One of the greatest philosophers, Aristotle, pointed out that happiness is the one thing that you can choose in and for itself. Everything else is chosen for the sake of happiness. If Aristotle is right, this little term, happiness, is at the root of every decision we make and every action we perform, and therefore it determines whether you think your life has meaning or not, whether you believe you are going somewhere with your life or not, whether you consider yourself to be successful or not, whether you think you are worth anything or not, whether your life is lived to the full or is wasted, and whether you believe that life is worth living or not.
Perhaps the most general definition of happiness is “the fulfillment of desire” (whether that desire be superficial or sublime). Therefore, it is incumbent upon us to discover what our major desires are—what drives us, what we yearn for, and what we seek for satisfaction and fulfillment.
Throughout the centuries, philosophers (and later theologians, psychologists, and anthropologists) have elucidated four major kinds of desire (and therefore four major kinds of happiness).
- Desires connected with biological (instinctual) opportunities and dangers
- Ego-comparative desires
- Contributive-empathetic desires
- Transcendental-spiritual desires
These four kinds of desire or happiness come from the following faculties (internal powers or capabilities):
- The brain and sensory faculties (giving rise to the first kind of desire)
- Self-consciousness (giving rise to the second kind of desire)
- Empathy and conscience (giving rise to the third kind of desire)
- Transcendental awareness (giving rise to the fourth kind of desire)
In this article, I will focus on the third category of faculties—how empathy and conscience help us fulfill our contributive-empathetic desires, on the path to true happiness.
Individuals have a very powerful capacity for empathy. It seems as if we make a connection with others simply because we recognize their value in and for themselves. We can simply catch a glimpse of someone else’s eye (the window to the soul) and not only respond positively, but actually allow the other person to affect us. If that person responds in kind to us, we interact with each other sympathetically. Children do this naturally—so much so that they will talk to complete strangers, trust them, and do things for them without question. This drive is so powerful that we have to train children not to be too empathetic, and to be more cautious.
Empathy (in-feeling; in Greek, en-pathos; in German, ein-Fühlung) begins with a deep awareness of and connection to the other as uniquely good. When we allow this awareness of and connection with another person to affect us, it produces an acceptance of the other and a consequent unity of feeling with the other, which opens upon an identification with the other tantamount to a sympathetic vibration. Though this unity with the feelings and being of another does not cause a loss of our self or self-consciousness, it does cause a break in the radical autonomy we can effect when we focus on ourselves as the center of our personal universe (egocentricity). Were it not for the capacity to be radically open to the unique goodness of the other, individuals might be inexorably caught up in egocentricity and radical autonomy. But empathy does not allow self-consciousness to become radically autonomous and absolute; it presents the possibility of relational personhood whenever we choose to accept our “unity of feeling with the other”, and to identify with the goodness of the other person.
Empathy breaks through the drive for egocentricity and autonomy, and creates the condition for generous and even self-sacrificial love.
In sum, empathy (the radical openness to the goodness of the other) opens the way to sympathy (when one accepts this openness). This gives rise to a sympathetic feeling that at first creates care about the other, and then, if these feelings are accepted more deeply, care for the other. This care for the other produces a unity with the other whereby doing the good for the other is just as easy, if not easier, than doing the good for ourselves. This bond not only breaks through the drive for egocentricity and autonomy, but also creates the condition for generous and even self-sacrificial love. This powerful drive and capacity forms the basis for the third kind of desire—the contributive desire to make a positive difference to someone or something beyond ourselves. But it is not the only faculty (internal capacity) involved in this desire.
Philosophers have long recognized that conscience is one of the most important human faculties. It is generally viewed as an inner attraction to and love of goodness and justice and an inner shunning and fear of evil and injustice. Our love of the good leads to feelings of nobility and fulfillment when we do the good, while our shunning and fear of evil leads to feelings of guilt and alienation when we do evil. Thus this two-sided inner sense causes not only feelings, but a sense of our inner self before and after we do good or evil. We love and are drawn to the good before we do it, and we feel noble and at home within ourselves after we do it. Conversely we are repulsed by and fear evil before we do it, and feel guilty and alienated after we do it.
These are not the only effects of conscience. Philosophers have also recognized that conscience has intellectual content enabling us to judge actions as good and just or evil and unjust. There is disagreement among philosophers about how much of this content is part of our natural awareness and how much is learned. Aristotle, for example, believed that some human beings could know a considerable amount of ethical content by nature. Saint Thomas Aquinas held that the vast majority of people know general precepts by nature, but must be taught more specific precepts. General precepts include do good; avoid evil; do not kill an innocent person; do not unnecessarily injure another, steal from another, or otherwise unnecessarily harm another; give a person their just desserts; and be truthful to yourself and others.
Most of the above precepts come under the rubric of the Silver Rule: “Do not do unto others what you would not have them do unto you”, which might be rephrased as, “Do not do a harm to others that you do not want done to you.” This is the minimal standard of justice upon which all other ethical precepts are based. The vast majority of us seem to know and believe in this basic sense of justice and good by nature, and if we do not, we are described by most psychologists as sociopaths.
Many philosophers, including Plato, Aquinas, and Kant, do not think that this basic sense of and attraction to justice and goodness can be taught. If it is not present in children by nature, they will be incapable of moral responsibility and believing in moral precepts—they will be “natural sociopaths.” However, the fact is the vast majority of children are not sociopaths, and among those who do show tendencies toward sociopathic behavior, the majority of cases are not genetically caused but rather caused by environmental conditions (mostly due to severe neglect by parents) or severe trauma in early childhood. Evidently, these environmental and traumatic causes of sociopathic behavior presume that the affected children had a natural capacity for conscience and empathy, but lost it because of these circumstances.
People by nature have a conscience that attracts them to the good, and repulses them from evil…
In view of this, it should not be surprising that virtually every culture and religion on the face of the earth adheres to the Silver Rule and the common general precepts derived from it. In European common law a distinction is made between precepts that are malum in se (evil in themselves, such as killing an innocent person) versus those that are malum prohibitum (evil because they are prohibited by legislation, such as going through red lights). Ignorance is no excuse for violating the law in cases of malum in se, but it can be for precepts that are malum prohibitum. Our common law expects that we will know by nature that certain behaviors are evil in themselves.
Can conscience be lost or suppressed, and could this explain sociopathic behavior? It seems so. As noted above there are very few children with sociopathic tendencies and the majority of these cases are not genetically caused, but rather caused by environmental and traumatic conditions. This means that the vast majority of children are born into the world with the natural capacity for conscience and empathy, but because of severe neglect by parents or severe trauma, they have lost a connection to these two essential natural capacities. Obviously these children are not to blame for their loss of conscience and empathy.
Could someone voluntarily lose or dull their capacity for conscience and empathy? It seems so. Adults who display no sign of sociopathic tendencies as children can choose, for example, to ignore their consciences for the sake of wealth, power, prestige, and other comparative advantages. At first, this ignoring of conscience produces self-alienation and guilt, but repeated and habitual ignoring of conscience makes the state of self-alienation and the feelings of guilt subside. Eventually one does not feel any repulsion toward evil and feels almost no self-alienation or guilt. At this point, a person has lost almost all of the connection to conscience and is well on the way to becoming a career criminal voluntarily.
Can conscience be enhanced? Evidently it can. Parents try to share their values with their children, and most children accept those values (based on their natural attraction toward justice and the good). Some people take these values much further, and pursue a life of virtue (through philosophy or religion). Many of these virtuous individuals become great role models and moral and religious teachers, as well as cultural, societal, legal, and political leaders. Most of the progress that has been made throughout the centuries in the articulation of theories and systems of justice; individual, political, and economic rights; and even the evolution of just democracy have been produced by these exemplary virtuous individuals. If we look beneath the surface of virtually all of them, we will find a profound awareness of and testimony to their sense of conscience, justice, and the common good.
In view of the seeming agreement among philosophers, psychologists, and the common law, it is justified to hold that people by nature have a conscience that attracts them to the good, repulses them from evil, and informs them about general precepts derived from the most basic form of justice expressed in the Silver Rule. It can be undermined by severe parental neglect and trauma in children and voluntarily undermined by those wishing to pursue a life of injustice and crime. However, for many people this natural capacity is valued, fostered, and trained, and it (along with empathy) becomes the foundation for civility, common law, and social order.
Adults who display no sign of sociopathic tendencies as children can choose to ignore their consciences for the sake of wealth, power, prestige…
So what does this discussion of empathy and conscience have to do with our third kind of desire (the contributive-empathetic desire, the desire to contribute to someone or something beyond ourselves)? We saw above that empathy breaks through the tendency toward egocentricity and autonomy (produced by self-consciousness) through a natural attraction toward others, and if deeply accepted can lead to sympathy, care, and even self-sacrifice for others. We also saw that conscience can overcome egocentricity and autonomy through a natural attraction to justice and goodness (and a natural revulsion toward injustice and evil), and that this could lead to high degrees of virtue and the common good.
Empathy and conscience can work in two ways. They can prevent us from doing something negative, but they can also inspire us to move toward great heights of positivity. So, for example, empathy for someone might prevent a person from being insensitive or cruel, but it does not need to stop there. If we allow our empathy to reach us on the deepest level, it can also inspire us to do good for that person—far beyond just avoiding harm. Thus empathy can inspire generosity, self-sacrifice, and altruism. Similarly, conscience can prevent a person from committing injustice by initiating feelings of self-alienation, revulsion, and guilt. But it need not stop there. It can also inspire feelings of nobility and fulfillment when we act for justice and the common good. There does not seem to be any intrinsic limit to the altruistic feelings inspired by empathy or the feelings of nobility inspired by conscience. And for this reason, people who assent to these inspirations tend to be heroically generous and idealistic.
We might think for a moment that such generosity and idealism is beyond the ordinary person, but it really is not, because all of us want our lives to be significant in some way. If we assent to the inspiration of empathy and conscience, we find ourselves wanting the world to be better off for our having lived. In fact, we cannot stand the thought that our lives might not make a difference to the world. Nobody wants to get to seventy years old and ask, “What was the difference between the value of my life and the value of a rock?” and have to say, “Not much.” If we did not contribute much to anyone or anything beyond ourselves, we would probably be in a state of meaninglessness, emptiness, and incipient despair.
We not only seek to have some positive meaning in our lives—some way in which we made the world better off for our having lived—but our capacity for empathy and conscience inspires us to make as much positive difference as we can before we leave this earth. Making the world better for our having lived can become addictive because it produces its own kind of happiness. This kind of happiness does not feel the same as enjoying a good bowl of pasta (the first kind of happiness) or getting a standing ovation or a promotion (the second kind of happiness), but it does bring a sense of purpose that is both inspiring and enjoyable. After a while we begin to think about how much more we can do, and perhaps the kind of legacy we want to leave, and this gives us an even greater sense of purpose and inspiration. We can become virtually intoxicated by it—even to the point of burnout.
You might recall the movie Schindler’s List, in which the main character, Oscar Schindler, began the war as a person completely caught up in the first and second kinds of happiness (material-pleasure and ego-comparative). He is riding his horse with a girlfriend one day, and stumbles upon the “cleansing” of the Krakow ghetto. As he stares at a little girl in a red dress walking through the pandemonium as if it typifies her life, he is moved by the sight. He has empathy for the little girl, and his conscience is disturbing him about the whole dark and unjust scene. He rides away and tries to put it behind him, but events keep occurring, affecting his conscience and empathy.
Our capacity for empathy and conscience inspires us to make as much positive difference as we can before we leave this earth.
He buys an enamelware company with the advice of a Jewish accountant, Itzhak Stern, whom Schindler regards only as a good business advisor and someone capable of running the business. Stern sees Schindler’s limitations and so makes an appeal to Schindler to hire Jewish workers (instead of Polish ones) because of the much lower cost—appealing to the first two kinds of desire.
However, as the movie progresses, Stern is able to reach Schindler’s empathy and conscience, and urges him not only to hire Jewish laborers for the business, but also Jewish teachers and intellectuals whose productivity is far less than the full-time laborers. Schindler accedes to Stern’s request, and even allows him to “doctor up” the qualifications of these people so that he will not incur suspicion from the Nazis. At this point, Schindler has definitively arrived at the third kind of happiness. He begins to take greater and greater risks to get additional “partially qualified” Jews into the factory, and he finds himself having to justify some of his actions to the Nazis—which he ingenuously does. He then begins to purchase Jews from the concentration camps to work in the factory—even to the point of spending his entire personal fortune. At the end of the film, Schindler takes personal custody of his Jewish workers to make sure that they are safe when the Nazis flee the allied advance.
We probably all know some people who are generous to a fault; they try to make an optimal positive difference to the people around them with every fiber of their being, and this frequently leads them to self-sacrifice and even into great risk of harm. We can classify such people as dominantly contributive—that is, they find their happiness and fulfillment in the third kind of happiness, and they are free and willing to sacrifice the first two kinds of happiness for it.
How do we typically satisfy this third kind of desire and attain the third kind of happiness? We can do this by making contributions to others or simply by being with others. Anyone who helps another person will make the world better, and this will give purpose and inspiration to the person making the contribution. For example, you might help a family member or a friend to get a job or go to college. You might write a book that is helpful to others, invent a process to help an organization, volunteer at a community center, help church members understand their faith, or attempt to bring greater value or virtue to the culture.
This does not exhaust the ways that we can make the world better. We can also do this through pure acts of empathy—simply being with another, listening to another in times of suffering, spending time with children or an older relative, visiting a person in a hospital, or being with a person in mourning.
We not only have yearnings for a transphysical and eternal life; we have, as evidenced by new medical discoveries, a transphysical “soul” capable of entering into that life.
I recall when I was a younger man that I was visiting my sister’s house during Christmas vacation and I was under pressure to get an article finished for a scholarly publication. My little nieces came up to me and asked, “Uncle Bobby, would you play Crazy Eights with us?” I immediately thought to myself, “I cannot afford the time to do this. I’ve got to get this article done. And besides, I hate that game.” Yet when I looked at the longing in my nieces’ eyes, I discerned that they would view my saying, “No, thank you”, as a lack of desire to spend time with them, and that this might be viewed as a kind of rejection. They didn’t think that playing Crazy Eights was a waste of time. It was an opportunity to be with me, and this “being with” signified something about their self-worth. Since I didn’t have a chance to be with them very often, I changed my mind and decided to play. When the game was finished, they said, “Thank you, Uncle Bob—we love you”, which gave me the occasion to say, “And I love you too!” Since I had spent the time with them, my words were not empty, and they knew it. I had to spend an extra hour at midnight working on the article to make up for my lost productivity, but in the contributive scheme of things, it was absolutely worth it.
When we accentuate the third kind of desire, our outlook and viewpoint begins to shift. Instead of looking for opportunities to gain material wealth, pleasure, or ego-comparative advantage, we begin to naturally seek opportunities to make a positive difference to the people around us—either through doing for others or “being with” others. We seek these opportunities for our families, friends, organizations, stakeholders within our organizations, communities, churches, and even for the culture, society, and the Kingdom of God. At this juncture we become very efficient in our use of time, learning how we can still take care of the first and second kinds of happiness (which have their proper place) while seeking optimal opportunities for the third kind of happiness.
The contributive-empathetic desires, along with the first two levels of desire—the biological-instinctual, and the ego-comparative desires—reveal how wonderfully deep and complex we are.
We not only have a physical and organic nervous system and brain, but we have the remarkable power of self-consciousness, which enables us to create our own inner universe; the power of empathy, which enables us to connect with others through strong feelings of sympathy, care, and unity; and the power of conscience, which not only informs and incites us to avoid evil, but to pursue the heights of goodness and social justice.
Yet this is the tip of the iceberg. We are so much more. We have powers to recognize and even probe perfection in truth, love, goodness (justice), beauty, and being (home). We are not only capable of self-transcendence, but can make contact with a transcendent, one might say spiritual, world. We not only have yearnings for a transphysical and eternal life; we have, as evidenced by new medical discoveries, a transphysical “soul” capable of entering into that life. We are remarkable mysteries, possessing transcendent powers far beyond the physical world, and these powers bring our self-consciousness, empathy, and conscience to new, almost inestimable heights.
Excerpted with permission from “Finding True Happiness: Satisfying Our Restless Hearts” by Fr. Robert J. Spitzer. ©Copyright 2015 by Ignatius Press, San Francisco. All Rights Reserved.