The Virtue Blog

Frankl’s Self-Transcendence Model and Virtue Ethics – Part 2

Paul T.P. Wong is Professor Emeritus, Trent University, and a scholar with Virtue, Happiness, & the Meaning of Life.  Timothy Reilly is a Postdoctoral Fellow in the Developing Virtues in the Practice of Science Project at the University of Notre Dame, and was a participant in our 2017 Summer Seminar, Virtue, Happiness, and Self-Transcendence.

This post is part 2 of a 2-part series. Part 1 posted yesterday.

Motivation of Searching for Self-Transcendence

The will to meaning represents the primary motivation to seek for meaning, defined as something that is greater than oneself and that is worthy of one one’s commitment to pursue. Frankl took pains to emphasize that this something cannot be totally subjective and arbitrary, because it may lead to a misguided ambition and the abuse of power. Thus, what is good and worthy must be consistent with our higher purpose and based on some objective standard of values and norms, such as not harming others and contributing to the well-being of others.

Frankl’s will to meaning represents the noble or spiritual side of human nature. It is similar to Aquinas’ (1925) description of people’s noble innate desire for what is good and choice-worthy as an end value (ST Ia 82.1; QDV 3.22.12). According to Aquinas, a virtuous person develops a virtuous disposition of living ethically through both the acquired virtue of practicing good habits and infused virtues through an awakening of one’s spiritual virtue of faith, hope, and love.

A virtuous or good habit comes from consistently doing the right thing based on following one’s reasoning and one’s innate conscience. However, both the virtuous character and a virtuous deed begin with a conscious choice to act responsibly and live responsibly according to a higher noble purpose. Thus, Aquinas contends that the virtuous individual is charitable, properly ordering their desires so that they can effectively pursue the most important ends, directing their lives toward human flourishing (Titus 2016). Narvaez’s (2016) Triune Ethics Metatheory, taking a similar approach, posits that moral motives emerge when individuals’ motivations stem from a communal imagination, prioritizing the common good rather than selfish or self-protective motives.

Thus, the virtuous kind of ST is based on (1) the responsible choice of the will to meaning rather than the will to pleasure or power; and (2) the responsible choice of doing the right thing in each situation. Such consistent choice will eventually result in a virtuous disposition.

Power of the Meaning-Mindset

Courage, responsibility, and the search for ST need to be guided or governed by the proper use of intellect (i.e., right thinking) in order to do the right thing and live a virtuous life. In other words, when one’s reason is misguided or distorted, one will not be able to choose according to one’s noble purpose and good end.

For Frankl, one’s proper use of intellect depends on believing that there is inherent meaning in human existence and specific situations. This belief or worldview is just as rational as the belief or presupposition held by scientists that the world is orderly and governed by scientific laws. Wong (2011) refers to such affirmation of meaning as the meaning-mindset.

More specifically, through the lens of the meaning-mindset, we discover both ultimate meaning and specific meanings. Ultimate meaning has to do with one’s commitment to spiritual and existential meaning. It is concerned with one’s global belief regarding the larger schemes of things: “This grandiose order, I believe, is what Frankl understands by logos, ultimate meaning. We can never hope to ‘find’ it in its totality, we can only pursue it to the best of our abilities” (Fabry, 1994, p. 35).

Frankl (1985) believes that it is more productive to address the specific meanings of the moment, because ultimate meanings exists in the supra-human (or supernatural) dimension and is “hidden” from us. However, ultimate meaning is important in shaping our perceptions and actions; specific meanings of the moment cannot be separable from our assumptions about ultimate meaning, just as figures are perceived as part of the ground. William James said, “Believe that life is worth living, and your belief will help create the fact” (as quoted in Bridges, 1916, p. 425). Therefore, the belief in ultimate meaning facilitates the discovery of specific meanings.

The other aspect of the meaning-mindset is to assess each situation in terms of its meaning potentials. In each situation, cognitive meaning refers to causal attribution and stress appraisal; existential meaning refers to its reason or purpose for a responsible action. Such reasoning is guided by knowledge and logic, but, equally important, it is also guided by one’s innate conscience and moral norms. There is the challenge to make the right decision without complete information; but responsibleness demands that our action be helpful to others and fit into larger patterns of ultimate meaning. Although Frankl is aware that different cultures may have different moral norms and emphasize different virtues (MacIntyre, 1985), he believes in the inner voice of “oughtness,” similar to Kant’s (1785/1993) concept of “categorical imperatives”—we ought to care for others and contribute to the common good, consistent with our higher calling.

Frankl’s understanding of reason is similar to Aquinas’ concept of reason as a species-defining characteristic and his thesis that the proper exercise of will results in human goodness to the extent that one’s action is consistent with our worthy end and infused virtues. Frankl’s situational meaning is also consistent with Aristotle’s practical wisdom, because our action is appropriate to the demand characteristic of the situation.

Practical wisdom means that, in addition to responsible choice (willing to do what is right), the virtuous person also knows how to do what is right in a particular situation for a person such as themselves (Titus, 2016). Knowing how to do what is right includes prioritizing various choices one has made properly. For instance, while eating is important, it is generally more important to help someone experiencing a medical emergency than to eat. Further, if one doesn’t have the opportunity to eat, as in a situation of deprivation, a practically wise individual will respond appropriately rather than being distracted excessively by hunger. Practical wisdom also generally entails that an individual will seek to develop capacities relevant to their situation and that they will choose means in which they are competent to achieve the good (e.g., not attempting risky medical procedures without training). Practical wisdom serves to integrate, develop, and enact an individual’s virtues.


We have explained why Frankl’s four basic tenets—courage, responsibility, meaning-seeking, and meaning-finding—have moral implications similar to the Aristotelian and Thomistic moral theory of virtue ethics in important ways.

Frankl’s model provides a practical framework to live a virtuous life of ST with a philosophical foundation in virtue ethics. Although Frankl avoided being identified as religious, his emphasis on faith in a level of ultimate meaning or supra-meaning acknowledged a transcendental source of our moral responsibility and virtuous behaviour: “Being human is being conscious and being responsible, culminating in a synthesis of both, namely, one’s consciousness of his responsibleness” (Frankl, 1975, p. 60).

In other words, living a virtuous life does not solely depend on cultivating the habit of doing good deeds until it leads to the development of a character of virtue; it also depends on being awakened to and cultivating our spiritual motivation to pursue ST and our consciousness of our ethical responsibleness in every situation. The pursuit of goodness, beauty, and truth can be facilitated by awakening our true spiritual nature of faith, hope, and love. Thus, Frankl’s two-factor theory of ST is similar to Aquinas’ emphasis on both acquired virtues and infused virtues.

Another advantage of Frankl’s ST model is that he has interventions designed to practice the above four virtues. For example, courage can be increased by paradoxical intention and responsibility can be enhanced through Socratic questioning. Similarly, de-reflection can be used to redirect one’s attention from self-absorption to some activity of ST. The practice of the meaning-mindset can be facilitated by self-distancing and mindfulness.

Timothy Reilly’s Self-Introduction

Timothy Reilly is a developmental and learning scientist. His past research has focused on purpose, self-development, and psychological well-being in the transition to adulthood. He is currently working on the Developing Virtue in the Practice of Science project, an interdisciplinary project at the University of Notre Dame exploring the relation between virtue and practices. His research interests are primarily in moral and spiritual development, with a focus on virtue, self-development, and vocation.


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