Truth and Goodness and Rationality: Interview with Anselm Mueller


We’re pleased to share this interview with Anselm Winfriend Mueller, our 2017-18 visiting scholar, who is a visiting professor this quarter at the Department of Philosophy at the University of Chicago. He spoke with Johann Gudmundsson, a doctoral student at the Universität Leipzig currently on a research stay at the University of Chicago, where he’s working on his dissertation on moral judgment and practical goodness.      

Johann Gudmundsson: For many years, you’ve been pursuing the thought that to act well is to act from practical reason. How are truth and goodness related to rationality? Do you think that there is a deep affinity between goodness and truth?

Anselm Winfried Mueller:  Can we reasonably ask whether what you ultimately aim at in acting, rather than just whatever happens to attract you, is really good? – I think we can. At least, we take it for granted that in principle the question has an answer. For, in a year’s time, you may think you were wrong to aim at what you aimed at (much as you may come to think false what you believed to be true a year before). Such a thought makes sense only if there is a standard of goodness by which to evaluate purposes objectively (much as beliefs are evaluated objectively by the standard of truth). So ascriptions of goodness will themselves be true or false.

What is the place of rationality in this context? – To manifest knowledge, a statement has, as a rule, to be based on adequate reasons. Theoretical rationality is to this extent the way we reach truth. But a statement can be true without manifesting knowledge. By contrast, the goodness that we achieve in acting well depends unrestrictedly on what reasons we respond, and don’t respond, to. To act justly, for instance, is: to be motivated by others’ rights; to act courageously is: not to be turned away from important pursuits by the threat of danger etc.

JG: In the mid-20th century, questions relating to ethical language were in vogue, and reflection on moral discourse and meaning was held to be crucial. For example, a central question was whether ethical statements, qua speech act, should be understood as full-blown assertions or not. Those questions have faded from spotlight in recent years. How do you estimate the significance of language for ethical thought?

AWM: Quite generally, the way we talk about things supplies significant hints at their correct understanding. This is so with talk about actions and their moral qualities as much as it is with talk about causes, numbers, social institutions, or whatever.

Now, in order to improve our grasp of the relevant concepts, attention has to be directed at the interaction between the ways we talk and the ways we act. What philosophy needs to get clear about is the different roles that different uses of words play in the wider context of human social life. So philosophers have rightly become critical of arguments based simply on “what we (don’t) say”.

But, as far as I can see, present day analytical philosophy suffers more from the opposite error: its practitioners are often insensitive or indifferent to the problematic character of formulations required or admitted by their theories, when by taking notice of it they might have discovered, e.g., that the phenomena they were hoping to cover by a unifying account were in fact more disparate than this account allowed.

JG: It seems that there are two kinds of good that pertain to human beings. On the one hand, there’s individual well-being or happiness. On the other hand, there’s moral perfection. Would you be happy to draw this distinction? If yes, how do you think individual happiness and moral perfection are related?

AWM: I can’t say that I would be happy to draw that distinction. Shouldn’t one feel honored to belong to a species noble enough to find their happiness guaranteed by adherence to reason realized in a life of virtue, as the Stoics taught?

Unfortunately, this doctrine is a sort of philosophical self-deception. It is indeed true, I think, that a person cannot be happy without attempting to lead a virtuous life. And also, that human happiness cannot but consist in the satisfying use of reason. But we just have to acknowledge that serious suffering tends to prevent the virtuous person from being happy.

Moreover, although the practice of virtue is typically a source of happiness, there are other things as well, such as family life or the successful pursuit of a worthwhile project, that may well be constitutive of the (limited) happiness a man is able to attain. I agree that it won’t make you happy to pursue such a project by evil means. But this does not mean that ethical virtue is the feature of your pursuit that secures your happiness.

So honesty requires us to answer your first question by acknowledging the distinction between happiness and moral perfection. The second question may be one of those that it is the task of philosophy to raise and keep alive although it cannot answer them. As Kant observed, we just cannot discard the idea that there “must” be a way in which the pursuit of virtue issues in happiness. This, too, honesty requires us to recognize. I suspect it is even part of virtue itself to think, with Socrates: It cannot, ultimately, be to my disadvantage to pursue it.

JG: You probably would agree that the aim of philosophical activity is to get clear on certain fundamental notions. The aim of practical philosophy then would be to clarify notions such as intention, reason, goodness and rationality. Do you think that practical philosophy can also be of practical guidance by providing answers to substantial moral questions? Or can such answers only be reached beyond philosophy, for example in public discourse, individual conscience or religious traditions?

AWM: It would be pleasant for practical philosophers to think of themselves as benefiting humanity by giving the kind of guidance you mention. But I think their ambitions have to be more modest.

I am not a skeptic about the possibility of showing that human life is in need of moral norms. But, first, such demonstrations remain theoretical: they explain moral requirements, and they give you reason to believe that doing this and avoiding that serves human flourishing; but they do not thereby already give you reason to do this and avoid that. And, second, nobody – philosopher or not – will adopt a moral norm such as: not to cheat, or: to take responsibility for one’s children, or: to refrain from cruelty, because of a philosophical demonstration; for one’s conviction of the need to comply with such norms will almost certainly be more certain than one’s confidence in any philosophical argument for them.

Nevertheless, philosophers need not despair of their public utility. On the one hand, people who already listen to the voice of virtue are in a position, and will be ready, also to learn, for their practice, from theoretical reflexion on what you call substantial moral questions – on how to carry on in view of considerations that may have escaped them. On the other hand, and possibly even more importantly, good philosophy is needed to refute the brand of bad philosophy that claims to show that morality is an illusion, or that what it enjoins is “authenticity” in the pursuit of your likings, or the like – the kind of claim that is sensational or shocking enough to make it into the media and is hailed by those already tempted to deceive themselves, or compromise, where moral requirements challenge their questionable inclinations.

I am not myself enough of a columnist to take on the task of facing popular versions of misguided philosophical claims. The job that your question well describes as clarifying “notions such as intention, reason, goodness and rationality” is (I hope!) more congenial to my temperament and talent. So I cheerfully resign myself to peaceful exchange with those enviable colleagues who engage in both “philosophizing for philosophers” and “philosophizing for the world”.


Johann Gudmundsson got his Magister Artium degree in Philosophy and German studies from the Universität Leipzig after having studied there and at the University of Iceland in Reykjavik. He then worked as a research assistant at the Universität Leipzig and as a coordinator of a project funded by the National Academy of Sciences Leopoldina on institutional and quality problems of the German doctorate, and now a doctoral student at the Universität Leipzig currently on a research stay at the University of Chicago, where he’s working on his dissertation on moral judgment and practical goodness.      

Jennifer A. Frey on action, knowledge, and human goodness | Our Scholars at Oxford for Jubilee Centre Conference on Character, Wisdom, and Virtue, January 5-7, 2017

Photo by Jennifer A. Frey.

In early January, four of our scholars—Howard Nusbaum, David Carr, John Haldane, and Robert C. Roberts—and our 2 Principal Investigators—Jennifer Frey and Candace Vogler—all participated in a conference on Character, Wisdom, and Virtue held January 5, 6, and 7, 2017 at Oriel College, Oxford, UK, sponsored by the Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues at the University of Birmingham, UK. We are pleased to feature their abstracts and papers here on the Virtue Blog, with many thanks to the Jubilee Centre.

frey_jennifer_15_2aJennifer A. Frey is an Assistant Professor in the Philosophy Department at the University of South Carolina. Prior to joining the Philosophy faculty, she was a Collegiate Assistant Professor of Humanities at the University of Chicago, where she was a member of the Society of Fellows in the Liberal Arts and an affiliated faculty in the philosophy department. She earned her PhD in philosophy at the University of Pittsburgh, and her B.A. in Philosophy and Medieval Studies (with Classics minor) at Indiana University-Bloomington. Her research lies at the intersection of philosophy of action and ethics, with a particular focus on the Aristotelian-Thomist tradition.

Below you will find her short abstract, followed by a link to the larger paper discussed at the conference, “Action, Knowledge, and Human Goodness:A Prolegomena to a Theory of Practical Wisdom”.

ABSTRACT: “Action, Knowledge, and Human Goodness:A Prolegomena to a Theory of Practical Wisdom”

Aquinas and Anscombe both held that human action essentially involves a certain kind of practical self- knowledge. I argue that this knowledge is knowledge of action under descriptions that the agent can in principle connect to her general conception of how to live a good human life. An agent demonstrates her ability to make such connections by giving reasons. These rational connections between the particular action and the general practical knowledge of how to live are made explicit in the construction of practical syllogisms, understood as heuristic devices that make explicit the practically rational grammar of the act itself. Such an account of action, I argue, is the necessary foundation for any virtue ethics in which practical wisdom plays an important role. For any theory of practical wisdom must be able to show how it is the virtue that perfects the practical intellect, the faculty that provides the faculty of choice with a particular object of pursuit or avoidance, under some descriptions that can be rationally related to happiness.

Read the full paper here:

Interview with Zack Loveless, our new graduate research assistant

Photo by Marc Monaghan
Where are you from?
I am from Helena, Alabama.
Tell us about your research.
My research focuses on accounts of right action grounded in a picture of what constitutes being a good person. My basic picture is that an act is right if there is nothing specifically wrong with it: an act is right if it is not contrary to any virtue. This account allows us to preserve some of the hallmarks of an ethics of virtue (like the breakdown of a divide between moral and non-moral practical concerns) while preserving key moral intuitions (such as the existence of acts it is as such wrong to perform or that an any situation many courses of action will be right).
I became interested in the Virtue project for two related reasons. First, I am interested in how we incorporate into a life of virtue space for a pursuit of our own projects, amusements and leisure. Second, I am interested in attempts to explain some trait being a virtue to its role in a meaningful or happy life.
What do you like to do outside of academia?
When I am not pursuing my academic interests, I am probably watching football, listening to music or cooking.

Zack Loveless is a Ph.D. student in philosophy at the University of Chicago, and a graduate assistant with the project Virtue, Happiness, & the Meaning of Life.

How to raise kids well in the age of Trump

This post is an excerpt from “A Cornell psychologist explains how to raise kids well in the age of Trump” by our scholar Katherine Kinzler, originally published on Quartz. Click here to read the full piece.

children diversity

Like many, I hope to seek goodness amidst chaos. Regardless of who leads our nation, what can we do—individually and collectively—to inspire virtue in the next generation of children?

Encourage children to think independently. Psychology researchers used to reduce young children’s morality to their ability to follow authority. Fortunately, there is now good evidence that children can engage in their own moral reasoning. They can understand that just because an authority figure says that a negative action is permissible, it may nonetheless be morally wrong. Now is the time for us to encourage children to discover and evaluate evidence for themselves. We can remind them that just because a person is in power, their ideas are not always right.

Discuss the value of a democratic system. Legal scholar Tom Tyler and developmental psychologists Alex Shaw and Kristina Olson have shown that young and old people alike care about a fair decision-making process. People like it when they get their way, sure. But they also value a fair system.

Many Hillary Clinton supporters feel disappointed that Clinton won the popular vote but lost the election because of the electoral college. But while there may be good reasons to consider amending our system for the future, the fact is that Trump won under the system we have in place now. Children are smart enough to understand this. They can respect the process of a fair election, and they can also brainstorm how they might improve the procedural system used in the future.

Watch our own language. The psychologist Marjorie Rhodes has shown how quickly language can inadvertently transmit bias. When we talk about whole groups of people as being a certain way, it is very easy for children to learn biased feelings toward that group—and to think that members of that group are all the same. We should try our best to refer to people as individuals, not as members of racial, ethnic, or religious groups. It is also important to combat cultural notions that “boys play with trucks” or “girls like pink.” The more children hear about boys and girls as being two distinctly different kinds of groups, the more easily they pick up gender stereotypes.

Lead with actions, as well as with words. Children pick up on the nonverbal cues that we send them. This is true about learning racial prejudice and about learning adults’ views of who is high and low status. We can engage in simple acts of kindness and humanity, displayed toward people of all different groups. Invite friends who are different from you to your home. Smile at people who are different from you and sit next to them at the playground. Children are watching.

Expose children to diversity. In my own research, my colleagues and I have found that being exposed to multiple languages increases children’s abilities to take the perspective of others. Likewise, studies of children in racially heterogeneous schools suggest they are more egalitarian than children in racially homogeneous schools. Often, it is difficult to disentangle the effects of parents’ interest in diversity from the impact of the exposure itself. So cover your bases. Be the kind of parent who values diversity, and let your children enjoy the potential benefits of intergroup exposure.

Remind children that most people aren’t all good or all bad. Social psychologists Adam Waytz, Liane Young, and Jeremy Ginges have shown that different groups—including American Democrats versus Republicans and Israelis versus Palestinians—think their own groups’ aggressions are motivated by love for one another, whereas the other group’s aggressions are motivated by hate. In other words, an Israeli is likely to write off a Israeli’s hostility toward a Palestinian as being motivated by love of Israelis, whereas the same Israeli would think that a Palestinian’s hostility is owed to hatred.

It is easy to lapse into this kind of polarized thinking, which misattributes people’s motivations. Adults and children alike can be reminded that often what we perceive as negative or hurtful acts do not stem from equivalently negative or hurtful intentions. It is never a bad idea to consider how you or a loved one might feel if the tables were turned.

If you’re a woman, consider getting into politics—and encourage girls to do the same. In a university setting, we often worry about the dearth of women in math and science fields. But in multiple levels of American politics, there is also an underrepresentation of women. Building a pipeline for female governance will be difficult without sufficient role models for girls to follow. Women who want to help can consider getting involved in politics themselves and by making themselves visible and accessible to a generation of girls who will be inspired to join them.

Together, people of all backgrounds can encourage their children to help build a nation that prides itself on embracing difference.

Katherine Kinzler is Associate Professor of Psychology and Associate Professor of Human Development at Cornell University and Scholar with Virtue, Happiness, and the Meaning of Life.

Virtue and the Common Good in Aristotle and Aquinas

SPAIN – CIRCA 1986: stamp printed by Spain, shows Aristotle, text from De Cielo et Mundo, circa 1986.

Aristotle thought that work on virtue had a profoundly political aspect. According to Aristotle our capacity to perceive good and bad is inextricably linked to the complexities of our sociality, and it is hard to imagine a sound reading of Aristotle (or any other good philosopher) on topics such as virtue and practical reason that did not involve our capacity to distinguish good from bad. Human beings, Aristotle thought, are at home in ordered communities, and our capacity to track practical good and bad and right and wrong (even to engage in means-end reasoning, interestingly) are capacities properly exercised in society:

…it is evident that the state is a creation of nature, and that man is by nature a political Bust of Aristotle (Greece 1978)animal. And he who by nature and not by mere accident is without a state is either a bad man or… he is like the ‘Tribeless, lawless, hearthless one,’ whom Homer denounces—the natural outcast…. Nature, as we often say, makes nothing in vain, and man is the only animal who has the gift of speech. And whereas mere voice is but an indication of pleasure and pain, and is therefore found in other animals…the power of speech is intended to set forth the expedient and inexpedient, and therefore likewise the just and unjust. And it is a characteristic of man that he alone has any sense of good and evil, of just and unjust, and the like, and the association of living beings who have this sense makes a family and a state.[1]

Further, according to Aristotle, individual human beings develop their understanding of good, bad, right, and wrong by criticizing their fellows’ bad conduct in light of community standards.[2]

"School of Athens" by Raphael (Greece 1978)The polis is the natural setting for virtuous activity in Aristotle, and even though there is no question that Aristotle sees virtuous citizens as working for the good of the polis, it is not clear how far Aristotle’s understanding of virtue and sound practical reason locates these excellences as aimed, first and foremost, at the good of the community rather than at the virtuous person’s own good (even if participation in ordered community life is required if individuals are to thrive). It is one thing to hold that an individual human being’s good cannot be understood in isolation from that individual’s participation in an ordered community. As near as I can tell, Aristotle thought as much. It is quite another to treat the proper end of virtuous activity as the common good understood very broadly—as extending, for example, beyond the boundaries of the polis, of political friendships, of a community ordered by shared customs or rules, of humans who share a common language, beyond, even the reach of norms enjoining hospitality. Notoriously, Aristotle has little to offer on the question of how individuals who are in these respects strangers to one another are capable of doing right or wrong by each other.[3]

In short, Aristotle’s understanding of the point or target or end of virtuous activity certainly transcends the apparent limits of love of self far enough to encompass love of neighbor. Aristotle’s insistence on the centrality of communities ordered by shared customs and rules shows us this much. But the circle of those who will count as my neighbors is rather narrower than contemporary ethicists might have hoped.

Postage stamp Spain 1962 Apotheosis of St. Thomas Aquinas
SPAIN – CIRCA 1962: a stamp printed in the Spain shows The Apotheosis of St. Thomas Aquinas, Painting by Zurbaran, circa 1962

Aquinas understands virtue as directed to the common good in much more expansive terms. Aquinas takes up Aristotle’s stress on our sociality, together with the thought that human beings are the only animals who will develop an articulate sense of good and bad (if all goes as it should go in their lives). Aquinas also moves arm-in-arm with Aristotle in focusing on the importance of an ordered community to an understanding of the kind of common good at issue in the exercise of virtue. For all that, Aquinas’s account of the extent of the ordered community served by virtuous activity, and the kind of order at issue in the community, grows beyond any Aristotelian root.

Full discussion of the sort of order at issue in Aquinas’s account of the common good (for the sake of which we cultivate and exercise acquired virtue) requires entering into the difficult territory of Aquinas’s undeniably theological account of natural law.[4] Discussion of Aquinas on the character of natural law is beyond the scope of this essay. Suffice to say that the boundaries that delimit any distinct human community—the polis, say, or nation, or state, or club, or group of people with shared customs, or religious group, or group of users of one or more human languages—do not circumscribe virtue’s arena on Aquinas’s account. The kind of transcendence of personal good at issue in Aquinas’s understanding outstrips the sort associated with the political and social dimensions of virtue in Aristotle.

Laws associated with natures are operative in the whole of creation on Aquinas’s view.

Postage stamp Italy 1974 St. Thomas Aquinas, by Francesco Traini
ITALY – CIRCA 1974: a stamp printed in the Italy shows St. Thomas Aquinas, by Francesco Traini, Scholastic Philosopher, 700th Death Anniversary, circa 1974

Still, it won’t do to treat the breadth of Aquinas’s understanding of the good at issue in the cultivation and exercise of virtue by postulating a shapeless, all-inclusive, creation-sized “bigger and better than I am” good as the backbone for an interesting variety of virtue ethics. On the face of it, a spiritual exercise that primarily serves to give me a sense of oneness with the Pacific Ocean will not count as an exercise of virtue. Attempting to view myself as at once noble and charged with responsibility for helping to maintain all that sustains life because I, too, am made of stardust likewise has nothing to do with the cultivation or exercise of virtue. Instead, Aquinas understands acquired virtue as a cultivated strength of character that fosters the cooperative operations of reason and emotion, perception and volition, thought and feeling, attraction and aversion in the service of reasonable pursuit of human good.

Editor’s note: This piece continues tomorrow with the post Transcendence in Positive Psychology.

[1] Politics 1.2, 1253a2-18, B. Jowett, translator, in Jonathan Barnes, editor, The Complete Works of Aristotle, Vol. 2 (Oxford: Princeton University Press, 1984), pp. 1987-88.

[2] See, e.g., Nicomachean Ethics I.13, 1102b 33-35.

[3] For some discussion of the difficulty here, see Michael Thompson, “What is it to Wrong Someone? A Puzzle about Justice,” in R. Jay Wallace, Philip Pettit, Samuel Scheffler, and Michael Smith, editors, Reason and Value: Themes from the Moral Philosophy of Joseph Raz, (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2004), pp. 338-339.

[4] I share many readers’ deep dissatisfaction with the so-called “new natural law” theories associated with work by John Finnis and Germain Grisez. The reading of Aquinas on the character of natural law in the background of this essay is rooted in Stephen Brock’s The Legal Character of Natural Law According to St. Thomas Aquinas (PhD thesis, University of Toronto, 1988) [stable URL: <>%5D.

Candace Vogler is the David B. and Clara E. Stern Professor of Philosophy and Professor in the College at the University of Chicago, and Director and Principal Investigator for Virtue, Happiness, & the Meaning of Life.

What is virtue?

Bond Chapel in Winter - photo by Chris Smith
Bond Chapel in Winter – photo by Chris Smith

‘Vir,’ the Latin root for the term, links to the term for the male organ–as in ‘virile’–and was used to denote a strength of some sort.

In contemporary philosophy and religious studies, a virtue is a character trait, not a personality trait.  Social scientists sometimes treat character traits such as virtues as features of personality, but some scholars have recently begun working on the necessity of elucidating the strict separation of work on personality from work on character.  ‘Character’ is a developed, stable way of taking in what you get from the world, feeling/emotion/response to others, and action.  For example, kind people don’t just help people who fall down on the ground in front of them, although they normally WILL do that; kind people also find instances and reports of cruelty painful, look for ways to make others’ lives go more smoothly, enjoy it when things go well for others, and try to avoid injuring people.  Kind people notice the kinds of things that injure or could injure others.  Kind people also are willing to do unpleasant things for the sake of helping others, and may even be willing to do dangerous things to help others.  That is plain old virtue at work.  Kindness may start when caretakers invite a child to think how she would feel if someone else did/said that thing (that she just did/said) to her.

There are two sorts of virtues–strengths–that our philosophers and religious thinkers have studied. These two are acquired virtue and infused virtue.

An acquired virtue is a strength of character that develops by doing the things one ought to do–e.g., telling the truth, paying your bills, looking after the health and well being of those who depend on you.  Children begin to develop proto-virtues by obeying adults and gradually stopping doing the kinds of things that make it really hard to look after groups of children–hitting, lying, being selfish with toys or crayons, etc. Acquired virtues become habitual, and help direct the person towards good, but like any habit, they can also be broken, become infrequently used, or go entirely absent.

An infused virtue, on the other hand, is one given to you, and not one you can acquire. In Christian theology, infused virtues are given to us by God. Virtues that Catholic theologians always consider to be infused include faith, hope, and charity. Thomas Aquinas believed that infused virtues such as these prepare us for union with God. Instead of becoming confused, losing wisdom, and going astray–as we are wont to do–we are kept on track by our infused virtues, and our whole natures are better ordered towards the pursuit of what is best and most just, making us right with ourselves, each other, and God.

Aquinas thinks that he finds in Aristotle the idea that even plain old virtue is directed to the common good–basically, that my virtues (if I have any) are at least as likely to benefit others as they are to benefit me, and that the benefit to others is genuine benefit–I help contribute to GOOD ways of producing and reproducing the GOOD aspects of the social world we share.  Although it is not at all clear that this view comes from Aristotle, what IS clear is that virtue is hard to cultivate and puts people at risk in various ways.  Testifying truthfully in court about gang activity in my neighborhood can make me a target for bad stuff, for example.  It is not nearly as easy to be kind to angry or frightened and unpleasant people as it is to be kind to puppies, well-behaved children, and pleasant adults.  But it is often the unpleasant living things that need kindness.

Virtue, then, is not an attitude, although attitudes often go along with virtue.  It is not a belief system or a kind of desire or a kind of feeling/emotion, although virtue shapes thoughts and feelings.  It is closer to a stable, cultivated way of noticing what’s going on and responding to what’s going on (inwardly and through one’s actions) aimed at supporting, enabling, or doing actual good.  On the traditional account, even though there are distinct virtues, these have to work together if actual good is supposed to be the result.  For instance, it isn’t kindness if I tell you lies in order to make you feel better, even if telling you the truth will likely make both of us feel worse.  It’s not generosity if I offer to drive the getaway car when you guys are set on armed robbery.  Personality traits concern me and my psychology.  Character traits can correct aspects of my personality. For instance, if I tend to be irritable or gullible or petty, virtues like temperance, practical wisdom, and justice can help to correct these flaws in my personality. If I am impulsive, virtue can help bring a measure of thoughtfulness and care to my doings. Basically, virtues help to govern my mind, emotions, will and actions so that I can pursue good without sabotaging my own efforts or impeding myself.

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, & the Meaning of Life.

Joining the conversation about goodness, happiness, and a life worth living

Joining the conversation about goodness, happiness, and a life worth living

After decades of believing happiness could be found by focusing on the self, many of us are now seeking purpose elsewhere. Rejection of personal achievement as the yardstick with which one might measure a successful life began some years ago, but in recent years more and more people seem to feel that a good life requires more than mere personal success. In a 1997 interview with Terry Gross on the NPR show Fresh Air, the fabulously successful young author David Foster Wallace voiced his profound disenchantment with the self-indulgent tendencies of U.S. culture, describing the sense of emptiness he felt he shared with others of his generation: “I was about 30 and I had a lot of friends who were about 30, and we’d all, you know, been grotesquely over-educated and privileged our whole lives and had better healthcare and more money than our parents did. And we were all extraordinarily sad.”

Wallace went on to criticize mainstream culture’s definition of a meaningful life: “[A] successful life is – let’s see, you make a lot of money and you have a really attractive spouse or you get infamous or famous in some way so that it’s a life where you basically experience as much pleasure as possible, which ends up being sort of empty and low-calorie.” Wallace also questioned the connection between individual success as

David Foster Wallace interview with Terry Gross, “David Foster Wallace: The ‘Fresh Air’ Interview,” recorded March 5, 1997
David Foster Wallace interview with Terry Gross, “David Foster Wallace: The ‘Fresh Air’ Interview,” recorded March 5, 1997

measured by money and status, and real happiness, happiness which he felt had eluded him despite his enviable achievements: “I guess it sort of depends on what you mean by happiness . . . we sort of knew how happy our parents were, and we would compare our lives with our parents and see that, at least on the surface or according to the criteria that the culture lays down for a successful, happy life, we were actually doing better than a lot of them were. And so why on earth were we so miserable?”

Wallace’s sense that life should be about something greater than individual achievement is reflected in the contemporary idealism of the high-profile actors and music industry stars whose lives are successful by conventional measures, yet who have still felt the need to draw attention to poverty and human suffering throughout the world. It is reflected in the popularity of Rick Warren’s book The Purpose Driven Life, which has sold more than 30 million copies, and whose first chapter begins, “It’s not about you,” and goes on to insist, “The purpose of your life is far greater than your own personal fulfillment, your peace of mind, or even your happiness. It’s far greater than your family, your career, or even your wildest dreams and ambitions.”

This sense that a successful life should be about something greater crops up in the language Karl Moore uses in Forbes magazine to contrast the desire of millennials for meaningful work with the Wall Street generation that preceded them:

“You might remember the bumper sticker, ‘He Who Dies With the Most Toys Wins.’ Fast forward two decades and you notice that Millennials are concerned with other things. Money is important and they do enjoy making it, however, they long to be a part of something bigger than themselves.”

Continue reading “Joining the conversation about goodness, happiness, and a life worth living”