Candace Vogler to speak on the place of virtue in a meaningful life, at Valparaiso University September 15


Candace Vogler will give a talk September 15 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 will be hosted by the Department of Philosophy at Valparaiso University.

The Place of Virtue in a Meaningful Life

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 fulness 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.


Frankl’s Self-Transcendence Model and Virtue Ethics – Part 1 of 2


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

This post is part 1 of a 2-part series.


The main thesis in this presentation is that Viktor Frankl’s self-transcendence (ST) model provides a useful ethical framework for living and behaving well. We also argue that his model is consistent with the Aristotelian and Thomistic moral theory of virtue ethics in important ways (Hursthouse & Pettigrove, 2016).

Virtue is an important topic for psychology, philosophy, and business management because it is concerned with moral excellence and ethical behaviours that are crucial for the well-being and flourishing of individuals and communities. The real challenge for any moral theory is whether it has the practical value of helping people live as ethical, decent human beings in daily concrete situations.

Frankl’s ST model is very practical, because it was developed and tested in wrestling with the ethical challenges of how to be a decent human being under two extremely difficult conditions in real life. The first challenge had to do with suffering—how to live with a sense of human dignity and significance even when one was facing unimaginable degradation, atrocities, and a cruel death. The second challenge had to do with power—how to prevent anyone in a position of power from its corrupting influence and becoming a monster like Hitler.

Summary of Previous Presentations

At the first Virtue Scholars meeting, I presented the meaning hypothesis of living a good life (Wong, 2015a), based on my interpretation of Frankl’s concept of meaning-seeking (Wong, 2014) and his ST model (Wong, 2016a). More specifically, the meaning hypothesis posits that our primary motivational need of seeking meaning (i.e., the will to meaning) and the meaning-mindset of finding meaning (i.e., meaning of life) constitute the motivational and cognitive factors of ST. My focus was on the importance of the perspective of the meaning-mindset.

My second presentation elaborated on the meaning hypothesis by explaining how the striving towards some goals of ST is a promising pathway to live a good life of virtue, happiness, and meaning (Wong, 2016b). My focus was on the motivational aspect of seeking meaning. After reviewing various conceptions and models of ST, I concluded that Frankl’s two-factor model of ST (cognitive and motivational factors) represents the most comprehensive ST model for research and intervention.

At the December 2017 Virtue Scholars working group meeting, I sketched the various components of Frankl’s ST model and their inter-relationships as shown in Figure 1. I also introduced the four defining characteristics of ST as measured by the Self-Transcendence Measure (STM) (Wong, 2016c). I proposed that these four dimensions could differentiate the virtuous type of genuine ST from the evil type of pseudo-ST because of their inherent moral orientation (Wong, 2017).

In this present paper, the focus is on the basic tenets of Frankl’s ST model and their moral implications for living a virtuous life. We attempt to integrate Frankl’s work with moral philosophy.


Figure 1. Frankl’s two-factor theory and characteristics of self-transcendence.

Basic Assumptions of Frankl’s Self-Transcendence Model and Virtue Ethics

Frankl’s answer to the two ethical challenges identified in the introduction is fourfold: (1) the defiant power of the human spirit; (2) the capacity for freedom and responsibility; (3) the primary motivation for ST; and (4) the power of the meaning-mindset.

Defiant Power of the Human Spirit

Viktor Frankl (1985) described the defiant power of the human spirit as the freedom to take a courageous stance towards fate and the human capacity to transform a tragedy into a triumph. He defined courage in terms of the noetic or spiritual dimension; thus, moral courage had a spiritual origin.

Recently, Wong (2015b) interpreted the defiant power as the moral courage to maintain one’s cherished values and human dignity in the face of suffering and death; this courage is the key to true grit in surviving constant and unimaginable assaults on one’s physical and psychological integrity.

Without such moral fortitude in the face of danger, we would not be able to have the character strength to preserve and realize the moral values that make us decent human beings. This is essentially an existential courage that enables us to take a defiant stand against a harsh fate and do what is morally right despite personal dangers.

Frankl’s view of courage is consistent with both the classic and Catholic conceptions of courage as a virtue. Plato (1894/2000) considers courage as one of the four cardinal values. Aristotle (Nicomachean Ethics, 3.6-9) defines courage as have the right “amount” of fear (“the mean”); thus, a courageous person still fears things that all human beings are afraid of, yet has the courage to face these fears as one should for some good and worthy goal, such as facing death in a battle to protect one’s country. Thomas Aquinas considers fortitude or courage primarily in terms of endurance with firmness. He says, “The principal act of courage is to endure and withstand dangers doggedly rather than to attack” (Summa Theologica, IIb, 123.8). Courage is expressed when an individual is pursuing a difficult or dangerous goal that is sufficiently valuable to be worth the difficulty or danger.

In sum, having moral courage is a prerequisite for doing the right thing or making the right choice. It is easy to do what is expedient, but it takes courage to do what is right. It is an easy way out to compromise or surrender in the face of great danger, but it takes great courage to stand up for one’s core values and beliefs. Thus, moral fortitude is just the starting point; there are additional conditions one must fulfill in order to be a fully functioning decent human being.

Capacity for Freedom and Responsibility

“Freedom of will” figures prominently in Frankl’s ST model. His model hinges on the responsible use of freedom in all situations. In Man’s Search for Meaning (Frankl, 1985), he declares:

Man is not fully conditioned and determined but rather he determines himself whether he give in to conditions or stands up to them. In other words, man is self-determining. Man does not simply exist but always decides what his existence will be, what he will become in the next moment. By the same token, every human being has the freedom to change at any instant. (p. 154)

Every person has the freedom and responsibility to choose their own pathway and life goals. Their choices determine their character, well-being, and destiny, even when we factor in fate or luck. Every situation presents us with the choice between good and evil, between acting on the bright side or the dark side of our nature; we can choose between spiritual joy and carnal pleasures, between practicing kindness and abusing our powers.

Shantall’s (2004) research on Holocaust survivors supports Frankl’s thesis on moral responsibility. Here are some important lessons from Holocaust survivors:

Their active efforts to maintain moral values in the face of the onslaught against them, made their lives take on greater spiritual content and meaning. Living with a profound value-directedness and moral responsibility, they experienced a sense of true destiny (something or someone to live or survive for) with peak moments of triumph and even joy. (p. 3)

The human capacity for freedom of will allows us to deliberate and choose between good and evil, between desires and values. Our awareness of the moral implications of our choices makes us morally responsible for our decisions and actions. Aquinas attributes this freedom to our rational or volitional abilities. Even though our nature may predispose us to certain ends, we have the freedom to choose between the ends, as well as the pathway to achieve a certain end. Aquinas conception of freedom, however, does not entail that all choices are equal, but rather a teleological notion of freedom- the more free one is the more able one is to pursue the good (Titus & Moncher, 2009). Another way to phrase this is that the virtuous individual is free to be just, and so to fulfill their obligations and responsibilities, choosing the proper actions for the proper reasons (Titus, 2016).

Frankl’s ST model represents an agent-centered moral theory which emphasizes the human being as a moral agent (Harris, 1999; Slote, 2001). For Slote (2001), a virtuous life depends on both a particular agent’s inner dispositions and actual motives. Therefore, the virtuous kind of ST needs to stem from a good inner disposition and a good motive.

Frankl’s model recognizes human beings as both moral and instrumental agents. It is consistent with the psychological literature of self-determination theory (Ryan & Deci, 2000) and self-efficacy theory (Bandura, 1977), which are predicated on the human capacity for freedom and responsibility. In moral psychology, research on moral identity (Colby & Damon, 1992) and moral education (Bebeau, Rest, & Narvaez, 1999) emphasizes that individuals whose moral goals and values are central to their self-concept feel responsible for acting in consistently moral ways.

Tomorrow in Part II, we will discuss the Motivation of Searching for Self-Transcendence.

The Good Life Through Polarity and Transcendence – part 1

Sacred Hues

In his encyclopedic book exploring the mysteries of science and philosophy, Guy Murchie (1978) identifies polarity and transcendence as the two great mysteries of all life systems.

Murchie’s profound insight is essential to our research and understanding of virtue, happiness, and meaning—the three constituents of the good life. Contrary to the predominant binary thinking of only pursuing what is positive, Guy supports the dialectical approach of second wave positive psychology (PP 2.0). That is, we need to accept the principle of polarity that permeates every aspect of human existence—good and evil, God and the devil, happiness and sadness, life and death…

Transcendence is also necessary because it integrates the opposites and moves towards greater connectiveness and higher consciousness. In terms of evolution, it is the inevitable process of moving from single-celled organisms towards more complex living systems, and from simple ideas such as “positive is good; negative is bad” towards more complex concepts like yin-yang.

Thus, the deep secret of the good life is to accept and transcend polarities. From the perspective of PP 2.0, acceptance and transcendence are the essential yin-yang processes. Acceptance represents the yin process of enduring and embracing life in its totality, with letting go and humility; transcendence represents the yang process of growth and self-expanding to the point of losing oneself in something greater and grander.

The Polarity Principle


Murchie draws heavily from Heraclitus of Ephesus (c. 535-c. 475 BCE). Heraclitus is best known for his doctrines that things are constantly changing (universal flux) and that opposites coexist (unity of opposites). “The way up and the way down are one and the same… It is sickness that makes health pleasant… And evil leads to good.” (Murchie, 1978, p. 472).

Evidence of the polarity principle is everywhere—positive-negative, subject-object, predator-prey, action-reaction, stress-relaxation… However, there is an underlying harmony and unity below the surface reality of opposites, as symbolized by yin-yang. Awareness and acceptance of the sameness of opposites result in transcendence.

This polarity principle sheds a new light on our understanding of positive psychology. Happiness is no longer the presence of positive affect and the absence of negative affect, but the acceptance of the inevitable polarity of feelings, and being attuned to the ebb and flow of emotions with a sense of contentment (Kwee, 2012; Wong, 2014a).

Maturation means the acceptance of inevitable losses that come with aging (Reker & Wong, 2012; Ryff, 2012) and personal mortality (Wong, Reker, & Gesser, 1994). Furthermore, virtue is no longer the absence of vice, but the triumph of virtue in spite of the reality of the dark side (Wong, 2016).

Similarly, meaning in life takes shape through the endless process of transforming and assimilating absurd and meaningless moments into a larger meaningful design. This process of personal growth is made possible only through the constant struggle and stretching to overcome challenges and obstacles (Wong, 2011).

The end result of accepting the polarity principle is that we are more likely to develop the practical wisdom of moderation or the “middle way” and less likely to develop radical beliefs and the polarized mind (Schneider, 2013). It will also contribute to what Jung saw as the individualization process of balancing and integrating all the opposites within one’s self-system (Wong, 2009).

Such dialectic thinking opens up many new frontiers for research and applications. For instance, gratitude exercises are no longer limited to the good things that have happened to us; we are challenged to express gratitude for the bad things as well, because of the valuable lessons and benefits that come from suffering. This type of spiritual gratitude exercise may be more helpful to those suffering from trauma. The Psalms are full of examples of a voice beginning with complaints and ending with thanksgiving.

In sum, the best way to increase the well-being of individuals and organizations is to accept and transcend the pervasive polarities of life such as success-failure, happiness-sadness, and virtue-vice. This perspective is similar to the medical practice of assuming that we live in a world full of bacteria, viruses, and illnesses that we can acclimate ourselves to and survive. Thus, positive psychology is no longer a refocus away from disease to well-being, but a broader focus on the reality of polarities.

Tomorrow – part 2, The Transcendence Principle


Aron, A., & Aron, E. N. (2012). The meaning of love. In P. T. P. Wong (Ed.), The human quest for meaning: Theories, research, and applications (2nd ed.; pp. 185-208). New York, NY: Routledge.

Emmons, R. A. (1999). The psychology of ultimate concerns: Motivation and spirituality in personality. New York, NY: Guilford Press.

Frankl, V. E. (1985). Man’s search for meaning (Revised & updated ed.). New York, NY: Washington Square Press.

Haidt, J. D. (2012). Religion, evolution, and the ecstasy of self-transcendence. TED. Retrieved from

Kwee, M. G. T. (2012). Relational Buddhism: A psychological quest for meaning and sustainable happiness. In P. T. P. Wong (Ed.), The human quest for meaning: Theories, research, and applications (2nd ed.; pp. 249-276). New York, NY: Routledge.

Murchie, G. (1978). The seven mysteries of life: An exploration of science and philosophy. New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin.

Reker, G. T., & Wong, P. T. P. (2012). Personal meaning in life and psychosocial adaptation in the later years. In P. T. P. Wong (Ed.), The human quest for meaning: Theories, research, and applications (2nd ed., pp. 433-456). New York, NY: Routledge.

Ryff, C. D. (2012). Existential well-being and health. In P. T. P. Wong (Ed.), The human quest for meaning: Theories, research, and applications (2nd ed., pp. 233-248). New York, NY: Routledge.

Schneider, K. J. (2013). The polarized mind: Why it’s killing us and what we can do about it. Colorado Springs, CO: University Professors Press.

Wong, P. T. P. (2009). The depth positive psychology of Carl Jung. In S. J. Lopez (Ed.), Encyclopedia of positive psychology (Vol. 1, pp. 545-546). Oxford, UK: Wiley-Blackwell.

Wong, P. T. P. (2011). Positive psychology 2.0: Towards a balanced interactive model of the good life. Canadian Psychology, 52(2), 69-81.

Wong, P. T. P. (2012). What is the meaning mindset? International Journal of Existential Psychology and Psychotherapy, 4(1), 1-3.

Wong, P. T. P. (2014a). From attunement to a meaning-centred good life: Book review of Daniel Haybron’s Happiness: A very short introductionInternational Journal of Wellbeing, 4(2), 100-105.

Wong, P. T. P. (2014b). Viktor Frankl’s meaning seeking model and positive psychology. In A. Batthyany & P. Russo-Netzer (Eds.), Meaning in existential and positive psychology (pp. 149-184)New York, NY: Springer.

Wong, P. T. P. (2016, July). PP2.0 Summit explores the new vistas of second wave positive psychology: How to embrace the dark side to make life better. Positive Living Newsletter. Retrieved from

Wong, P. T. P., Reker, G. T., & Gesser, G. (1994). Death Attitude Profile – Revised: A multidimensional measure of attitudes toward death (DAP-R). In R. A. Neimeyer (Ed.), Death anxiety handbook: Research, instrumentation, and application (pp. 121-148). Washington, DC: Taylor & Francis.

Paul Wong is Professor Emeritus of Psychology at Trent University and a Scholar with Virtue, Happiness, & the Meaning of Life.

Virtue Talk Podcast: Michael Gorman on Listening to Others and Finding Meaning

virtuetalklogorsClick the link below to hear our scholar and philosopher Michael Gorman discuss his research in human fulfillment, and how his thinking about scholarship and research has been impacted in surprising ways by our collaborative project.

Michael Gorman | Virtue Talk

Micahel Gorman is Associate Professor of Philosophy at the School of Philosophy at The Catholic University of America. Read more about him and other other scholars here.

WGM June 2016_20160609_2749
Michael Gorman discussing meaning as PI Jennifer A. Frey listens, at our June 2016 working group meeting.



Preview on iTunes

Read about our podcast “Virtue Talk”

Self-transcendence the missing link in research on virtue, happiness, and meaning in human life?

To the sky – photo by Chris Smith

The hypotheses we are investigating center on the thought that self-transcendence supplies a missing link in work on virtue, happiness, and meaning in human life. All three of those terms—virtue, happiness, meaning—can be interpreted in more than one way, but those three are showing up in broad, educated popular culture these days. Self-transcendence, on the other hand, is not. So what is self-transcendence and why do we think that it is important to research on developing the kinds of strengths that help one to be a good person (virtue), thriving, growing, and flourishing in the course of working to lead a good life (happiness), and having a sense of purpose in doing what you do (meaning)?

Some aspects of self-transcendence are familiar—in discussions of egoism versus altruism, altruism stands as the term marking putting concern for others ahead of concern for self. Altruism can be an aspect of self-transcendence. But there are many ways of putting others’ needs ahead of one’s own, and some ways of doing this have more to do with self-aggrandizement or self-defense than self-transcendence. For example, if I use “service” to others as a way of showing that I am a better person than you are, I am trying to use so-called “service” to make myself big rather than get over my fixation on myself. If I am endlessly helpful and obsequious because I have been beaten down by the world, or am afraid that others will beat me down if I try to stand up for myself, I am not transcending my self—I am trying to find a way of defending myself.

As we understand the term, self-transcendence shows itself when I live my life and understand my life as essentially connected to a good beyond my own comfort, the security and comfort of my friends and immediate family, the goods of personal achievement, success, self-expression, and the like. My life is lived through participation in a good that goes beyond personal achievement, expression, security and comfort, beyond even the need to promote those goods for members of my intimate circle. I work on behalf of bettering the community in ways that will help strangers, say. I engage in spiritual practices that are not just designed to make me calmer or more effective in my daily life, but allow me to participate in a spiritual community organized by the need to be right with one another and to show due reverence for the sacred—community practice directed to a good beyond the borders of the self-identified community. I devote myself to social justice. I devote myself to participation in a community seeking truth, goodness, or beauty. In ways small or large, what I do, and how I do it, what I notice and how I respond, what I think and say and what I do not think and do not say, are guided by my relation to something bigger and better than I am. I have a self-transcendent orientation to the living of my daily life. My own life is a part of some good crucial to good life more generally, as best I can understand, serve, and embody that larger good.

The passages above are not offered as a comprehensive, ultimate definition of self-transcendence. The sketch of self-transcendence I’ve given serves as a starting point for our collaboration. One of the aims of our research is to develop rigorous and more thoroughly articulated understandings of self-transcendence that can guide and direct ongoing research in our different disciplines.

Our hypothesis is that the larger good is what can imbue my daily life with a sense of meaning and purpose, and that the strengths that belong to virtue are strengths that help me to direct myself to the larger good in thought, feeling, and practice. If there is a special happiness that comes of the effort to be a good person and lead a good life—a deep happiness, that can sustain us through the inevitable struggles and trials of our lives—that happiness comes of a life lived through a self-transcendent orientation. We are investigating this hypothesis through our diverse research modalities, in the hope that developing a broad, multifaceted account of self-transcendence in its relation to virtue, happiness, and meaning will help people generally begin to assess and address those aspects of their lives that can make the stuff of living look more like a giant ‘to-do’ list than a real source of vitality, purpose, resilience, and joy.

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.