Faculty Spotlight: Mark LeBar, Professor of Philosophy
Tell us a little about your background.
I came to FSU from Ohio University, where I taught since getting my Ph.D. I’ve been here now almost four years, and I love it. My training in philosophy came at the University of Arizona. I grew up in California and am gradually adjusting to the idea of being a Floridian. (Dealing with hurricanes is a novelty, I can tell you.)
When did you first become interested in moral philosophy, social and political philosophy, and ancient Greek philosophy?
I came at my interest in moral philosophy indirectly, from being interested in foundational questions in politics — the legitimacy of political authority and those sorts of issues. Those are really moral questions, wanting responses that are situated in our understanding of our moral relations with one another. My interest in Greek philosophy came later, when I came to think that the best frameworks we have for understanding those moral relations come from the Greeks (Aristotle in particular).
What are your current research interests, and what makes you passionate about them?
Though Greek moral philosophy is an excellent start on understanding the moral relations between us, I think it is far from a best last word. We have learned a lot since the Greeks, beginning with taking seriously the idea that we are all moral equals. But what exactly does this mean? My work has been and continues to be focused on making sense of those modern ideas in the framework of virtue we get from the Greeks.
Currently I am working on a project to rethink what being a “just person” looks like. It can’t be just what Aristotle thought it was, but modern thinking about justice focuses almost exclusively on having a just society, or just institutions, and has (in my view) lost the understanding the Greeks had that morality is first and foremost a matter of how we live our lives well. So that’s the combination I am trying to forge. I think it is important because just about everything valuable about being a human being, and having relationships with other human beings, depends on that understanding.
What do you want the public to know about your research? Why is your topic important?
I think there are two important elements in my work that perhaps we have lost sight of today. First, we often have a preoccupation with narrow attention to acting rightly, or at least avoiding acting wrongly. I believe the Greeks (again, Aristotle in particular) suggest that being good people involves much more than just not acting wrongly: It involves thinking carefully about what kind of people we want to be, and what kind of people we are making of ourselves in choosing what to.
Second, much of our attention to justice has collapsed to taking the form of concern about social justice, the justice of social and political institutions, and so on. I would not claim that those forms of justice are unimportant. But, I would claim that those are things we can have only marginal influence upon, whereas the kind of person we are is something we have tremendous influence upon, and treating others justly is of the first importance. So I think there is a question of priority that my work raises.
Who are your role models? Who has influenced you most in your life?
Philosophically, it’s tough to top Socrates, who literally laid his life on the line for acting on what he believed. Academically, I’ve been fortunate to know and learn from some wonderful scholars, teachers, and human beings, including my Ph.D. supervisor Julia Annas at the University of Arizona. Personally, I’ve been deeply influenced by men coping with the task of being decent men, fathers, and citizens (in a broad sense) in ways I respect and can only hope to try to emulate.
What brought you to Florida State University? Why do you enjoy working at FSU?
I was offered my position while working at Ohio University. I was immediately impressed with the caliber of the colleagues I would have in the Philosophy Department here, and nothing I’ve experienced since has done anything except increase my respect for the people with whom I am lucky enough to work.
Since coming, I’ve also been impressed with the caliber of institution that FSU is overall, and my wife and I have discovered that we really love Tallahassee. I’m being paid to do something I love to do, at a place I love to do it. What’s not to like?
What is your favorite part of your job?
I really enjoy teaching undergraduate courses in which the light goes on for students, and they see the intrinsic interest of taking up philosophical questions and bringing philosophical skills to bear on common human problems. But, I have also come to really enjoy working with graduate students as they develop their own philosophical projects. And I have never stopped getting great pleasure out of carrying out my own research and writing projects.
What is the most challenging part of your job?
I think there is a mismatch between what a college education is or can be, at its best, and the expectations many students bring to it. College has come to be thought of as an ordinary educational step for living decently and contributing to the lives of others. But you can live decently and contribute to the lives of others without going to college, and college is not for everyone. So sometimes reconciling the aims of students and the actual goals that education can genuinely help realize is a serious challenge.
How do you like to spend your free time?
I’m a reader and a movie fan, and my wife and I both enjoy watching FSU athletics, women’s basketball, in particular. In general, we like cheering on the ’Noles!
If your students only learned one thing from you – of course, hopefully they learn much more than that – what would you hope it to be?
I would hope it would be to learn to be thoughtful about what kind of person to be, and how to be that person in a way that makes the lives of those around them a bit better.