Transcendence & spiritual joy

One of the “big questions” of the Virtue, Happiness, and Meaning of Life (VHML) project at the University of Chicago asks whether self-transcendent orientation helps ordinary virtuous activity. In her 2015 blog post, Dr. Candace Vogler noted how, on the one hand, the terms virtue, happiness, and meaning of life appear in “broad, educated, popular culture,” but on the other hand, self-transcendence does not.

 

In a blog post earlier this year I introduced a conceptualization of transcendence as something native to the human experience. Beginning with a simple dictionary definition of the verb “transcend”: “a) to rise above or go beyond the limits of; b) to triumph over the negative or restrictive aspects of: to overcome,”[1] I went further to define transcendence as an experiential meaning-making process (Fig. 1) that helps a person form extraordinary connections both within and beyond the self with others, in time and space. A transcendent orientation, then, would be some natural part of our human construction. Transcendence as I have defined it can have an iterative quality, and if sufficiently repeated with personally relevant, extraordinarily positive or negative events, could reinforce or strengthen one’s transcendent orientation. I omit the “self-” prefix to transcendence because that aspect is included in my definition of transcendence above. The relationship between transcendent orientation and ordinary virtuous activity may then be explored in many ways. One possible approach, for example, would be to posit and test whether those with a sufficiently strong transcendent orientation will be more likely incorporate virtuous activities in one’s ordinary, day-to-day life, than those with a weak transcendent orientation.

 

Picture1

 

In my dissertation, I defined transcendence as a process rather than as an event or state of being, making it potentially trackable. The process also has at least two possible outcomes: a) stabilization of one’s sense of self, allowing the person to more firmly root himself or herself in response to the question: “What am I?” and b) extraordinary connections within and beyond the self, giving the person coordinates within space-time, tagged with the memory of specific, meaningful events. These coordinates in moral space could then be referenced in future situations. My dissertation tracked transcendence, its inputs, and its outputs in resilient American service members who survived a POW experience and wrote about it later. It confirmed the presence of this process when they attempted to establish meaning with extraordinary, personally relevant, positive or negative experiences during their imprisonment.

 

Anti-transcendence, the contrary to transcendence, can also happen, in which attempts to make meaning of personally relevant, extraordinarily negative events fail. These kinds of events carry anti-transcendent markers, or those that would normally inhibit meaning-making from occurring. In the case of anti-transcendence, an unresolvable clash has occurred between the event and the person’s meaning-making apparatus, and the person is unable to surmount those anti-transcendent markers. Anti-transcendence only occurs when a person fails to attach proper meaning to a personally relevant and extraordinarily negative event. If the person fails to make meaning of a personally relevant, extraordinarily positive event, that memory eventually gets relegated to the realm of everyday events with no significant outcome. Such an event carries markers that would normally catalyze meaning-making, but a failure to establish meaning of such a positive event is unlikely to carry negative effects. This latter occurrence is not anti-transcendence; rather, the event simply exits meaning-making, perhaps to re-enter at a later time, or never again.

 

Anti-transcendence can result in one of two deleterious outcomes: a) destabilization of one’s sense of self and b) severing of extraordinary connections within and beyond the self. Anti-transcendence was detected in two of the Vietnam War POW memoirs I analyzed in my dissertation, both of which occurred shortly after their “breaking points” under torture. One service member experienced destabilization of his sense of self, describing that he was at the point of suicide and was reduced to an animal. The other experienced a sense of severing the extraordinary connection he had with his fellow POWs; he stated if he ever saw his fellow POWs, he wouldn’t be able to hold his head up, experiencing a profound sense of shame. He initially self-identified as a “failure” in this moment of anti-transcendence before entering a subsequent round of transcendence in which meaning was successfully established of his breaking point, with the help of his fellow POWs, and those extraordinary connections were reestablished.[2] I believe that a deeper study of both transcendence and anti-transcendence is necessary to inform the relationship between a transcendent orientation and ordinary virtuous activity. Transcendence may reinforce or strengthen that orientation, while anti-transcendence may diminish or disrupt it.

 

Recently, I had the opportunity to take a two-year assignment with a community of men who regularly ponder and discuss the big questions that The Virtue, Happiness, and Meaning of Life project has posited over the past two years. The Oblates of the Virgin Mary (OMV) is an international congregation of Roman Catholic priests and brothers, trained in giving the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius and seasoned in the realm of spiritual discernment. They also understand openness to transcendence, which might be analogous to the idea of transcendent orientation, as native to human experience. Openness to transcendence as an inherent quality of the human person is taught as part of the social doctrine of the Catholic Church (paragraph #130).

group 1
Photo by Rose C. Cummings.

I sat down with sixteen of them one evening in their US-based seminary. These men hailed from such places as Nigeria, Brunei, the Philippines, Mexico, Canada, Minnesota, California, Florida, New York, Massachusetts, Illinois, and other parts of the United States. They came with equally diverse educational backgrounds, including tradesmen and those with undergraduate and/or advanced degrees in theology, history, physics, computer science, robotics, nursing, journalism, film, molecular biology, psychiatry, accounting/business, and more. We were gathered that day to discuss their founder’s writings, who thought deeply about and acted on the idea that there is an ultimate good worth striving for, which extends far beyond one’s own personal or immediate needs. Venerable Bruno Lanteri founded the OMV as a spiritual community over 200 years ago with a mission that was directed towards the ultimate good of others in the Piedmont region of Italy and the surrounding regions. It grew to serve thousands of people all over the world. Today the men of this community carry on that mission in Europe, the Philippines, Nigeria, the Amazon region in Brazil, Argentina, Canada, and the USA.

 

Although I did not plan or anticipate that this discussion would relate to the VHML project or transcendence, it turned out that the group chose to spend a significant portion of the evening talking about a potentially linked concept: spiritual joy. Spiritual joy is a topic preserved in the writings of their founder. It is an outcome of deep thinking about goods that go beyond one’s own comfort or immediate gratifications. This reflection is not meant to be an exhaustive academic treatment of the topic, but rather an account of the discussion that yielded some potentially useful concepts in the quest for a deeper understanding of transcendence.

 

Let’s begin with Ven. Bruno’s definition of spiritual joy:

 

“Spiritual joy is a joyous affection of heart produced through sufficient thought about present spiritual goods. What are these goods? Participation in the divine nature (as children of God), union with Jesus Christ, being in the bosom of the Church as her sons, God’s special protection, the gifts of the theological virtues, the sacraments, the communion of saints, grace, friendship with God, the merits of our actions, the glory of heaven that is already almost ours because of the firm hope we have…this is the joy that we must seek.” [The Spiritual Writings of Venerable Pio Bruno Lanteri: A Selection, pg. 91 – 92]

 

This joyous affection of the heart required the activity of “sufficient thought” on a subject, “present spiritual goods.” I asked these priests and seminarians to say more about how they understood this dynamic. One priest said, “At Mass, I think people can mistake joy for irreverence. Going to church should be enjoyable. It should be something that brings a smile to your face because you’re with your community, you’re with your brothers and sisters. I think that’s the way God intended it, and we in the modern world seem to be missing out on that spiritual joy that should be present.” A seminarian reflected on what attracted him to this congregation on his first visit: “Spiritual joy was one of the most memorable experiences I had on my visit. Being in community here for the first time gave me a sense of joy, ‘at home-ness,’ a place where I could be comfortable.” The sharing in joy was very attractive to him. Both men gave considerable thought to certain present spiritual goods that Lanteri mentioned, but these reflections weren’t made in a vacuum. Personally relevant, extraordinary events, like worship, or a “come-and-see” visit in the midst of vocational discernment were “inputs.” Both also noted the importance of a certain outcome: making extraordinary connections beyond oneself, perhaps the beginnings of solidarity.

 

They went further to say that spiritual joy can be contagious. When I asked how it gets spread, they responded that it can happen at the personal and the communal level. They said that it can be spread by how one authentically exudes spiritual joy in the public square, treating others with the kindness and gentleness that stems from one’s personal, close, relationship with Jesus. A community, if filled with the kind of focus on the spiritual goods that Lanteri mentioned, can also help spread that spiritual joy.

 

Curious about what opposes the “contagiousness” of spiritual joy, I also asked them how they think it is quenched in the world, since several of them cited its lack or absence in modern society. One seminarian mentioned that many people simply fail to recognize it when it happens. In other words, people may have experiences of spiritual joy, but because they do not know how to recognize it, they fail to make meaning of it, and it is soon forgotten. This would reflect a similar dynamic in my model of transcendence, when a person fails to make meaning of a personally relevant, extraordinarily positive event, and it gets relegated to the realm of everyday events. Another seminarian mentioned that people sometimes need to be reminded to ask the Lord for it, to actively seek it by pondering those present spiritual goods more deeply.

LN2_1157
Photo by Rose C. Cummings.

They also drew on their experience in discernment of spirits when discussing how spiritual joy may be quenched. These priests and brothers use St. Ignatius’ rules of discernment, which describe the actions of three sources of information on the discerner: God, the human discerner himself or herself, and the devil (also known as the enemy of human beings). This community is intensely trained in these rules and in giving the Spiritual Exercises, which incorporate those rules on retreat. I asked them what they thought were the top strategies of the enemy to quench spiritual joy in the modern world. The first response came from a senior priest. “Disruption of community life. If you disrupt community, you can disrupt everything.” Community could mean neighborhoods, parish communities, or religious communities. These were places where people live and work together on a day-to-day basis, calling for the practice of ordinary virtuous activity. One seminarian also noted how fomenting jealousy and taking offense where none was intended can also quench spiritual joy.  Another seminarian noted that preventing sufficient thought about spiritual goods was a way to prevent spiritual joy from ever occurring, which could be caused either by oneself or by the work of the enemy. For example, in a later passage of Ven. Bruno’s writings, one could lose sight of spiritual joy by one’s own sloth, sins, or by tribulations and adversity. Alternatively, the devil could also work against a person’s concentration on present spiritual goods by offering temptations or distractions. The seminarian recalled a literary example of such a tactic in his reading of The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis. The demon Screwtape recalls the danger of awakening a person’s reason, and tells the story of a “patient” he had, who was an atheist, and used to read in a museum. Rather than allow arguments to form in the mind of this reader, he suggested to his patient that it was just about time for lunch, knowing that getting him back into the street would prevent him from thinking further.

 

When discussing the antidotes to these diabolical tactics, one mentioned the needed presence of gentle, well-formed leaders with the proper training to help unify communities. A second mentioned the need to remind one another to seek and ask for spiritual joy from the Lord, in prayer, in spiritual direction, and by following the personal example of Jesus.  A third recalled the importance of spreading good reading, the kind that encouraged the reader to keep pondering the present spiritual goods, and inspire him or her to do more for others.

 

Returning to one of the big questions of the Virtue, Happiness, and Meaning of Life project, is it possible that self-transcendent orientation may affect ordinary virtuous activity? Dr. Vogler sketched out manifestations of self-transcendence in her 2015 post that includes working on behalf of bettering the community in a way that helps strangers; engaging in spiritual practices that allow one to participate in a community organized by the need to be right with one another and to show due reverence for the sacred; and acting in small ways or big ways that are guided by one’s relation to something bigger and better than oneself.

 

There is a profundity to her question. Perhaps one way to the answer could involve more conceptual digging upstream. For example, is it possible that transcendent orientation is reinforced or weakened by how people handle personally relevant, extraordinarily positive or negative events, which in turn, has a downstream effect on the presence, absence, frequency, or intensity of ordinary virtuous activity? Can transcendence, defined as process rather than event or state of being, shed some light on these dimensions of transcendent orientation? Time will tell. I am grateful to have spent some time with such thoughtful scholars in the VHML project and look forward to hearing more about where the dialogue goes. Cheers!

 

Works Cited

 

Lewis, C.S. The Screwtape Letters with Screwtape Proposes a Toast. New York: Harper Collins, 1996.

 

Pak, Cabrini. “Transcendence in Resilient American POWs: A Narrative Analysis.” PhD diss., The Catholic University of America, 2017.

 

The Oblates of the Virgin Mary. The Spiritual Writings of Venerable Pio Bruno Lanteri: A Selection. Italy: Oblates of the Virgin Mary, 2001.

 

United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. “Openness to Transcendence and Uniqueness of the Person.” Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church. Washington, DC: USCCB Publishing, 2003.

 

Vogler, Candace. “Self-transcendence the missing link in research on virtue, happiness, and meaning in human life?” Oct. 22, 2015, The Virtue Blog, https://thevirtueblog.com/2015/10/22/self-transcendence-the-missing-link-in-research-on-virtue-happiness-and-meaning-in-human-life/, accessed Nov. 19, 2017.

[1] “Transcend,” Merriam-Webster dictionary website, accessed Mar. 4, 2017, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/transcend.

[2] Cabrini Pak, “Transcendence in Resilient American POWs: A Narrative Analysis” (PhD diss., The Catholic University of America, 2017): 161; 172 – 173.

[1] “Transcend,” Merriam-Webster dictionary website, accessed Mar. 4, 2017, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/transcend.


Cabrini Pak is the Research Consultant at the Oblates of the Virgin Mary and was a participant in our 2017 Summer Session, Virtue, Happiness, and Self-Transcendence.

Community in the Classroom

Screenshot 2017-11-28 11.30.15

Note: This post is a reprint from the November 2017 article in Fulbright Hearts and Minds. The piece and more information about the Fulbright Specialist Program can be viewed here.

In August and September 2017, Professor Candace Vogler from the University of Chicago spent three weeks in residence at the Institute for Ethics & Society at The University of Notre Dame Australia in Sydney, supported by a generous grant from the Fulbright Specialist Program.

Candace is a world leading moral philosopher, and one of the most creative minds at work today on how to translate the insights of moral philosophy into improving tertiary education environments.

Her expertise dovetails with the Institute for Ethics & Society’s research strengths in moral philosophy and ethics education.

Candace and researchers at Notre Dame share the conviction that integrating moral philosophy into university curriculums has a unique role to play in contributing to the intellectual and moral formation of all university students.

During her visit at Notre Dame, Candace delivered a public lecture, gave two keynote conference papers, taught a master-class on the history of moral philosophy, and facilitated a pedagogy workshop on creating community in the classroom.

She also consulted with researchers and senior leadership on how to develop connections between moral philosophy and professional education – a particular passion for Notre Dame in its commitment to providing an excellent standard of training for the professions.

The visit made a huge impact on students and faculty at Notre Dame, and led to the Institute for Ethics & Society being named an official partner institution with the University of Chicago’s $2.2m John Templeton Project “Virtue, Happiness, and the Meaning of Life” – a partnership which will bring the Institute for Ethics & Society into a global community of scholars and allow it to further develop its research expertise in moral philosophy and ethics education.

Professor Sandra Lynch, Director of the Institute for Ethics & Society was responsible for the successful FSP proposal. “Winning this grant has opened many doors for us and stimulated our thinking, especially in relation to ethics education. Not only did we have the pleasure of engaging with and learning from Candace for three weeks, but the link has enabled us to begin building research linkages around the world.

“A number of our researchers have been admirers of Candace’s scholarship for many years. This grant has provided us with a pathway to continue benefitting from Candace’s expertise in the future, and we also expect it will provide a platform for discussion and dissemination of our research in years to come as we interact with scholars of moral philosophy and ethics education around the world.”

The impact of this specialist visit was also felt in the wider Australian academic community. Activities associated with her visit saw researchers and students from universities across Sydney, as well as from the University of Oxford, University College London, and Princeton Theological Seminary, gather at Notre Dame to learn from Candace.

The Place of Virtue in a Meaningful Life

Solitude

Call both one’s efforts at being a good person and the ways of thinking, feeling, and responding to circumstances that develop while one works to be a good person ‘virtue.’ Let a ‘meaningful’ life be a life imbued with a sense of purpose or significance—a life that is full, engaging, and engaged, where the fullness comes of something more than mere subjective interest and enthusiasm.  It can seem as though virtue and meaning have very little to do with each other. Whatever sort of struggle might be involved in working to be a good human being can seem like something personal—an individual quest to have a beautiful character or a shining soul. Having a meaningful life, on the other hand, looks like the sort of thing that will require that I go beyond the business of working toward having a lovely soul and into a larger world where I try to find things that are genuinely worth pursuing, and devote myself to their pursuit. In this talk, I will work to bring the two together, partly by urging a different account of virtue, partly by developing a slightly more articulate account of meaning in human life, and always by drawing on work by Thomas Aquinas.

Learning to be Good

It may be that talk about virtue has never been common in ordinary life. It may be that the only common talk about virtue in North America happened a long time ago and was primarily concerned with women and their sexual habits, where ‘virtue’ was a matter of chastity. But in the latter part of the 20th century, Anglophone philosophers started talking about virtue again, and we now confront a wide variety of different kinds of talk about virtue in both moral philosophy and areas of empirical social science directed to exploration of moral psychology and moral education. By most of these lights, a specific virtue is a character trait that tends to make its bearer a better person than she would be without it, and the sorts of virtues that are topics of inquiry are acquired virtues—virtues that develop through training and practice. There are accounts of virtue that find their philosophical ancestor in the 18th century Scottish philosopher, David Hume. There are accounts of virtue that draw extensively from the work of Roman thinkers like Cicero. There are accounts of virtue rooted in work by the ancient Greek philosopher, Aristotle. The theorist of virtue I have found most useful is a scholastic neo-Aristotelian—Thomas Aquinas.

For Aquinas, there are four cardinal virtues—practical wisdom, justice, temperance, and courage. We need all four. Michael Pakaluk puts the point this way:

A virtue is a trait that…makes someone such that his activity—what he does, what he is responsible for—is reasonable. But there are four basic types of such activity: his thinking itself, as practical and directed at action; his actions ordinarily so-called…; and how he is affected. This last category splits into two, Aquinas thinks, on the grounds that acting reasonably in the realm of the passions involves regulating both the passions by which we are drawn to something and the passions by which we are repulsed from something. These two sorts of passions imply two sorts of tasks or achievements…which the ordinary distinction between the virtues of temperance and courage confirms (ST I-2.61.2 resp.).

I am happy to go into detail about the work of the virtues with you in discussion, if you like. For now, the point is just that the virtues foster coordination and cooperation among our various powers in such a way that we can pursue human good, and avoid what is bad for us, smoothly and well. And for Aquinas, even a fully virtuous person is likely to make mistakes in trying to act well.

Secondary virtues—generosity, for instance, or humility, or gratitude or kindness—work to strengthen and support the operation of cardinal virtues. Cultivating virtues is part of sound moral development. And sound moral development is crucial to human life, on this view. Unlike nonhuman animals, humans need more than just a combination of good fortune, instinct and training to lead good lives. We need developed characters.

Some contemporary neo-Aristotelians (and some more venerable theorists) think that acquired virtue is all that we need to lead a good human life. They think that living virtuously is enough to make us happy, and that, since virtue is its own reward, living virtuously ought to be enough to make our lives full and meaningful as well. For those who think that virtue is all that we need, what virtue does, for the most part, is make each of us a stronger and better person. This will give the virtuous person a measure of resilience when things do not go her way. It will help guide her when exercising virtue looks to put her at a tremendous disadvantage—as it will, for instance, if she called upon to deliver truthful testimony in court condemning a mob boss, or if she is called upon to care for an infirm parent who is demanding, ungrateful, and generally unkind, or if being mindful of the needs of her children and spouse requires turning down a very shiny job offer in a distant place. Virtuous activity can put the virtuous person at risk of death, misery, or serious personal disappointment. And, in general, one would have to be appallingly lacking in imagination to be incapable of thinking of anything more exciting to do than pay debts, help those in need, or work hard not to lie, cheat, abandon others, or steal when bad acts offer big rewards.

Aquinas knows that virtuous action can put the virtuous person at a disadvantage, as far as worldly success is concerned. He does not think that having developed a good character will, all on its own, make everything go well for the virtuous person. But his understanding of virtue has two features that are uncommon in other accounts of virtue, both of which give virtue a proper place in a meaningful life.

First, any specific virtue is directed to the common good, for Aquinas. Although he shares the general Aristotelian conviction that my virtues, if I have any, are good for me, the benefit that I get from my own good character is not the most interesting thing about my virtues for Aquinas. What my virtues do is direct me to good larger than just my own welfare and the welfare of those in my inner circle. Although what Aquinas means by saying that virtue is directed to common good, in the first instance, is not exactly what a contemporary Anglophone philosopher would generally mean by invoking common good, Aquinas’s understanding is not opposed to what we would mean either. It is just that the common good of interest to Aquinas operates on a cosmic scale. One could, for example, develop an interesting form of environmental ethics by meditating on Aquinas’s thought about common good. The commonality at issue reaches out toward the whole of creation.  The human community is, of course, part of creation.

Second, and relatedly, Aquinas does not think that happiness and a sense of meaning in this life are the highest objects of aspiration for us. The highest object of aspiration is eternal happiness in a resurrected life. We cannot get that for ourselves without God’s help, but, in a strong sense, it is what we are made for, and virtue in this life supports us in our efforts to be right with ourselves, right with our fellow creatures, and right with God.

So much for a very quick introduction to virtue.  What place do our efforts at moral self-improvement have in meaningful lives?

Meaning in Human Life

Questions about what makes life meaningful are relatively new questions in European philosophy. It looks as though the topic started to rise up explicitly for European thinkers in the wake of what was called “The Great War,” and again, with different urgency, in the wake of their Second World War, partly in response to the utter destructiveness of these ventures and pointedly in response to the way that neighbors turned on neighbors during efforts to annihilate Jewish people, gypsies, people with leftist political views, homosexual people, disabled people, and, in a different way, Slavic peoples, and to enslave many other peoples by the axis powers. In mainstream English-language philosophy, the topic did not get much currency until late in the twentieth century, and is only beginning to have spark more interest now. Part of the reason that mainstream Anglophone philosophers are reluctant to wade into questions about meaning in life is that there is no single, clear, precise characterization of what counts as meaning in this area.

There are desiderata—conditions that any adequate account of meaning in human life ought to meet if the view is to be a view about the sort of thing that despairing people find elusive and people leading significant or meaningful lives have. Anglophone philosophers being the kinds of intellectuals that they are, every one of the points I am about to list as reasonable starting points for thought about what makes life meaningful has been contested by at least one of the people taking up the question in the last thirty years. I will, for all that, move forward boldly rather than allowing us to be caught in the details of the disputations. Again, I am happy to trace the disputations for any of them if you like.  Here are what I take to be reasonable starting points for thought about what makes life meaningful:

  1. Meaning in human life is not merely a matter of subjective satisfaction with how things are going—people with tremendous hardship and burden can be leading tremendously meaningful lives even when they do not expect that their efforts in any of their areas of activity will succeed.
  2. Meaning in human life has an important objective dimension—I can take it that my life has not been worth living and be wrong (one can think of this as one aspect of an ‘It’s A Wonderful Life’ principle); by the same token, I can take it that my life is filled with meaning and be wrong.
  3. Related to (1) and (2), to whatever extent assessments of happiness in life are importantly subjective, happiness is distinct from meaningfulness.
  4. Whatever kinds of activities, relationships, ways of living, or experiences contribute to meaning in human life, meaningful lives are better than meaningless lives—that is, ‘meaning’ is not a purely descriptive term in this setting.
  5. Related to (4), there is an important distinction between meaning in life and moral status (however moral status is assessed)—full lives, empty lives, and lives that are neither especially full nor especially empty have moral status.

There are various ways to carve the territory of recent Anglophone philosophical work on the meaning of life. One clear line of distinction demarcates naturalist views from supernaturalist views.

Supernaturalist views hold that our relations to, and participation in a spiritual order is crucial to having a meaningful life. Such views, notice, might be true even if there is no such thing as the variety of spiritual order postulated by the relevant supernaturalist theorist of meaning. If there is no such order, then our lives are not lives that can be meaningful, by these lights. Some supernaturalist views are distinctively theistic—ordinarily, these are monotheistic views focused on our relation to God.  Other supernaturalist views find a spiritual order in the natural world, sometimes linked to pantheistic or polytheistic understandings of that order. These latter varieties of supernaturalism have not been explored extensively in the Anglophone philosophical literature. The philosophers have stuck with monotheism, for the most part. There tend to be three important dimensions to monotheistic supernaturalist views about the meaning of life:

  1. Metaphysical dimension: God’s existence is necessary to ground meaningful lives because an infinite, essentially good, almighty creator and legislator God anchors objective value generally, and the objective value of human life as part of this.
  2. Relational dimension: A meaningful life is informed by sound (if necessarily incomplete) understanding of God and involved in practical engagements that bring individual human beings into right relations with God.
  3. Ethical dimension: It is not possible to be in right relations with God unless one is also in right relations with others.

Naturalist views, on the other hand, hold that there is no supernatural, distinctively spiritual order, but that this is no hindrance to thinking about what makes life meaningful.  On such views, I could find meaning in life through pursuit of truth or justice, or by understanding my life as made possible by the struggles of people who came before me, hoping to carry good forward to those who will come after me.

This is the territory in which contemporary Anglophone philosophical exploration about questions of the meaning of life hangs out. Within each of the categories, there are many divergent views, and, by most philosophers’ lights, no one strand of thought on the topic is entirely fully developed at this point. There is, however, a common thread that runs through all the work, as near as I can tell, a thread that takes some of its coloring from the usual ways of distinguishing questions about meaning from questions about happiness. It goes like this—in virtually all contemporary work (except work committed to thoroughly subjectivist naturalism), meaningful lives are meaningful in part because those leading meaningful lives operate with an understanding of their lives as participating in a good larger than their own welfare or advantage and the welfare or advantage of those they regard as members of their intimate circle. What sort of “larger” is involved in this larger good? Thaddeus Metz offers the following proposal:

[T]he concept of meaning is the idea of connecting with intrinsic value beyond one’s animal self. The animal self is constituted by those capacities that we share with (lower) animals, i.e., those not exercising reason. These include the fact of being alive, the instantiation of a healthy body, and the experience of pleasures. These internal conditions may well be intrinsically valuable, but they do not seem to be the sorts of intrinsic value with which one must connect to acquire significance. To say that the concept of meaning is the idea of relating positively to intrinsic value beyond one’s animal self is to say that while merely staying alive or feeling pleasure logically cannot make one’s life meaningful, connecting with internal goods involving the use of reason, and with all sorts of external goods, can do so [“The Concept of a Meaningful Life,” in Joshua W. Seachris, editor, Exploring the Meaning of Life, (Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2013), p. 88].

Perhaps more than any other Anglophone analytic philosopher working on questions about the meaning of life, Metz is immersed in the whole of the relevant contemporary literature. He covers the waterfront better than anyone else.  And he is acutely aware of the points at which his treatment of the concept departs from some recent analytic work on the topic. For all that, one can complain about various features of Metz’s account of the concept of meaning from a Thomist point of view. Here are a few of them.

First, Metz’s way of distinguishing what we share with non-human animals from our distinctively human capacities diverges from Aquinas’s metaphysics of human nature. For Aquinas, we are the animals with intellect. Intellect is not the same was what contemporary philosophers mean by ‘reason.’ In an early work, Aquinas remarks on aspects of nonhuman animal apprehension and appetite that have something of reason in them:

It should be noted…that not only in the apprehensive powers but also in the appetitive there is something which belongs to the sensitive soul in accordance with its own nature and something else according as it has some slight participation in reason, coming into contact at its highest level of activity with reason at its lowest….  Thus the imaginative power belongs to the sensitive soul in accordance with its own nature, because forms received from sense are stored up in it, but the estimative power, by which an animal apprehends intentions not received by the senses, such as friendship or hostility, is in the sensitive soul according as it shares somewhat in reason….  The same principle is verified also in regard to the appetitive power.  The fact that an animal seeks what is pleasurable to its senses (the business of the concupiscible power) is in accordance with the sensitive soul’s own nature; but that it should leave what is pleasurable and seek something for the sake of a victory which it wins with pain (the business of the irascible), this belongs to it according as it in some measure reaches up to the higher appetite [Disputed Questions on Truth, q. 25, a.2].

It is hard to separate the most complex operations of nonhuman animal apprehension and appetite from their simplest human counterparts. For all that, intellect sets humans apart from other animals on this view, and, among intellectual creatures, humans are further distinguished by having discursive reason—we are, as Aristotle might put it—the chatty animals. This is, for Aquinas, part of the way in which we are animals.

Second, not just any intrinsically valuable, discursively assessable goods will count as goods to which we can connect in a way that confers meaning on our lives. Active participation in a thriving human community, for example, will only count as lending significance and meaning to one’s life if that community is, itself, ordered to justice and guided by due concern for the common good. If we had to find a slot for Aquinas in the contemporary philosophical taxonomy, he will count as a supernaturalist for whom the metaphysical, relational, and ethical dimensions are all intertwined.

Finally, concern about virtue is kept at a distance in Metz’s treatment of meaning. If we wanted to ask Aquinas to speak to questions about meaning in human life, virtue would have a secure, central place in our discussion.

 

Putting Virtue in its Place—A Thomist Picture

How will a friend of Aquinas handle a question about the place of virtue in a meaningful life?

First off, a friend of Aquinas, if I understand those of us who are friends of Aquinas, will urge that a properly virtuous life will, insofar as it is virtuous, be a meaningful life. It may not be a happy life, on any ordinary understanding of happiness. I can be as wise, just, brave, and temperate as you please but face ethical circumstances so challenging and hostile that my good character makes me a target for abuse rather than an esteemed person. In this sense, a Thomist account will square with the first and third of the starting points for an account of meaning.

Second, the fact that even a person with a full complement of acquired virtues—a strong character—can make mistakes and will occasionally have good reason to regret her decisions and her actions squares with the objectivity constraint on claims to meaning in human life. I might throw myself into a cause, for example, after careful consideration and in good conscience only to find that the thing I fought for was not worth fighting for.

Third, because acquired virtue on Aquinas’s understanding is perfective of my nature as a human being, virtuous lives are better than vicious lives in a sense isomorphic with the sense in which meaningful lives are better than meaningless lives.

Perhaps most importantly, because acquired virtues are directed to common good in the first instance for Aquinas, a genuinely virtuous life will, by necessity, involve the right kinds of relations with intrinsically valuable internal and external goods to meet the kind of criterion for meaning sketched by Metz (echoing dominant trends in contemporary Anglophone philosophical work on the topic).

In this sense, pulling Aquinas into conversation with contemporary Anglophone philosophers on questions about meaningful lives gives through about virtue a central role in thought about meaning.

 


Candace Vogler is the David B. and Clara E. Stern Professor of Philosophy and Professor in the College at the University of Chicago, and Principal Investigator for Virtue, Happiness, and the Meaning of Life. Vogler gave this talk at Valparaiso University as part of their programming on the theme of the pan-humanities seminar taken by every freshman, and the theme this fall is “human meaning and purpose.” She was hosted by the Department of Philosophy at Valparaiso University. 

 

 

 

 

SUN, Nov 12: Candace Vogler at the Chicago Humanities Fallfest/17: Belief!

Moral Realism in a Climate of Moral Doubt

120926-calvin.jpg

Introduction

A basic Aristotelian insight taken up and developed by Thomas Aquinas is that animals tend to move toward what is good for animals of their kind, and to avoid things that are bad for their sort of animal.  Aquinas recognized that, among animals, things are uniquely hard for human beings—the intellectual animals.  We get in the way of ourselves, even when we are fully grown and of relatively sound mind and body.  We get in our own way even when we are, as one says, highly functional.  Aquinas understands that even the best of us will have good reason to regret some of what we do or fail to do, say or fail to say, think or fail to think.  This is part of the burden and glory that comes of being the kind of animal that is accountable for a lot of what it does voluntarily, and that needs to figure out what to pursue and why.  It is difficult to manage self-direction in circumstances where even the most basic things about our lives seem increasingly to be matters of choice and it takes us a few years to so much as reliably to distinguish what is edible from what is inedible.  And humans are not just in danger of inefficiency or disappointment in their efforts to move toward what draws them, and avoid what they find repugnant.  They are at moral risk.  As medieval English poets used to notice, when the wolf is drawn to a thing, that thing will tend to be a good sort of thing for a wolf to seek.  When a man is drawn toward something, it could be morally disastrous.

Under these circumstances, young people I have known routinely move around difficult moral questions using the language of etiquette.  They are worried about imposing on others.  They don’t know how even to begin a discussion about topics that involve vital aspects of people’s lives—often aspects that seem at once crucial, emotionally charged, and intimate.  Sometimes they genuinely do not know how to begin thinking their way into a question.

I should note at the outset that rational enquiry into different understandings of good and bad in human life does not constitute an imposition, even if what it reveals is profound disagreement on some points.  It does not constitute failing to respect others.  If anything, thoughtful disagreement shows serious regard for one’s opponents.  And, when it comes to coping with a moral dispute, relying on the traditional point about good and bad can help.

It could be that people who occupy different positions across a vast divide are disagreeing about human good at every level.  I suspect that this is very rare these days.  That we need food, clothing, clean water, clean air, security in our persons, some form of community, something that counts as family, some reliable economic institutions, some measures of freedom of worship, assembly, and expression—that these kinds of things are good for intellectual social animals is usually a shared understanding among contemporary humans.  It is hard to imagine serious, reasoned disagreement on such matters.  But significant background agreement on these points will not be enough to settle all questions.  It is not even enough to settle all questions in personal life, much less in matters of public policy, and human life, lived in the varying contexts of human institutions, is often muddled, homely, and disappointing.

For all that, I suspect that when we find ourselves at odds with others over some moral question we will find substantial agreement about human good in general across the many divides that look to make consensus impossible.  In my limited experience, it helps to begin by acknowledging that more than one sort of good is at stake in moral disagreement, and to take seriously the genuine good or goods at issue in a dispute.  Where those goods are concerned, all of us will tend to be moral realists.

 

What are we Being Realists About?

How much realism do we get from the kinds of points that people are taking for granted in thinking that things have been bad in Puerto Rico since Hurricane Maria made landfall?  That having access to food, water, fuel, electricity, and stable shelter would improve life for the people there?  We are tacitly committed to there being such a thing as human nature, to a recognition that humans are vulnerable creatures, to an indeterminate number of claims about the badness of the situation for human beings on an island in the wake of a catastrophic hurricane.

We know these things.

This is not a matter of ungrounded opinion.  Our inferences about the situation in Puerto Rico are not beholden to some sort of standard of rational justification that is relative to the cultural markings that we carry in virtue of belonging to this or that community.  Most people in Puerto Rico are struggling to deal with flooding and the like, but we are on solid ground as far as our sense that things have gone badly for them is concerned.

As I say, this kind of baseline is rarely enough to make much headway with difficult moral questions, but it is the sort of thing that does provide common ground across many deep divides.  Objective common ground.  Moral truth.

 

What of the Difficult Questions?  What About Relativism?

But, given that most of the moral matters that tear at us involve questions much more difficult than a question about whether victims of natural or manmade disasters have gone through something bad, how much comfort can we take in having unspoken, shared commitments of the sort that surface whenever anything terrible happens?  What of moral relativism, that specter that threatens to materialize in ordinary undergraduate classrooms at the drop of a hat in introductory ethics courses?

The most extreme form of moral relativism is moral subjectivism—the topic of the cartoons on this page.  This view—that claims to moral truth are merely subjective—lapses into incoherence as quickly as the cartoons suggest.  There are two other forms of moral relativism that have more bite.

Descriptive moral relativism centers on the claim that different cultural groups adhere to different moral codes, frequently embodied in different practices, different standards of justification, different kinship systems, different modes of work and leisure, and different customs, and normally systematically linked to members’ consciences.  This form of relativism has the advantage of being very likely true.  There are significant divergences in moral codes across diverse human communities.  If the first thing to notice about descriptive moral relativism is that it may well be true, the second thing to note is that its truth will not have any effect on moral disagreement.  For example, it says nothing about the relative soundness of the moral codes that diverge. It could be that some of those codes are better than others.  It may be that some are true and others are false.  To notice differences is not to say what we should make of those differences.

Normative moral relativism claims that not only will we find the kinds of divergence that the descriptive relativists highlight, but we ought to see divergence in moral codes in different societies.  Does normative moral relativism have any bearing on the possibility of coping with serious moral disagreement?  It will depend upon how the normative relativist fleshes out the suggestion that moral codes ought to diverge.  For example, one persistent site of significant moral divergence enters in through historical distance.  Even those of us who have come to love the Iliad or the Odyssey—to name two canonical European great books—will likely notice that the moral codes that seem to inform the Homeric epics diverge significantly from the codes we came to inhabit in our childhoods.  If the normative relativist explains this by talking about the dramatically different situations we find ourselves in now, and the social, material, and political worlds that form a kind of backdrop and context for ancient Greek warrior poetry, then the divergence may, to the extent that we can comprehend the differences, begin to feel like the sort of thing that is to be expected of human beings facing these different worldly circumstances.  The pressures on that (likely partly imaginary) civilization, the resources available, the modes of human connection and antagonism that were taken for granted in the poetry were so far removed from ours that the differences make sense.  This sort of observation is one form that normative moral relativism can take.  Again, it says nothing about our prospects for handling deep contemporary moral disagreement, except to suggest that we might do well to develop an imagination for the pressures that those who disagree with us face, and the resources that they have at their disposal for finding ways of pursuing collective goods, and avoiding bad, in their communities before declaring them utterly benighted.

 

The View from one Philosopher’s Seat

Alasdair MacIntyre—a contemporary Anglophone philosopher broadly concerned with ethics—has circled around the topics of relativism and cultural difference for many years.  He has written thoughtfully and well about communities, about the cultural contexts communities provide for moral development, about character, and about the peculiarly shrill tone of contemporary moral disagreement.  In an essay called “Moral Relativism, Truth and Justification”—there are long quotations from it on your handout—he takes up the topic of seemingly intractable moral dispute, linking disagreement to cultural difference.  He begins with an example taken from a 17th century Japanese Neo-Confucian called Kaibara Ekken.  Ekken argues that a man has sufficient grounds to divorce his wife if she is disobedient to her in-laws, if she gossips or slanders others, if she is barren or jealous, if she has a serious illness, and so on.  Ekken defends the view by pointing to role a wife was meant to play in society, to the structure of family life, to the place of that structure in the larger moral and political order, and to the cosmic order in which these institutional arrangements had their proper places.

MacIntyre turns next to the natural law tradition in European thought, grounded in Stoicism and Roman law and given significant development in medieval philosophy—most notably in the work of Aquinas.  MacIntyre points out that Aquinas does not see a wife’s fondness for gossip or friction with her in-laws as grounds for divorce, nor would Aquinas find a sound argument for divorce if she became ill or was barren.

Neither view, MacIntyre points out, seems to have the kinds of resources that would be needed to make its case in terms that the other view would accept.  Each position can be defended in its own terms.  But it looks like the gulf between the two views cannot be bridged by an argument that relies upon the modes of justification internal to either protagonist’s cultural milieu.  The prospects for Aquinas and Ekken settling their imagined dispute look dim, MacIntyre thinks.

Nevertheless, both sorts of view present themselves as true.  Neither of these two thinkers is a relativist.  How, then, are we to square the universalist claim at the root of each position with the difficulty in even imagining how Ekken and Aquinas might have a meeting of minds on the question of divorce?

MacIntyre goes at the question through a serious discussion of the nature of substantive views of truth—the only sorts of views of truth that he takes to be compatible with the tenor and tone of serious moral divergence.  It is a good discussion, and forms the basis of an almost uncharacteristically optimistic account of how we might handle ourselves in the face of seemingly intractable moral disputes.  At least, that is one way to read the essay.  One could also read it as a reduction.

Having insisted—and he is surely right about this—that the protagonists to a serious moral dispute must be seen as claiming truth for their positions, MacIntyre outlines three things that follow from the understanding that they are claiming to be teaching us moral truths:

First, they are committed to holding that the account of morality which they give does not itself, at least in its central contentions, suffer from the limitations, partialities, and one-sidedness of a merely local point of view, while any rival and incompatible account must suffer to some significant extent from such limitations, partiality, and one-sidedness.  Only if this is the case are they entitled to assert that their account is one of how things are, rather than merely how they appear to be from some particular standpoint or in one particular perspective….

Secondly, such protagonists are thereby also committed to holding that, if the scheme and mode of justification of some rival moral standpoint supports a conclusion incompatible with any central thesis of their account, then that scheme must be defective in some important way and capable of being replaced by some rationally superior scheme and mode of justification, which would not support any such conclusion.

Thirdly and correspondingly, they are committed to holding that if the scheme and mode of justification to which they at present appeal to support the conclusions which constitute their own account of the moral life were to turn out to be, as a result of further enquiry, incapable of providing the resources for exhibiting its argumentative superiority to such a rival, then it must be capable of being replaced by some scheme and mode of justification which does possess the resources both for providing adequate rational support for their account and for exhibiting its rational superiority to any scheme and mode of justification which supports conclusions incompatible with central theses of that account.

To make good on our convictions, he argues, we need to be committed to serious rational inquiry.  It will require both philosophical skill and a strong imagination to transcend those aspects of our own views that are one-sided, provincial, and otherwise stained with the local color that characterizes our position.  It is not impossible to do this, he suggests.  It is just very difficult, and it can only be done with the understanding that we may need to alter our own views in light of what rational enquiry reveals to us about our position.

5d6664b176a0afc2856fd079e29f1dce

Two Cautionary Notes from the Sideline

I am a great admirer of MacIntyre’s work, but want to suggest that this discussion of relativism and its possible remedy suffers from two sorts of exaggeration.  First, even though MacIntyre stresses the importance of open-mindedness and imagination in his account of how rational enquiry might help us to remedy our situation, I think that he overestimates the power of rational enquiry.  It may be an occupational hazard for philosophers.  I sometimes think that some of the best of us got into this business because we were hunting for the good argument that could stop manmade bad things from happening—the line of thinking that could settle disputes in our families, or put political strife to rest, or bring about peace and harmony in social life if only people would listen.  I don’t know MacIntyre well enough to have any view about his motivations on this score, but a lot of us who lived by our wits in youth hoped to make the world better by our wits as adults.  It could be that we need more than solitary acts of brilliant thought and imagination to sort out a real ethical tangle.  We might need more than collective acts of brilliance, even.  Some of the ground underlying central moral convictions may exceed the limits of even the splendid, repeated, enduring collaborative exercise of our intellectual powers and strengths.  Aquinas seems to have thought so.  The very first article of the very first question of first part of the Summa Theologiae, for example, urges that we need revealed knowledge to help us answer central questions about how we ought to live, that philosophy alone—by which he likely meant Aristotelian metaphysics—was not enough.  He was, himself, an enormously good philosopher with extraordinary powers of methodical rational enquiry and a vast and fertile imagination.  If he couldn’t do it, it is hard to see why we would expect to succeed.  I tend to think that accepting his counsel on this point is a good idea.

The standards MacIntyre provides for guiding our enquiry are clear analytic philosophical standards.  They are good standards.  But they may demand more of us than moral thought and practice can provide.  Why would one think that the kinds of intellectual standards that are the air we breathe in analytic philosophy are the ones that will help us when faced with deep moral disagreement?

This question brings me to the second place where I think that MacIntyre is inclined to exaggerate.  He has taught us all a lot about the kinds of unity we can find embodied in the people and practices that mark out distinctive moral communities.  And it is likely that some of his acuity in these matters owes a lot to his youthful adherence to some form of Marxism—again, I do not know him well enough to know which Marxism (or Marxisms) shaped his youthful social and political activism.  I don’t know if he read work by Antonio Gramsci or Louis Althusser, by Lenin or Rosa Luxemburg or Mao.  All of these activist thinkers found themselves coping with the fact that, contrary to what they might have expected, European wage laborers did not rise up to throw off their chains.  Worse, in the parts of the world where there were uprisings in the name of Marx, the people who rose up were not wage laborers, suggesting that the whole mode of thinking about class and class conflict that was not quite theorized by Marx—but was strongly suggested by his work—was somehow not quite right.  All of these thinkers, in different ways and with different emphases, urged that neither culture nor class interest was as singular or coherent as Marx seemed to have thought that it could be.  The social fabric, they claimed, was not a tightly woven bolt of cloth with a single seam that could be ripped out if only the masses could collectively recognize their interests.  Instead, the social fabric was a loosely woven, shifting, unevenly fraying thing that did not provide a single, coherent social script for anyone.

I have found some of this work very useful.  When MacIntyre writes about the wonderful community spirit in a remote small fishing village, or the way that ancient Greek thought about virtue had its natural home in the life of the polis, or even of the systematic coherence and wholeness of Ekken’s Neo-Confucian thought about marriage and divorce, to my jaded eye, at least, he has a tendency to see the weave of the relevant social fabric as tighter than social fabric tends to be.  Now if cultures provided something more like scripts and less like patchy, fraying collective contexts in which people seek ways of pursuing common good and addressing human needs and inclinations, then the analytic philosophical demands on standards of reason and argument would look more appropriate.  In dealing with disagreement, we would be trying to cope with a clash between divergent systems that came wrapped up in whole modes of rational justification that may or may not be of a kind that we can match.  Our task might look like the moral equivalent of trying to express Newton’s laws in the terms characteristic of Einstein’s theory of general relativity.  It is very hard to do, but with sufficient mathematical skill and imagination, it can be done without too great a loss of content.  If, however, like much of human life, moral thought and moral disagreement is a messy business carried out at the edges of ways of thinking that are in some ways underdeveloped and in many respects provisional, then it will look as though MacIntyre is not fully heeding Aristotle’s advice.  He is looking for something more determinate than what we have a right to expect in ethics.

The ways in which the views in the background of moral disagreement will tend to be less than fully developed and other than entirely logically systematic, however, provides us with real possibilities for moral engagement from that mundane kind of ground we have in our recognition that our opponents are fellow human beings who are working to pursue good and avoid bad.  We are, all of us, doing that.  All of us will fail sometimes.  All of us can use disagreement as a way of developing a better sense for both diverse human efforts to move toward good and the ways in which we can learn from each other’s successes and mistakes.  MacIntyre is dead right, I think, to urge that we approach moral disagreement with humility, honesty, and a willingness to engage in self-criticism at least as strong as our willingness to find fault with others.


Candace Vogler is the David B. and Clara E. Stern Professor of Philosophy and Professor in the College at the University of Chicago, and Principal Investigator for Virtue, Happiness, and the Meaning of Life. Vogler gave this talk at Vanderbilt University October 5, hosted by the Thomistic Institute chapter in Nashville.