Dr. Charlotte vanOyen Witvliet of the Hope College psychology faculty has received a research grant as part of a multi-institution study of accountability that has been awarded major support from the Templeton Religion Trust (TRT).

The overall project, “Accountability as a Relational Virtue,” is being funded through a $2 million, three-year grant to the Baylor Center for Christian Philosophy (BCCP) at Baylor University and Baylor’s Institute for Studies of Religion (ISR).  The team includes scholars in philosophy, theology, psychology, psychiatry, sociology and criminology, and from Harvard Medical School and the University of St. Andrews in addition to Baylor and Hope.

Witvliet, a professor of psychology, is the principal investigator of a $343,445 sub-award to Hope College.  She will collaborate with the team and conduct empirical research, with a focus on scale development, psychophysiology and genetics, mental health, and a study of people who are incarcerated.

“As a team, we want to understand how accountability is experienced and embodied as a virtue in relationship to positive psychology, mental health and religion,” she said. The researchers will seek to understand the virtue and its relation to other human characteristics, including conscientiousness, empathy, humility, repentance, forgiveness and gratitude, as well as how it can be manifested both in human relationships and in relation to God.

Witvliet noted that while accountability is a much-discussed topic, it is usually considered either in terms of when to hold people accountable or when they feel accountable. This project, however, will look at accountability as a virtue that people can show within a wide variety of supervisory, supervised and peer relationships. “People with the virtue welcome being accountable to others — providing transparent explanations of their decisions and behavior to those in appropriate roles; and they are willingly accountable for their attitudes, thoughts, emotions and actions — working to improve or correct their responses when appropriate,” Witvliet explained.

She observed that accountability is connected to human flourishing: “People lacking accountability are often resistant to make needed changes. However, people with the virtue wisely question, resist and/or report when someone tries to hold them accountable in inappropriate ways or with unjust goals.”

The overall project is being directed by Baylor faculty member C. Stephen Evans (University Professor of Philosophy and Humanities, Distinguished Senior Fellow at ISR and director of the BCCP), and project co-directors Byron R. Johnson (Distinguished Professor of the Social Sciences and director of ISR at Baylor) and Sung Joon Jang (Research Professor of Criminology at ISR at Baylor).

In addition to Evans, Johnson, Jang and Witvliet, the team includes John Peteet (psychiatry, Harvard Medical School), Andrew Torrance (theology, University of St. Andrews), and Robert Roberts (Distinguished Professor of Philosophy Emeritus from Baylor).

“The philosophers and theologians will primarily be responsible for the conceptual work, while the psychologist, two social scientists and a psychiatrist will primarily be responsible for the empirical work,” Evans said.  “However, thanks to a one-year inception grant from TRT, our team of scholars has already realized the enormous benefit of working together as a team.”

Johnson indicated that the Templeton Religion Trust is especially interested in scholarship that is field-changing.  In addition to seeking philosophical and theological understanding of the virtue, one of the key objectives will be to develop tools to measure the trait empirically, both to gain a clear understanding of its relation to other traits and to discover how the virtue might be strengthened.

Johnson noted that “in order to build momentum for this new line of study, our research will be promoted and disseminated widely through a summer workshop, a major public conference on accountability, a series of popular essays, articles in peer-reviewed journals and books.”  Roberts, a distinguished scholar in moral psychology and virtue ethics, believes it is possible “to raise awareness of this virtue to influential religious leaders and opinion-shapers representing diverse constituencies.” According to Jang, “we are optimistic our research and its accompanying outputs will be catalytic in opening up a new field of academic inquiry within multiple academic disciplines, as well as applied settings.”