Christiane Heibach / Matthew Pianalto / Regina Rini / Justin E. Smith / Jen Cole Wright


Hilton St. Petersburg Bayfront, FL

Friday, February 1, 2019

  • 8:30-9:30 Breakfast
  • 9:30-10:00 Anke Finger and Michael P. Lynch: Introductions
  • 10-11 Jen Cole Wright: “The Role of Moral Conviction in Imperfect Moral Communities”
  • 11-12 Matthew Pianalto: “Conviction, Detachment, and Humility”
  • 12:30-1:30 Lunch
  • 2-3 Regina Rini: “Civility and/or Solidarity: Disagreement Under Oppression”
  • 3-4 Discussion of Day 1

Saturday, February 2, 2019

  • 8:30-9:30 Breakfast
  • 10-11 Christiane Heibach: “Convincing Atmospheres? The Influence of Diffuse Factors on Conviction Building”
  • 11-12 Justin E. H. Smith: “Conviction, Conspiracy, and Pseudoscience”
  • 12:30-1:30 Lunch
  • 2-4 Concluding Discussion

For a summary of the workshop, listen in on the “Why We Argue” Podcast from April, 2019:

Screen Shot 2019-05-02 at 5.32.11 PM

From a research perspective, personal conviction, as a moral, cultural, and emotional concept, has largely escaped scrutiny, with only a few studies investigating what is defined as “an unshakeable belief in something, without seeking evidence”; or, as the Oxford English Dictionary has it, “a firm and settled persuasion.” Beliefs are based on certain sets of values, but what about the much stronger term “conviction”? Where do our convictions come from? Why do they compel us to certain actions? Are they generated or maintained by certain affects? Does it cost us to follow our convictions? How do we communicate them to those around us? And can we listen when conviction clashes with conviction?

These questions are at the core of this 2-day workshop as we are looking for ways to repair fissures and tears in our social tissue. We live in a time where the loudest, and often most caustic, voices appear to garner the lion’s share of national attention. Where divisiveness gets rewarded and polarization is often the result, it is critical to demonstrate that there are other paths we can take towards a more civil national and international discourse.


While the approach to the workshop is exploratory, the aim is to gather a number of voices and a variety of (inter)disciplinary scholarship that contribute to a multi-disciplinary conversation about the concept (or phenomenon) of conviction. Invited participants represent different fields of inquiry so that – within this very small group – we can engage the discourses from each perspective as productively as possible. The two days will consist of 5 formal talks and open discussions.

The papers from this workshop will be gathered in a larger collection of articles that highlight the interconnections we can begin to identify during our conversations, but that also present the different angles (epistemologically, culturally, historically) from which conviction is understood, communicated, and practiced today.


“The Role of Moral Conviction in Imperfect Moral Communities”

Jen Cole Wright College of Charleston

What is acceptable (even desirable) diversity – and when does that diversity become deviance? This question is critical for creating and maintaining healthy socio-cultural normative structures (i.e., socially ‘normed’ beliefs, values, practices, behaviors, etc.) that allow individuals within a culture to function well (and ideally thrive). The tension generated here introduces critical space for variation, both within and between communities. It also highlights a problem—the imperfection of our moral knowledge and the vulnerability of our normative structures to error and corruption. The challenge we face is having an understanding of ourselves as moral beings pursuing “the good life” that is stable enough to be meaningfully shared and passed down to future generations, yet flexible enough to adapt and change as our shared experiences bring that understanding into question. Moral conviction has a critical psycho-social role to play in this endeavor—and it is a paradoxical role, insofar as it is necessary both for protecting existing normative structures from corruption and for spearheading corrective endeavors, when normative structures have become dysfunctional and change is required. Of course, this is precisely what makes conviction a troublesome bedfellow—given the imperfection of our moral knowledge, it always runs the risk becoming unreasonably dogmatic and oppressive, on the one hand, and irrationally rebellious, on the other. How do we utilize moral conviction to our benefit, while avoiding its dangers? We will consider this question—and in particular, the importance of humility (specifically) and virtue (more generally) in helping us to wield conviction wisely.

Bio: Jennifer Cole Wright is an Associate Professor of Psychology at the College of Charleston, as well as an Affiliate Member of the Philosophy Department and Environmental and Sustainability Studies Program. She is also currently a Sustainability and Social Justice Faculty Fellow with the Honors College. Her area of research is moral development (at both the individual and community level) and moral psychology more generally. She studies virtues such as humility, meta-ethical pluralism, the relationship between moral values and tolerance for divergent attitudes, behaviors, and practices, the influence of “liberal vs. conservative” mindsets on moral judgments, and young children’s early socio-moral development.

“Conviction, Detachment, and Humility”

Matthew Pianalto Eastern Kentucky University

In our hyper-connected age, we are inundated with news of suffering and injustice and urged to take action in many and sometimes conflicting ways. It can all be a bit overwhelming, leaving us feeling guilty and ineffective. Our personal convictions and commitments may conflict with what appear to be more pressing and general moral demands, and even our own moral projects may be criticized for not making a difference or failing to prioritize values correctly. In “Civil Disobedience,” Thoreau suggests we are not under any general obligation to address any specific wrong but that we have a duty not to provide practical support for such wrongs. He acknowledges that we have “other concerns” and other “contemplations” to pursue. However, the directive not to provide practical support can strike us as an equally impossible and overwhelming demand, given the many ways we can come to think of ourselves as complicit in collective moral problems. Drawing on ideas from Thomas Merton, Iris Murdoch, and Bernard Williams, I develop a reading of Thoreau’s remark that avoids a moralistic interpretation and offers a constructive way to think about actions that “don’t make a difference.” In particular, I draw on some of Merton’s views about the relationship between action, consequences, and responsibility, Murdoch’s ideas about the significance of “inner action” and virtue, and Williams’s criticisms of “the morality system” for its failure to account properly for the significance of projects and personal convictions.

Bio: Matthew Pianalto is a Professor of Philosophy at Eastern Kentucky University. He is the author of On Patience: Reclaiming a Foundational Virtue (Lexington, 2016) and several articles on virtue ethics and applied ethics. His 2012 essay “Moral Courage and Facing Others” was awarded the inaugural Robert Papazian Prize on Themes from Ethics and Political Philosophy by the International Journal of Philosophical Studies.

“Civility and/or Solidarity: Disagreement Under Oppression”

Regina Rini York University

Oppression warps many aspects of social life, including the nature of moral disagreement. In ideal circumstances it is already hard to find a balance between standing by our moral convictions and seeking compromise with others. But we shouldn’t expect even that tentative balance to work the same under oppression. Unequal distribution of social power makes a difference to both the ‘who’ and the ‘how’ of our disagreement practices.

In this paper I start from claims I’ve argued for elsewhere: generally, we are morally obligated to make ourselves open to persuasion by those with whom we morally disagree, and to attempt to conciliate in cases of peer moral disagreement. Now I want to consider how this framework is warped by oppression. When disagreement is about moral norms that contribute to maintaining oppressive systems (e.g. homophobia, racial hierarchy) there is no morally ideal response. One can either morally disrespect those who would uphold such norms – by refusing to be open to their persuasion or conciliate with them – or one can morally disrespect those who are victims of these norms by entertaining their further derogation. In other words, one faces a choice between failing to show civility and failing to show solidarity. I will argue that, in this forced choice, solidarity is the more important value, and this sometimes requires us to uphold anti-oppressive convictions even to the point of disrespecting some co-citizens. But we should acknowledge that doing so comes at moral cost – as does almost any choice under pervasive oppression.

Bio: Regina Rini holds the Canada Research Chair in Philosophy of Moral and Social Cognition and teaches in the Department of Philosophy at York University in Toronto. Her work focuses around how we navigate moral and political disagreement, especially in conditions of technological and social change. She is currently working on two books: one about the ethics of microaggression and the other about the effect of social media on democratic debate.

“Convincing Atmospheres? The Influence of Diffuse Factors on Conviction Building”

Christiane Heibach Regensburg University

The ‘nature’ of moral conviction, its ambivalence between ‘positive’ – moral strength and stability under difficult conditions – and ‘negative’ characteristics – narrow mindedness and dogmatic thinking – is thoroughly discussed in philosophy and psychology. But when do we begin to develop moral convictions? How stable are these convictions throughout our lives? Under which conditions do we change convictions? These questions point into a direction that seems to be partly neglected by the current discussion: convictions might result from complex processes which point to a context-sensitive interpretation of convictions as changeable (although this seems to be a contradictio in adjecto). To discuss these aspects, it might be a fruitful approach to bring into play another notion: atmosphere. Atmospheres, understood as social phenomena, have, according to the German phenomenologist Hermann Schmitz, certain characteristics: they emerge through the interaction between nonhuman and human entities and fill spaces with emotions. Thus, atmospheres transcend the separation between subject and object and are experienced (felt) pre-cognitively, affectively and immediately (although they can be – retrospectively – subject to rational thinking).

According to the psychologist and psychiatrist Hubert Tellenbach we are surrounded by atmospheres from our early childhood on. These atmospheres inherently influence our relation to other people and the world. One could argue that individual conviction building is a process that takes place in certain intimate (family), institutional (education), and cultural atmospheres. This may also mean that we might change our convictions with the atmospheres we experience: an extreme, but illustrative example are totalitarian regimes which, according to Peter Sloterdijk, develop “toxic atmospheres” leading to the contamination of social micro- and macro-spaces as well as interactions, and thus also gain the power to change individual convictions.

This contribution aims to present some thoughts on the epistemological interplay between atmospheres and convictions.

Bio: Christiane Heibach is a Professor of Media Aesthetics at the Institute of Information and Media, Language and Culture at Regensburg University. Her research focuses on the epistemology of media, the history and theory of multi- and intermedial art forms, the aesthetics of new media, and the literary and media theories of the twentieth century. She is the author, among other books and articles, of Multimediale Aufführungskunst: Medienästhetische Studien zur Entstehung einer neuen Kunstform (Munich 2010), and the editor of Atmosphären: Dimensionen eines diffusen Phänomens (Munich 2012).

“Conviction, Conspiracy, and Pseudoscience”

Justin E.H. Smith University of Paris 7 – Denis Diderot

Since Theodor Adorno’s critical engagement with popular horoscopy in the 1950s, there has been a common habit of linking the rejection of scientific rationality with a parallel rejection of the ideal of enlightened democracy. At the same time, a number of philosophers of science, notably Paul Feyerabend, have questioned the legitimacy of the distinction between science and pseudoscience, insisting that the most rational strategy in the pursuit of knowledge is to ‘let a hundred flowers bloom’. And even cautious philosophers who reject Feyerabend’s anarchism still find an irresolvable problem when it comes to the demarcation of the boundary between the two domains. Recent developments, in both philosophy and politics, may however compel us to reattempt, along Adorno’s lines, an interpretation of pseudoscientific conviction as ideological in nature. There has been, I will argue, a revealing shift in focus over the past few years from theories, such as young-earth creationism, which purport to offer evidence-based explanations of current observations, to flat-earth theory, which moves almost immediately from evidence and explanation to the purported unmasking of grand political conspiracies. The details of the theory itself seem an afterthought, yet the depth of conviction seems even greater. In its indifference to its own theoretical content, this species of conviction is also particularly impervious to counterarguments.

Bio: Justin E. H. Smith is university professor and director of the Department of History and Philosophy of Science at the University of Paris 7 – Denis Diderot. He is the author of Irrationality: A History of the Dark Side of Reason (2019); The Philosopher: A History in Six Types (2016); Nature, Human Nature, and Human Difference: Race in Early Modern Philosophy (2015); and Divine Machines: Leibniz and the Sciences of Life, all with Princeton University Press.