How to Give a Good Gift | VIDEO

Jennifer J. Rothschild is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at the University of Florida. She specializes in ethics, primarily Aristotle’s ethics of virtue. Her work aims to use philosophy to help us understand what makes actions, people, and whole human lives good or bad. Rothschild was a participant in our 2017 Summer Seminar “Virtue, Happiness, & Self-Transcendence.”

This talk was given at a TEDx event using the TED conference format but independently organized by a local community. Learn more at

Barriers to Empathy

“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 Self-Transcendence

“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.



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. 

Podcast: Elena Ferrante on Friendship and the Intellectual Life | Sacred & Profane Love

Download Episode 6: Elena Ferrante on Friendship and the Intellectual Life

 In Episode 6 of Sacred & Profane Love, Professor Jennifer A. Frey (University of South Carolina) has a conversation with Zena Hitz (St. John’s College) about friendship, the intellectual life, and the virtue of seriousness in Elena Ferrante’s Neopolitan novels.  This episode explores how the cultivation of an inner life through contemplation–i.e., seeing, understanding, and savoring things as they are–allows us to enter into a deep and meaningful communion with other human persons.

Ferrante novels:

Zena Hitz is a Tutor at St. John’s College where she teaches across the liberal arts.  She writes in defense of intellectual activity for its own sake, as against its use for economic or political goals.  She is currently writing a book on intellectual life and why it matters for Princeton University Press, based on essays that have appeared in First ThingsModern Age, and The Washington Post.  Her scholarly work has focused on the political thought of Plato and Aristotle, especially the question of how law cultivates or fails to cultivate human excellence.  She received an MPhil in Classics from Cambridge and studied Social Thought and Philosophy at the University of Chicago before finishing her PhD in Philosophy at Princeton.

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.


Preview on iTunes

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.

Old versus New Virtue – an Hegelian Remark on Virtue Ethics and the Unity of Virtues

High Road, Low Road Green Road Sign with Copy Room Over The Dramatic Clouds and Sky.

This text is a very short version of a paper that I had the pleasure and honor to present at a conference celebrating the 60th Anniversary of G.E.M. Anscombe’s Paper “Modern Moral Philosophy” at the University of Notre Dame, January 21-23 2018.

I. Hegel’s harsh verdict on modern virtue

In his Phenomenology of Spirit (§390), Hegel makes a striking comment on virtue ethics: modern theories of virtue produce only “emptiness” and “boredom”. He claims that they contain nothing real, only pompous rhetoric, and that they try to instill a pretentious sense of moral excellence in their readers with meaningless words. While Hegel criticizes contemporary attempts to virtue ethics quite harshly, he praises their ancient predecessors: Philosophers like Aristotle and Plato provided a robust and substantial account of the practical good and the virtues. Hegel obviously thinks that ancient theories of virtue succeeded where modern theories fail. Hegel explains that the main difference between these two different kinds of accounts is a logical one. He argues that modern theorists falsely depict virtue in the category of generality (Allgemeines) while ancient philosophers appropriately use the category of particularity (Besonderes). Unfortunately, Hegel’s terminology notoriously tends to obscure his arguments. In this text I try to sketch out a systematic reading that might not only help us to decode Hegel’s text but also might show us something about the logic of virtue – independently from Hegel’s other philosophical convictions and the historical context of the Phenomenology of Spirit. First, I will propose my interpretation of Hegel’s distinction between general and particular accounts of virtue (part II). Secondly, I will reconstruct Hegel’s argument why a proper concept of the virtues should be in the category of particularity (part III). Finally, I will mention an important consequence from this claim for the supposed unity of virtues.

II. General and particular virtues

I would like to suggest the following reading of Hegel’s remarks: By distinguishing the generality of modern virtue and the particularity of ancient virtue, Hegel alludes to a difference in scope of virtue norms. Modern theories usually take virtue norms to be “general” in the sense that they apply to all mankind. Virtues are defined as qualities that make a human being good qua human being. They are part of the essential description of the human life-form. The virtuous life realizes a perfect or ideal version of the human life. A vicious person, on the other hand, does not only violate some moral laws, she represents a deviation from this ideal of the human life. The vicious person fails to fully realize her life-form. The vicious person is still a human being, of course, but only in a defective way. This way of thinking about virtue norms as general norms for the whole life-form is reflected, for example, in the expression that a certain virtuous behavior is “humane” or when a virtuous person is called a “true human”. An important logical feature of this modern view is the assumption that particular ethical demands (e.g. of a certain social role) are derived from the general norm. The general formulation of a virtue (“humans act justly”) is supposed to have logical priority over the particular formulation (“judges act justly”). The particular virtues of a judge, for example, are only applications of the general norm to the particular situation of a judge. Ancient virtue ethics, however, are more modest in their claims, according to Hegel. The scope of their virtue norms is limited to the ethical demands and obligations of particular social roles and relationships. They do not purport to describe the good life and good actions of a human being per se, but the actions and life of a good parent, a good politician, a good friend, and so on. The particular norms of social roles have logical priority over statements like “humans act justly”. The latter are only abstractions from the substantial particular norms. To understand what justice is, therefore, we have to start from an understanding of the particular justice of a parent, a judge, a teacher, and so on. The general and abstract formulations are mainly shorthand for the more elaborate particular versions. Hegel’s characterization of ancient virtue ethics might surprise some readers. It is often assumed that Aristotle himself introduced the concept of virtue by the notion of being good qua human being. In the first book of the Nicomachean Ethics he equates the virtuous life with the good human life. Also, his descriptions of the virtues in the following books seem not to be limited to certain social roles. He seems to talk about justice, courage, prudence, temperance, and so on in an unqualified sense and not about the courage of a father and the temperance of a poet. Such passages apparently point to a general conception of the virtues like the one that Hegel attributes to the modern authors. After all, many modern virtue ethicists explicitly posit themselves in the tradition of Aristotle. I cannot defend Hegel’s reading of Aristotle here. Hegel would, however, caution us not to take the mentioned passages too literally. Aristotle often seems to speak about human virtues and human life in a very general sense. Nevertheless, he has a very particular audience in mind. The virtues described in the Nicomachean Ethics are the virtues of experienced and rich Athenian noblemen, i.e., citizens that occupy a particular set of social roles. This particularity becomes quite apparent in the virtue of magnificence (megaloprepeia, NE IV.4-6): The magnificent man is able to donate temple buildings to the city-state, equip warships and host theater festivals – it is obviously a virtue only for the happy few. This kind of dependency of the virtues on social status is even more conspicuous in Plato’s Politeia: In the discussion of his Utopian city, he explicitly differentiates between the virtues of the philosopher-king, the guardians and the workers.

III. Co-operation and Sociality

According to Hegel, ancient virtue ethics have a better conception of virtues than their modern epigones because of a profounder understanding of human nature. Aristotle calls us humans the “social animal”. Human sociality, however, is characterized by co-operation and division of labor to a much higher degree than any other animal. Human societies tend to develop a multitude of social roles with highly specialized functions and activities. The particularity of ancient virtues acknowledges this fact about human sociality. Their virtues mirror the partitioned structure of co-operation. If human life is essentially characterized by co-operation and division of labor, then this also applies to the human good. The daily lives of a scientist and a soldier, for example, differ widely and so do the ethical demands that we place on them. Different social roles have different functions in society. Therefore, to act well means something different in each of these roles. Sometimes these differences might be obscured by the general terms that we use. The sentences “A criminal judge should treat the accused justly” and “Parents should treat their children justly” apply the same adverb “justly”. Nevertheless, they refer to two distinct kinds of norms. Parents who behave like criminal judges toward their children certainly do not act justly. A similar mistake is made by the judge who treats the accused motherly or fatherly. Hegel would not deny that there are still some similarities between the two kinds of justice – after all, it is no coincidence that we apply the same term to both. These similarities, however, are only vague. They do not carry enough content to guide our actions. If we want to know what we should do, Hegel urges us to focus on the particular demands of social roles and personal relationships. The reference to a broad and general concept of a good human being, for example in the form of the advice “Be a good human being!” is less than helpful. There is nothing substantial to be learned about good action and virtuous character by rhetorically pointing to the idea of mankind. For that reason, Hegel criticizes contemporary virtue ethics as “empty” and “boring”.

IV. The Problem of Unity

There is one important consequence of the logical difference between modern and ancient concepts of virtue that I want to mention here at the end of my text: Hegel states that the particularity of the ancient concept allows us to see that the unity of the virtues and the human life-form is a non-trivial problem. Modern accounts tend to overlook this philosophical challenge since they already presuppose the unity of the virtues and of the life-form in a certain sense. If all particular virtues of social roles were only applications of a general virtue to certain circumstances, as modern accounts seem to assume, there can be no true conflict between the virtues. All agents act on the same principles, namely the virtues of the human life-form. Disagreement may occur only about questions of application and contingent circumstances, not about the principles itself. The picture of the ancient account of virtues, however, differs hugely: In human society, many different virtues, which are based on different social roles, interact with one another. There might be incompatible demands and claims due to the different underlying principles. Although the different social roles share common goals, and their functions are mutually interdependent, these common goals and functions are not simply given, as for example, the basic biological purposes of survival and reproduction. From an abstract perspective it seems quite obvious that, e.g., a scientist, a soldier, a judge and a poet co-operate in a society and share common goals. If we look closely, however, it is far from clear how this co-operation is structured and whose ethical demands should have priority over others. To complicate matters: human societies are not static, their goals evolve and with them the specifics of our co-operation changes. Conflicts between ethical demands cannot be resolved by reference to some general notion of human life, they have to be worked out by reflection and creative compromise. The unity of human virtues and the unity of a human life-form are not a starting point of our historical and philosophical enterprise, they are an end – an end that has to be re-evaluated and re-shaped constantly. The human life-form is in an act of constant self-reaction. Hegel believes that the ancient virtue ethics provide us with the proper account to face this challenge.



Martin Palauneck was a visiting student at the University of Chicago in 2013. He is a doctoral candidate in philosophy at the University of Leipzig. His thesis pertains G.W.F. Hegel’s take on Aristotle and ancient virtue theory.