Q&A: Philosopher Candace Vogler on virtue, happiness and the meaning of life

In an unassuming office on the fourth floor of Wieboldt Hall, Prof. Candace Vogler is working to answer some of the most vexing problems of human existence: Why are some people happy, and others not? What makes life good and meaningful?

Vogler, the David B. and Clara E. Stern Professor of Philosophy, is a principal investigator of “Virtue, Happiness and the Meaning of Life,” a 28-month research project supported by the John Templeton Foundation.

For someone trying to understand the meaning of life, Vogler seems surprisingly undaunted. She told UChicago News about the origins of and hopes for the project—and what her cats have taught her about virtue.

How did you get interested in this topic?

A few years ago, I noticed this phenomenon: A whole lot of people, who had basically done all the right things and had solid lives in place, had this hole in the middle of their lives where the happiness was supposed to have been. They had no idea what to do about that.

There were other people who had done more or less the same things, but didn't have that hole in the middle of their lives. I got to thinking about what the difference was between the people whose daily lives could be a source of happiness and purpose, and the people whose daily lives were a giant to-do list that was mostly a slog. That was the genesis of the project.

How are you tackling that question of why some people feel happier than others?

The biggest difference was that people who didn’t have that hole in the middle of their lives saw their lives in the context of something bigger and better than they were. Their lives were part of something bigger that was good. 

We are mostly investigating the possibility that a fundamental attachment and orientation to a good can make your daily life into a source of happiness that can sustain you through struggle and trial and give you resilience and a sense of purpose. 

How are you going about investigating your hypothesis?

We have a group of 27 scholars in very different fields. We have philosophers trying to get the concepts clear. We've got some empirical psychologists working on it to keep our feet on the ground and make sure that we are at least, in part, data-driven. And we've got religious scholars of various kinds, because religion is one of the places where people find it easiest to seek a connection to something bigger and better that they are.

What do you hope this research will lead to?

There's an "in the academy" and “out of the academy” aspect of that answer: In the academy, we would like this approach to thinking about happiness, virtue and meaning to be more fully articulated and investigated in each of our different disciplines.

Outside the academy, we would like to be able to address this question in people's lives, like, “What should I do? What kind of path might I take? What kinds of things should I seek if I find myself facing a sense of meaninglessness or being unhappy, even though I have managed to put in place everything I thought I was supposed to put in place for myself?”

We’re connected to various institutions that do educational policy initiatives. We'd like to see this research eventually turn into advice for schoolteachers, curricular changes and so on, to help form students in ways that make it less likely that they’re going to be those 30-somethings with big holes in the middle of their lives. 

What does virtue mean to you in the context of this project?

Virtue is a kind of strength of character that helps you organize the things you take in from the world and the way that you respond to them in the service of actual good. And virtue helps do that by helping to harmonize your thoughts, feelings, actions and aspirations in good ways.

You start getting it in you as a little kid, when your parents tell you what not to do: “No, no, no” is the first bit of moral discourse for most children. You start getting it in you when you've done something and your parents say, "How would you feel if somebody did that to you?"

And you get it in you just by working to do the right thing and working on yourself to be a better person. That’s how you get a character that’s solvent in this way. What a solid, good, virtuous character does, among other things, is help you not sabotage yourself and help you not get in your own way when you’re trying to lead a good life. 

There are lots of things that make us get in our own way and make us sabotage our lives. Human beings have a lot of trouble with boundaries: They don’t know to be afraid of the right sorts of things in the right sorts of ways. In this, they are unlike my cats. The things that my cat goes for are actually desirable for cats. When I start going for something, it’s not necessarily desirable for human beings. Virtue helps me coordinate.