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University of Toronto philosopher awarded 2017 Killam Prize in the Humanities

Photo of Thomas Hurka in a suit sitting at his desk

Thomas Hurka has published what are widely considered two of the most important books in moral philosophy written in the last several decades. Photo: Diana Tyszko.

University Professor Thomas Hurka, the Chancellor Henry N. R. Jackman Professor of Philosophical Studies at the University of Toronto has been awarded the 2017 Killam Prize in the Humanities.

One of Canada’s most prestigious scholarly awards, the Killam Prize recognizes outstanding career achievement by scholars actively engaged in research. It is administered by the Canada Council for the Arts and comes with a $100,000 prize.

A moral philosopher, Hurka has published what are widely considered two of the most important books in moral philosophy written in the last several decades.

“The Killam Prize is an immense honour, especially since it’s for the whole body of one’s scholarly work,” said Hurka. “We all try to contribute to our disciplines, and the prize is a gratifying validation that, to at least some extent, I’ve done that.”

His first book, Perfectionism (Oxford University Press 1993) revived an interest in the historically rich and important tradition of ethical thought running through Aristotle, Spinoza, Marx, and Nietzsche by bringing it to the forefront of contemporary debates in ethics.

“Tom has done more than anyone else in contemporary philosophy to reintroduce the familiar perfectionist ideas,” said Martin Pickavé, chair of the Department of Philosophy in the Faculty of Arts & Science. Broadly speaking, perfectionists define a good life as one that maximizes certain core human values such as knowledge, achievement and friendship.

“Through a combination of original analysis together with a rereading of perfectionist philosophers in the tradition, he has staked out a position that is widely acknowledged and discussed among today’s moral philosophers.”

Hurka’s second groundbreaking book, Virtue, Vice, and Value (OUP 2001) gives an innovative analysis of virtue and vice that’s an alternative to the dominant Aristotelian view of these concepts.

In addition to six books — including his most recent British Ethical Theorists from Sidgwick to Ewing (OUP 2014), which discusses the theories and arguments of a group of distinguished British moral philosophers writing from the 1870s through the 1950s — Hurka has published a number of articles on the ethics of war, the justification of punishment, population ethics, nationalism, and friendship.

Beyond the academy, he has carried his work into the public sphere. From 1989 to 1992, he wrote a weekly ethics column for the Globe and Mail. Selected excerpts from the column were published in the book Principles: Short Essays on Ethics (Harcourt Brace 1993), and from 1998 to 2000 Hurka resumed his role in the media through the “Monday Column,” a weekly ethics commentary on CBC-TV’s Midday.

“Writing for the Globe and Mail was one of the highlights of my career,” said Hurka. “I loved figuring out how to express philosophical ideas in a newspaper-friendly way and always enjoyed the feedback from readers, whether supportive or not.

“Philosophy has lots to contribute to public life, especially in my specific areas of ethics and political philosophy, and it isn’t fulfilling all its functions if it doesn’t address itself to a wider public.”

His most recent contribution to public life is The Best Things in Life: A Guide to What Really Matters (OUP 2011), an engaging and accessible book that explores many facets of leading a good life: pleasure and knowledge ― both of the self and of the world around us ― play important roles as does love, friendship and achievement.

Hurka is a fellow of the Royal Society of Canada and a recipient of both a Killam Research Fellowship (2011) and a Guggenheim Fellowship (2006). He was named a University Professor, the university’s highest academic honour, in 2013.

Hurka becomes the 15th Killam Prize winner in the Faculty of Arts & Science. Recent A&S recipients include computer scientist Geoffrey Hinton, physicists Richard Peltier and Sajeev John, and linguist Keren Rice.

Molly Shoichet of U of T’s Faculty of Applied Science & Engineering also received a 2017 Killam Prize and Roberto Abraham of the Department of Astronomy & Astrophysics was awarded a Killam Research Fellowship.

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