“What Good Are the Humanities?” by Talbot Brewer, available in Raritan

The Spring 2018 issue of Raritan features our scholar Talbot Brewer’s piece “What Good Are the Humanities?”

You can watch a version of this talk on our website: http://virtue.uchicago.edu/brewer

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Talbot Brewer is Professor of Philosophy and Chair of the Philosophy Department at the University of Virginia. He specializes in ethics and political philosophy, with particular attention to moral psychology and Aristotelian ethics.  Brewer is a scholar with the project Virtue, Happiness, & the Meaning of Life.

Podcast: “Sophocles and Tragic Love” | Sacred and Profane Love, Episode 8

Theatre of Dionysus.
Photo: Flickr, NMares

Download Episode 8:
Sophocles and Tragic Love

In episode 8 of Sacred & Profane Love, Jennifer Frey speaks with Dhananjay Jagannathan about Greek tragedy and the fragility of human loves and happiness, with a special focus on Sophocles’ play, The Women of Trachis.

Dhananjay Jagannathan is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Columbia University.   He mainly works in ancient Greek and Roman philosophy and the history of ethics, but he is also interested in contemporary virtue ethics, political philosophy, and topics at the intersection of philosophy and literature. He is writing a book on Aristotle’s practical epistemology, which was also the topic of his doctoral dissertation at the University of Chicago.

Jennifer A. Frey is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at the University of South Carolina. Prior to joining the philosophy faculty at USC, 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.

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Sacred and Profane Love is a podcast in which philosophers, theologians, and literary critics discuss some of their favorite works of literature, and how these works have shaped their own ideas about love, happiness, and meaning in human life. Host Jennifer A. Frey is A Assistant Professor of Philosophy at the University of South Carolina and co-Principal Investigator at Virtue, Happiness, and the Meaning of Life.

This podcast is a project of Virtue, Happiness, & the Meaning of Life, and is made possible through a generous grant from the John Templeton Foundation.

Content copyright the University of South Carolina and the University of Chicago.

Music credits, “Help me Somebody,” by Brian Eno and David Byrne, licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.5.

VIDEO: Meaning

This discussion of meaning led by Owen Flanagan at the Moving Naturalism Forward workshop, October 2012, has recently been uploaded to YouTube, so we wanted to share it here as well.

Participants include Sean Carroll, Jerry Coyne, Richard Dawkins, Terrence Deacon, Simon DeDeo, Daniel Dennett, Owen Flangan, Rebecca Goldstein, Janna Levin, David Poeppel, Massimo Pigliucci, Nicholas Pritzker, Alex Rosenberg, Don Ross, and Steven Weinberg.


Owen Flanagan is James B. Duke University Professor of Philosophy at Duke University. He works in philosophy of mind, ethics, and comparative philosophy. His book, The Geography of Morals: Varieties of Moral Possibility was published in 2016 from Oxford University Press. Flanagan is a scholar with the project Virtue, Happiness, & the Meaning of Life.

Barriers to Empathy

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“Empathy Tent”. Photo by Roger Jones.

 

Note: This is part 3 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.

 

Suppose you are ready to undertake the other-perspective form of imagination.  There seem to be three crucial aspects of the task.  The first is simply activating your capacity for perspective-taking.  The second is trying to adjust and correct for the virtually inevitable egocentric bias.  And the third is getting accurate information about the other you hope to understand.  We can encounter difficulties in any of these three areas.

 

We can fail to involve ourselves in the task of understanding another person’s perspective because seeing the person’s distress and moving quickly to help can impede any effort to understand how things are from their perspective. In this sense, the kind of image that can inspire us to donate to charities right off may be keeping us from trying to understand the perspective of those whose suffering has us reaching for credit cards.  More generally, we can fail to try to understand how things are for the other person because it is harder to try to get a sense for someone else than it is to stick with our own perspective.  There is ample evidence that we do what comes easily rather than what takes effort whenever possible.[i]  We can substitute the imagine-self variety of perspective-taking for the required imagine-other variety without even noticing ourselves making the shift.

 

This difficulty is related to a second one—the problem of adjusting for egocentric bias.  Even as adults, it can be very hard for us fully to realize that others do not see things the way that we do.  If you have ever had a friend who keeps a straight face when teasing others, you likely have a friend who is not always aware that what his target might take the joke seriously.  It’s obvious to the teaser that he’s teasing.  It is not always clear to the target that she is being teased.[ii]  The need to adjust for egocentric biases can arise more than once in imagine-other perspective-taking.  Epley and Caruso put the point this way:

 

[P]eople’s attempts to adopt another’s perspective are likely to retain some residue of their own.  When there are few cues that others are likely to see the world very differently, people may not adjust or correct an egocentric bias at all.  When the cues are ambiguous and there is some uncertainty about others’ perspectives, attempts to adjust one’s own perspective will tend to be insufficient, and resulting judgments are likely to be egocentric….[iii]

 

The third hurdle that we need to overcome if we are to engage effectively in imagine-other perspective-taking centers on having accurate information about the other whose experience we are trying to understand.  The first two difficulties arise because we are strongly inclined to use ourselves as guides to how things are for others.  And, of course, no matter how good I become at imagine-other perspective-taking, the imagination I build for how things are going for you is my imagination at the end of the day.  I do not disappear from my own sense of the world just because I am training my efforts on making your situation more vivid for me.  What I can do, initially, is draw from the whole field of my experience and understanding to begin to get a sense for you.  If you and I have some history together, I can draw from that interpersonal history.  I can train myself to notice things about you or yours that are striking and surprising to me—points where our perspectives are likely to diverge.  I can practice patience and humility in my efforts to understand you better—listen more than I speak, notice more than I show, and so on.  In all of these ways, I can work to develop my capacity for empathy by working to strengthen my capacity for imagine-other perspective-taking.

 

Empathy and Self-Transcendence

If I am successful in learning how to see how things are for others accurately, then empathy, as I am teaching myself to practice it, can help me to nurture a self-transcendent orientation to the world that we share.

 

[i] See, for example, Daniel Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow, (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011), Part I, pp.19-108.

[ii] See, for example, Yumi Endo, “Division in Subjective Construction of Teasing Incidents: Role and social skill level in the teasing function,” Japanese Psychological Research, Vol. 49, No. 2, (May 2007), pp. 111-120.

[iii] Nicholas Epley and Eugene Caruso, “Perspective-Taking: Misstepping Into Others’ Shoes,” in Keith Markman, William Klein, and Julie Suhr, editors, Handbook of Imagination and Mental Simulation, (New York: Taylor & Francis Group, 2009), p. 304.

 


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. 

Empathy and Shifting Perspectives

Ready to Race
Photo by Chris Smith.

 

Note: This is part 2 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.

 

Empathy and Shifting Perspectives

The term ‘empathy’ can cover a very wide range of our responses to another creature’s distress.  It can cover the rush of feeling that comes of seeing images of starving children or abused pets—the sort of responses that sometimes lead us to reach for our credit cards and donate to the Red Cross or one or another Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.  It can cover the sense that I might begin to have for one of my students who has suffered the loss of a loved one.  It can cover the slow, developing understanding I can have for the situation of parents struggling to raise their sons and daughters in my neighborhood on the South Side of Chicago, or the situation of my mother and her friends in the retirement home as they confront the varieties of loneliness and disappointment that come with challenges to mobility and cognitive functioning.  I will focus on the sort of empathy that grows out of cultivated capacities to track what is going on with others.

 

This sort of empathy requires having some understanding of what other creatures think, feel, suffer, enjoy, and want.  And although any sentient creature could be a focus of such empathy, most of the research I know concerns empathy for our fellow human beings.  And much of the research is predicated on the thought that if I am to empathize with you, I must have some capacity to understand your perspective on your situation.  Perspective-taking is key to this sort of empathy.  Nicholas Epley and Eugene Caruso describe things this way:

The ability to intuit another person’s thought, feelings, and inner mental states is surely among the most impressive of human mental faculties.  Adopting another’s perspective requires the ability to represent the self as distinct from others, the development of a theory of mind to realize that others have mental states in the first place…and explicit recognition that others’ mental states and perceptions could differ from one’s own.  Humans appear to be born with absolutely none of these capacities but instead develop them during the first few years of life.  Developing these perspective-taking abilities appears critical for many good things in social life, from empathy, to cooperation, to possible acts of altruism.  Not all humans develop these skills to equivalent degrees, and those who do not develop these skills to any degree are among the most puzzling (and occasionally horrifying) members of society as they look perfectly human but act completely unhuman.[i]

 

Like any of our capacities, our perspective-taking capacity can be underdeveloped or badly used.  We can fail to engage in perspective-taking when we ought to engage in it, and we can make many errors when we try to understand what is going on with others.  The empathy of interest to me depends upon perspective-taking.  And accurate perspective-taking, in turn, depends upon breaking free of egocentric bias.

 

There are two very different sorts of questions that researchers can ask when working to elicit empathy in their subjects.  They can ask subjects to think how they would feel if they found themselves in another person’s situation.  This sort of question, notice, leaves things entirely in the purview of the self.  Alternately, they can ask people to imagine how the other person feels.  This sort of question shifts the focus from the self to the other.  Daniel Batson calls efforts to imagine how things would be for me in your situation the ‘imagine-self perspective’ on your circumstances.  He calls the request to think how things are for you the ‘imagine-other’ perspective.[ii]  It turns out that these two forms of perspective-taking yield dramatically different results.  The difference is so dramatic that the self-perspective orientation may not count as empathetic at all.  Batson describes the difficulty with an example:

When the other’s situation is familiar or clear, imagining how you would feel in that situation may not be needed for sensitive understanding and may even inhibit it.  Hearing that a friend was recently ‘dumped’ by a romantic partner may remind you of your own experience last year when you suffered the same fate.  You may get so caught up reliving your own experience that you fail to appreciate your friend’s pain.  Especially if you found it easy to rebound, you may contrast your own experience to that of your friend, who is struggling.  Rather than sensitive understanding and empathetic concern, you may respond with impatience and judgment.  The role of an imagine-self perspective in evoking empathy is, then, indirect at best.[iii]

 

In Batson’s review of relevant research, there is significant evidence that subjects engaging in imagine-self perspective-taking show patterns of neurological activity importantly different from the sort characteristic of subjects engaging in imagine-other perspective-taking.  The two groups think differently, feel differently, and exhibit different patterns of neurological activity.  In effect, imagine-self perspective taking does nothing to disturb the egocentric bias so characteristic of our kind.

 

[i] Nicholas Epley and Eugene Caruso, “Perspective-Taking: Misstepping Into Others’ Shoes,” in Keith Markman, William Klein, and Julie Suhr, editors, Handbook of Imagination and Mental Simulation, (New York: Taylor & Francis Group, 2009), p. 297.

[ii] Daniel Batson, “Two Forms of Perspective-Taking: Imagining How Another Feels and Imagining How You Would Feel,” in Keith Markman, William Klein, and Julie Suhr, editors, Handbook of Imagination and Mental Simulation, (New York: Taylor & Francis Group, 2009), pp. 267-279.

[iii] Daniel Batson, “Two Forms of Perspective-Taking: Imagining How Another Feels and Imagining How You Would Feel,” p. 268.

 

Tomorrow, June 7: Barriers to Empathy


 

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. 

Empathy and Self-Transcendence

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“Empathy” | Photo by Sarah Barker.

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.

 

Introduction

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. 

Elizabeth Anscombe on Living the Truth

We are pleased to share this video of a recent lectured delivered by our co-PI, Jennifer Frey, here at the University of Chicago under the auspices of our institutional partner, The Lumen Christi Institute.

 

Here is the abstract associated with Professor Frey’s talk:

Elizabeth Anscombe was one of the most formidable and influential analytic philosophers of the twentieth century.  One of the last lectures she delivered was titled, “Doing the Truth.”  In it, she sets out to identify and clarify a specifically practical mode of truth as the proper goal of a specifically practical mode of reasoning and knowledge.  This talk explores how Anscombe understands practical truth by relating it to her influential theory of action; its ultimate suggestion is that “living the truth” just is living a good human life–i.e., knowingly performing actions in accordance with true judgments of right practical reasoning. The person who achieves such truth is virtuous and lives well.