The history of outrospection is yet to be written. But when it is, you can bet the name of Peter Singer will be there. Singer is one of the world’s most influential moral philosophers, best known for his 1975 book Animal Liberation, which has become a foundational text of the animal liberation movement. But in the 1990s he also wrote another prescient book, How Are We To Live: Ethics in an Age of Self-Interest, which contains the kernels of an outrospective approach to thinking about the world.
How Are We To Live is essentially a critique of consumer society and the self-interest driving it, which argues that we are unlikely to find meaning in life by going shopping, and more likely to achieve a sense of fulfilment by committing ourselves to ethical living.
Central to his argument is understanding the damaging effects of what he calls ‘the inward turn’. This refers to the rise of an excessively introspective culture of psychotherapy which, he believes, has done precious little to help us achieve the good life.
When he moved to New York in the 1970s, Singer noticed how so many of his academic colleagues were in regular therapy. Many of them saw their therapist on a daily basis, and some were spending up to a quarter of their annual salaries sitting on their analyst’s couch. Singer found it strange that these people did not seem any more or less disturbed than his friends and workmates in Melbourne or Oxford. So he asked them why they were doing it. ‘They said that they felt repressed,’ remembered Singer, ‘or had unresolved psychological tensions, or found life meaningless.’
What he had recognised was a significant shift in therapy culture which has been taking place since the 1970s. Instead of focusing on treating those with mental illnesses, therapists were now also there to help people find meaning in their lives. As M. Scott Peck once put it, therapy is a ‘short cut to personal growth’.
The problem, writes Singer, is that you are unlikely to find meaning and purpose by looking inwards:
‘People spend years in psychoanalysis, often quite fruitlessly, because psychoanalysts are schooled in Freudian dogma that teaches them to locate problems within the patient’s own unconscious states, and to try to resolve these problems by introspection. Thus patients are directed to look inwards when they should really be looking outwards… Obsession with the self has been the characteristic psychological error of the generations of the seventies and eighties. I do not not deny that problems of the self are vitally important; the error consists in seeking answers to those problems by focusing on the self.’
Moreover, therapy culture is decidedly lacking in ethical content. He disapprovingly quotes a Gestalt therapist who writes how the nature of morality is changed by the therapeutic process:
‘The question ”Is this right or wrong?” becomes ”Is this going to work for me now?” Individuals must answer in the light of their own wants.’
It may be that Singer is too simplistic in his depiction of psychoanalysis, and too harsh in his critique of its usefulness. But he was one of the first thinkers to see that we may not have the balance right. It could be that we need more of an outward turn – a healthy dose of outrospection – if we are going to discover what we should be doing with our lives.
But what would turning outwards mean in practice? Singer has an answer. He thinks we would be best off by dedicating our lives to pursuing a ‘transcendent cause’. This refers to committing yourself to some cause or project that is ‘larger than the self’. At this point he turns to support from the psychotherapist Victor Frankl, who ‘is exceptional in his insistence on the need to find meaning outside the self’. Frankl’s most renowned work, Man’s Search For Meaning, documents his time as a prisoner in Nazi death camps, where he saw that those who were most likely to survive were not those who were physically strongest or best at scavenging food, but those who felt they had something to live for in the future. Perhaps it was to be reunited with their son, or to finish writing a scientific textbook which they had started before the war. Frankl quotes Nietzsche: ‘He who has a why to live for, can bear with almost any how.’
Of course, there are many forms of transcendent cause. Supporting one’s Mafia family is a cause larger than the self, as is being a member of a religious cult. For Singer, the kinds of transcendent cause that really offer lasting fulfilment are ethical ones. Committing yourself to animal liberation, human rights, ecological activism or some other issue of social or planetary justice is going to be more sustaining than committing yourself to a football club or a corporation. Thinking back to his academic colleagues, he had this to say:
‘If these able, affluent New Yorkers had only got off their analyst’s couches, stopped thinking about their own problems, and gone out to do something about the real problems faced by less fortunate people in Bangladesh or Ethiopia – or even in Manhattan, a few subway stops north – they would have forgotten their own problems and maybe made the world a better place as well.’
A pretty damning judgement. But then again, Singer has never shied away from speaking his mind.