A stairway to heaven: A terror management theory perspective on morality

Congratulations to our Summer Session 2017 participant Andrea Yetzer, PhD student in Psychology at Northwestern University. She’s written a chapter for “Atlas of moral psychology,” out now from Guilford Press.
This chapter views moral values, judgment, and behavior from the framework of terror management theory (Solomon, Greenberg, & Pyszczynski, 1991, 2015). Terror management theory posits that as cultural animals, we seek to achieve the behavioral standards set forth by our cultural worldviews, from which we derive both self-worth and meaning, as they ultimately protect us from the anxiety aroused by thoughts of our own eventual death. From a terror management perspective, individuals care about living up to moral values because doing so enables them to view themselves as enduring, significant contributors to a meaningful world who will continue to exist after death–either literally by qualifying for an afterlife, or symbolically by contributing to something greater than themselves that will last forever.
Yetzer, A. M., Pyszczynski, T., & Greenberg, J. (2018). A stairway to heaven: A terror management theory perspective on morality. In K. Gray & J. Graham (Eds.), Atlas of moral psychology (pp. 241-251). New York: Guilford Press.

Bad and Good Self-Transcendence

This piece originally appeared in the Positive Living Newsletter as “The Varieties of Self-Transcendence: The Good and the Bad.”


Recently, I have touted the benefits of self-transcendence (ST) in several publications (e.g., Wong, 2016a, b). Since all things exist in polarity (Wong, 2016c, d), naturally, ST also has its downside. This essay will explore the dark side of ST and suggest ways to prevent it.

Examples of Negative Self-Transcendence

An estimated 21,500 civilians have been killed in East Aleppo, more than 400,000 refugees have fled Aleppo, and over four million citizens have left Syria. Yet, Syrian President al-Assad, in an interview with the French media, asserted that all the bombings and killings of innocent people were necessary for the noble cause of liberating them! (BBC, 2017).

Similarly, suicide-bombers and other terrorists justify their atrocities in the name of a holy war against infidels. The Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) firmly believe that it is necessary to sacrifice millions of lives in order to achieve the noble cause of “religious cleansing” and establishing an Islamic State (Erimtan, 2015).

During the second world war, Adolf Hitler was responsible for the termination of more than six million Jews. He too justified the Holocaust with the perverse ideology of ethnic cleansing and creating the Third Reich—the third glorious age.

History abounds with atrocities and genocides in service of some causes greater than personal interests, such as redressing current injustice, revenging past wounds, restoring past glories, and creating a strong homeland.

The troubling question is: Why are so many rational people prepared to commit such evils for the sake of some cause? How can people use their intellect and twisted logic to justify unimaginable evils against other human beings?

Justification for Negative Self-Transcendence

Several hypotheses have been put forward to explain terrorism and wars. Moghaddam’s (2005) hypothesis in “The Staircase to Terrorism” proposed that the terrorist act represents the final step of a narrowing staircase for those who feel deprived and treated unfairly without a voice in society. When they are recruited by terrorist organizations, they are given a legitimate reason to attack the privileged out-group members as being evil.

In a similar vein, Kruglanski (2006) suggested that terrorists could use terrorism as a tool to achieve the “greater good” of justice or a better future for their people. Recently, Friedman (2016) expounded on a similar view regarding terrorism and the ISIS movement.

From a different perspective, Pyszczynski, Solomon, and Greenburg’s (2004) terror management theory (TMT) argues that culture worldview (CWV) serves the function of buffering our existential anxieties; therefore, we often become hostile towards those endorsing different beliefs, which threaten our own sense of security. Some extremists may resort to terrorism to protect their beliefs.

In an interview with Jason Tucker and Jason VandenBuekel (2016), Jordan Peterson recognized that “in a sophisticated religious system, there is a positive and negative polarity. Ideologies simplify that polarity and, in doing so, demonize and oversimplify.”

Peterson’s (1999) book and course entitled Maps of Meaning was designed to teach these ideas. In that interview, he also said: “I was particularly interested in what led people to commit atrocities in service of their belief. … One of the things that I’m trying to convince my students of is that if they had been in Germany in the 1930s, they would have been Nazis. Everyone thinks ‘Not me,’ and that’s not right. It was mostly ordinary people who committed the atrocities that characterized Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union” (Tucker & VandenBeukel, 2016).

That is really scary—ordinary people could be indoctrinated to commit atrocities! What can be done to counteract the insidious process of radicalization?

In sum, there are two justifications for the bad kind of ST: (1) Sacrificing innocent people is needed to achieve some goals greater than oneself; and (2) violence against others is justified in order to protect our own beliefs and values.

Both justifications raise serious questions of ethics and values. First, no civil society can long survive if any social agent is allowed to employ violent means to achieve whatever one considers as a good cause; there have to be more rational and ethical ways to accomplish the common good.

Second, democracy is possible only when all people are of equal value; there is no legal or ethical justification to sacrifice some individuals or some groups of people for the benefits of any special group of individuals.

Third, ultimately, human life must be valued as sacred; it cannot be demonized or reduced to something that can be easily terminated in the service of one’s beliefs. Thus, one way to counteract radicalization and terrorism is to educate people regarding the value and sanctity of human life.

Is There a Solution?

I propose that Viktor Frankl’s theory of good ST (Wong, 2016e) will reduce the likelihood of negative ST. Because of his own harrowing experience in the hands of Hitler and Nazism, Frankl took great pains to emphasize the need for treating others with ethnical responsibility.

Thus, ST by definition is based on the values of benevolence and universalism (Schwartz, 1992, 1994), according to the best lights of one’s conscience and the highest standard of enduring values (Frankl, 1985). ST represents a loving and virtuous way of relating to ourselves and others according to the better angels of our nature (Pinker, 2011).

There are always two options—a staircase to spirituality (Haidt, 2012) and a staircase to terrorism (Moghaddam, 2005). When we keep the values of love and life at the forefront of our consciousness, one will choose the positive types of ST; when we value hate and revenge, one will be attracted to the negative type of ST. Education in ST is needed to enhance human adaptability and reduce global terrorism.

I want to conclude by quoting from my earlier publication:

The present self-transcendence hypothesis states that all purposes are not equal. Misguided life purposes, such as pursuing pleasure and power with total disregard for ethical and legal issues, eventually will result in self-destruction. However, when we strive to serve a higher purpose and greater good, then each step of the journey is rewarding and inspiring, even when we do not receive recognition or reward. (Wong, 2016e)


  1. BBC. (2017, January 9). Syrian war: Assad says Aleppo bombing was justified. Retrieved from http://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-38552913
  2. Erimtan, C. (2015, May 10). ISIS and its mission: Religious cleansing, genocide, and destruction of the past. RT. Retrieved from https://www.rt.com/op-edge/257253-syria-iraq-is-politics/
  3. Frankl, V. E. (1985). Man’s search for meaning (Revised & updated ed.). New York, NY: Washington Square Press.
  4. Friedman, T. L. (2016). Thank you for being late: An optimist’s guide to thriving in the age of accelerations. New York, NY: Farrar, Straus &Giroux.
  5. Haidt, J. (2012). Religion, evolution, and the ecstasy of self-transcendence. TED. Retrieved from https://www.ted.com/talks/jonathan_haidt_humanity_s_stairway_to_self_transcendence
  6. Kruglanski, A. W. (2006). The psychology of terrorism: “Syndrome” versus “tool” perspectives. In J. Victoroff (Ed), Tangled roots: Social and psychological factors in the genesis of terrorism (pp. 61-73). Washington, DC: IOS Press.
  7. Peterson, J. (1999). Maps of meaning: The architecture of belief. New York, NY: Routledge.
  8. Moghaddam, F. M. (2005). The staircase to terrorism: A psychological exploration. American Psychologist, 60(2), 161-169. doi:10.1037/0003-066X.60.2.161
  9. Pinker, S. (2011). The better angels of our nature: Why violence has declined. New York, NY: Viking.
  10. Pyszczynski, T. A., Solomon, S., & Greenburg, J. (2004). In the wake of 9/11: The psychology of terror. Washington, DC. American Psychological Association.
  11. Schwartz, S. H. (1992). Universals in the content and structure of values: Theoretical advances and empirical tests in 20 countries. Advances in Experimental Psychology, 25(1), 1-65. doi:10.1016/S0065-2601(08)60281-6
  12. Schwartz, S. H. (1994). Are there universal aspects in the content and structure of values? Journal of Social Issues, 50(4), 19-45. doi:10.1111/j.1540-4560.1994.tb01196.x
  13. Tucker, J., & VandenBeukel, J. (2016, December 1). Interview with Dr. Jordan Peterson: Universities are pandering to students and lying to them. Sott. Retrieved from https://www.sott.net/article/336197-Interview-with-Dr-Jordan-Peterson-Universities-are-pandering-to-students-and-lying-to-them
  14. Wong, P. T. P. (2016a, November 7). Acceptance, transcendence, & yin-yang dialectics: The three basic tenets of second wave positive psychology. Positive Living Newsletter. Retrieved from http://www.drpaulwong.com/inpm-presidents-report-november-2016/
  15. Wong, P. T. P. (2016b, December). From Viktor Frankl’s logotherapy to the four defining characteristics of self-transcendencePaper presented at the research working group meeting for Virtue, Happiness, and the Meaning of Life Project, Columbia, SC. (Funded by the John Templeton Foundation).
  16. Wong, P. T. P. (2016c, October 18). The good life through polarity and transcendence. Virtue, Happiness, and the Meaning of Life. Retrieved from https://thevirtueblog.com/2016/10/18/the-good-life-through-polarity-and-transcendence-part-1/
  17. Wong, P. T. P. (2016d, October 19). The good life through polarity and transcendence. Virtue, Happiness, and the Meaning of Life. Retrieved from https://thevirtueblog.com/2016/10/19/the-good-life-through-polarity-and-transcendence-part-2/
  18. Wong, P. T. P. (2016e). Meaning-seeking, self-transcendence, and well-being. In A. Batthyány (Ed.), Logotherapy and existential analysis: Proceedings of the Viktor Frankl Institute (Vol. 1; pp. 311-322). Cham, Switzerland: Springer.



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

Candace Vogler on Aquinas and Practical Wisdom | Our Scholars at Oxford for Jubilee Centre Conference on Character, Wisdom, and Virtue, January 5-7, 2017

Inside New College, Oxford, and its Gardens. Photo by JR P (Flickr).

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. http://jubileecentre.ac.uk

vhml-candace-vogler-photo-by-marc-monaghan20150918_0001_1Candace Vogler is the David B. and Clara E. Stern Professor of Philosophy at the University of Chicago. She has authored two books, John Stuart Mill’s Deliberative Landscape: An essay in moral psychology (Routledge, 2001) and Reasonably Vicious (Harvard University Press, 2002), as well as essays in ethics, social and political philosophy, philosophy and literature, cinema, psychoanalysis, and gender and sexuality studies. Her research interests are in practical philosophy (particularly the strand of work in moral philosophy indebted to Elizabeth Anscombe), practical reason, Kant’s ethics, Marx, and neo-Aristotelian naturalism.

Below is her abstract, introduction, and link to her keynote paper, “Aquinas on Practical Wisdom.”

ABSTRACT: “Aquinas on Practical Wisdom”

Various aspects of Aristotelian work on virtue seem to move around each other in circles—correct practical knowledge seems to be measured by right desire, and right desire seems to be measured by correct practical knowledge; having the moral virtues seems to require having practical wisdom, but having practical wisdom seems to require having the moral virtues. Aquinas’s account of practical wisdom is deeply indebted to Aristotle, but Aquinas finds a kind of grounding for practical wisdom in an understanding of human nature at some remove from Aristotle’s, developing a moral psychology that is, in many respects, both richer and more powerful than what we find in some contemporary neo-Aristotelian work. Aquinas devoted considerable attention to both the character of virtue and the nature of vice. He provided a special account of the way in which human beings were oriented toward human good and away from bad that allowed ample room for accounting for the many ways most of us routinely fail to lead entirely well-ordered lives. I will take us into some of the detail of Aquinas’s account of practical wisdom in search of theoretical wisdom about virtue, vice, and human nature.



I will start with what ought to be a commonplace—it is a condition on the intelligibility of animal movement that an animal moves toward what is good for an animal of its kind and avoids what is bad for an animal of its kind. There are exceptions, of course, especially among domestic animals. While even a domestic goat knows to avoid eating tansy, this aversion seems to be beyond the capacities of domestic sheep, and cats and dogs that spend too much time as objects of intense human emotional engagement become strange. But when a non-human animal seems incapable of going for the things that it belongs to such animals to go for, or else avoiding the things that it belongs to such animals to avoid, one wants to know what has gone wrong. Is the animal sick? Are we seeing the unhappy aftermath of myopic animal husbandry practices?


That is the sort of point at issue in the commonplace. And the commonplace frames study of animals generally. For example, there will be certain things one looks for in the course of identifying a new species of animal that point to what animals generally have to seek or to avoid, such as: How does this sort manage nutrition? How does it protect itself? How does it reproduce? In this sense, understanding living things immediately catches us up in very general and rudimentary concern over good and bad, given the kind of living thing in question.[i] I take it that no one engaged in serious study of, say, gray wolves, will become concerned over the possibility that she may be wrong in thinking that Wolf #355 is interested in breeding. She may be wrong in thinking that interest in breeding is what drives Wolf #355 to haunt the edges of that pack this week. He may be after food. He may be trying to join the pack even though membership rarely carries opportunities to breed. But there is no question that food, pack membership, and breeding possibilities are attractive to wolves—the sorts of things that wolves pursue, things that are, for the wolf qua wolf, good.


In short, if we want to understand what is going on with an animal, the framework for our investigation—the thing that sets the terms for our work—is some growing understanding of specific good—that is, what is good for that species of living thing. This is so even when we move from the level of the whole living thing in its characteristic environment to concern over detailed aspects of its biology.


Why does the chemical composition of the primate’s breast milk change? The infant’s need for such-and-such is communicated to the mother’s body during nursing, and the production of breast milk matches the infant’s need. At this level of description, it does not matter whether or not the primates are human beings.


When we turn our attention to human beings’ voluntary acts, however, even though we operate within the same framework of good and bad that guides study of organic chemistry or neurobiology or vision or digestion, we start to lose our grip. What counts as a good human act? What counts as a good way for human beings to manage the reproduction of living individuals? of the species? of modes of social life and interaction?


I have some confidence that I will not be able to interact with a seriously disturbed person in a healing way unless I can see the sense in which her way of moving around in the world is meant to secure a good sort of thing for a human to secure, or else to avoid something that is a bad sort of thing for one of us. Still, the last thing I usually would say straight off when confronted with someone who avoids bathing, screams profanities when approached, and scuttles into dark places rather than make eye contact with anyone is that she is engaged in reasonable pursuit of human good. The merely formal point—living things seek what is good, given the kinds of living things that they are, and avoid what is bad for such kinds of things—may frame our understanding of what people are up to. Nevertheless, what is understandable in humans’ ways of moving around in the world dramatically exceeds the range of ways of organizing one’s life that count as tending to reasonable and harmonious pursuit of human good, or avoidance of what’s bad. Folly, greed, pettiness, cowardice, injustice, despair, cruelty, negligence, callousness, selfishness, and a wide range of more unusual, boutique practical orientations can be perfectly understandable in this minimal sense: they can qualify as directed toward human good, or away from things that are bad for humans. For all that, if we can make sense of these orientations in ourselves or in others, this is because we can see them as attempts—however benighted—to move toward good or away from bad.


Aquinas takes this bit of wisdom about species of living things from Aristotle and develops the point with reference to voluntary human acts in ways that draw from other sources—notably from Augustine, but also from Ambrose, from some strands of Stoic thought, from saints, from scripture, from his teacher, his contemporaries, and others. Aquinas provides a fairly rich and strangely elegant map of human moral psychology. Our choices and actions are all inflected by reason in the sense at issue in treating us as going toward real or apparent human good, away from what is or seems to be bad. This is how what we are up to is potentially understandable even when we are acting in ways that are recognizably unpleasant, short-sighted, or foolish so that human appear, as my youngest sister once put it, to “lack the sense that God gave to mammals.”[ii]


On Aquinas’s schema, we are the animals with intellect. This is, for him, a metaphysical point rather than just an observation about the relative complexity or range of our sort of thinking, feeling, and wanting as contrasted, say, with the sort we think that we find in other species. And part of what is interesting about us, as we find ourselves, is that reasonable and harmonious pursuit of human good is a problem for us. Acquired virtues are cultivated, learned ways of coping with that trouble. And acquired practical wisdom is, for Aquinas, a cardinal virtue.


For obvious reasons, acquired virtues—strengths developed through education, acculturation, practice, and such, the nascent forms of which may begin in dense and complex attachment to caretakers very early in life—are the strengths of interest to most people in my line of work, to educators, and to social scientists. The other sort of virtue important for Aquinas is infused virtue—strength that comes from God and orients us to a supernatural end. I am among those fans of Aquinas who think that we ignore infused virtue at our peril if we are interested in his account of human life, human nature, and the place of substantive good in understanding how things go for human beings. Nevertheless, in what follows by virtue I will mean acquired virtue.


I will begin by giving a quick and crude sketch of Aquinas’s understanding of human moral psychology, by way of introducing his diagnosis of how it is that acting well can be such a problem for us. Moral virtue will come into the story to help us begin to address the problem, without entirely solving it, and practical wisdom—an intellectual strength—will help steady and steer the vessel whose patches and ongoing repair have been the work of moral virtue.

[i] The best work on this topic in contemporary philosophy is by Michael Thompson. For his most concise treatment, see “Apprehending Human Form,” in Anthony O’Hear, editor, Modern Moral Philosophy, (Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, 2004), pp.47-74.

[ii] Lisa Winans in conversation.

For the full paper and others in this series, visit http://jubileecentre.ac.uk/1674/conferences/character-wisdom-and-virtue

Or click here for the paper: Aquinas on Practial Wisdom

Varieties of Virtue Ethics collection features our scholars

We are very happy to announce a new book that will be of great interest to researchers, students, and general readers concerned with the many contemporary varieties and applications of virtue ethics: Varieties of Virtue Ethics, Edited by David Carr, James Arthur, and Kristján Kristjánsson, from Palgrave Macmillan (December 2016). Edited by two of our Project Scholars, David Carr and Kristján Kristjánsson, both at the University of Birmingham Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues, the book explores recent developments in ethics of virtue, and includes three essays by scholars of the project Virtue, Happiness, and the Meaning of Life.


The collection acknowledges the Aristotelian roots of modern virtue ethics, with its emphasis on the moral importance of character, while also recognizing that more recent accounts of virtue have been shaped by many other influences, such as Aquinas, Hume, Nietzsche, Hegel and Marx, and Confucius and Lao-tzu. The authors examine the influence of virtue ethics on disciplines such as psychology, sociology and theology, and also look at the wider public, professional and educational implications of virtue ethics.

Essays in the volume include a chapter by our Virtue project scholars John Haldane, who is the J. Newton Rayzor Sr. Distinguished Chair in Philosophy at Baylor University, on “Virtue Ethics in the Medieval Period;” our Principal Investigator Candace Vogler, the David E. and Clara B. Stern Professor of Philosophy at the University of Chicago on “Virtue, the Common Good, and Self-Transcendence; ” Robert C. Roberts, Professor of Ethics and Emotion Theory at the Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues, and a joint Chair with the Royal Institute of Philosophy, on “Varieties of Virtue Ethics;” and David Carr, Professor Emeritus, University of Edinburgh and Professor of Ethics and Education, University of Birmingham Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues, on “Educating for the Wisdom of Virtue.”

For more information, including the table of contents, visit http://www.palgrave.com/us/book/9781137591760.

Interview with Leland Saunders, Summer Session Participant


This post is part of a series of interviews with our incoming class for the “Virtue & Happiness” 2016 Summer Seminar. Leland Saunders is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Seattle Pacific University.

Valerie Wallace: Where are you from?

Leland Saunders: I currently live in Seattle, where I’ve been for the past four years. Though, when people here ask me where I’m from, I tell them I’m from Baltimore.

VW: Tell me about your research.

LS:  I’ve mostly been working on areas related to empirical approaches to moral psychology. I’m interested in what psychological and neurological research can and cannot contribute to our understanding of moral psychology. Some of my recent work has been focused on addressing what I take to be some pretty fundamental conceptual questions that often get overlooked in some of these debates, in particular, what sort of psychological process or processes get labeled “reasoning.” This relates to another, broader concern I have to respond to a certain kind of debunking project being pursued by some fairly prominent empirical moral psychologists who argue that reasoning has such a limited role in our moral psychology that it cannot possibly satisfy the normative conditions for moral justification. Beyond that, I am interested in pursuing an empirically-informed virtue ethical account of moral psychology. I’ve started developing some ideas in this area, and I’m excited to flesh them out more during this summer seminar.

VW: What are you most looking forward to about this summer’s Virtue & Happiness seminar?

LS: Three things, really. The first is related to my research interest, and getting to talk to some really smart people about the relationship between empirical moral psychology and virtue ethics. The second, relatedly, is just to get to know some really interesting people who enjoy thinking about the same things I do. And third, to learn about some new new directions in research in virtue and happiness. 

VW: What are your non-academic interests?