The Virtue Blog

Blog for the Virtue, Happiness, & the Meaning of Life project

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. 

Transcendence & spiritual joy

One of the “big questions” of the Virtue, Happiness, and Meaning of Life (VHML) project at the University of Chicago asks whether self-transcendent orientation helps ordinary virtuous activity. In her 2015 blog post, Dr. Candace Vogler noted how, on the one hand, the terms virtue, happiness, and meaning of life appear in “broad, educated, popular culture,” but on the other hand, self-transcendence does not.

 

In a blog post earlier this year I introduced a conceptualization of transcendence as something native to the human experience. Beginning with a simple dictionary definition of the verb “transcend”: “a) to rise above or go beyond the limits of; b) to triumph over the negative or restrictive aspects of: to overcome,”[1] I went further to define transcendence as an experiential meaning-making process (Fig. 1) that helps a person form extraordinary connections both within and beyond the self with others, in time and space. A transcendent orientation, then, would be some natural part of our human construction. Transcendence as I have defined it can have an iterative quality, and if sufficiently repeated with personally relevant, extraordinarily positive or negative events, could reinforce or strengthen one’s transcendent orientation. I omit the “self-” prefix to transcendence because that aspect is included in my definition of transcendence above. The relationship between transcendent orientation and ordinary virtuous activity may then be explored in many ways. One possible approach, for example, would be to posit and test whether those with a sufficiently strong transcendent orientation will be more likely incorporate virtuous activities in one’s ordinary, day-to-day life, than those with a weak transcendent orientation.

 

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In my dissertation, I defined transcendence as a process rather than as an event or state of being, making it potentially trackable. The process also has at least two possible outcomes: a) stabilization of one’s sense of self, allowing the person to more firmly root himself or herself in response to the question: “What am I?” and b) extraordinary connections within and beyond the self, giving the person coordinates within space-time, tagged with the memory of specific, meaningful events. These coordinates in moral space could then be referenced in future situations. My dissertation tracked transcendence, its inputs, and its outputs in resilient American service members who survived a POW experience and wrote about it later. It confirmed the presence of this process when they attempted to establish meaning with extraordinary, personally relevant, positive or negative experiences during their imprisonment.

 

Anti-transcendence, the contrary to transcendence, can also happen, in which attempts to make meaning of personally relevant, extraordinarily negative events fail. These kinds of events carry anti-transcendent markers, or those that would normally inhibit meaning-making from occurring. In the case of anti-transcendence, an unresolvable clash has occurred between the event and the person’s meaning-making apparatus, and the person is unable to surmount those anti-transcendent markers. Anti-transcendence only occurs when a person fails to attach proper meaning to a personally relevant and extraordinarily negative event. If the person fails to make meaning of a personally relevant, extraordinarily positive event, that memory eventually gets relegated to the realm of everyday events with no significant outcome. Such an event carries markers that would normally catalyze meaning-making, but a failure to establish meaning of such a positive event is unlikely to carry negative effects. This latter occurrence is not anti-transcendence; rather, the event simply exits meaning-making, perhaps to re-enter at a later time, or never again.

 

Anti-transcendence can result in one of two deleterious outcomes: a) destabilization of one’s sense of self and b) severing of extraordinary connections within and beyond the self. Anti-transcendence was detected in two of the Vietnam War POW memoirs I analyzed in my dissertation, both of which occurred shortly after their “breaking points” under torture. One service member experienced destabilization of his sense of self, describing that he was at the point of suicide and was reduced to an animal. The other experienced a sense of severing the extraordinary connection he had with his fellow POWs; he stated if he ever saw his fellow POWs, he wouldn’t be able to hold his head up, experiencing a profound sense of shame. He initially self-identified as a “failure” in this moment of anti-transcendence before entering a subsequent round of transcendence in which meaning was successfully established of his breaking point, with the help of his fellow POWs, and those extraordinary connections were reestablished.[2] I believe that a deeper study of both transcendence and anti-transcendence is necessary to inform the relationship between a transcendent orientation and ordinary virtuous activity. Transcendence may reinforce or strengthen that orientation, while anti-transcendence may diminish or disrupt it.

 

Recently, I had the opportunity to take a two-year assignment with a community of men who regularly ponder and discuss the big questions that The Virtue, Happiness, and Meaning of Life project has posited over the past two years. The Oblates of the Virgin Mary (OMV) is an international congregation of Roman Catholic priests and brothers, trained in giving the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius and seasoned in the realm of spiritual discernment. They also understand openness to transcendence, which might be analogous to the idea of transcendent orientation, as native to human experience. Openness to transcendence as an inherent quality of the human person is taught as part of the social doctrine of the Catholic Church (paragraph #130).

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Photo by Rose C. Cummings.

I sat down with sixteen of them one evening in their US-based seminary. These men hailed from such places as Nigeria, Brunei, the Philippines, Mexico, Canada, Minnesota, California, Florida, New York, Massachusetts, Illinois, and other parts of the United States. They came with equally diverse educational backgrounds, including tradesmen and those with undergraduate and/or advanced degrees in theology, history, physics, computer science, robotics, nursing, journalism, film, molecular biology, psychiatry, accounting/business, and more. We were gathered that day to discuss their founder’s writings, who thought deeply about and acted on the idea that there is an ultimate good worth striving for, which extends far beyond one’s own personal or immediate needs. Venerable Bruno Lanteri founded the OMV as a spiritual community over 200 years ago with a mission that was directed towards the ultimate good of others in the Piedmont region of Italy and the surrounding regions. It grew to serve thousands of people all over the world. Today the men of this community carry on that mission in Europe, the Philippines, Nigeria, the Amazon region in Brazil, Argentina, Canada, and the USA.

 

Although I did not plan or anticipate that this discussion would relate to the VHML project or transcendence, it turned out that the group chose to spend a significant portion of the evening talking about a potentially linked concept: spiritual joy. Spiritual joy is a topic preserved in the writings of their founder. It is an outcome of deep thinking about goods that go beyond one’s own comfort or immediate gratifications. This reflection is not meant to be an exhaustive academic treatment of the topic, but rather an account of the discussion that yielded some potentially useful concepts in the quest for a deeper understanding of transcendence.

 

Let’s begin with Ven. Bruno’s definition of spiritual joy:

 

“Spiritual joy is a joyous affection of heart produced through sufficient thought about present spiritual goods. What are these goods? Participation in the divine nature (as children of God), union with Jesus Christ, being in the bosom of the Church as her sons, God’s special protection, the gifts of the theological virtues, the sacraments, the communion of saints, grace, friendship with God, the merits of our actions, the glory of heaven that is already almost ours because of the firm hope we have…this is the joy that we must seek.” [The Spiritual Writings of Venerable Pio Bruno Lanteri: A Selection, pg. 91 – 92]

 

This joyous affection of the heart required the activity of “sufficient thought” on a subject, “present spiritual goods.” I asked these priests and seminarians to say more about how they understood this dynamic. One priest said, “At Mass, I think people can mistake joy for irreverence. Going to church should be enjoyable. It should be something that brings a smile to your face because you’re with your community, you’re with your brothers and sisters. I think that’s the way God intended it, and we in the modern world seem to be missing out on that spiritual joy that should be present.” A seminarian reflected on what attracted him to this congregation on his first visit: “Spiritual joy was one of the most memorable experiences I had on my visit. Being in community here for the first time gave me a sense of joy, ‘at home-ness,’ a place where I could be comfortable.” The sharing in joy was very attractive to him. Both men gave considerable thought to certain present spiritual goods that Lanteri mentioned, but these reflections weren’t made in a vacuum. Personally relevant, extraordinary events, like worship, or a “come-and-see” visit in the midst of vocational discernment were “inputs.” Both also noted the importance of a certain outcome: making extraordinary connections beyond oneself, perhaps the beginnings of solidarity.

 

They went further to say that spiritual joy can be contagious. When I asked how it gets spread, they responded that it can happen at the personal and the communal level. They said that it can be spread by how one authentically exudes spiritual joy in the public square, treating others with the kindness and gentleness that stems from one’s personal, close, relationship with Jesus. A community, if filled with the kind of focus on the spiritual goods that Lanteri mentioned, can also help spread that spiritual joy.

 

Curious about what opposes the “contagiousness” of spiritual joy, I also asked them how they think it is quenched in the world, since several of them cited its lack or absence in modern society. One seminarian mentioned that many people simply fail to recognize it when it happens. In other words, people may have experiences of spiritual joy, but because they do not know how to recognize it, they fail to make meaning of it, and it is soon forgotten. This would reflect a similar dynamic in my model of transcendence, when a person fails to make meaning of a personally relevant, extraordinarily positive event, and it gets relegated to the realm of everyday events. Another seminarian mentioned that people sometimes need to be reminded to ask the Lord for it, to actively seek it by pondering those present spiritual goods more deeply.

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Photo by Rose C. Cummings.

They also drew on their experience in discernment of spirits when discussing how spiritual joy may be quenched. These priests and brothers use St. Ignatius’ rules of discernment, which describe the actions of three sources of information on the discerner: God, the human discerner himself or herself, and the devil (also known as the enemy of human beings). This community is intensely trained in these rules and in giving the Spiritual Exercises, which incorporate those rules on retreat. I asked them what they thought were the top strategies of the enemy to quench spiritual joy in the modern world. The first response came from a senior priest. “Disruption of community life. If you disrupt community, you can disrupt everything.” Community could mean neighborhoods, parish communities, or religious communities. These were places where people live and work together on a day-to-day basis, calling for the practice of ordinary virtuous activity. One seminarian also noted how fomenting jealousy and taking offense where none was intended can also quench spiritual joy.  Another seminarian noted that preventing sufficient thought about spiritual goods was a way to prevent spiritual joy from ever occurring, which could be caused either by oneself or by the work of the enemy. For example, in a later passage of Ven. Bruno’s writings, one could lose sight of spiritual joy by one’s own sloth, sins, or by tribulations and adversity. Alternatively, the devil could also work against a person’s concentration on present spiritual goods by offering temptations or distractions. The seminarian recalled a literary example of such a tactic in his reading of The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis. The demon Screwtape recalls the danger of awakening a person’s reason, and tells the story of a “patient” he had, who was an atheist, and used to read in a museum. Rather than allow arguments to form in the mind of this reader, he suggested to his patient that it was just about time for lunch, knowing that getting him back into the street would prevent him from thinking further.

 

When discussing the antidotes to these diabolical tactics, one mentioned the needed presence of gentle, well-formed leaders with the proper training to help unify communities. A second mentioned the need to remind one another to seek and ask for spiritual joy from the Lord, in prayer, in spiritual direction, and by following the personal example of Jesus.  A third recalled the importance of spreading good reading, the kind that encouraged the reader to keep pondering the present spiritual goods, and inspire him or her to do more for others.

 

Returning to one of the big questions of the Virtue, Happiness, and Meaning of Life project, is it possible that self-transcendent orientation may affect ordinary virtuous activity? Dr. Vogler sketched out manifestations of self-transcendence in her 2015 post that includes working on behalf of bettering the community in a way that helps strangers; engaging in spiritual practices that allow one to participate in a community organized by the need to be right with one another and to show due reverence for the sacred; and acting in small ways or big ways that are guided by one’s relation to something bigger and better than oneself.

 

There is a profundity to her question. Perhaps one way to the answer could involve more conceptual digging upstream. For example, is it possible that transcendent orientation is reinforced or weakened by how people handle personally relevant, extraordinarily positive or negative events, which in turn, has a downstream effect on the presence, absence, frequency, or intensity of ordinary virtuous activity? Can transcendence, defined as process rather than event or state of being, shed some light on these dimensions of transcendent orientation? Time will tell. I am grateful to have spent some time with such thoughtful scholars in the VHML project and look forward to hearing more about where the dialogue goes. Cheers!

 

Works Cited

 

Lewis, C.S. The Screwtape Letters with Screwtape Proposes a Toast. New York: Harper Collins, 1996.

 

Pak, Cabrini. “Transcendence in Resilient American POWs: A Narrative Analysis.” PhD diss., The Catholic University of America, 2017.

 

The Oblates of the Virgin Mary. The Spiritual Writings of Venerable Pio Bruno Lanteri: A Selection. Italy: Oblates of the Virgin Mary, 2001.

 

United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. “Openness to Transcendence and Uniqueness of the Person.” Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church. Washington, DC: USCCB Publishing, 2003.

 

Vogler, Candace. “Self-transcendence the missing link in research on virtue, happiness, and meaning in human life?” Oct. 22, 2015, The Virtue Blog, https://thevirtueblog.com/2015/10/22/self-transcendence-the-missing-link-in-research-on-virtue-happiness-and-meaning-in-human-life/, accessed Nov. 19, 2017.

[1] “Transcend,” Merriam-Webster dictionary website, accessed Mar. 4, 2017, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/transcend.

[2] Cabrini Pak, “Transcendence in Resilient American POWs: A Narrative Analysis” (PhD diss., The Catholic University of America, 2017): 161; 172 – 173.

[1] “Transcend,” Merriam-Webster dictionary website, accessed Mar. 4, 2017, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/transcend.


Cabrini Pak is the Research Consultant at the Oblates of the Virgin Mary and was a participant in our 2017 Summer Session, Virtue, Happiness, and Self-Transcendence.

VIDEO: “A Consistent Ethic of Solidarity: Transcending Self, Transforming the World” – Cardinal Blase J. Cupich

Cardinal Blase J. Cupich delivered the Saturday Keynote “A Consistent Ethic of Solidarity: Transcending Self, Transforming the World” for the Capstone Conference for the project Virtue, Happiness, & the Meaning of Life. He was introduced by Bernard McGinn, Naomi Shenstone Donnelley Professor Emeritus of Historical Theology and of the History of Christianity in the Divinity School and the Committees on Medieval Studies and on General Studies.

 

We’ll publish the text of this talk in Part 1 and Part 2 blog posts on Wednesday and Thursday this week.

 


Cardinal Blase Joseph Cupich obtained his B.A. in Philosophy from the College of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota, in 1971. He attended seminary at the North American College and Gregorian University in Rome, where he received his Baccalaureate in Sacred Theology in 1974, and his M.A. in Theology in 1975. Cardinal Cupich is a graduate of the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., where, in 1979, he received his Licentiate of Sacred Theology degree in Sacramental Theology. He also holds a Doctor of Sacred Theology degree, also in Sacramental Theology, from the Catholic University of America, awarded in 1987, with his dissertation entitled: “Advent in the Roman Tradition: An Examination and Comparison of the Lectionary Readings as Hermeneutical Units in Three Periods.” Additionally, Cardinal Cupich was the Secretary at the Apostolic Nunciature in Washington, D.C. He also served as Chair for the USCCB Committee for the Protection of Children and Young People from 2008-2011 and for the National Catholic Educational Association Board from 2006-2008. In 2016, Pope Francis appointed Cardinal Cupich to the Congregation for Bishops.

SUN, Nov 12: Candace Vogler at the Chicago Humanities Fallfest/17: Belief!

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

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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.

Introduction

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.

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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.

Scholarship of Self-Transcendence

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Allegorical Tapestry with Sages of the Past, The Cloisters Collection, 2014, CCO, 1.0.

This article originally appeared in Tableau, the Division of the Humanities at the University of Chicago’s quarterly publication, as Scholarship of Self-Transcendence: Candace Vogler leads a search for the meaning of life by Courtney C. W. Guerra.

 

Candace Vogler, the David B. and Clara E. Stern Professor in Philosophy, is invested in her fellow human beings, and she’s determined to help them—us—find fulfillment. To tackle such a complex issue, she proposed the collaborative research project Virtue, Happiness, and the Meaning of Life, the aims of which are every bit as ambitious as its name implies. With major support from the John Templeton Foundation, this multiyear initiative—jointly led by Jennifer A. Frey, a philosopher at the University of South Carolina—explores self-transcendence: a feeling of connection to something beyond the individual self.

 

Of course, there’s no single way for human beings to attain self-transcendence: it can happen through spiritual practice, professional drive, familial bonds, or any number of commitments to a higher cause. Vogler’s group includes psychologists, philosophers, and religious thinkers from a variety of traditions. Many are UChicago colleagues: assistant professor Marc G. Berman and professor Howard C. Nusbaum in Psychology, associate professor Tahera Qutbuddin in Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations, and, in Philosophy, assistant professor Matthias Haase and Josef Stern, the William H. Colvin Professor Emeritus. The 30-scholar cohort represents institutions throughout the United States, Middle East, and Europe; they have been meeting and teaching since October 2015.

 

When she devised the project, Vogler says, “The ambition was to get a kind of deep integration between people working in very different disciplines” without relegating their work to the margins of less widely read, explicitly interdisciplinary publications. And it worked: the participants are “doing disciplinary work, they’re publishing in the disciplinary journals, and the inspiration for it is coming out of the frame of the project.”

 

These discussions have informed 10 published or forthcoming articles—a figure that “pretty dramatically exceeded” her initial expectations—with many more on the way. One essay that encapsulates the spirit of the project is being developed by Notre Dame theologian Jean Porter, about studies by Cornell University psychologist Katherine Kinzler on early childhood food preferences. Porter finds parallels between contemporary psychology and the views of Catholic philosopher Thomas Aquinas on the influence of group identity on what children choose to eat. (A draft is available on the Virtue Blog, along with other writings and filmed lectures.) This video helps to introduce and contextualize the group’s scholarship.

 

Like Porter’s essay, much of the project is “built on things that ought to be super interesting to people who are not academics,” says Vogler. She hopes a broad audience will attend the culminating conference at UChicago over the weekend of October 14–15. From there, Vogler plans to share her team’s findings with educators—from early childhood through MBA programs and beyond—to help promote self-transcendence at every stage of development. “There’s a big difference,” she points out, “between leading a life that’s super busy and leading a life that’s full.” Her hope is that the group’s work, as it reverberates out into the broader world, will help people achieve the latter.