Note: This is part 1 of a 3-part series “Perspective-Taking, Empathy, and Self-Transcendence” based on a talk at the University of California, San Diego by Candace Vogler in June 2018 for WISDOM, COMPASSION, AND LONGEVITY.
Some colleagues and I are in the process of bringing a grant project to a close. The project has given all of us a chance to think together about the relationship between working to be a good person, leading a meaningful life, and being happy. These three need not coincide. I could be working hard to deliver medical supplies, food, and drinking water to refugees in desperate circumstances. I am helping set up a clinic in their camp, say. New people keep arriving, fleeing the genocidal violence across the border.
Chances are that I have a strong sense of purpose. There is meaning in the life I’m leading. Chances are that I am a reasonably good person. On some understandings of the term ‘happiness’—the sort associated with having a happy birthday, say, or a happy holiday—I am probably not particularly happy. But there is a kind of happiness I might have even in the camp. I might get a profound sense of satisfaction from my work. I might be exultant if we are able to save the lives of people who are half-dead when they arrive. And I might be cheerful. If profound satisfaction and the ability to maintain some balance and some capacity for joy amid immense struggle is what we mean by ‘happiness,’ then I am happy.
Our grant project was not explicitly directed to the situation of humanitarian aid workers and those who need the help they bring. We were mostly thinking about ordinary people who understand themselves as belonging to a middle class in places like North America. We wanted to understand what might be involved in finding meaning and real satisfaction in leading ordinary lives in the kinds of extraordinarily fortunate circumstances middle class people around these parts enjoy. We argued—in various ways, across various academic disciplines—that the key to bringing together efforts to be a good person, deep satisfaction, and a strong sense of meaning in one’s ordinary life was to be oriented to some good larger than one’s own success and the welfare of members of one’s circle. Being entirely oriented to my own success, my own pleasures, my own comfort, my own prospects, is not a recipe for leading a good life. It does not become a recipe for leading a good life even if I extend the sphere of my primary concern to cover the pleasures, comfort, security and prospects of my friends and family. Finding meaning in my life, finding my life profoundly satisfying, putting my efforts to be a good person in their proper place—these things require being alive to participating in a good that goes beyond me and mine.
There are many ways that this can happen. I can understand my life in the context of a multigenerational family that began long before I was born and will, with any luck, continue long after I die. I inherited the benefits of the struggles of my ancestors. I want to carry the good forward for my descendants—people I will never meet, whose names I will not know, but whose lives grow out of the life I lead. Or perhaps it is like this—I work toward environmental sustainability, or I am devoted to social justice, or my religious faith animates my sense of my world and our place in it. Lots of roads are made of good larger than the worldly gains of me and mine. Following any of those roads can amount to living a life where ordinary things are meaningful, where life is deeply satisfying even when it is not much fun, and where the ordinary ethical struggles I face are worth the courage and effort it takes to begin to remedy my own failings.
One way of putting the central insight that animated our grant project, then, is this—to lead a life that is good in three senses—successful, satisfying, and ethically sound—we must break the spell of selfishness. Breaking the spell of selfishness is not easy. I will focus on one of the ways that we can loosen the hold of what Immanuel Kant called ‘the dear self’ today. I will talk about the variety of compassion at issue in empathy.
Tomorrow, June 6: Empathy and Shifting Perspectives
Candace Vogler is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Chicago and a Principal Investigator on ‘Virtue, Happiness, and the Meaning of Life’, a project funded by the John Templeton Foundation. She is also the Chair in Virtue Theory, a joint appointment with the Jubilee Centre and the Royal Institute of Philosophy.
I’m used to Nietzsche’s provocations. Or so I thought. Recently, having taught the Genealogy of Morals to a class of college sophomores—rereading the text through their fresh eyes—I was struck yet again by Nietzsche’s audacity, his willingness to celebrate dark, even heinous, urges—e.g., “the voluptuous pleasure in doing evil for the pleasure of doing evil, the enjoyment of violation.”
In my youth, such exclamations felt like a recognition of sorts, a philosophical expression to sides of myself I had been taught to feel ashamed of. Even if it wasn’t evil per se that I was craving, it was evil insofar as we define it, as Nietzsche seems to define, as violation for sake of violation. It was the pleasure of transgression—transgression of social norms—that I fancied. When I read Nietzsche, I was left with an ethical, even political question: What should I do with my ingrained aggression towards social expectations (even if—and perhaps because—I was very mostly obedient)?
Not long after Nietzsche’s death, Sigmund Freud claimed a disturbing discovery, one that explained some of the former’s provocations: we are all afflicted by a death instinct, thanatos, which drives us to undo the structures and regulations that civilization, especially our modern civilization, imposes on us. While civilization does its best to suppress aggressions, its success is limited, or rather: it causes these aggressions to burst out in immense spectacles of violence. In Civilization and Its Discontents, Freud appeals to the horrors of the First World War as an example, and had he not died in September 1939, he could surely add a few more atrocities to his list.
Freud’s diagnosis of modern Western civilization—not unlike Nietzsche’s—was bleak. To the extent that it can master thanatos, the price is growing misery since it bars modern subjects from playing out in-born instincts. I believe, however, that his theory gives rise to an ethically productive question: Can we fashion our lives, as both individuals and members of social institutions, in a way that offers our aggressions non-destructive outlets?
The idea that we have inclinations at odds with rational and socially constructive conduct is an old one. In a dominant strand of ethical thought, the imperative is to tame, or—to use Freudian parlance—suppress such inclinations. Immanuel Kant, for example, portrayed moral conduct as a constant struggle between rational duty (expressed by the Categorical Imperative) and our bodily inclinations. Reason must constantly guard against such rebellious forces. It is with this in mind, perhaps, that Nietzsche jabs at Kant: “The categorical imperative smells of cruelty.”
Hegel, Kant’s most famous successor, also likes to jab at the apparent Kantian hostility towards the living body, fraught as it is with urges and instincts. “There is nothing degrading about being alive,” he says in the Philosophy of Right, “and we do not have the alternative of existing in a higher spirituality.” I’d like to suggest that Hegel offers both an interesting construal of our seemingly antisocial aggressions—one that prefigures some of Freud’s insights—and a constructive ethical proposal for accommodating them.
Hegel characterizes desire [Begehren] as inherently aggressive; it subjugates the desired object to the demands of the desiring subject and thereby asserts the subject’s freedom vis-à-vis the objective world. When I desire an apple, I see it as nothing but a potential meal; when I consume it, I turn it into my meal; I make this formerly independent object a part of my subjectivity.
Importantly, this drama of desire has a rational purpose; it is a necessary aspect of attaining individual freedom. Unlike Rousseau, Hegel thinks that man is born unfree. We are thoroughly dependent on the world; we need it. Desire is a step away from dependency, a step towards freedom. It is not a passive need but the active satisfaction of need; moreover, it gives a specific shape to our needs. Feeling hungry, I may need food, but I desire an apple—thereby actively shaping my relationship with the world, asserting a degree (even if limited) of independence.
Furthermore, it is our desirous nature that explains, according to Hegel, why we sometimes even destroy what satisfies our needs. In a curious discussion of child development in his Anthropology, Hegel makes a passing comment: “the most rational thing that children can do with their toys is to break them.” While he doesn’t quite explain this claim, his notion of desire could fill in the lacuna. Toys satisfy a toddler’s need at a certain developmental phase, helping him build various skills. But, he must show himself and others that he is not dependent on them; in breaking his toys he attains greater independence.
It is not only objects that satisfy our desire. In fact, desiring subjects can be all the more satisfying, insofar as they are able to acknowledge our superiority; we can read in their eyes their recognition of us as free, or rather—as more free than them.
Think, for example, about the fictional character of Don Juan, the womanizer for whom seduction is a never-ending task, a repetitive assertion of his masculine power.
Such behavior may strike us as unfortunate, and not for moralistic or anti libertine reasons. It hardly seems like a recipe for a good life. After all, the seducer—even the successful one—seems to be a slave of his own desire, perhaps like a toddler reliant on his toys. Hegel would agree. For him, this basic mode of desire—which treats the world, even people, as nothing but an object for proving one’s superiority—must be transcended if we are to attain more enduring and satisfying freedom.
However, I think Hegel’s originality lies in the realization that this mode of aggressive desire is not only a developmental stage, one we can ideally do away with. We need a sphere in which we can assert our superiority over others, a sphere which serves as an outlet for our inherently aggressive desire. This outlet is the peculiarly modern sphere of civil society, the sphere of the market economy.
In the market economy, the individual is concerned with his self-interest only, “and all else means nothing to him.” He struggles for his subsistence and well-being and accumulates personal property, often by competing with others, outwitting and using them in promoting his own ends. Hegel talks about the modern economic sphere in almost animalistic terms, where “particularity indulges itself in all directions as it satisfies its needs, contingent arbitrariness, and subjective caprice.”
This might seem demeaning, as if human society is no better than a jungle. After all, much of ethical thought is concerned with taking us beyond animalistic urges and behaviors. But Hegel’s point is that such transcendence is impossible, it denies essential aspects of who we are as rational animals. Rather than suppress our animality, we are to offer it a socially constructive playground. This stands to benefit society as a whole, insofar as it increases both personal and social wealth and conduces to innovation and progress.
It appears, however, that the market economy requires precisely what Freud associated with modern civilization, namely, strict obedience to a set of shared norms. How can it afford, then, an outlet for antisocial aggressions? I think that a Hegelian answer could appeal to an alleged similarity between the economy and a collective game. On the one hand, a game requires us to recognize the other participants as peers; we all follow the same rules. In this respect, we must go beyond aggression as a developmental phase, namely, we must recognize others as equals, rather than only as potential satisfaction for our desires. On the other hand, by acknowledging others as peers, we are given a space in which we can assert our superiority over them. Only one (or some) of the players can win the game. One aggression, then, is converted into another, socially constructive one.
It was Marx, Hegel’s most influential critic, who gave us reasons to doubt the idea that civil society—or, specifically, the market economy—is a site of individual freedom. It is not, however, because the market economy is a “jungle” (to use a metaphor many critics of capitalism favor), but because Hegel was still blind to the ways in which the capitalist economy was a site of unprecedented control. For very most of its participants, it is hardly a game—let alone a fair game—in which they can assert their individuality. Nevertheless, even if Hegel’s ethical remedy to our cravings for transgression is a poor one, the problematic that he responded to still calls for attention: What to do with aggression?
Boethius presents us with a picture of happiness in which it is entirely a matter of choice and personal responsibility whether one attains it. If we are unhappy, it is a product of our own culpable ignorance—a failure to know ourselves, and thus a failure to take the means necessary to secure our ultimate, highest end.
I am inclined to think this is far too dismissive of human frailty and interdependence, and of our need to love and be loved by one another. One finds little talk of love in Boethius, or friendship. But how can we understand human happiness without putting love and friendship front and center of our account?
I disagree with Boethius that virtue is entirely within our control, since the cultivation of it depends on others, and is therefore not inoculated against good fortune. Virtue does not rise spontaneously in us, it requires training from those who possess it themselves. But not everyone in life is fortunate enough to be surrounded by virtuous and wise parents, teachers, or friends. Can we expect those born in unfortunate conditions, such as extreme poverty or broken and abusive homes, to come to the wisdom that Philosophy represents? And even if we come to possess it, wisdom itself is fragile. Iris Murdoch was wise in many respects, but during the last years of her life her rational capacities were slowly destroyed by Alzheimer’s disease.
Second, we may think that part of what it is to be wise is not only to recognize but accept and even embrace the fragility of human goodness. Setting aside the question whether Boethius was right to believe in eternal life and man’s potential participation in it, it seems that genuine self-knowledge includes both the recognition and embrace of our own radical vulnerability and dependence upon others. It is a fact about us that even the best things we can hope to attain for ourselves in this life—a loving family, meaningful friendships, knowledge and wisdom, etc—we may lose against our will. This inherent fragility does not denigrate these goods or our pursuit of them, but rather, reveals an important truth about human beings: we need to rely on others, and radically so. Human love grows in a space of mutual dependence and trust, and it depends on our recognition of our inherent exposure to evil and misfortune. Our happiness is not, as Philosophy insists, totally up to us. We need to be able to turn to others, to expose ourselves and share the burdens of the human condition. This is true for religious persons just as much as their secular counterparts.
Boethius is right, however, to stress that while we cannot control what happens to us, we can control how we react to it. A wise person will know that suffering through life’s inevitable misfortunes and disappointments is the fate of us all, and that part of living well is possessing the ability to suffer well—to face our brokenness with a measure of fortitude. It is also true that some of us will have to suffer far more than others, and that some of this does come down to luck. Boethius is further correct to say that if we have cultivated the virtues, we will be better equipped to bear our burdens with a measure of grace. But virtue alone is not enough—we do need the love, support, and companionship of intimates and neighbors. Boethius was wrong, I think, to focus so much on “self-sufficiency.” None of us is self-sufficient, and it’s a mistake to strive to be.
Boethius, alone in his prison cell, certainly had no friends to turn to. But perhaps Boethius looked upon Aristotle, Plato and others as friends—guides to help him navigate his fallen state. Wisdom is reached in a manner that is mediated by tradition, and we may find in great works of art, literature, and philosophy a similar expansion of the self through others that can console us in our darkest hours. Philosophy too is a kind of friend and constant companion.
Finally, Boethius’s work can help us to see that there is something true in what Kant says about the good will. If we are extremely unlucky in life, we may accept our fate and yet not give in to total despair. If nothing else, a good person can rest in the knowledge that she could not have managed better for herself. While it may not be a perfectly happy death, it is a far cry the despairing thought that one’s life was a pointless waste.
Kant was wrong, however, to insist that the inevitability of luck shows that the pursuit of happiness is suspect, for he was wrong to insist that all that matters is the cultivation of a good will. It is not wrong to want to be happy and to direct one’s efforts towards this goal. But we must do so in a way that is clear eyed about what we are: vulnerable and dependent creatures, in need of giving and receiving love. All of us, like Boethius, stand more or less insecure. The key to happiness, then, is probably not to search for what is ultimately up to us—nothing seems to fit this description—but to seek, as best we can, and with the acknowledged help of others, to become the kind of person who loves rightly, and is thereby easy to love in return.
Our Principal Investigator and Philosopher Jennifer A. Frey was a writer for the “Big Questions” blog yesterday, November 8, 2016. Here’s an excerpt, with a link to the full piece.
When we think of morality, we tend to think of things that we must or must not do if we are to count as good persons. In general, most of us recognize that a moral person does not do things like lie, steal, cheat, murder, rape, torture, slander, neglect duties and responsibilities, and so forth. And we further recognize that a moral person does not merely refrain from such detestable things, but also acts in certain ways that we find praiseworthy, for instance, being generous, kind, honest, respectful, loyal, brave, or self-controlled.
And while we deeply admire moral persons, we also know that morality is demanding of us. Let’s face it, sometimes the moral life can feel like a real drag. And though we may find it relatively easy to be just when things are going reasonably well for us, it is often far more difficult when justice demands that we sacrifice career prospects, harmony in our families, fulfillment of our deepest passions, and, perhaps, even our very lives.
Furthermore, even a casual observer of human affairs might notice that people who have been wildly successful in life are not always or even typically very moral. The self-sacrificing and just person might look around and begin to worry whether she has been exercising poor practical judgment. After all, if practical wisdom is about living well — and so many immoral people seem to be living well — perhaps carrying out the demands of justice is not our best option.
This raises a difficult philosophical question: Is it rational — practically wise — to be moral and just?
This question is put to Socrates in Plato’s Republic. In the dialogue, Socrates’ interlocutors force him to confront a sordid truth: that the unjust man appears to have the upper hand in life, since injustice allows him to accumulate the money and power necessary to live freely — to live unencumbered by any relations of servitude or need to others.
But Socrates is unmoved by this argument. He contends that “anyone who is going to be blessed with happiness” must love justice both for its own sake and for the sake of its good consequences. He is adamant that justice does have intrinsically good consequences — that justice “benefits its possessor” — though the moral person does not pursue justice only for the sake of those consequences.
This is an argument that appeals to human nature. The idea is that, as political animals, we need to stand in just relations to one another, for we can live well together and be happy only if we have laws that both regulate and promote sound modes of social interaction. This is why the laws of any city in which citizens can flourish and excel must be just. So we can say that justice is in a sense necessary for us — that we must pursue it. The natural desire to live happily together is not a matter of individual choice but, rather, a fact about us as humans. If we accept this picture of human nature, it is reasonable for us to be just — it both befits and benefits us given the kind of beings we are.
Plato was not the only classical author to make this connection between the good man and the good state. It’s a connection that often puzzles contemporary readers, because we have lost the conception of the human person that grounds it. It’s helpful here to remember that it was central to ancient and medieval philosophical traditions that humans possess, by nature, a function or goal that provides a standard against which to measure whether we are living well. Just as it is the goal or function of a knife to cut — such that a knife is good insofar as it cuts well — so it is the goal or function of man, Aristotle argues, to live according to judgments of right practical reasoning, to be practically wise. In other words, virtue only make sense in relation to a given goal or function. So, if the function of a knife is to cut, then the virtue of a knife is its sharpness. Similarly, Aristotle argues that the cardinal virtues — justice, courage, temperance, and practical wisdom — enable us to perform our function well, to live a reasonable life in which we make practically sound choices.
According to this view, because we are rational, political animals, we can carry out our function only together, within the context of a political community. Continue to the full piece here.
Jennifer A. Frey is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at the University of South Carolina and Principal Investigator with Virtue, Happiness, and the Meaning of Life.
I take it as a starting point that human beings are valuable in a very distinctive way. The loss of a human life is not compensable by the creation or preservation of another human life. What rules out such compensation is that each human being has irreplaceable value. If one grants this starting point, it follows that any account of the value of human beings must make sense of their irreplaceability. Indeed, human beings stand in relation to one another as beings who can properly claim certain forms of regard and treatment as their due. Therefore it is not just that human beings ought to be treated as bearers of irreplaceable value, but because human beings are due such treatment, if we do not treat them as bearers of irreplaceable value, we would not only be doing the wrong thing ethically, we would actually wrong each of them individually.
It is often alleged that Aristotelianism cannot make good sense of this notion of the value of human beings. Aristotelianism has special difficulty acknowledging the value of non-virtuous agents, and some feel that the eudaimonistic structure of Aristotelianism itself bars the way to acknowledgment of others as self-standing sources of reasons. Indeed, Aristotelians tend to measure the damage of murder, rape, etc. more in terms of the kinds of setbacks these cause to the moral well-being of the perpetrator, than as things that harm or affront their victims.
Those who raise concerns about these Aristotelian tendencies often suggest that a broadly Kantian approach to ethics can offer a more illuminating account of the irreplaceability of each moral agent and of the standing of any such agent to claim certain kinds of treatment as their due. I suggest that these charges should be reversed. It is the Kantian, not the Aristotelian, who faces special and perhaps insuperable difficulties on this front. My argument draws upon a Thomistic conception of the place that love plays in the perfection of the full array of ethical virtues.
Kantianism gains a great deal of its plausibility from its insistence on treating other humans as irreplaceably valuable. Yet it cannot provide a self-standing rational grounding for this aspect of the value of human beings, because for the Kantian, all practical reasons must spring, ultimately, from the structure of the will itself. Kantianism refuses to recognize the possibility of receiving and being guided by what exceeds us; the core Kantian idea is that in fact we really cannot do this, because we are free.
What is missing from Kantianism is the assignment to all human beings of a kind of value whose apprehension is internal to love. Thomas Aquinas proves especially useful here because his work provides this value by incorporating it into an otherwise largely Aristotelian picture of virtuous character. In this respect, love plays the role in Aquinas that practical wisdom plays in Aristotle. The virtue of love is the key to Aquinas’s doctrine of the unity of the virtues: without it, no virtue can be perfect, and it implies the perfection of all other virtues. Love “quickens” and refines the other virtues by informing them with vivid awareness of the end that gives them their point.
Thus the value of persons that gives rise to moral obligations can be brought to light by fully explicating the value of many of our most important interactions with other people, ranging from our intimate loves and friendships and the shared activities they make possible, to our appreciation of the literature and music of others, to our loving engagement in the deepest and most valuable conversations with them. All of these valuable activities require that we trust the words, significant actions, gestures, vocal play and facial expressions of others as manifestations of an experience of the world that runs deep. Appreciation of this depth is intimately tied to the appreciation and acknowledgment of the irreplaceable value of these others.
Talbot Brewer is Professor of Philosophy and Chair of the Philosophy Department at the University of Virginia, and scholar with the project Virtue, Happiness, & the Meaning of Life.
This post is part of a series of interviews with our incoming class for the “Virtue & Happiness” 2016 Summer Seminar. Charles Lockwood is Visiting Assistant Professor of Religion at Oberlin College.
Valerie Wallace: Where are you from?
Charles Lockwood: I grew up in Atlanta, and most of my family still lives in Georgia or in neighboring states. I spent my college and grad school years living in New England with some short stints living abroad along the way, and last year, I moved with my wife and 14-month-old son to Ohio, where I’m currently teaching in the religion department at Oberlin College.
VW: Tell me about your research.
CL: I locate my research at the intersection of ethics, theology, and philosophy of religion in the modern West. My current book project focuses on the theological and philosophical legacies of Immanuel Kant’s notion of autonomy, situated in relation to debates about
secularization and modernity. I’m especially interested in Kant because his emphasis on autonomy figures so strongly in both theological and philosophical narratives about modernity, and yet assessments of Kantian autonomy (as a either a good or bad thing) vary enormously. Kant’s emphasis on autonomy is also closely linked to his thinking about virtue, and while Kant parts ways at points with Aristotelian and other forms of virtue ethics, I’m also interested in how his approach to virtue can be brought into conversation with thinkers such as Aristotle. My hope is to highlight the ways that religious considerations shape Kant’s own understanding of virtue, particularly in terms of his understanding of the relationship between divine transcendence and immanent human activity.
VW: What are you most looking forward to about this summer’s Virtue & Happiness seminar?
CL: Aside from the chance to meet and have invigorating conversations with a lot of scholars sharing similar interests, I’m especially drawn to the seminar’s interdisciplinary structure (drawing as it does on theology/religious studies, philosophy, and psychology), as well as its focus on multiple traditions of reflection about virtue, including Aristotelian and various Christian construals of the moral life, as well as non-Western traditions. It’s often been noted that Kant seems to draw on empirical observations at various points in developing his ethical theory (especially in his reflections on radical evil and how such evil might be overcome), and I am eager to see how contemporary empirical work in psychology might present new insights for ethical theorizing. I am also interested in contributing to the seminar by bringing Kant into conversation with Aristotelian and various Christian conceptions of virtue.
VW: What are your non-academic interests?
CL: My main non-academic interests these days involve my young son, and the daily excitement of watching him grow has been a source of enormous joy. I’m also an amateur singer, and my wife and I joined a community choir at Oberlin last year. It’s been our first chance to sing together since college, where we met in a singing group. I also try to squeeze in a run every so often (although my son’s schedule often throws a wrench in those plans!).