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New faculty Diana Heney: ‘Ethics Backwards and Forwards’

Sep. 29, 2019, 7:44 PM

MyVU is spotlighting a select group of new faculty for 2019-20. Read more profiles in the series.

By Morgan Kroll

“How do I flourish in the long shadow of my own death?”

That is a question, says Diana B. Heney, assistant professor of philosophy, that everyone must answer for themselves. In an undergraduate course she is teaching this fall on death and dying, her students are asked to consider that question and more, including how philosophy intersects with medicine. Her other course this fall invites students to look at global matters such as human rights, the environment and poverty through the lens of applied ethics.

Heney describes her work as “ethics backwards and forwards.” In addition to investigating the contemporary moral landscape, she studies the history of philosophy and how people have grappled for thousands of years with questions like, “What is it to be human?” and “What is it to be a good human?”

Originally from Thunder Bay, Ontario, Heney earned her doctorate in philosophy from the University of Toronto, a master’s in philosophy from the University of Saskatchewan and a bachelor’s in philosophy from the University of Ottawa. She and her family moved to Nashville this summer from New York, where she had been an assistant professor at Fordham University.

“People here have been unbelievably friendly to me and my family,” Heney says of the community she has found upon arrival.

“The expectations here for research, teaching and integration with other parts of the university are very high. Vanderbilt will challenge me to have the best possible career I could have.”

Heney was drawn to Vanderbilt in part because of its commitment to interdisciplinary collaboration. “The expectations here for research, teaching and integration with other parts of the university are very high,” she says. “Vanderbilt will challenge me to have the best possible career I could have.”

Another draw was the opportunity to become the inaugural Greg S. Allen Dean’s Faculty Fellow in Philosophy. The fellowship, created through the generosity of alumni Elizabeth Sauereisen Allen, BS’83, and Vanderbilt Board of Trust member Greg Allen, BA’84, provides support for rising tenure-track professors in philosophy.

The fellowship will enable Heney, whose publications include Toward a Pragmatist Metaethics (2016, Routledge), to continue work on a new book exploring ethical theory in the U.S. after Charles Darwin’s work upended the intellectual world. Specifically, she is interested in how American pragmatism—a philosophical tradition that urges collective groupwork and examination of the human experience to arrive at truth—was impacted in the wake of Darwin.

While history plays a large role in her research, Heney is ever mindful of the future when interacting with students. In particular, Vanderbilt’s graduate program in philosophy gives her many reasons to be optimistic about those following in her footsteps.

“When I look at the graduate students here and I think about the next generation of philosophers,” she says, “I feel very hopeful.”

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