this happening. In fact, rather than “red flags,” perhaps the first thought should be that here is someone who has done so well publishing and teaching with a 4/4 load, imagine what that person could do in our department with fewer courses to teach!
Best philosopher you disagree with most?
Most underrated philosopher, living or dead?
Perhaps not the most underrated, but the first person who comes to mind is William Alston. I always learn a ton whenever I read him. I don’t think his work has been appreciated near enough.
Favorite TV show?
These days I don’t have much time to watch TV. When I do it’s with the kids. So I would say Dinotrux!
Meaning of life, in your estimation?
For me personally, at least, meaning comes from trying to love the divine and love other human beings. Sadly, I often fail at both.
Yellow cake with chocolate icing, refrigerated. It was my birthday cake growing up. Doesn’t get much better than that!
Yum! If you could ask an omniscient being one question, what would it be?
As a philosopher, I should probably say something like “What is the best question I should ask you, and while we are at it, please tell me the answer.” But let me instead go with, “Is there a good afterlife, and who gets to go there?”