Empathy and Self-Transcendence

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“Empathy” | Photo by Sarah Barker.

Note: This is part 1 of a 3-part series “Perspective-Taking, Empathy, and Self-Transcendence” based on a talk at the University of California, San Diego by Candace Vogler in June 2018 for WISDOM, COMPASSION, AND LONGEVITY.

 

Introduction

Some colleagues and I are in the process of bringing a grant project to a close.  The project has given all of us a chance to think together about the relationship between working to be a good person, leading a meaningful life, and being happy.  These three need not coincide.  I could be working hard to deliver medical supplies, food, and drinking water to refugees in desperate circumstances.  I am helping set up a clinic in their camp, say.  New people keep arriving, fleeing the genocidal violence across the border.

 

Chances are that I have a strong sense of purpose.  There is meaning in the life I’m leading.  Chances are that I am a reasonably good person.  On some understandings of the term ‘happiness’—the sort associated with having a happy birthday, say, or a happy holiday—I am probably not particularly happy. But there is a kind of happiness I might have even in the camp.  I might get a profound sense of satisfaction from my work.  I might be exultant if we are able to save the lives of people who are half-dead when they arrive.  And I might be cheerful.  If profound satisfaction and the ability to maintain some balance and some capacity for joy amid immense struggle is what we mean by ‘happiness,’ then I am happy.

 

Our grant project was not explicitly directed to the situation of humanitarian aid workers and those who need the help they bring. We were mostly thinking about ordinary people who understand themselves as belonging to a middle class in places like North America.  We wanted to understand what might be involved in finding meaning and real satisfaction in leading ordinary lives in the kinds of extraordinarily fortunate circumstances middle class people around these parts enjoy.  We argued—in various ways, across various academic disciplines—that the key to bringing together efforts to be a good person, deep satisfaction, and a strong sense of meaning in one’s ordinary life was to be oriented to some good larger than one’s own success and the welfare of members of one’s circle.  Being entirely oriented to my own success, my own pleasures, my own comfort, my own prospects, is not a recipe for leading a good life.  It does not become a recipe for leading a good life even if I extend the sphere of my primary concern to cover the pleasures, comfort, security and prospects of my friends and family.  Finding meaning in my life, finding my life profoundly satisfying, putting my efforts to be a good person in their proper place—these things require being alive to participating in a good that goes beyond me and mine.

 

There are many ways that this can happen.  I can understand my life in the context of a multigenerational family that began long before I was born and will, with any luck, continue long after I die.  I inherited the benefits of the struggles of my ancestors.  I want to carry the good forward for my descendants—people I will never meet, whose names I will not know, but whose lives grow out of the life I lead.  Or perhaps it is like this—I work toward environmental sustainability, or I am devoted to social justice, or my religious faith animates my sense of my world and our place in it.  Lots of roads are made of good larger than the worldly gains of me and mine.  Following any of those roads can amount to living a life where ordinary things are meaningful, where life is deeply satisfying even when it is not much fun, and where the ordinary ethical struggles I face are worth the courage and effort it takes to begin to remedy my own failings.

 

One way of putting the central insight that animated our grant project, then, is this—to lead a life that is good in three senses—successful, satisfying, and ethically sound—we must break the spell of selfishness.  Breaking the spell of selfishness is not easy.  I will focus on one of the ways that we can loosen the hold of what Immanuel Kant called ‘the dear self’ today.  I will talk about the variety of compassion at issue in empathy.

 

Tomorrow, June 6: Empathy and Shifting Perspectives


Candace Vogler is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Chicago and a Principal Investigator on ‘Virtue, Happiness, and the Meaning of Life’, a project funded by the John Templeton Foundation. She is also the Chair in Virtue Theory, a joint appointment with the Jubilee Centre and the Royal Institute of Philosophy.